As America increases its military footprint in some of Africa’s most dangerous trouble spots, confronting extremist affiliates of Al Qaeda and Islamic State, the risk of intelligence failures and more combat deaths is mounting.
U.S. special forces who accompanied Niger’s military at a meeting of village leaders in Tongo Tongo on Oct. 4 were working in the country’s treacherous western borderlands, a region of shifting tribal allegiances, opaque motives and ethnic grudges going back decades, all feeding into a growing jihadi problem.
Four Americans and five Nigerien troops died after leaving Tongo Tongo and being ambushed and heavily outgunned by fighters armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The militants are believed to be from a Malian-led militia, Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, which declared allegiance to the overall militant organization in 2015.
One error appears to have been downplaying the danger. The Tillaberi and Tahoua regions in western Niger have been under a state of emergency since March, as Niger has confronted the Islamic State offshoot, led by Malian extremist Abu Walid Sahrawi. U.S. forces have been present in the region to advise and assist Nigerien forces.
“It was reported that both Nigerien and U.S. forces underestimated the risks in the area, which was a mistake, since multiple deadly attacks were recorded in the past year against Nigerien forces,” said Rida Lyammouri, a Washington-based independent analyst on violent extremism.
The United Nations has cataloged 46 attacks by extremists in western Niger since February 2016, including a February attack that killed 15 Nigerien soldiers and one a year ago that killed 22 Nigerien forces at a refugee camp.
While a U.S. military investigation in Niger seeks answers on what went wrong and reevaluates procedures, Niger’s interior minister, Mohamed Bazoum, said intelligence failures were to blame for the nine deaths. He said Islamic State in the Greater Sahel is more entrenched in local communities than are government forces.
“For us here in Niger, we believe it was especially human intelligence that was lacking,” Bazoum told French radio Thursday. “This is an area where [extremists] were able to be more present than us, to inspire fear, and they certainly have elements who were able to give them very precise information.”
The operation was “more of an information mission than anything else, and was not very vigilant and did not conduct a mission with the view that it could have to deal with such an attack,” he said.
Adam Sandor, an analyst at Centre Francopaix in Conflict Resolution and Peace Missions at the University of Quebec in Montreal, said the attack was well-planned, citing local sources who said the extremists had visited the area several times.
“Essentially, the attackers are believed to have been scoping out and planning the attack and must have a knowledge of local communities in the area. Local communities most likely shared with them the information regarding the Nigerien Armed Forces operating with foreigners or military advisors in this space,” he said.
“From the testimonies that we have about the attack, it seems the U.S. trainers felt that the villagers in Tongo Tongo were stalling, which struck them as a little bit odd. At that moment, they should probably have high-tailed it out of there.”
Leaders of Tongo Tongo village have been arrested, amid suspicions they were delaying the departure of the Nigerien and U.S. forces to pave the way for the attackers.
America has 6,000 troops in 50 countries across the continent, according to the Department of Defense, although many of the missions are charged with guarding U.S. embassies. The counter-terrorism deployments include an estimated 1,000 special operations forces, many posted in high-risk locations such as Somalia, Mali and Nigeria. An estimated 800 troops are in Niger.
The U.S. also operates a string of drone bases throughout Africa, including one in Niger.
Despite the substantial troop footprint, U.S. forces operating in often-austere environments do not have robust support systems.
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, documented to Congress in March his forces’ lack of needed resources on the continent. Only about 20% to 30% of requirements for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” flights are being met, he said, and there are insufficient military helicopters to help locate missing, wounded or killed service members.
Alex Thurston, Sahel analyst and author of a book on the Nigeria-based militant group Boko Haram, said America’s footprint in Africa began expanding with George W. Bush’s presidency and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“One big factor is the assumption that took hold after 9/11 that any ungoverned space was a potential Afghanistan and any small group was a potential Al Qaeda and everything had to be nipped in the bud very early. That assumption draws them further and further in, so they feel they have to have some kind of presence wherever there’s a jihadist group,” Thurston said.
“The U.S. sometimes doubts the capacity of African governments to deal with these problems, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly,” he said.
Analyst Laura Seay, a political scientist from Colby College in Maine, said the mission in Niger had been operating in difficult conditions and terrain. “Members of Congress have chosen or been led to believe that ‘advise and assist’ missions like the one in Niger are low-risk. They aren’t, and these types of missions, where we have large numbers of American forces on the ground but technically not at war in places most Americans can’t locate on a map are increasingly common and, in some cases, increasingly dangerous,” she said in a series of tweets.
In Somalia, Navy Seal Kyle Milliken, 38, was killed in May accompanying Somali forces approaching a compound occupied by the Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group. The group, which has proved nimble and adaptable in years of hardened battle against a U.N.-backed African force, AMISOM, and Somali armed forces, threatens to retake territory with the planned withdrawal of AMISOM forces beginning later this year.
Milliken’s death was the first U.S. combat death in Africa since the “Black Hawk Down” episode in 1993, when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in Somalia and 18 U.S. soldiers were killed.
The Shabab is the deadliest of Africa’s terrorist groups and is believed to be responsible for the country’s worst terrorist attack: At least 358 people were killed Oct. 14, and 56 are still missing. The attack came weeks after a U.S. drone strike killed 10 civilians, including three children, in Bariire, west of Mogadishu.
The U.S. has carried out at least 60 drone strikes in Somalia since January, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, killing up to 510 people, including at least 38 civilians.
The Shabab has killed 2,745 people in 2017, carrying out 987 of the continent’s 1,827 incidents of violent extremism in the first nine months of the year, according to the analytical group African Center for Strategic Studies.
The U.S. has about 400 troops in Somalia and stepped up its military involvement after President Trump widened the powers of American troops to take offensive action this year.
The Shabab also has a presence in Kenya, where it launches regular attacks, including the 2013 Westgate shopping mall massacre that killed at least 67 people, and the 2015 Garissa University College attack, where 147 people — mainly university students — were killed. The terrorist group is believed to have a presence across East Africa.
Boko Haram, operating in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and southeastern Niger, was responsible for 2,232 deaths in the first nine months of the year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
In Mali, myriad armed extremists operate, including Islamic State in the Greater Sahel and its rival the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, formed in March from several Al Qaeda-linked extremist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In 2012, Islamist militias took over half of the country before the French military drove them out of major cities.
The militias range freely across rural areas, crossing borders at will, launching operations in Mauritania, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, including attacks on hotels and resorts popular with foreigners. The U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, on Friday warned of a credible threat of a terrorist attack in the city.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where myriad rebel groups vie for control over mineral resources, a new organization emerged recently declaring fealty to Islamic State.
By comparison, Niger is one of the more stable countries in the region, making it the U.S. choice for a drone base being built outside Agadez, in central Niger, that will launch strikes across the region.
The Tongo Tongo attack has focused attention on Sahel leader Sahrawi, who was a spokesman for one of the extremist groups that conquered the northern Malian town of Gao in the 2012 fighting. He has a history of swapping sides and financing his operations through kidnappings.
He has recruited fighters from among the Fulani nomads in western Niger, exploiting ethnic rivalries with the Daoussahak people in the region, some of whom have formed a militia called the Movement for the Salute of Azawad. Both Niger and France have used the group as a proxy force to fight Islamic State in the Great Sahel, deepening ethnic animosities.
“Abu Walid is a mover and a shaker. This is someone who has been reportedly amping up attacks in the Mali-Niger borderlands, in part in order to demonstrate his fealty and capacities to support the IS,” Sandor said, referring to Islamic State. “Abu Walid has the required local contacts and a background in kidnapping for ransom. It’s probably one of the main mechanisms of his group’s financing.”
Sahrawi has held several foreign hostages and could be living off the multimillion-dollar proceeds, he said.
It is not known which Malian extremist group is holding American aid worker Jeffery Woodke, who was kidnapped in Niger a year ago and is believed to have been taken to Mali.
The Sahel offshoot’s links to Islamic State do not appear to be close, and the group is a nimble, fast-moving organization, not set on holding territory. Analysts said it was not yet certain the Tongo Tongo attack was carried out by the terrorist group.
“Even if an IS unit is behind it, the branch is not as strong and powerful as many assume they are,” said Lyammouri, the analyst. “Militants in the area are made of small mobile units and constantly changing locations.”
When U.S. and Western forces intervene in Africa, jihadi movements seek to discredit them as corrupt outsiders interested in exploiting local people or backing despised regimes. Their task is made easier when drone strikes kill civilians or when local security forces routinely ignore legal norms and harass, arrest or kill people.
The arrest of Tongo Tongo village leaders, Sandor said, could exacerbate tensions “particularly if there are any accusations of abuse by the Nigerien military or the gendarmerie [police] of the people who are interrogated.”
Thurston warned that scaled-up military action in Africa could become a lightning rod and potentially even a trigger for recruitment.
“I think it makes ordinary people nervous and confused. If people start to see that as neocolonialism or an infringement on their rights, it might encourage them to join some of these jihadist movements,” he said.
Despite the horror reverberating across the U.S. over the deaths of the four American servicemen, analysts see the U.S. as unlikely to wind back military operations.
“The U.S. most likely will not draw back because of this incident. U.S. engagement and support to Niger has been going on for many years. Niger is important to the U.S. because of the ongoing fight against Boko Haram,” Lyammouri said.
“Niger is also strategic to fight all sorts of trafficking in the region, so the U.S. and other Western allies cannot afford to see Niger being destabilized.”
Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.