When many Americans woke up one morning in October to discover that two US Special Forces soldiers and one support soldier were killed in an ambush in Niger, they were incredulous.  Why are American troops in Niger?  How is Niger important to the United States strategically?  How could our highly trained Special Forces soldiers be killed in an ambush during what was supposed to be a low-risk mission?  This article will answer these questions in detail.

3rd Special Forces Group had been in Niger for years by 2017, and 10th Special Forces Group had been deploying there before them.  Historically, the land-locked African country was more of a French area of operations.  While the United States military has a global mandate, the French take a more localized approach, focusing on their former colonies in West Africa.  Some see this as a continuation of the French-Afrique relationship, a kind of unseemly mafia-like relationship between African states and their former colonial masters.  Be that as it may, the French Foreign Legion has been very active in this theater, combating Al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali while other French soldiers maintain a presence in nearby countries like Ghana and Senegal.

Many were shocked to learn that American Special Operations Forces were operating in Africa, but this is far from anything new.  JSOC’s Intelligence Support Activity (Task Force Orange) has been operating in Mali, drone programs known as Aztec Archer and Creek Sand had been implemented, SEAL Team Six operators were in and out of embassies around the continent not to mention executing direct action raids in Somalia.  Delta Force had been deployed to Libya on numerous occasions, as have Special Forces and MARSOC.  AFRICOM and SOC-Africa have had dozens of on-going train, advise, assist missions ongoing across Africa.

Why Niger?

The history of each West and Central African nation, and the history of Western military involvement there, is worthy of volumes so brevity will have to be used here, keeping the focus on the contemporary environment.  With a number of African nations facing a threat from Islamist groups, the United States military has deployed U.S. Special Forces to these countries to work in an advisory (non-combat) role.  3rd Group also deployed to Uganda, built strong relationships with the local military, and had some success in tracking down the whereabouts of one Joseph Kony, but without cross-border authority to go into the Central African Republic from AFRICOM (and ultimately the White House) there was no way that he was ever going to be captured.

In nearby Nigeria, the U.S. government wanted to send Green Berets to help fight Boko Haram, but due to war crimes (the Nigerian Army had a thing for executing prisoners) U.S. Special Forces were prohibited from joining the fray under the Leahy Amendment.  This opened the doors for the South Africans to serve as advisors instead, and Eeben Barlow of STTEP International helped facilitate this relationship.  Eventually, the U.S. government got what they wanted, pressured the Nigerians to get the South Africans out, and get U.S. Special Forces in.  Washington D.C. hates competition.

Niger became strategic to the Global War on Terror largely due to its location on the map in central Africa where it shares borders with Mali, Algeria, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Benin, and Burkina Faso.  Of those countries, Mali, Libya, and Nigeria have had extremely challenging Islamist threat groups active in recent years.  Algeria and Chad are not in great shape either.

One of the biggest problems with conflicts in Africa is that they happen irrespective of international borders, in other words, national boundaries are often completely ignored assuming the local population is even aware of them.  Because of this, problems in the surrounding countries greatly affect Niger.  Additionally, Niger has an at risk population when it comes to extremism due to various factors like mortality rates, poverty, a very young population, and other social issues making Niger ripe for exploitation by extremists.