The death of three US soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger revealed the presence of US armed forces in a region plagued by countless jihadist attacks and benefiting from strong military cooperation with Westerners.
This is the first time that an operational presence of American soldiers has been recognized in the Sahelo-Saharan zone.
However, US activities have been numerous since the early 2000s: the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) launched in 2002, renamed the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) in 2002.
Training programs, training and equipment … And, every year, the very consistent and publicized Flintock exercise that has also happened several times in Niger.
So much for the visible part. At these known operations are added those of the special forces , the SOC-Africa (Special Operations Command for Africa) which operates it in the gray areas between “peace and war”. A recent official report spoke of 1,700 operators across the continent.
Their mission is to counter regional terrorism by tracking, flushing out and eliminating it (“find, fix, finish”). Widely used in the fight against the Osama bin Laden terrorist movement, it is now applied to the followers of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, eliminated by France with the help of the United States at the end of 2016.
Regional cooperation and multiple opponents
US forces must finally look after the interests of the United States and protect their nationals. Africom estimates that a thousand terrorists belonging to different groups operate in the Sahel-Sahara zone. It is al-Shebab in the Horn of Africa, the Islamic State organization in Libya or Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area.
They are also the groups affiliated to Aqmi, al-Mourabitoune, or even the group EI in the Great Sahara (EIGS). The zone where the hooking took place Wednesday, October 4 is indeed a region where the group of Abu Walid al-Sahraoui is active.
The United States’ secret actions on the continent are usually accompanied by training programs for local forces (“train and equip”, according to US military terminology). The method consists of “accompanying” the local military partners, which means being forced to fight side by side but letting the local armies constitute the bulk of the troops.
It also consists of supporting the logistical and intelligence efforts for the benefit of the forces of the region, as was the case in Diffa, Niger, in particular, against Boko Haram .
Finally, it is to build useful military capabilities so that they are actually used on the ground. In 2015, the Pentagon provided two Cessna C208 ISR aircraft for intelligence, and trained the crews. These systems have also recently been used in operation.
■ US reactions after the ambush
At the same time that they learned of the deaths of three of their soldiers, the Americans discovered that their country was engaged against the jihadists in the Sahel itself. The press therefore had to detail the stakes of this region and explain what interest the Pentagon could have to send special forces of the army, reports our correspondent in New York, Gregory Pourtier .
Frustrated at seeing their operations placed in the public arena, and in these circumstances, the American authorities provided the minimum service. In Washington, a general simply indicated that the troops were there to train, advise and assist the government of Niger to face alone violent extremists. Without specifying the missions or the number of soldiers in the country, he said that despite the losses, the objectives would remain the same.
President Donald Trump, who was informed of the situation on Wednesday night, has not yet commented on it, and at the White House press briefing on Thursday, Niger was never discussed.
The Americans continue to play the discretion in the Sahel, although the current construction of an air base for the drones in Niger should increase their involvement and even their visibility.