Anatomy of an ambush: Unanswered questions in Niger

There have been contrary claims by both soldiers and higher authorities in Niger regarding the attack that left 4 U.S. soldiers dead.

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The Niger ambush left 4 U.S. soldiers dead. (Image: CBS Miami / screenshot)

On October 3rd, a combined force of 30 to 40 soldiers from the African country of Niger, accompanied by between 8-12 American troops, left their base in the capital, Niamey, and headed north, passing the town of Tongo Tongo close to the country’s border with Mali.

While the reasons given were vague at first, some later reporting seemed to indicate that the purpose of the mission may have been to gather intel about an Islamic State affiliate that operates in the lawless border regions between three former French colonies, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and the group’s leader, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi.

An Arabic speaker thought to hail from the disputed Western Sahara, al-Sahrawi and his fighters made their pledge to the IS ‘Caliph’, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2015. In the process he broke off from the Al Qaeda linked Al Murabitoon (The Sentinels) group he’d formed along with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian militant reported dead so often he seems to have more lives than your average house cat.

While al-Sahrawi’s group has been informally recognized by the IS leadership, its territory hasn’t yet been declared a province (wilayat) of the Caliphate like Nigeria to the south or Libya to the north. Officially named the the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the militants have engaged in a series of small scale attacks over the course of the last two years, including an attempted prison break in Niger in October of 2015 that was probably intended as a recruitment effort.

An evolving time line

The day after they left their base, on October 4th, the American soldiers and their Nigerien counterparts had stopped in the village of Tongo Tongo on their way back to the capital when they were ambushed by what was first reported as about 50 fighters. This number has increased to as many as 200 in the weeks since, and added the detail that most of the militants arrived in pairs on motorcycles for the unconventional but lethal attack.

Three sometimes differing versions of events have emerged in the weeks since. The most extensively covered in English language media was that of the U.S. military, established by Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford in a press briefing and reported in detail by Reuters on October 23rd.

There has also been some reporting on contrary claims by both soldiers and higher authorities in Niger. The most important difference is that the Nigeriens say that the soldiers had given chase to armed militants earlier that same day. They believe that these alleged militants, who they claim fled across the Malian border during the pursuit, later returned to Tongo Tongo in greater force.

American officials familiar with the mission insisted that while the soldiers had noticed the convoy close to the border, they didn’t pursue it.

It’s important to note that, at least officially, as reported by the New York Times in the story cited above, U.S. troops are not legally “allowed to conduct unilateral direct-action operations in Niger or most other countries in Africa”. Thus, if they were pursuing the militants, the Pentagon would have a very good reason to deny this and continue to insist that the troops were only engaged in an ‘aid and assist mission’, gathering intelligence with their Nigerien hosts.

Much less covered have been the eye-witness testimonies of Tongo Tongo’s villagers as related in a CBS report and more extensively by journalist Ruth Maclean in The U.K. Guardian.

In Maclean’s compelling account, the oldest man in Tongo Tongo, Djibo Adamu, accompanied Alassane Mounkaila, the chief of the village of a little over 2000 people, to greet the soldiers after they arrived at town’s well and asked the locals for water.

A ten minute wait while Adamu went to fetch a goat Mounkaila offered the visitors to take for their dinner may have given the militants the time they needed to close in on the unsuspecting Nigerien and American soldiers.

There have been conflicting stories about who actually went to the well that morning, a detail that could prove pivotal to understanding what happened. Some sources reported that all of the troops went for water while others claim that only the Americans and a few Nigeriens were in the town, with the rest of the local soldiers waiting on the outskirts.

Mounkaila, the village chief, was arrested shortly after the attack and is being held by Nigerien authorities in Niamey. He has been accused of deliberately delaying the soldiers and leaving them vulnerable to their attackers.

This allegation seems to be at least partially contradicted by The Guardian report, which also included the account of the local MP, Karimou Yacouba, who told reporter Maclean that Mounkaila had called him and had also repeatedly tried to call authorities including the Governor and the commander of a military base just an hour away, to no avail.

“I could hear the gunshots over the line. He said he was hiding in his bedroom. He told me to call for help, to quickly tell the authorities,” Yacouba later said of the phone call he received from the panicked village chief that day.

The possible involvement of Mounkaila aside, the mystery of why the American troops, who were lightly armed, took at least an hour to call for help might be explained by a mistaken belief that the fight ended soon after the initial attack, which may have taken place in the village itself, followed by a second larger wave that caught them off as they gathered outside of the town, as villagers later recounted in the CBS report.

Regardless, when the smoke, both figurative and literal, had cleared, 4 of the Americans and at least 4 Nigeriens lay dead as a result of the hours long firefight. Among the four Americans killed was Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, from South Florida, the father of two young children.

It wasn’t disclosed until weeks later, but we’ve now learned that Johnson’s body, stripped of his uniform and gear, wasn’t found until Friday October 6th, when local children came upon it several miles from the village. Sgt. Johnson’s hands were bound and there was a bullet in the back of his head. This has led some to speculate that the attackers may have taken him alive and then abandoned the idea of keeping him as a prisoner as they were making their escape.

The other three Americans killed that day, two of their bodies found in the back of an abandoned but still running pickup truck left behind by the militants at least six hours later when French helicopters and a Nigerien ‘rapid response force’ finally arrived, had also been stripped of their clothing, boots and other possessions. The vehicles the soldiers had been riding in were also stolen by the retreating militants.

A growing problem

As reports about what happened on October 4th in Niger began to trickle in, the U.S. cable news networks struggled for an explanation as to why American soldiers were killed in a country where they are not officially at war and that many of their viewers had never heard of.

These important questions were quickly overshadowed by President Donald Trump, who displayed a characteristic lack of empathy in a call with Sgt. Johnson’s grieving widow, quickly turning an African story into a U.S. domestic one.

While there is a $100 million drone base near the city of Agadez in Niger that shows the U.S. military’s commitment to the region, and an increasing French and even German presence in Niger, this has remained under the radar of most of the press with a few notable exceptions.

The Sahel region where ISGS is operating is the large belt of semi-arid land below the Sahara and above the tropics of southern Africa, running from Mauritania on the western coast to Sudan and Eritrea on the edge of the Red Sea, with the area under discussion just to the west of the continent’s center. It’s an area where different worlds have long collided, “…the site of interaction between Arabic, Islamic and nomadic cultures from the north, and indigenous and traditional cultures from the south.”

In this region there have always been skirmishes involving different ethnic and tribal groups, mostly due to the fact that the southern part is heavily populated by subsistence farmers while the less hospitable areas to the north are home to nomadic pastoralists most of the year.

These nomadic peoples, among the most marginalized populations in the world, are found throughout the region and generally travel north to south and back again in search of water and feed for their herds, including the residue produced through farming. Sometimes they arrive in intensely farmed southern areas before the harvest is done and their animals begin to eat the food more settled communities are relying on to live. Unsurprisingly, this has sometimes led to conflict.

Niger, with its plethora of ethnic groups and 11 official languages including French, has long relied on tried and true local methods to deal with these naturally occurring conflicts as opposed to relying on what are seen as untrustworthy central government authorities. Unfortunately, with resources becoming increasingly sparse, the pastoralists tend to lose out to the farmers. To add insult to injury, authorities also sometimes target their herds as a means of wealth extraction.

Though you will rarely hear about it, the destabilization of the western Sahel, especially Niger’s neighbor Mali, has made these conflicts worse, the direct result of the NATO ‘no fly zone’ and support for rebels in Libya that has broken what used to be Africa’s most prosperous nation into still feuding pieces.

None of the dubious think tank experts calling for the intervention thought that the large number of Tuareg people serving in Libya’s army would flee with their weapons and declare statehood in what they call Azawad, their traditional homeland in northern Mali. (LINK 12) Even fewer could have foreseen that Salafist groups including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) who initially seemed allied to the rebels’ cause, would turn on and attempt to marginalize the Tuaregs while setting their sights on conquering all of Mali.

This brought about a French led intervention in support of Mali’s weak central government. Seeing the writing on the wall as French jets roared in the skies above the country, the militants, using a strategy we have seen time and again from Afghanistan to Iraq, seemed to dissolve into the sparsely populated hinterlands, barely defending their just won conquests.

Some of the now once again displaced Tuaregs, a Berber people known throughout history as warriors, then took to banditry against the neighboring pastoralist Fulani people of Niger, crossing the border to steal their animals. This led to many Fulani searching for the means to defend themselves. Some found an ideology in the process, joining men like Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and local leaders like Doundou Chefou, who told Reuters that he led the Oct. 4rh attack, becoming the bulk of ISGS’ fighting force in the process.

The inability of central governments in this part of Africa to extend their remit much beyond their capitals, abetted by the spillover chaos from Libya and Mali, is already leading to a reliance on their own and Western forces to combat a growing proliferation of what amount to heavily armed gangs.

While Islam in the region has traditionally been known for its tolerance it’s of some interest that half of voluntary recruits to these movements say they are religiously motivated, and yet, as the Journey to Extremism in Africa report recently released by the United Nations Development Agency (UNDP) explains, “57% of respondents admit that they either don’t read or have little to no understanding of the religious texts or interpretations.”

A map of Africa in the UNDP report highlights the areas where these militant groups operate, showing that they are mostly found in peripheral regions and borderlands, places where employment and educational opportunities are even more limited than the already troubling African norm. In fact, the survey found that 71% of voluntary recruits to organizations like ISGS, “identified government action as the final trigger that motivated them to join the organization”.

The further militarization of the struggle against these groups and the introduction of more foreign soldiers is likely to have the opposite of the intended effect of reducing the threat of terrorism, instead creating new grievances that provoke the very thing it’s meant to prevent. As long as the conditions that make these groups an easy sell to the desperate people of the Sahel like the Fulani and other borderlands exist, groups like the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara will continue to grow.

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