Why you should care

Because if the U.S. leaves Niger, ISIS remnants will have room to coalesce.

OZY Senior Columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.

The attack on U.S. Special Forces in Niger earlier this month highlights many classic challenges of counterterrorist operations. It also underlines what should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the recent history of the Sahel region — that it has become one of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable hotbeds of jihadist activity.

The facts are still emerging about the October 3 incident in western Niger, where about 10 U.S. Green Berets were on what may have been a reconnaissance mission in the village of Tongo Tongo. Leaving the village, they were attacked by about 50 terrorists armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades; the American soldiers had only rifles. The firefight lasted an hour before the U.S. team requested help. French aircraft and drone coverage arrived a half hour later; the French did not drop ordnance, for reasons unknown. A contract company then extracted the U.S. troops, including three slain soldiers; the fourth soldier killed, Sgt. La David Johnson, was recovered 48 hours later.

One theory making the rounds as congressional and Pentagon investigations get underway is that villagers sympathetic to the terrorists delayed the U.S. team’s departure from the village to help set up the ambush, which is plausible. In every counterterrorist or counterinsurgency operation, this problem — sorting out the friendlies from jihadist sympathizers — is a challenge. It was true when I was in Vietnam in the 1960s, and a similar thing happened to the CIA in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009 when a source thought to be friendly turned out to be a suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers.

You can put together a ragged jihadi gang just by roaring through this area with some pickup trucks, SUVs, guns and money.

This problem flows from the reality that terrorists and insurgents can only succeed by gaining support in the population, hiding among them or intimidating them into cooperation. The only way to detect this is through intelligence derived from an agent network or technical means. We do not yet know about the quality of intelligence or warning the team may have had.

But without second guessing the investigations, the dangers inherent in this situation should have been obvious. This is one of the most dangerous and least governed parts of Africa. Although the Nigerien government has been a good counterterrorism partner, the landlocked country, one of Africa’s largest, is 80 percent desert and encircled by six other countries, most with loosely patrolled borders and vast ungoverned spaces. It is crisscrossed by ancient smuggling routes used by drug traffickers, other criminal elements and numerous jihadi groups.

Although the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahel is thought to be the perpetrator, labels do not mean much in that part of the world. The region has a few fairly coherent groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQ/IM), al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. But dozens of jihadi militias also float in and out of the area, coalescing, breaking apart, changing names and often offering themselves for hire.

A good example is the group that targeted the In Amenas natural gas facility in Algeria in 2013, an attack that killed nearly 40 hostages. In helping the Norwegian co-manager of the facility, Statoil, assess the incident and improve security, I learned how easy it is to assemble a force of militants in this region. Although the attack was led by a breakaway leader of AQ/IM, he had assembled a gang of Algerians, Libyans, Malians, Nigerians, Egyptians, Canadians, Tunisians and Mauritanians. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say you can put together a ragged jihadi gang just by roaring through this area with some pickup trucks, SUVs, guns and money.

Conditioning the environment more broadly was something that happened before: the 2012 takeover of neighboring northern Mali by elements of jihadis connected to AQ/IM. They held the region, larger than France, for more than six months until they were driven out by a coalition of French and African forces. The region is still troubled, and early this year three of the insurrectionist groups merged and declared allegiance to al-Qaida. Meanwhile, the group that ambushed the U.S. Green Berets in Niger is thought to have been led by a Malian veteran of that 2012 fight — which involved territory just across the border from where our Green Berets were attacked.

So why is the United States there? To help ensure the area does not turn into another platform for attacking the U.S. and our allies. Now that the Islamic State is mostly driven from its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it will fall back on its long-contemplated global strategy. It has at least a half dozen well-established nodes around the world and dozens of loosely affiliated groups like the one that ambushed our Green Berets. Left alone, they can use areas like the Sahel as safe havens for training and plotting future attacks.

Given the magnitude of the challenge, U.S. counterterrorism forces will inevitably be overstretched. The attack on our Green Berets is a reminder that this really is a global struggle, that it is highly complex and will take a long time — and that coalition-building and burden-sharing with trusted local forces will be even more essential than in the past.

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