Deadly attack on US special forces highlights terror resurgence in Africa's Sahel

Security analysts say threat is at a level not seen since French intervention in Mali five years ago

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. special forces soldier demonstrates how to detain a suspect during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, Niger March 4, 2014. REUTERS/Joe Penney/File photo
Powered by automated translation

When the newly-elected Donald Trump declared last year that he no longer wanted US troops fighting in far-off lands, he might well have had villages like Tongo Tongo in northern Niger in mind.

A shabby, sun-baked hamlet near the border with Mali, it is one of the remotest places in the world, lying in central Africa's Sahel belt south-east of Timbuktu.

Yet in recent months, teams of US special forces have been seen in Tongo Tongo and the surrounding scrubland, mentoring local troops on how to tackle the growing threat from Islamic militants.

Like of many of Pentagon's more obscure missions, the 800-strong US presence in Niger was little-known to most Americans — and quite possibly, Mr Trump himself, who is not famed for his knowledge of the world’s more distant corners.

That was until a week ago last Wednesday, when four Green Berets were killed during what was supposed to be a routine patrol in Tongo Tongo with their Nigerois counterparts.

In what seems to have been a pre-planned ambush, they were attacked by up to 50 militants armed with truck-mounted heavy machine guns as they left a meeting with village elders.

The incident — in what had been deemed a "low risk" area — was the worst loss of US military life on African soil since the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1993, when 19 US soldiers died.

However, should Mr Trump now demand a review of the US presence there, his commanders on the ground may beg to differ. For just as the West seems to be turning the corner against militants in Syria and Iraq, they are once again on the rise across central Africa.

Security analysts say the threat is at a level not seen since five years ago, when French troops were dispatched to oust Al Qaeda's local franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), from the "caliphate" it had set up across northern Mali.

Although the militants quickly melted from the overwhelming French firepower, the 5,000 strong French force that remained behind to hunt them down has had its work cut out as their quarry scattered over the region.

In an area five times the size of Syria, not even the presence of three new US drone bases — in Niger, Mali, and neighbouring Burkina Faso — has been enough to pinpoint the terrorists' hideouts.

Meanwhile, a peace deal with the Tuareg tribes of northern Mali — whose rebellion in 2012 was hijacked by AQIM — has faltered, leaving the Mali government weak and the region with no shortage of disgruntled guns for hire.

One theory is that the attack in Tongo Tongo village may have been carried out by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, a local ISIL chapter formed last year.

"There's a concern already that ISIS forces may try to regroup here," said Jonathan Dunbar, a senior Africa analyst with Sybilline, a London-based risk consultancy. "Already there is some talk that a few may already have relocated from Sirte in Libya."

But he said an equally likely culprit would the much larger Jamaat Nosrat Al Islam wal Mouslimin — the "Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims" — a new coalition of groups loyal to Al Qaeda, ISIL’s main jihadist rival.

Jamaat Nosrat was launched in March via a sombre video in which five bearded militants read a statement from a laptop. Unlike ISIL’s gore-filled videos, it featured no gore or gunmen. But while it may have looked more like a company merger announcement than a call to arms, those behind it have no shortage of terrorist experience.

As well as veteran AQIM figures and Tuareg Islamists, the coalition includes Al Mourabitoun, the AQIM offshoot whose gunmen stormed a Radisson hotel in Mali in 2015, killing 26. It later carried out similar attacks at hotels in Burkina Faso and a beach resort in the Ivory Coast.

Read more: ISIL and Al Qaeda still pose threats worldwide, UN experts say

Since the Jamaat Nosrat factions joined forces, the region has seen a further upsurge in attacks, both on local forces and the 15,000 strong UN and peacekeeping mission, now considered the most dangerous UN deployment in the world.

The fear is that what seemed like a relatively straightforward intervention five years ago may now become another Iraq or Afghanistan.

"Things may appear worse, particularly in more rural areas, than at any time since the French intervention in 2014," said Roger Macmillan, an ex-British army major now working with Armatus Risks, a UK security company operating in Mali. "But dealing with the root causes and ever-changing security paradigm is hard."

The question now is whether Mr Trump will still want to send troops to get in the way. With the Pentagon already in the process of building a second $100 million base in northern Niger, the commitment seems unavoidable in the short term. But with the deaths in Tongo Tongo showing that even America's elite special forces can be vulnerable, he may wonder if eyes in the sky are better than boots on the ground.