Killing of US troops in Niger underscores threat of jihadist attacks against foreign interests in Sahel region, including capital cities
Three US Special Forces troops and four Nigerien soldiers were killed on 4 October when they were ambushed by militants on a routine patrol near the town of Tongo Tongo, close to the border with Mali and around 190 km north of the capital Niamey. The deaths were the first in combat for US forces in the country, which are providing training, security assistance and intelligence support to the Nigerien Army.
A number of militant and jihadist groups are active in the region, particularly in northern and central Mali, and further north in the vast Sahel region. Indeed, four groups - Ansar al-Din (AaD), the AaD-affiliated Macina Liberation Front, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and the AQM-affiliated al-Murabitun - merged to form Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (JNIM) in March. We have previously warned that al-Qaeda-aligned groups would seek to target US and French interests in retaliation for both countries’ support for anti-jihadist activities in Niger (see our 21 October 2016 Report), and AQM and al-Murabitun have frequently targeted foreign interests in the region. AQM was therefore most likely responsible for the 4 October attack, possibly with the support of fighters from the broader JNIM movement.
Moreover, the incident follows the release of a recording by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in this period, in which he urged AQM to target US and French interests in the Sahel. AQM has become increasingly important for al-Qaeda’s central leadership in recent years, because its growing strength and ability to operate in new countries is vital to maintaining the movement’s global credibility. AQM and its regional affiliates will therefore look to sustain a regular tempo of violence across the region in the coming months.
AQM has demonstrated the ability to operate across Mali, including in Bamako, in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, and in Niger, including on the outskirts of Niamey. While the group and its affiliates will likely prioritise security targets in more remote areas, there is an ongoing risk of one-off attacks against Western interests in major urban centres throughout these countries. Meanwhile, Islamic State (via its Mali-based Greater Sahara affiliate) also has a presence in the region. The group has claimed few successful attacks, and most of these have been against security forces near the Mali-Burkina Faso frontier, but it also has the intent to target foreign interests. The threat of a jihadist attack against such interests in a major West African city will be somewhat limited by effective security and intelligence forces. However, any successful attack would likely strike soft targets, such as public spaces, or restaurants and hotels frequented by Westerners.