Since October 4, when militants ambushed a U.S. Special Operations Forces unit accompanying soldiers from Niger on a reconnaissance mission, an attack that left four Special Forces members dead and two others wounded (in addition to five Nigerien personnel killed), the drip-drip of often-conflicting bits of information about the incident sparked numerous questions on Capitol Hill and beyond.
While it may be some time before the thorough inquiry into the incident can be completed, what is clearer is why the about 800 U.S. service members are currently engaged on a mission many Americans were largely unaware of (notwithstanding the deployment notifications by both President Barack Obama and President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE) and why the West African country where these men and women serve matters to the United States.
In short, it’s where al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram all converge these days. And, to the extent these various militants have been defeated elsewhere, they’re increasingly showing up in this region: as I noted in Congressional testimony in March, Niger vaulted from 51st place to 16th place between the last two editions of the Global Terrorism Index.
While the jihadist groups active in the Sahel region vary significantly, one characteristic they share is an almost uncanny resilience.
Earlier this year, for example, bouncing back from the early-2013 French-led intervention in northern Mali that had briefly set them back, several jihadist factions — the predominantly ethnic Tuareg Ansar Dine (“defenders of the faith”), the Sahara and al-Murabitun (“people of the garrison”) branches of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Macina Liberation Front, which draws mainly from ethnic Peul (or Fulani) tribes — announced their merger and pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The new group, named Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (“group for the support of Islam and Muslims”), is headed by Iyad ag Ghaly, leader of Ansar Dine. Components of this al-Qaeda affiliate have been behind some of the most spectacular terrorist attacks across the region. They have also been behind continual attacks on the UN mission in Mali, including the one just last Thursday that left three peacekeepers dead and two others wounded.
Similarly, late last year ISIS confirmed that it had established a “Greater Sahara Division” under Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, a former al-Murabitun commander who, along with forty of his fighters, broke with the al-Qaeda affiliate and pledged themselves to Abubakar al-Baghdadi. What is interesting is that al-Sahrawi first made bayʻa to the self-styled caliph more than a year earlier during the heyday of the so-called caliphate, but his oath of fealty was only accepted after he carried out string of attacks in the same border area that was the setting for the recent deadly ambush that cost Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson and Dustin Wright and Sergeant La David Johnson their lives.
In fact, it is al-Sahrawi’s ISIS-linked group that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, Jr., blamed for the Tongo Tongo attack. The same group is also suspected having kidnapped longtime American missionary Jeffery Woodke from his home a little east of there just ten days short of one year earlier.
Ironically, far from weakening them, the schism between the groups linked to al-Qaeda and those with ISIS affiliations may be contributing to the uptick in violence as the militants literally compete to outdo each other in the hopes of attracting recruits and other resources.
The Sahel is, in many respects, an ideal environment for extremist groups to penetrate given the fragile condition of many of the states in the region as well as the plethora of local conflicts that can be exploited. That’s why, within months of 9/11, the administration of President George W. Bush launched the Pan-Sahel Initiative, a counterterrorism program aimed at strengthening the capabilities of partners in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. This program subsequently expanded into the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, jointly administered by the State and Defense Departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and expanded to include more countries.
In 2013, President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAbrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda The root of Joe Biden's troubles MORE deployed about 100 personnel to Niger to set up a base in the capital of Niamey for unarmed drones to provide support for intelligence collection to French and other forces conducting operations in. In 2014, the Nigerien government agreed to host another base, currently nearly completion in Agadez, a more centrally located city, from where drones, both unarmed and armed, can cover a larger and more strategically significant area.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has worked closely with other allies to strengthen the capacity of African partners, including Niger’s Security and Intelligence Battalion (BSR), which has proven itself increasingly willing and able to operate in the remote areas where the links its builds with local leaders and communities is critical to the long-term goal of depriving militant groups of the “ungoverned spaces” in which they thrive.
While security assistance is important, diplomatic, economic, and development support are perhaps even more critical. Last year, after winning high marks in the competitive selection process, the government of Niger’s democratically-elected President Mahamadou Issoufou was awarded a five-year, $437 million Millennium Challenge Compact that is aimed at addressing some of the major obstacles to sustainable economic growth and investment in Niger.
Of course, the United States cannot be expected to bear the burden on its own. The former colonial power, France, already maintains a far larger military presence in the region than America’s and has taken the lead in trying to establish a “G5 Sahel” joint regional counterterrorism force, to which effort Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE has just announced a pledge of $60 million (the Burkinabè, Malian, and Nigerien components of the G5 are expected to launch their first joint operation in the coming days).
The French have also traditionally been Niger’s most important bilateral aid donor and other European countries have also stepped up in the last few years, some with traditional aid programs, others with some rather creative measures.
The mission in Niger is the right one: To help African and other partners combat the militants while they shelter in the remote Sahel, before they can regain gather strength and spread beyond. Nevertheless, in the long run, regional security — and the interests of the United States and its allies — would be more better served by a more comprehensive engagement with a country that is truly on the front lines of the fight of our times.