War against terrorism in the Sahel comes out of shadows

US soldiers fight alongside French forces and locals in Niger.

A US special forces soldier demonstrates how to detain a suspect in Diffa, Niger. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A US special forces soldier demonstrates how to detain a suspect in Diffa, Niger.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On October 4, four United States servicemen and five soldiers from Niger were killed in a battle with an estimated 50 members of an ISIS affiliate.
The US casualties are raising eyebrows in Washington, with senators reportedly “shocked” and “stunned” to find that the US has more than 1,000 personnel in Niger and neighboring countries.
As controversies swirl, the US is being called upon to support UN backing for more counter- terrorism operations led by France in the Sahel, the area between the Sahara Desert to the north and the savannas region to the south.
According to a March document from the US Government Accountability Office, the US has greatly expanded its security presence abroad, especially in Africa, since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“The US government has engaged in numerous efforts to build the capacity of foreign partners to address security-related threats,” the Government Accountability Office said, claiming it “identified 194 Department of Defense security cooperation and state security assistance efforts” that address security-related threats. A number of these programs are tailored specifically to confront the growing threat of terrorism in countries that border the Sahel. These include countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia, which borders Somalia.
Between 1997 and 2012, the US provided training to 215,000 personnel from states in Africa. Since the establishment of an Africa Command in 2007, the focus has increasingly shifted to fighting terrorism alongside peacekeeping. The long list of US-supported programs include the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, the US Army’s African Land Forces Engagement Summit, a specific program for Support for Counterterrorism Operations in Africa, Peace Keeping Operations Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance, a “rapid response partnership” and a series of regional counterterrorism partnerships.
US President Donald Trump said there was "no hesitation" when he called the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson who was killed in Niger this month and he said he was "extremely nice to her", October 25, 20
In the Sahara, the US “assists partners in West and North Africa to increase their immediate and long-term capabilities to address terrorist threats and prevent the spread of violent extremism,” according to the State Department. This includes efforts to “contain and marginalize” terrorist groups as well as “disrupt efforts to recruit, train and provision terrorists and extremists” and counterterrorist groups that seek to establish “safe havens.”
It was during one of these types of missions in October that something went awry. The 12 US soldiers were supposed to be part of an advise-and-assist mission with 30 soldiers from Niger.
Just before a raid targeting a terrorist commander, the target crossed into Mali and the joint US-Niger team, instead, went to search his abandoned camp. According to an October 23 US Defense Department press conference by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the soldiers drove 85 km. north from the capital of Niamey to the village of Tongo Tongo. The village is just across the border from the Reserve Partielle de Faune D’Ansongo-Menake in Mali and the Sahel reserve in Burkina Faso.
The US-Niger forces were ambushed after meeting with locals at a village. The enemy was well prepared with heavy machine guns, RPGs and driving on “technicals,” or trucks with machine guns mounted on the back.
The Americans radioed for assistance and an unarmed drone arrived overhead. Two hours after the battle began, French Mirage jets also came to assist. Eventually, the survivors were evacuated by the French military.
Despite efforts to downplay the incident, the picture that is painted is of a large shadow war on terrorism in Africa that goes relatively unreported in Western media. The ambush conjures up images of the battle of Black Hawk Down in 1993 in Somalia and the 2012 Benghazi attack in Libya, which led to the death of 19 and four Americans, respectively. Both attacks also led to political discussions and policy changes in Libya and Somalia, both of which are still plagued by terrorism. In mid-October, more than 300 people were killed in an attack in Mogadishu. Another 23 were murdered in an attack on October 28.
Niger is an example of a wider problem affecting the region. According to the US State Department, there are numerous terrorist groups in Niger, including Boko Haram, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and ISIS. “Niger’s long borders and areas of harsh terrain made effective border security a challenge, specifically in the north, along the border with Algeria, Libya, and Mali.”
These ungoverned spaces allow AQIM and other groups to transit throughout the Sahel and Sahara. Considering how ISIS exploited the breakdown in Syria and Iraqi states to spread quickly in 2014, the role of ISIS among these other groups’ points to a worrisome phenomenon.
The danger of these groups sometimes goes unrecognized until it is too late. In 2012, Jean Herskovits, a professor of history at the State University of New York, wrote in The New York Times, “There is no proof that a well-organized, ideologically coherent terrorist group called Boko Haram even exists today.”
She urged against the US being drawn into a Nigerian war on terror because “placing Boko Haram on the foreign terrorist list would... make more Nigerians fear and distrust America.” Five years later, Boko Haram is still making headlines with its massacres, including recent reports on how it straps suicide bombs to girls.
Now the US is debating a French-drafted UN Security Council resolution that would give backing to a multinational force to fight terrorism. This is called the G5 Sahel force, which has existed since 2014 and consists of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Already there are 4,000 French soldiers in and around Niger fighting terrorism alongside 35,000 African partner troops, according to Dunford.
The G5 force builds upon the work of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership which was created in 2005 with 11 countries in the same region, with a broader membership that included Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Cameroon.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly has encouraged the US to support the G5 force. These forces are underfinanced.
According to Reuters, the $490 million budget is only 25% funded.
As ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq, it is not clear if Africa will emerge as a growing base of fighters. However, the northern part of the continent is fertile ground for similar groups. It is a vast area that unites various terrorist groups from different backgrounds.
Although not directly linked to the Sahel, recent flare-ups in fighting in the Sinai and battles between Egyptian police and extremists in Egypt’s Western Desert are connected to this global battle. It’s a message that what happens in Niger affects Jerusalem as much as it does Paris and other states in between