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Should the US Help Fight Terrorism in Africa’s Sahel?

30 November, 2017

What, if anything, should the United States be doing in the fight against violent extremism in a part of Africa where few people live?

Experts on Africa are asking that question after the deaths of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger last month.

At least four Nigerien soldiers also died in the attack.

Before the violence, some members of Congress knew about U.S. operations in Niger. But other lawmakers say they did not know American troops were on the ground in the African nation. They include Senator Lindsey Graham, of the Republican Party, and Chuck Schumer, the leader of Democrats in the Senate.

The U.S. Department of Defense says more than 800 American troops are in Niger. It also confirms the existence of two bases for drone aircraft there.

Niger and Burkina Faso want the United States to do more to support African governments in their fight against extremism. They want financial support for a new task force made up of troops from five African countries. It is estimated that about $500 million will be needed for the first year of operations of the force. The United States is considering giving $60 million.

Ten years of involvement

The United States military began increasing its presence in the Sahel area in 2007 by creating the U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM. It is based in Stuttgart, Germany.

AFRICOM works with African countries to strengthen security on the continent.

Since at least 2013, U.S. forces have carried out operations to train, advise, and assist Niger's military. The two sides work with local officials to fight armed extremists.

Niger has been an important partner. During the presidency of Barack Obama, the U.S. military built drone bases in the capital, Niamey, and in the northern city of Agadez.

Lisa Mueller is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. She says because "Niger has been a strong ally to the counterterrorism efforts, it has been natural for the United States to station its counterterrorism forces in that country."

A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on October 5, 2017.
A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on October 5, 2017.

But the death of the American troops has caused an examination of U.S. partnerships in the Sahel. It is not clear if, or how, President Donald Trump or his administration will change its policy in the area.

Some activists and U.S. lawmakers do not like the fact that some of the African partners have authoritarian governments.

Brandon Kendhammer is an associate professor and director of the International Development Studies Program at Ohio University. He says even the government of Niger is, in his words, "problematically democratic." But he says the U.S. involvement is helpful.

"It's pretty clear that these investments do make a real difference in the ability of the region to provide its own security," he said.

Kendhammer says an important part of that success has come from asking partners for their opinion about what should be done and how. He notes that some observers believe the U.S. African command makes its own decisions without asking the opinions of African leaders. But he says AFRICOM has a history of working with local officials and asking for their advice.

Soldiers' deaths

U.S. military officials expect to complete their investigation into the Niger attack in January. Kendhammer says it appears that the American soldiers were involved in the kind of work that troops based in the Sahel must do: training local forces in everything from basic operations to advanced tactics, including reacting quickly to terrorist attacks.

Kendhammer says the U.S. military wants to have a long-term effect on the area, so it follows the "train the trainer" model: American soldiers train local forces, who then share their knowledge and skills with other troops.

No one has claimed responsibility for the October attack, but the U.S. military suspects militants linked to the Islamic State group were involved. The group is one of several extremist organizations operating in the Sahel.

The extremists are usually local militants who promise to support an international organization like Islamic State or al-Qaida. This "affiliation" might be nothing more than being mentioned in an IS publication or could involve repeated contacts with the larger organization.

FILE - A U.S. special forces soldier demonstrates how to detain a suspect during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, Niger, March 4, 2014.
FILE - A U.S. special forces soldier demonstrates how to detain a suspect during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, Niger, March 4, 2014.

Whether the involvement is limited or ongoing, partnering with an established terrorist organization can be more practical than ideological, says Kendhammer. He notes the group that may have carried out the attack in Niger was at one time allied with al-Qaeda, but changed in 2015 or 2016 to find a better partner.

Local militants use methods designed to weaken American efforts for fighting terrorists.

As VOA reported earlier, it is likely that villagers in Tongo Tongo, where the October attack took place, helped trap the American and Nigerien forces. The villagers' apparent willingness to help militants may be the result of their efforts to build trust with local populations while denouncing America.

Philip Obaji, Junior reported on the Daily Beast website earlier this month. His report said that people living in Tongo Tongo blamed the United States for a grenade attack in 2016 that killed six children. No evidence has linked the U.S. to the incident. But Obaji wrote that local militant groups have blamed it on America as a way to gain the support of the local population.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

VOA News Writer Salem Solomon reported on this story. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section, or visit our 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

drone n. an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by a computer or someone at a distance

counterterrorism – n. measures designed to fight or prevent terrorism

authoritarian adj. expecting or requiring people to obey rules

tactic – n. a method or device

affiliation n. a close connection to someone or something

mention – n. the act of calling attention to someone or something

practical adj. relating to what is real; likely to be successful