On August 13, 2015, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) announced its intention to preposition jet fuel at “Zinger Airport” in Niger. This is the third site now available to American troops in the country.
In response to our query, DLA confirmed that U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) made the request and that this is an airfield also known as Zinder Airport. In turn, the Pentagon’s top headquarters for the region explained that American planes would be able to use the facility as a pit stop.
This single runway affair is less than 100 miles from the Nigerian border. The airstrip could end up supporting the fight against the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram … or just provide a stopover for troops on their way to practice sessions.
“Niger has proven to be willing, capable and stable, and is recognized as a linchpin for regional stability in the Sahel and a reliable counter-terrorism partner,” U.S. Navy Lt. Cdr. Anthony Falvo, the public relations branch chief for U.S. Africa Command, said in an Email. “On the front lines of some of the world’s most pressing security challenges, Niger continues to be a willing partner in the fight against violent extremist organizations and illegal trafficking.”
In February 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his plans to set up a drone base in the country’s capital Niamey. Faster forward more than two years and the Pentagon has significantly expanded that facility and refurbished another airstrip in the fringe of the Sahara desert.
Niger’s strategic setting cannot be understated. The nation of nearly 20 million is sandwiched between conflict zones where militant groups such as Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and Boko Haram operate, often with near impunity because of weak governments and porous borders.
The Sahel region is a semi-arid zone that stretches across the continent, separating the Sahara desert from true sub-Saharan Africa. And there are no shortage of security concerns in the area.
Also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, the terrorist organization – or militants linked to it – had already claimed responsibility for two devastating attacks on western tourists in Tunisia earlier in the year. In March, terrorists killed nearly two dozen people at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. Two months later, militants murdered nearly 40 vacationers on a beach in the Mediterranean city of Sousse.
The extremists jockeyed for space in a region full of other bad actors like al-Qaeda. The notoriously hard-to-kill Mokhtar Belmokhtar is now running al-Qaeada’s North African franchise. For nearly two decades now, Belmokhtar has had an on-again-off-again relationship with groups linked to the international terrorist organization in Algeria.
In January 2013, Belmokhtar’s fighters launched a spectacular raid on a French operated gas field in In Aménas in Algeria. Then calling themselves the “Those who Sign with Blood Brigade”, the group took more than 800 workers – including a number of foreign nationals – hostage. Algerian commandos eventually stormed the site, killing nearly 30 innocent civilians in the process. Belmokhtar’s men had already murdered nearly 40 hostages themselves.
To the south, Boko Haram militants continue their own reign of terror in Nigeria. Since 2009, the group has become infamous for decimating entire villages. When not killing innocents outright, the insurgents kidnapped women and children, threatening to sell them into slavery. The group briefly captured international attention after spiriting away more than 200 female students from the town of Chibok.
While Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari has given the military three months to finally end the insurgency, the country’s security forces generally suffer from poor morale after months of poor showings. One of Buhari’s first acts was to sack the country’s top officers over their poor performance (see Peter Dörrie, “Boko Haram is far from defeated“, offiziere.ch, July 20, 2015).
“Geographically, a quick look at the map shows that Niger is in an increasingly volatile area,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jason Nicholson, formerly the chief of the East Africa Regional Division in AFRICOM’s Strategy, Plans and Policy Directorate and now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah, pointed out in an email.
But while these groups dominate headlines, this is hardly an exhaustive list. Splinter factions, militant nationalists, ethnic insurgencies and others all call the Sahel home.
“While surely al-Qaeda and ISIS are still a menace to the stability of the Sahel region and the Middle East, there are more localized examples of violent extremist groups operating in the region,” Sophien Ben-Achour, Sahel Team Leader at the non-profit “Search for Common Ground“, added in an email. “Unstable, disaffected zones of the Sahel are in fact vulnerable to violent groups, which may come in different form than those we are most familiar with.”
Seeing a reliable ally in a rough neighborhood, Washington has increasingly sent more military aid and other assistance to Niamey. American commandos and other troops make regular trips to train with Nigerien forces.
But this wasn’t always the case. The Pentagon has been helping countries in the region fight extremists for more than a decade. But Niger only came to the fore after violence in the Sahel flared up dramatically after the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. After months of fighting and with the help of an American-led bombing campaign, rebels captured and executed Gaddafi, creating a dangerous power vacuum. The enigmatic leader had ruled the country for more than 40 years. In the months that followed, the situation quickly devolved into chaos. Refusing to disarm or join the nascent national military, militias instead fought each other and actively challenged the new government in Tripoli. Foreign dignities weren’t safe. Fighters kidnapped diplomats and held them for ransom. Most spectacularly, just over a year after the overthrow of Gaddafi, terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed American Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens. Beyond Libya’s borders, terrorists and other militants that Gaddafi had harbored went on the offensive. Mali imploded. Al-Qaeda-linked groups surged in Algeria and Niger.
After treating the region like an unimportant backwater for years, the Pentagon completely shifted direction. At the same time, Niger appears to have jumped from one of the lowest priorities to the top of the list – and authorities in Niamey were fine with that. The United States and France both owed Niger and other countries in the region an “after–sales service” for the debacle in Libya, the country’s interior minister Hassoumi Massoudou told Radio France Internationale in February 2014. The next month, Niamey hosted a major practice session for American commandos and troops from almost 20 other countries. The Pentagon’s special operations task force for the region runs this exercise, nicknamed Flintlock, in a different Sahel nation each year.
Seven months after that, the Pentagon had set up a second drone base at the airport in the town of Agadez. While more than 500 miles from the Libya border, the small town is situated along the region’s few highways.
Washington doesn’t appear to be slowing down cooperation with the country either. In June 2015, the Pentagon renamed the commando unit responsible for the region as “Special Operations Command North and West Africa”. “The task force was renamed […] to represent more accurately the geographic area of responsibility for this command,” the public affairs officer for the group explained in an email.
And while Chad hosted the 2015 iteration of Flintlock March, American and African commandos trained in so-called “out stations” in Niger, among other locations.
According to a number of Pentagon contract announcements, American troops and private contractors will primarily use the sites in Niger for future training. But using funds set aside for fighting terrorists and stopping drug trafficking, the U.S. Navy has hired the AAR Airlift Group to be on call with small aircraft and helicopters in Niamey to search for downed planes or evacuate injured personnel in an emergency.
And technically, Washington refers to facilities in places like Agadez and Zinder as “temporary”, regardless of their obvious, long-term importance. Depending on their size, the Pentagon officially dubs the sites “forward operating locations,” “contingency operating locations,” or “cooperative security locations.”
But “the judicious use of the correct lever of military power at the right time and place can provide outsized returns towards achieving U.S. objectives,” noted Nicholson. “Bigger is not always better.” Of course, military power is only one part of the picture too. “Traditionally in these regions civilians do not have an entirely positive picture of armed soldiers,” Ben-Achour pointed out. “I think it is very important that the military approach […] puts community level partnership and development at the forefront of any engagement.”
In the end, Niger looks set to be an important hub in the region for Washington for the foreseeable future.