The fallout in Washington after the ambush in Tongo-Tongo, Niger that resulted in the deaths of Three Green Berets, one support soldier and four Nigerien forces and several wounded during the October 4th incident has morphed from shock and confusion regarding the incident to becoming a full-fledged media circus; regarding who knew about the US troops being in the region and under what circumstances they were deployed in such a volatile region that has a combination of pro and competing Jihadist groups (AL-Qaeda and ISIL) factions.
What is the National Security threat that warrants a presence of 800 United States troops in the Sahel? The answer may fall back to a decision made during the Bush (43) Administration. In the days and weeks after 9/11, Congress passed Public Law 107-40 authorizing the use of force against those the President suspected to have planned, authorized, committed or aided the attacks launched against the United States, those who harbored such people and their affiliated organizations. The objective was to prevent any further acts of terrorism directed against the United States by such persons, organizations or nations.
How does the AUMF apply to Niger?
Consider two events in the Maghreb over the last few decades. First, the Algerian Civil War of 1992. This violent event erupted when the Algerian Military saw fit to cancel a run of elections for Parliament. That decision resulted to violence between Islamic Fundamentalists and Secular Algerians. The Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win power after these polls. Subsequently, the carnage led to many factions splitting from previous groups and charting their own course in the North Africa region.
During the darkest days of the conflict one powerful Islamist group emerged, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). It first gained prominence in 1998 by splitting away from a previous group that it severed ties with. The GSPC is today notoriously referred to as AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and it has spread its tentacles southward into the Sahel splitting into various factions like Al Mourabitoum for tactical purposes. Virtually unchallenged for more than two decades, this different jihadists groups are now influencing events in Mali and regional states like Niger since 2012.
The second event is the execution of the Libya former leader Muhammar Gaddafi, the subsequent collapse of Libya into a sustained period of Civil War and the emergence of many criminal and Salafist Jihadist groups backed by both Al-Qaeda and ISIL core. The chaos that ensued resulted into;
- The outflow of weapons from Libya into the region.
- The ability for fighters to move through the region with ease.
- The Migrant Crisis that has affected Europe.
The events of 2011 set into motion the current crisis in Mali, Burkina- Faso, Niger and the region in general over the last couple of years. The leadership vacuum in Libya has had a ripple effect to the current rising instability in the Sahel and there are no signs of better days ahead.
US – French Response:
To manage the growing instability in the Sahel, the French set up a reaction force known as Operation Barkhane with its main base in N’Djamena – Chad. This operation has been underway since 2014. Contrary to the TSCTI (Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative) which the United States has had in operation since 2006 under the banner of the ‘Global War on Terror’, it is expected that effective response can only be achieved when there is collaboration between both countries, in coordination with local national forces.
The deadly event of 4th October questions the effectiveness of intelligence sharing and response collaboration and coordination between US, French and local Nigerien forces. It equally raises the question of transparency, interest and trust by all parties involved. There is no doubt that there exists a certain level of collaboration between AFRICOM (US African Command) and the French in the Sahel in terms of sharing Intelligence, but same cannot be applied to local forces who are mostly at the forefront on ground but undermined due to trust issues. Between the US and French, the level of timely information dissemination is very murky. This level of suspicion based on long term interest, lack of trust with local forces and wanting to be ‘the one who solved the problem’ can have a deadly outcome as seen in the recent ambush.
Having the French Air Force scramble their jets over the surface of the attack zone hours after the attack and evacuate the US Casualties highlights the strong bond between the French and American Armed Forces in the region and beyond.
However, there is a Marine Air and Ground Task Force (MAGTF) that is designed for use in Africa and based in Spain, but the response time in remote areas like Niger make it difficult, compared to the quick one hour practiced in the likes of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Change is permanent:
The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) currently being used since 2001 needs a serious review. Local forces do not have the same level of ability and capability like their foreign counterparts; however, they have local experience and understand the backyard culture more. In an asymmetric warfare such as the one in the Sahel, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and supper’. Local forces should not be neglected in the intelligence sharing and coordination process, this must follow a training process based on ‘all that we know, not all that we want you to know’. Without a timely and transparent intelligence sharing between all parties involved both at strategic, planning and operational levels, there will be permanent damage to lives of brave men and women on the front-line.
Which Jihadist Group Killed the US-Nigerien Forces?
The Jihadist Movement in the Sahel has split into factions that support either Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State on the ideological level. There exist Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with factions that now include: ‘The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’ (ISGS) under the leadership of Abu Walid Al Sahrawi, Al Mourabitoum under Mokhtar Belmokhtar (No evidence Belmokhtar has been killed) and the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) under Abu Musab Al Barnawi sharing notes conveniently with Ansaru under Mamam Nur. Not to forget well established organized criminal groups in the region that form the crime-terror nexus network.
Why weren’t the Green Berets able to get help in time?
Eventually, help arrived specifically from the French, but too little too late against ‘invincible’ locally embedded adversaries that had time to plan, prepare and perhaps understood the routine of the joint patrol including the time it takes for response to arrive, and the capacity of that response. It is equally possible that the one-hour alleged delay in requesting for backup assistance was because the joint US-Nigerien patrol was confident it had the situation under control. Due to the nature of the terrain, it was impossible to estimate how many fighters the joint US – Nigerien patrol was up against.
Putting these factors into account and the experience of the joint patrol albeit the surprise nature of the attack, it is likely that the Jihadists were more than the official estimate of 50 fighters, even with US manned drones circulating above, that figure was too quick to arrive at.
There has been controversy over having a US Military Footprint in Africa. This ambush shows the downside of not only deploying in remote and fragile regions in Africa but not deploying enough footprint. Special Forces are easy to use just like UAV’s. However, it appears that a somewhat larger capacity is needed and very few inside the beltway will give Pentagon the proper tools to adequately fulfill the requests of the Commander in Chief. The only way to close the Counter special force shortage gap is a long-term strategy to train and equip local forces to the standard that is required to effectively tackle jihadists in the region independently.The presence of US forces in Africa has become a massive concern to voters and relatives of fallen soldiers just as much as the deployment size of Special forces in Africa.
The routine mission to the North of Niamey, close to the village of Tongo Tongo was categorized as ‘low-risk’. In this volatile region of the Sahel, a long-period of ‘low-risk’ usually means high vulnerability.
The joint Nigerien – US patrol team may have become consistently reliable for jihadist sleeper cells in the region to plan and launch a surprise strike just when it was least expected.
The nature of the attack seems like a cross coordination between different Jihadists groups in the Sahel region which requires an understanding of the jihadist network in the region to unmask ‘the group that pulled the trigger’ on US & Nigerien forces on Oct 4th, 2017.
Scott Morgan has been the President of Red Eagle Enterprises since its inception in November 2012. He uses his experience from serving in the U.S. Marines during the Reagan Administration, attending college for Criminal Justice, Advocacy for Human Rights and Writing to come up with an interesting matrix and business model. Currently based in Washington, DC he specializes in US Policy towards Africa focusing on Security, Asymmetrical Operations and Business Development South of the Sahara. His Blog Confused Eagle can be found at confusedeagle.livejournal.com His webpage can be found at: http://morganscott251.wix.com/redeagleenterprises
David Otto is the CT Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) based in the United Kingdom. He is also Senior Counter Terrorism Advisor for Global Risk International. David’s Work focuses on designing and implementing sustainable Anti Terrorism, Counter Terrorism and Organised Crime solutions to prevent and respond to vulnerabilities, political Instability, insurgencies and Organised Crime – between the geographical boundaries of the West and Africa.