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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Coup in Niger upends US terrorism fight and could open a door for Russia

US Special Forces soldiers training Nigerian forces in Agadez, Niger on April 12, 2018. Niger has been a centerpiece of American efforts to combat surging Islamist militancy in the Sahel region for a decade.

By Eric Schmitt, Declan Walsh and Elian Peltier

The military takeover in Niger has upended years of Western counterterrorism efforts in West Africa and now poses wrenching new challenges for the Biden administration’s fight against Islamic militants on the continent.

U.S.-led efforts to degrade terrorist networks around the world have largely succeeded in longtime jihadi hot spots like Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Not so in Africa, especially in the Sahel, the vast, semiarid region south of the Sahara where groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are gaining ground at an alarming pace.

Niger, an impoverished nation of 25 million people that is nearly twice the size of Texas, has recently been the exception to that trend.

Terrorist attacks against civilians there decreased by 49% this year, largely because of the 2,600 French and U.S. troops training and assisting Nigerien forces and a multipronged counterinsurgency strategy by the deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, analysts say. Niger has slowed, but not stopped, a wave of extremists pushing south to coastal states.

Now all that could be in jeopardy if a regional conflict breaks out or the junta orders the Western forces, including 1,100 U.S. troops, to leave and three U.S. drone bases — including one operated by the CIA — to be shuttered.

Western-led military operations offer no silver bullet against Islamic militancy in the Sahel, now the epicenter of global militancy. The past decade of French-led operations in the region, involving thousands of troops, failed to stop thousands of attacks.

Even so, a security vacuum in Niger could embolden the militants to ramp up propaganda, increase recruitment of local and even foreign fighters, establish mini-states in remote areas, and plot attacks against Western countries. Removing the relatively small U.S. presence would make it harder for military analysts to identify and quickly disrupt threats as they emerge, U.S. officials said.

It could also open the door to Russian influence in Niger in the form of the Kremlin-backed Wagner private military company, which already has a presence in neighboring Mali, U.S. officials say.

“The U.S. pulling out of Niger and closing its drone bases would be a devastating blow to Western counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel,” said Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York.

The stakes in the fight are rising fast. Tens of thousands of people have died violently and 3.3 million have fled their homes over the past decade in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, which adjoin one another in West Africa. In two of them, the situation is rapidly worsening. The death toll in Mali doubled last year to about 5,000, while in Burkina Faso, it rose 80% to 4,000, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. On Tuesday, 17 Nigerien soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in an ambush by armed insurgents in southwestern Niger.

The violence is spreading from those three landlocked nations toward wealthier ones along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. Militants from Burkina Faso have carried out attacks in northern Togo and Benin.

Niger is also battling a separate Islamic State group affiliate in the Lake Chad Basin, in the country’s southeast.

“Niger has been this barrier against terrorist groups for coastal countries,” said Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou, who was Niger’s prime minister until the coup and remains one of the government officials recognized by the United States and most African nations. “With a weakened Niger, there’s little chance that this role will hold.”

The International Crisis Group has warned that the violence could also spread into Ivory Coast, one of the region’s economic powerhouses.

“All the Gulf of Guinea countries are very worried,” said Pauline Bax, deputy director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group. Amid the furor over the coup in Niger, and the potential for Wagner to find a perch there, the regions’ Islamic groups are likely celebrating a chance to expand their hold, she said.

Niger has been a centerpiece of the U.S.’ efforts to combat surging Islamic militancy in the Sahel region for a decade and has taken on greater importance since the coup in Mali.

President Barack Obama ordered the first 100 U.S. troops to Niger in February 2013 to help set up unarmed surveillance drone operations in Niamey, the capital, to support a French-led operation combating al-Qaida and affiliated fighters in Mali.

By 2018, the U.S. military presence had grown to 800 troops, and the Pentagon was putting the finishing touches on a $110 million drone base in Agadez, in northern Niger, a major expansion of U.S. military firepower in Africa. The risks of the growing mission were laid bare in October 2017 when a terrorist ambush killed four U.S. soldiers, their interpreter and four Nigerien soldiers.

Niger, however, remained the main U.S. counterterrorism ally in the region under Bazoum, the country’s former interior and foreign minister, who was elected in 2021 in Niger’s first peaceful transfer of power between two democratically elected presidents since independence.

American officials praised Bazoum’s strategy, which used counterterrorism raids by U.S.-trained commandos and some level of dialogue with local groups to address their grievances. Fewer people were killed in Niger in the first six months of this year than in the first half of any year since 2018, according to the armed conflict project.

Since the uprising July 26, France and the European Union have suspended some aid to Niger. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the U.S.’ security ties, worth about $500 million since 2012, were also at risk if the putsch was not reversed. The United States has suspended training and drone flights and restricted its troops to bases. France has also suspended all joint operations with Niger’s military.

With prospects for restoring Bazoum to power appearing dim, the Biden administration is weighing two main options, officials say. It could formally declare a coup in Niger, as the administration did when military forces staged recent takeovers in Mali and Burkina Faso, which would trigger broader cuts in U.S. aid, including military assistance. Or Washington could stop short of that designation, as it did with a military takeover in Chad, and seek an arrangement with the junta to continue counterterrorism cooperation.

So far, the situation has been relatively peaceful and has not forced the administration’s hand. But the threat of military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States, the regional bloc known as Ecowas, and dwindling hopes of a diplomatic resolution present the Biden administration with tough choices in the coming days.

“Niger was the last bastion of hope and security in the Sahel,” said J. Marcus Hicks, a retired two-star Air Force general who headed U.S. Special Operations forces in Africa from 2017 to 2019. “The idea that we’d leave a vacuum for further malign Russian influence would be a real tragedy.”

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