Back in October, four members of the US Special Operations forces were killed and two were wounded in an attack in western Niger – a new hot spot of Islamist extremist activity. If the rumors of ISIS responsibility were true, this would be the first known incident of a direct attack on US soldiers in the Sahel. Western civilians have, however, died in a series of recent attacks by Islamist extremists in regional African capitals. Still, these groups that conduct occasional attacks on Western civilians regularly target local targets: their focus includes government officials, schools, prisons, and the individuals accused of counter-terrorism operations including peace-keeping missions.
An often-overlooked factor in analyzing the regional security environment is the French economic interest in the region. This includes gold, uranium, coltan, manganese, lithium and rare earths. Mehdi Taje of the Institut de recherche stratégique de l’Ecole Militaire in Paris argues that “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”. One should also keep in mind the immediate effects of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Western led destruction of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. The interventions resulted in the creation of armed resistance groups, which found it convenient to join the Islamists, while in Iraq, many former officers of Saddam Hussein helped form ISIS.
Beyond Mali and Niger, terrorist attacks have spread across the region with Nigeria-based Boko Haram being the most prominent security threat. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world – military coups, rebellions and food security crisis are common and recurrent. Some observers have asserted that Niger’s security challenges have “served as an alibi” for the administration of President Mahamadou Issoufou “to restrict freedoms and civil liberties”. Boko Haram is thriving on the misery and corruption so characteristic of governments in the region.
Niger’s troops take part in the Nigeria-led Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to fight Boko Haram while five Sahel countries known as the G5, including Niger, have formed a similar joint force to pursue Mali-based terrorist groups and improve boarder security. The United States have been supporting the capacity building of Niger’s security forces to counter terror and generous funding has been provided to boost the country’s counter terrorism equipment, training and strengthening the agricultural sector. Interestingly, most Americans do not even know their country has a growing military presence in the area.
The United States is supportive of the French military operations and both countries cooperate on increased military presence but local African troops do most of the fighting. They are, however, often accused of violations of human rights while the region is rife with tribal, political, and economic grievances. Both countries – the US and France – are thus trying to enhance security in the region of which American public knows close to nothing and by which France has been accused of exploiting its lack of security for neo-colonial gains.
‘France and America’s Murky War in Africa’ – Opinion by Francis Ghiles – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.
(The Opinion can be downloaded here)