Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part investigative series on U.S. and French counterterrorism efforts in Niger. Part I examines Niger’s emergence as a target of terrorist groups active in the Sahel region. Part II will examine the growing U.S. security presence in Niger, and the nascent tensions with France over how best to counter terror and bolster Niger’s security.
Though much has been made of Niger’s recent ascendance as a key U.S. ally in the Sahel region, the country had already begun to distinguish itself as a useful counterterrorism ally in Department of Defense circles as early as 2006. However, political issues, namely a constitutional crisis in 2009 and a military coup in 2010, complicated the relationship. Once elections were held and Niger’s democracy was restored in 2011, the U.S. was eager to “re-normalize” relations and expand cooperation.
Further impetus to deepen security ties was added by the fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011—which drove an estimated 200,000 Nigeriens living in Libya, many of whom were armed fighters, back to Niger—as well as the ensuing collapse of Mali in 2012.
The U.S. and Niger signed a status of forces agreement, which had been in the works since 2007, in January 2013, after which U.S. military activities in the country significantly increased.
In February, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would be sending about 100 troops to Niger. Their mission, according to a U.S. Africa Command spokesperson reached by email, is to provide support “for intelligence collection and facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali.”
However, one U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested the number of U.S. military personnel, some of whom might be contractors, is “almost certainly” higher than 100. Several sources, including Nigeriens and outside analysts in Niger, described the U.S. military presence as “palpable,” “very visible” and “obvious.” In February, the U.S. also began flying an unspecified number of unarmed Predator drones out of the national airport in the capital, Niamey.
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