By: Caitlin Attaway
The death of four American troops in Niger this past October lifted the curtain on United States involvement in West Africa. Since the attack, questions have arisen with regard to the purpose of the troops stationed in Niger. The United States’ growing interest in this country seems to suggest that its “War on Terror” has spread to West Africa.
U.S. troops did not appear in Niger overnight but have been stationed in Niger since 2013, when just 100 American troops were deployed to a base shared with the French in Niamey in order to facilitate unarmed drone surveillance of Mali. U.S. forces were tasked solely with assisting, advising, and training Nigerien troops to combat the growing presence of extremist groups in surrounding countries. By 2016, upwards of 800 to 1,000 American military personnel were stationed in Niger.
This increase in American presence mirrors the construction of the Agadez drone base in the middle of Niger’s desert territory. The U.S. Congress authorized the drone base’s initial price tag of $50 in its defense budget for 2015 and approximated that an additional $50 million would be needed to complete the base. Once this base becomes fully operational, it will serve as a central location for the United States Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) counterterrorism efforts in Niger and other West African countries. AFRICOM, one of the U.S. Defense Department’s geographic combat commands, plans on implementing MQ9 Reapers “hunter/killer” drones by 2018 on the Agadez base. The MQ9 drones specialize in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
The scaling up of U.S. military forces has been the primary response to the growing presence of extremist groups in West Africa. Intent on undermining terrorist groups in the region, the U.S. has shown little sign of backing out anytime soon. As of now, there are three dominant extremist groups which have a presence in Niger and its neighboring countries: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and ISIS in the Islamic Sahel. Each poses a unique threat to the stability of West Africa and to U.S. personnel residing in this region.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb originated from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a guerilla group displeased with Alegria’s shift to more secular ideals. AQIM has fostered close ties with the terrorist group Al-Qaeda which is based in Afghanistan. In addition, AQIM has been named a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the U.S. government due to its responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks in North and West Africa, with many of its strikes concentrated in Algeria. The group has also voiced its opposition to United States’ presence in West Africa. Upon questioning by the New York Times about whether AQIM intended on attacking Americas in Algeria, Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of AQIM, made certain this was an objective of his organization. “It has become our right and duty to push away with all our strength this crusade campaign and declare clearly that the American interests are legitimate targets to us. We will strive to strike them whenever we can,” stated Abdelmalek Droukdel.
Boko Haram is another extremist group with anti-Western and anti-American ideologies with a presence in Niger. The Nigerian group has been known to attack those who they believe to be partaking in Western practices such as voting in elections and going to secular schools. This violence has driven many Nigerians into Niger in search for a place of refuge; however, this migration pushed Boko Haram into Nigerien cites such as Diffa, which resides on the Nigeria and Niger border, in an attempt further persecute its fleeing victims.
Moreover, in 2016, evidence of Boko Haram’s ally-ship with ISIS emerged as a weapons convoy traveled from ISIS territory in Libya to Boko Haram territory near Lake Chad. Less than one year later, an ISIS-affiliated group was cited by Marine Gen. Joe Dunford as a culprit behind the death of the four American troops. ISIS has also gained the allegiance of the jihadist group, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). This ISIS-affiliate has centered the majority of its activity in Burkina Faso, a country nested on the Western border of Niger. However, ISGS has also gradually shifted some of its operations into Niger. In 2016, ISGS attempted to free both AQIM and Boko Haram detainees from Koutoukale prison in Niger and was named another potential perpetrator behind the attack of U.S. troops.
With this apparent escalation in violence directed towards U.S. personnel in West Africa, increasing the number of troops in Niger may only further aggravate tensions in this fragile region. As we have seen in the Middle East, targeting extremist groups often comes at the price of diminishing civilian trust in U.S. troops. With every drone strike, there can be expected civilian casualties. These deaths can be used as propaganda by groups such as AQIM, Boko Haram, and ISIS against the U.S. This exacerbated denigration of the U.S. perpetuates itself as civilians find themselves continuously vulnerable to the questionable behavior of U.S. troops. Furthermore, the practice of placing of U.S. troops in positions of power over civilians has created inequitable systems of control in countries like Niger. In an attempt to gain back power wrongly taken, radicalized civilians formed insurgency groups which are not hesitant to expel U.S. personnel by any means necessary.
Despite all this, the Trump administration shows no signs of stalling construction of the new drone base in Agadez or halting counterterrorism efforts in West Africa. The U.S. has firmly solidified its position in Niger, and it shows no sign of backing away from its new “War on Terror.”