The navy takeover in Niger has upended years of Western counterterrorism efforts in West Africa and now poses wrenching new challenges for the Biden administration’s battle towards Islamist militants on the continent.

American-led efforts to degrade terrorist networks all over the world have largely succeeded in longtime jihadist sizzling spots like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Not so in Africa, particularly within the Sahel, the huge, semiarid area south of the Sahara the place teams linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are gaining floor at an alarming tempo.

Niger, an impoverished nation of 25 million individuals that’s almost twice the dimensions of Texas, has not too long ago been the exception to that pattern.

Terrorist assaults towards civilians there decreased by 49 p.c this yr, largely due to the two,600 French and American troops coaching and helping Nigerien forces and a multipronged counterinsurgency technique by the deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, analysts say. Niger has slowed, however not stopped, a wave of extremists pushing south to coastal states.

Now all that could possibly be in jeopardy if a regional battle breaks out or the junta orders the Western forces, together with 1,100 American troops, to go away and three U.S. drone bases — together with one operated by the C.I.A. — to be shuttered.

Western-led navy operations supply no silver bullet towards Islamist militancy within the Sahel, now the epicenter of world militancy. The previous decade of French-led operations within the area, involving hundreds of troops, didn’t cease hundreds of assaults.

Even so, a safety vacuum in Niger might embolden the militants to ramp up propaganda, enhance recruitment of native and even overseas fighters, set up mini-states in distant areas, and plot assaults towards Western international locations. Eradicating the comparatively small American presence would make it tougher for navy analysts to establish and shortly disrupt threats as they emerge, U.S. officers stated.

It might additionally open the door to Russian affect in Niger within the type of the Kremlin-backed Wagner non-public navy firm, which already has a presence in neighboring Mali, U.S. officers say.

“The U.S. pulling out of Niger and shutting its drone bases can be a devastating blow to Western counterterrorism efforts within the Sahel,” stated Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst on the Soufan Group, a safety consulting agency primarily based in New York.

The stakes within the battle are rising quick. Tens of hundreds of individuals have died violently, and three.3 million have fled their houses, over the previous decade in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, which adjoin one another in West Africa. In two of them, the scenario is quickly worsening. The dying toll in Mali doubled final yr to about 5,000, whereas in Burkina Faso it rose 80 p.c to 4,000, in accordance with the Armed Battle Location & Occasion Information Undertaking. On Tuesday, 17 Nigerien troopers had been killed and 20 wounded in an ambush by armed insurgents in southwestern Niger.

The violence is spreading from these three landlocked nations towards wealthier ones alongside the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. Militants from Burkina Faso have carried out assaults in northern Togo and Benin.

Niger can also be battling a separate Islamic State affiliate within the Lake Chad Basin, within the nation’s southeast.

“Niger has been this barrier towards terrorist teams for coastal international locations,” stated Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou, who was Niger’s prime minister till the coup and stays one of many Nigerien authorities officers acknowledged by the USA and most African nations. “With a weakened Niger, there’s little likelihood that this function will maintain.”

The Worldwide Disaster Group has warned that the violence might additionally unfold into Ivory Coast, one of many area’s financial powerhouses.

“All of the Gulf of Guinea international locations are very fearful,” stated Pauline Bax, deputy director of the Africa program on the Worldwide Disaster Group. Amid the furor over the coup in Niger, and the potential for Wagner to discover a perch there, the areas’ Islamist teams are possible celebrating an opportunity to develop their maintain, she stated.

Niger has been a centerpiece of American efforts to fight surging Islamist militancy within the Sahel area for a decade, and has taken on higher significance because the coup in Mali.

President Barack Obama ordered the primary 100 American troops to Niger in February 2013 to assist arrange unarmed surveillance drone operations in Niamey, the capital, to help a French-led operation combating Al Qaeda and affiliated fighters in Mali.

By 2018, the U.S. navy presence had grown to 800 troops and the Pentagon was placing the ending touches on a $110 million drone base in Agadez, in northern Niger, a significant enlargement of American navy firepower in Africa. The dangers of the rising mission had been laid naked in October 2017 when a terrorist ambush killed 4 American troopers, their interpreter and 4 Nigerien troopers.

Niger, nonetheless, remained the principle U.S. counterterrorism ally within the area beneath Mr. Bazoum, the nation’s former inside and overseas minister, who was elected in 2021 in Niger’s first peaceable switch of energy between two democratically elected presidents since independence.

American officers praised Mr. Bazoum’s technique, which used counterterrorism raids by American-trained commandos and a few stage of dialogue with native teams to deal with their grievances. Fewer individuals had been killed in Niger within the first six months of this yr than within the first half of any yr since 2018, in accordance with the armed battle challenge.

For the reason that rebellion on July 26, France and the European Union have suspended some assist to Niger. The U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, has stated that American safety ties, value about $500 million since 2012, had been additionally in danger if the putsch was not reversed. America has suspended coaching and drone flights, and restricted its troops to bases. France has additionally suspended all joint operations with Niger’s navy.

With prospects for restoring Mr. Bazoum to energy showing dim, the Biden administration is weighing two important choices, officers say. It might formally declare a coup in Niger, because the administration did when navy forces staged latest takeovers in Mali and Burkina Faso, which might set off broader cuts in American assist, together with navy help. Or Washington might cease in need of that designation, because it did with a navy takeover in Chad, and search an association with the junta to proceed counterterrorism cooperation.

To date, the scenario has been comparatively peaceable and has not compelled the administration’s hand. However the specter of navy intervention by the Financial Neighborhood of West African States, the regional bloc often known as ECOWAS, and dwindling hopes of a diplomatic decision current the Biden administration with robust decisions within the coming days.

U.S. alternate options within the area are restricted, officers stated. America has performed coaching workouts in Mauritania, Ghana, Chad and elsewhere within the space. However none of these international locations are as centrally situated as Niger, or seem prone to settle for such a big American navy presence. “Niger is sort of a crucial associate to us within the area,” Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokeswoman, stated on Tuesday.

America has primarily performed a supporting navy function within the Sahel to France, a former colonial energy. However the junta has severed navy ties with France, and the latest occasions have highlighted the failure of France’s counterterrorism partnerships, observers say.

Underscoring the urgency of the rising disaster, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Workers, spoke along with his French counterpart on Wednesday to debate the scenario in Niger, a spokesman for the final stated in an announcement with out disclosing any particulars of their videoconference.

The navy takeover is an particularly laborious blow for Western pursuits in Niger as a result of democracy gave the impression to be taking root within the nation regardless of a historical past of coups and tried coups since independence from France in 1960.

One small consolation for the Biden administration, because it makes an attempt to stability its rejection of coups with its want to take care of a safety presence in Niger, is that the most recent takeover appears to be pushed extra by private or factional variations reasonably than any ideology.

The gorgeous collapse of the Western-backed, democratic authorities in Niger has additionally revived a debate about whether or not the security-heavy U.S. method was flawed within the first place.

“We now have an over-militarized method to counterterrorism,” stated Alexander Noyes, a political scientist on the nonprofit RAND Company. “And that’s hurting us.”

American assist to international locations like Niger can be more practical if it prioritized help for good governance — stronger, extra democratic establishments with much less corruption — over the availability of deadly help, like drones and Particular Forces, Mr. Noyes stated.

West African officers have warned that the Wagner mercenary group could transfer to fill the void if French troops depart, amid rumors {that a} Nigerien junta official met not too long ago with representatives from the paramilitary group in Mali, which has hosted about 1,500 Wagner operatives to battle off an Islamist insurgency.

Assaults towards civilians in Mali have surged because the group’s arrival, as have the variety of Malian refugees in neighboring international locations.

U.S. officers say there isn’t a proof that Wagner helped instigate the navy takeover in Niger, however the group is clearly making an attempt to take advantage of it. “Be at liberty to name us anytime,” Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, stated in an audio message aimed toward Niger’s junta that was shared final week on Telegram channels related to the group.

“Niger was the final bastion of hope and safety within the Sahel,” stated J. Marcus Hicks, a retired two-star Air Power basic who headed American Particular Operations forces in Africa from 2017 to 2019. “The concept that we’d depart a vacuum for additional malign Russian affect can be an actual tragedy.”


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