As a new U.S. drone base in Agadez nears completion, U.S. presence in Niger continues to perplex Americans. That is, if they’re even aware of it. Last year, when four special operations soldiers were killed in an operation there, Americans were surprised that the United States even had forces in Niger. At first glance, the French military presence in Niger and throughout the Sahel is also puzzling. France may have colonial ties to the region, but countries don’t deploy militaries – risking casualties and draining economic resources – unless they’re pursuing current, not historic, interests. Surprising though U.S. and French military activity in Niger may be, they won’t be leaving the Sahel anytime soon – the threat of jihadist groups on Europe’s doorstep is untenable.
Niger’s strategic value to the United States and France is twofold. First, it is surrounded by other states with significant jihadist activity. To the west, in Mali, is a collection of al-Qaida affiliates such as Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen. To the south, in northeastern Nigeria, is Boko Haram. To the north, in Libya, are al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State, although the extent of the Islamic State’s territorial control has fluctuated throughout the Libyan civil war. In Algeria’s vast southern regions and throughout Burkina Faso, al-Qaida and other groups have also taken root.
Second, major transportation and trade routes that link sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa pass through Niger. One such route runs through Agadez, an important hub on the way north; another extends from eastern Mali through northern Niger along the Algerian border. These centuries-old routes directly connect the Sahel to North Africa, particularly Libya, which provides a launch point for jihadists, migrants and others trying to reach Europe through the Mediterranean.
Niger offers a chance for the United States and France to stem, or at least slow, the movement of Europe-bound militant jihadists before they reach Libya. Left neglected, the impoverished country and its ineffective government could fail to disrupt this traffic. Worse, jihadist groups could establish a broader, cohesive presence throughout Niger by pushing out the government or operating beyond the government’s limited reach.
This threat is posed not only by individual jihadist groups but by a possible confederation: With the regional proliferation of al-Qaida affiliates, these entities could band together to expand their territory and influence. As in Syria, the United States would not tolerate a unified, jihadist-controlled territory that would help these groups attack American interests around the globe by providing them a safe haven. After all, it was under the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan that al-Qaida planned its attacks on the World Trade Center.
Neither can France tolerate a territory that would connect Sahel-based jihadist groups to Europe via North Africa. Since 2014, Operation Barkhane, France’s counterterror initiative in the Sahel, has sought to establish a more permanent presence in the region and limit the northward movement of fighters by thwarting them at the source. And since 2012, France has suffered a rise in terrorist attacks, and French establishment parties have been increasingly challenged by nationalist, anti-immigration forces, leading to rising political division. These conditions make Niger an area of immediate strategic importance for France. French involvement there is more a product of these contemporary interests than it is a result of colonial ties.
Expanding U.S. Reach
For the U.S., its decision to open a drone base in Agadez is part of its efforts to create a bulwark in Niger to slow the flow of militants and arms across the Sahara. In the past, U.S. and French air forces have tried to achieve this goal by using the airport in Niamey, in southwest Niger. While this provides coverage in West Africa, including Burkina Faso and Mali, it cannot cover the full length of the transport routes through northern Niger to Libya.
With a base in Agadez, the United States can extend the reach of its air and ground forces. The United States will station MQ-9 drones, which have a 1,150-mile (1,850-kilometer) operational range, at Agadez. While MQ-9s can’t reach northeast Nigeria from Niamey, they can from Agadez. A base in Agadez also provides support for nearby French or U.S. special forces’ ground operations and drone coverage that can hit Saharan transit routes faster than flights from Niamey can. With bases at Agadez, Niamey and Dirkou, in northeastern Niger, the United States will have air coverage laterally from western Mali across Niger to N’Djamena in Chad, where Operation Barkhane is headquartered, and stretching up to Sabha in Libya, where several overland routes converge. The Agadez base also allows for more complete and rapid drone coverage of the entire Niger-Nigerian border, where Boko Haram has increased cross-border attacks.
U.S. and French efforts aren’t aimed at eliminating all terror groups in the Sahel. That would require a much larger commitment of forces than they are willing to make. As in the Horn of Africa, where the United States is battling al-Shabab, containment – by preventing unified jihadist control across a wider swath of territory – is really the goal here. Niger is a linchpin in this strategy. U.S. and French military presence in the region will therefore continue but will be limited to disrupting, rather than eliminating, jihadist organizations.