While much remains unclear, more details continue to emerge regarding the Oct. 4 incident in Niger that left four U.S. Army Special Forces troops dead. One development related to the ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo stands out, however, as a textbook case of America’s often disastrous approach to foreign policy — the Trump administration’s reported push to begin flying armed drones in the West African nation in the wake of the attack.
“A move to expand U.S. drone strikes to Niger would amount to a significant escalation in American counterterrorism operations,” notes NBC News. “There have been occasional U.S. drone strikes reported in Libya and Somalia, but most of Africa has not been part of the U.S. drone war, which has focused on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.”
Although U.S. drone strikes in a country where there have previously been none would certainly be “a significant escalation,” NBC’s characterization of “the U.S. drone war” as not involving “most of Africa” is debatable.
Even before the Oct. 4 incident, what journalist Nick Turse calls America’s “massive shadow war in Africa” had received some media coverage. “The U.S. Special Operations Command Africa now conducts around 100 activities in 20 countries with 1,700 personnel at any given time,” it was reported as recently as this summer. Yet in the wake of the Tongo Tongo ambush — similarly to the recent change to the official tally of troops in Afghanistan after that conflict briefly re-entered the media spotlight in August — the Pentagon has revised its figures.
“Around 6,000 troops are on the continent, conducting 3,500 exercises, programs, and engagements each year – almost 10 missions each day — from Cameroon to Somalia, Djibouti to Libya,” Turse writes in an article this week. “More than 800 of these forces, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Audricia Harris told The Intercept, are deployed to Niger.” Given the government’s recent track record when it comes to releasing accurate information on troop levels, it would not be surprising to learn that the real number is actually even higher.
The U.S. is already flying MQ-9 Reaper drones out of a base in Niger, which is reportedly “only country in NW [northwest] Africa willing to allow basing of MQ-9s.” Yet within Niger these drone have been unarmed. It is unclear whether drone strikes actually create more terrorists than they kill, but some experts suggest this is likely the case.
“While the roots of terrorism are complex,” William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, reportedly said following the Oct. 4 Niger incident, “it is fair to say that the larger U.S. military presence has, at a minimum, served as a recruiting tool for the growing number of terrorist groups operating in West Africa.”
Another important detail about this month’s ambush in Niger that remains murky is the identity of the Nigerien militants involved.
“Although most Nigerien and American defense sources have attributed the attack to fighters affiliated with Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and his self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, no group has yet claimed the attack, and Islamic State channels have been notably careful in discussing it,” Andrew Lebovich writes in a recent article for Foreign Policy. “Sahrawi formed his movement in May 2015 after splitting away from another militant group and declared allegiance to the Islamic State, but the declaration was only accepted toward the end of 2016. The group has formally claimed only one attack in the country — on a high-security prison near Niamey in October 2016. Another group that can’t be ruled out at this early stage is the more recently formed AQIM conglomerate in the Sahel, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which claimed an attack in Niger’s Tahoua region in July and a number of others recently in Mali near the Niger border.”
Another description of the militant scene in Mali and Niger notes that “the entire region, relatively free of transnational terror threats in 2001, is now beset by a host of militant groups. They include, according to the Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the local branch of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine, and the Macina Liberation Front, which now all operate under the mantle of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, as well as Boko Haram, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansaroul Islam, and the Islamic State in West Africa.”
In a recent report on newly emerging details about the Niger incident, the New York Times notes that “American-backed operations to topple the Islamic State from its strongholds in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria, could increase the risks in Africa, if Islamic State fighters flee to the continent to continue their mayhem there, as some have begun to do.”
Nevertheless, Lebovich argues that the conflict in Niger “is a local and regional conflict, not a global one” noting that the two groups he identified as most likely perpetrators, ISGS and GSIM, are at least partly driven by highly localized grievances:
Both groups are deeply enmeshed in local conflicts including historical intercommunal disputes, fights over pastureland and cattle, and discontent over development and government treatment of rural areas. In the regions of Tahoua and Tillabéri on the border with Mali, which have been under a state of emergency since March, local sources have repeatedly alleged government repression of local nomadic populations — particularly ethnic Fulani — in ongoing counterterrorism operations there. Similar incidents have occurred on the Malian side of the border, where Nigerien-supported groups have allegedly used counterterrorism operations to settle local scores, further fueling the violence and in some cases pushing communities to align with jihadi forces.
While these conflicts have larger regional ramifications and involve groups that claim affiliation with global jihadi brands, they also involve intricate local dynamics that cannot be ignored or reduced to any terrorist group’s global ambitions. Both the GSIM and Sahrawi’s group are embedded in local communities and leverage local social and political tensions and conflict to recruit and operate safely, even if they affiliate themselves with global jihadi brands. And while the threat to international interests in the region is real, it is these local communities whose lives are affected the most by these groups and by government responses — and also the local communities that will be most able to constrain them.
Indeed, it would seem that stepping up U.S. involvement in places like Niger with tactics such as drone strikes — “more actions in Africa, not less” and “more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently put it — is almost guaranteed to lead to an even more intractable military quagmire, adding yet another bottomless pit for the U.S. to pour blood and treasure into to the many already perforating the world map. And the experts know it.
“What U.S. troops were doing in Niger” when they were killed, RAND Corporation senor political scientist Michael Shurkin told the Intercept, “is pretty much what we’ve been doing in the region since 2003. Everything we’ve been doing certainly hasn’t amounted to much because everything has gotten worse. None of it is really effective.”