Niger gained the attention of the American public when four U.S. troops were killed there in an ambush on Oct.4, highlighting the expansion of U.S. counterterrorism operations in North Africa. The Cipher Brief’s Levi Maxey reached out to Frank Archibald, the former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, who mapped out the role the U.S. plays in combating the growth of extremism in the Sahel.
Frank Archibald: The U.S. government has four interrelated policy goals in Africa: strengthening democratic institutions; supporting African economic growth and development; advancing peace and security; promoting opportunity and development.
U.S. counterterrorism efforts fall under the advancing peace and security goal. The United States Africa Command is the unified combatant command responsible for Africa. It is supported by various Defense Department elements including the Special Operations Command. In March 2017, AFRICOM Commander, Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser testified to Congress that AFRICOM operates on five lines of operation:
- Neutralize al-Shabaab and transition the security responsibilities of the African Union Mission in Somalia to the Federal Government of Somalia
- Degrade violent extremist organizations in the Sahel Maghreb and contain instability in Libya
- Contain and degrade Boko Haram
- Interdict illicit activity in the Gulf of Guinea and Central Africa with willing and capable African partner
- Build peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster response capacity of African partners.
Line of operation number two is the foundation of AFRICOM efforts in Niger and the Sahel.
As of late October 2017, AFRICOM issued a statement that it does not have an active direct combat mission in Niger and that its approximately 800 personnel in Niger were there to support the U.S. embassy and the building of a temporary base in Agadez in the center of the country. The statement also noted that the U.S. military mission in Niger was to provide training and assistance to the Nigerian forces, including support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to facilitate their efforts to target violent extremist organizations.
In testimony to Congress in late October 2017, Defense Secretary James Mattis described the role of U.S. forces in the Sahel region as providing refueling, intelligence, and surveillance support for some 4,000 French troops in the region.
U.S. military support to the French in the Sahel has been ongoing since at least 2013 commencing with U.S. efforts to assist the French in their anti-terrorist intervention in Mali. While there does not appear to be a formal headquarters located in Africa to coordinate this support, more localized, expeditionary efforts centered on tasks and operations appear to be the coordination mechanism in place at this time.”
The CIA veteran expressed skepticism over claims that U.S. troops are conducting kill/capture missions in Niger, rather than the publicly acknowledged training and assistance, despite a Washington Post report that the ill-fated Oct. 4th mission was intended to capture or kill enemy combatants operating on the Mali-Niger border.
Archibald: Based on the above statements by the Secretary of Defense and AFRICOM, it seems unlikely that U.S. military forces are conducting kill/capture operations in Niger at this time. One should note, however, that the current U.S. administration is reviewing its options in the conflict with terrorist organizations in Africa according to congressional testimony given by Secretary Mattis in October 2017.
We are always well served by remembering that the enemy gets a vote. The continued presence of terrorist groups in the region like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, cells of both al-Qaeda and ISIS in Libya, as well as the possibility that some ISIS members may flee to the Sahel from the now defunct caliphate in Syria opens up the possibility that terrorist groups in the Sahel region may try to strengthen their efforts in Niger to include a sustained effort directly targeting U.S. forces or interests. Such an effort would require a U.S. response and may lead to more of a direct combat role for U.S. forces.
He said the growth of terrorist organization in the Sahel might alarm some, but there is a history of such violent extremist groups on the continent, particularly in the region.
Archibald: The U.S. Department of State has designated as terrorist organizations AQIM (Algeria, Mali, Niger), ISIS (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria) Boko Haram (Nigeria), Ansar Dine (Mali), Ansaru (Nigeria) Ansar al-Shari in Benghazi and Ansar al-Shari in Darnah (Libya), ISIS (Libya), al-Qaeda (worldwide to include Libya). In addition there are splinter factions such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a splinter faction of AQIM, which are not (yet) designated by the State Department, but which do constitute a threat to the countries of the Sahel.
While many point to Niger or Mali as a source of extremism individually, Archibald said any successful counterterrorism strategy must be implemented based on the regional dynamics at play – to include the spillover effects of conflicts in Algeria, Libya, Mali, Chad, Nigeria and others.
Archibald: There is a thriving traffic not under state control from the Sahel to Europe in Latin American narcotics, manufactured goods, cigarettes and agricultural products from which these groups enrich themselves. Kidnapping resulted in payments to AQIM of some $125 million between 2008 and 2014, according to a 2016 CSIS report. According to that same report, weapons have been obtained by terrorist groups as a part of the fallout from various civil wars of the 1990s and from the collapse of Libya in 2011.
Each of these states have long standing internal conflicts based on some combination of tribal, ethnic, regional, religious, economic, racial or political rivalries. Lack of effective and fair governance, corruption and little economic opportunity all contribute to friction between various ethnic groups. Decades of Saudi-funded fundamentalist Wahhabi preaching have begun to shape a less tolerant form of Islam in the minds of some of West Africa’s Muslims.
All of this is fertile ground for exploitation by those who preach that terrorism is an appropriate response to grievance. The terrorist groups also provide micro financing for weddings, pay, status, identity and a weapon. A narrative that says you have been exploited and your grievances are justified along with money, status and a gun are powerful inducements to a young man with few other options. In particular, AQIM and Boko Haram have been very successful in co-opting legitimate local grievances, achieving local legitimacy by marriage, financial support, and intimidation.
In broad terms, the West African terror movements have been effective in co-opting long standing grievances and focusing them on obtaining political power in their country, but also in presenting opportunities to strike Western targets in the Sahel on behalf of the broader international terrorist movements to which they have sworn allegiance.
One thing Sahel governments and their U.S. and French allies must do is distinguish between a legitimate grievance that should be addressed by better service delivery and governance and a real terrorist threat.
Archibald explained why the U.S. had increased its drone presence in the region. The U.S. has been asked by the Nigerian government to fly armed drones from its new drone base in central Niger and the U.S. also has provided Predator drones to the French military for reconnaissance purposes.
Archibald: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles provide the ability to observe a small piece of terrain in real time and to sustain observation of that terrain over time. They can also follow a target for a lengthy period of time. They must, however, be combined with other intelligence disciplines such as signals intelligence and human intelligence to tell the UAV where to look and how to make sense out of what you are seeing from the UAV. Integrating UAVs and their persistent observation capability with the intelligence system available to the commander will greatly enhance the ability of the commander to make sense of the operational area, enable rapid decision making about airstrikes and troop deployments and enhance battlefield management once the fight has begun.
With ISIS diminishing further and further in Iraq and Syria, he said extremists could potentially flow to the ungoverned spaces of the Sahel. How the U.S. and its allies seek preempt this development could have lasting implications for the region.
Archibald: In my view, the U.S. government will continue to try to strengthen the capabilities of host nation and French partners in the Sahel, while avoiding as much as possible a direct combat role for U.S. forces. That said, it would be consistent with the Trump Administration policy for the rules of engagement to be modified to give commanders in the field more flexibility.
If there is a dramatic growth of terrorism in the Sahel – either by the current crop of terrorists being more successful or an influx of ISIS fighters from the Middle East – that begins to threaten Western interests more rapidly and aggressively, we may see the U.S. government take a deliberate policy decision to move towards a direct combat role as a sustained campaign in the region. That would be, however, a decision the current administration would take somewhat reluctantly given the demands on U.S. forces in other regions.
All of the above noted, what will eventually be required to diminish the terrorism threat in the Sahel will be to separate the terrorists from the people of the Sahel. Counterterrorism operations are a key part of that. The strategic difference maker over the long haul, however, will be improved governance, reliable public safety, and economic opportunity.
None of that comes easily or cheaply under the best of circumstances. Given the poverty, complex history, and local politics of the Sahel, it will be as hard there as anywhere in the world. The U.S. government has the right policy framework in place, but we should expect it to be resource intensive, frustrating, and to take a long time. One thing is certain: host country allies and international partners like the French and the United Nations will be essential in this effort.