The American military presence in Niger is attracting increasing attention in the United States following an ambush that killed four American soldiers. The tone of President Donald Trump’s condolence call to the widow of one of the victims has become a major—if likely ephemeral—domestic political issue. Little appears to be known about the circumstances of the ambush. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has even threatened to hold up judicial nominees until he gets satisfactory answers from the Trump Administration. American officials have praised the response of the French military, who drove off the attackers, and the Department of Defense has sent a team to Niger to investigate. Despite the recent publicity, the U.S. military presence in the Sahel is relatively small, mostly comprising small units training local militaries.
As to the identity of the perpetrators, the usually well informed French media reported that the attack was likely carried out by the Islamic State of the Sahel, led by Adnan Abu Walid. Based on accounts by local witnesses, the attackers were light-skinned, spoke Arabic and Tamashek, and were unknown to local people. Tamashek is the language of the nomadic Tuareg people, who are also described as light-skinned.
Adnan Abu Walid is a prime example of the fluidity of adherence to various radical movements in the Sahel. At one point, he was the chief spokesman for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the groups that attempted to establish a radical jihadi state in Mali in 2012, with links to al-Qaeda. After the French drove the jihadists out of northern Mali’s cities, MUJAO and its jihadi partners went underground, far from defeated. In 2013, Abu Walid merged MUJAO with Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his followers. The consolidated movement was called al-Mourabitoun.
Belmokhtar is Algerian by birth, a smuggler who has become rich, not least through kidnapping Westerners and ransoming them. Notoriously he and his men took eight hundred hostages in 2013 at the Tigantourine Gas Facility in Algeria. They murdered thirty-nine of the captives before the Algerian military dislodged them. Belmokhtar’s operations and rhetoric indicate he continues to fight the Algerian state. He strategically married four Tuareg and Berber wives, thereby grounding himself among the local clans where he operates. Less is known about Abu Walid, including his nationality, but his rhetoric is directed at the destruction of the Kingdom of Morocco.
Belmokhtar and Abu Walid appear to have split in 2015 when the latter swore allegiance to the Islamic State. There are reports, not verified, that Belmokhtar tried unsuccessfully to kill Abu Walid. Local security services periodically report, with little credibility, that they have killed Belmokhtar (much like the numerous times Nigerian security services reportedly killed Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram).
Jihadis in the western Sahel appear to shift their ideological identities quite easily. Most of those who are prominent appear to be first and foremost smugglers and kidnappers, in addition to ideologues. Though bitterly divided, adherents to al-Qaeda (Belmokhtar), the Islamic State (Abu Walid), and others all appear to be hostile to state authority of any kind and to support the establishment of an Islamic state. To a greater or lesser extent, the sub-Saharan states in which they operate—Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso—are weak and dominated by elites that are unresponsive to their populations. In many cases, government authority hardly exists outside cities. Hence, without improved governance and responsiveness, these groups are likely to be around for a long time.
‘Sahel’ is the Arabic word for ‘shore,’ reflecting the sense that the Sahara is like an ocean. Like the ocean, it can be crossed, and has been by caravans for millennia. The preoccupations of Abu Walid and Belmokhtar are examples where events in North Africa, across the ‘ocean,’ can be influential in sub-Saharan, West Africa.