Four US special operations personnel were killed and two wounded in an attack October 4 in western Niger, an emerging hot spot of Islamist terrorist activity.
If an Islamist armed group was responsible, as reports suggest, this would be the first known incident in which such a group has killed US military personnel on active duty in the Sahel. Western civilians, including US citizens, have died, however, in recent mass-casualty attacks by Islamist extremists. Several French military forces have lost their lives, too.
Militant groups regularly attack local targets, focusing on government officials, prisons, schools and individuals accused of collaborating with the state or French-led counterterrorism operations and UN peacekeepers in Mali.
Analysts have claimed that the heavy-handed approach of local security forces contributed to instability. Niger is a key transit point for African migrants seeking to reach Europe via Libya and the Mediterranean.
An often overlooked factor is the French economic interest across the region, which boasts gold, uranium, gas, coltan, manganese, lithium and rare earth minerals.
Mehdi Taje of the Institut de recherche stratégique de l’Ecole Militaire in Paris, said: “The geographical reality in this region allows certain states to position themselves militarily to better control the (mineral) wealth of the Maghreb and West Africa.”
General Vincent Desportes, who lectures at Science Po Paris, said French engagement in Mali in 2013, the interests of Areva, a world leader on nuclear power, and its access to Niger’s uranium would have been at risk. A report to the French Senate in 2013 asked the government to ensure the security of French access to the Arlit uranium mine in Niger.
One should not forget that it was the US invasion of Iraq and the Western-led destruction of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 in Libya that destabilised Mali and led to the massive French Serval operation launched in 48 hours in January 2013 to stop well-armed groups of northern Malians who had served in the Libyan Army and fled the country in 2012 from attacking Bamako.
The deterioration of security across the Sahel is the consequence of unsolved local tribal and social conflicts that were, more often than not, brutally repressed rather than politically addressed.
Two outside factors poured oil on the fire: The destruction of the Iraqi and Libyan states by the United States, the United Kingdom and France in 2003 and 2011 resulted in the collapse of the army and security apparatus in both countries.
Many officers turned into effective “jihadi terrorists” as a result. When Libya collapsed, Tuaregs from northern Mali, an area the southern leaders of that country had done little to develop and who had sought employment in Qaddafi’s army, returned home so to speak and by advancing on Bamako in January 2012, prompted the French intervention.
Neither in Iraq, nor in Libya did Western powers show any sign of strategic thinking about the possible consequences of toppling existing regimes by force.
Approximately 4,000 French troops were deployed, with no debate in parliament in Paris. This morphed into the Berkhane operation in August 2014. It was never discussed by French deputies.
Beyond Mali and Niger, terrorist attacks have spread across the region. Troops from Niger participate in the Nigeria-led Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to counter Boko Haram and five Sahel countries known as the G5, including Niger, have proposed a similar joint force to pursue Mali-based terrorist groups and enhance border security.
Niger boasts one of the largest number — 800 — of US troops in Africa, eight times as many as when former US President Barack Obama started the ball rolling in 2013. The US State Department has sought to build up the capacity of Niger’s security forces for security and counterterrorism for 15 years and large sums of money have been devoted to providing the country with counterterrorism equipment, training and strengthening the agriculture sector.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Military coups and rebellions and food security crisis are recurrent. The US organisation Freedom House asserted that Niger’s security challenges have “served as an alibi” for the administration of President Mahamadou Issoufou “to restrict freedoms and civil liberties.”
In Mali, the Tuareg north has rebelled many times since independence and Boko Haram has thrived on the misery and corruption so characteristic of government in northern Nigeria.
The United States created the US Africa Command (Africom) in 2007 to fight terrorism in Africa and, as US Defence Secretary James Mattis made clear last April, fully supports French-led military operations. The French commitment, as President Emmanuel Macron pointed out in May when he spoke at the French military base in Gao, Mali, is open-ended.
African troops, who do much of the fighting, are often accused of violations of human rights. The region is rife with tribal, economic and political grievances that are not addressed. Smuggling — of cocaine from South America and increasingly of illegal Africans migrants trying to get to Europe — means that Islamist terrorists morph into smugglers or gangsters without anyone being able to say who is who.
Meanwhile, younger imams across the region, trained in the rigorous Wahhabi doctrine of Islam, have been increasingly trained in Saudi Arabia.
All of which suggests that, if you describe the region as a bed of nails, the only answer is a hammer.
A recent report to the US Congress expressed concern about US military rules of engagement and force protection in what is a shadowy war with an unclear strategy, of which the American public knows little.
France’s much-vaunted move of renovating its policy in West Africa looks increasingly like a facelift of neo-colonial behaviour. Selling sophisticated weapons to very poor countries whose elites are notoriously corrupt may be fine for the armament industry, as Desportes concedes, but it will hardly bring peace and development to the region.
Those who choose to see it as part of a global war on terror should read the report published by the Association Malienne des Droits de l’Homme (AMDH). It may provide second thoughts about the wisdom of the policy France and the United States are pursuing in the Sahel.
Francis Ghiles is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.
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