West Africa: Biden Administration Responds to the Collapse of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy in Niger

Washington, DC — For two months after the coup in Niger on 26 July 2023, the Biden administration refrained from calling or chose not to call it a “coup” because that would have triggered American legislation that would have required it to suspend security cooperation and most other forms of assistance to the junta.

It hoped that by maintaining relations with the junta, it could make a deal with them to permit 1,100 US troops to remain at two Nigerien military bases (at Niamey and the drone operation facility constructed by the United States at a cost of some $110 million at Agadez).

On 10 October 2023, after two months of frustration, the Biden administration declared that there had been a coup and the legislation took effect.  To date, the junta has not taken any action regarding the presence of US troops.  Some US personnel have been withdrawn from Niger and the remaining troops have been consolidated in Agadez.  They continue to conduct drone surveillance and reconnaissance flights, but only to monitor threats to their own security, which means they are no longer conduction useful counterterrorism operations in the Sahel.

However, the Biden administration has not given up on its strategy of relying on military force to create security, build democratic institutions, and establish political stability in the Sahel and other parts of Africa.  Instead, it has decided to doubled down on this strategy by escalating or expanding US military operations in Africa and strengthening US security relationships or cooperation with political leaders and military officers in Nigeria (current chair of ECOWAS), Ghana, Senegal, Chad, and other key African partners or proxies.  And it keeps trying to reach an agreement with the junta that will allow it to keep American troops based in the country and to resume military cooperation with Niger.

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on “Instability in the Sahel and West Africa: Implications for U.S. Policy,” on 24 October 2023, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee  declared that there’s also a significant risk that violent extremist organizations might expand their influence or capabilities in the region.  “The coups that have occurred recently in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and now Niger,” she said, “illustrate the democratic regression that threatens not only the people of the Sahel but their neighbors and our partners in coastal west Africa.”

In the case of Niger, Phee testified, “we are working with the regional organization ECOWAS.  The African Union and Africa’s regional economic commissions are essential partners in advancing democracy and peace.  That is why – although we promptly paused the majority of U.S. assistance for Niger after the coup – we delayed at the request of our African partners the formal assessment that the outcome constituted a coup while they sought to restore President Bazoum to office.  Acting Deputy Toria Nuland traveled to Niamey in August to try and convince the generals to restore constitutional order.  I later traveled to west Africa to consult on how to engage a quick and credible restoration of democratic rule.  Secretary Blinken met with ECOWAS Foreign Ministers at the recent UN General Assembly to propose a phased approach to resuming U.S. assistance based on concrete actions to return the country to democratic rule.”

On 3 December 2023, Kathleen FitzGibbon, the newly-appointed US Ambassador handed her credentials to the foreign ministry in Niamey, Niger.  Ms. FitzGibbon formerly served as Division Chief, West and Southern Africa, and then as Director of the Office of Africa Analysis, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, at the State Department in Washington, DC.

On 4 December 2023, the U.S. Special Operations Command Africa began a weeklong conference on counterterrorism in Africa, called “Silent Warrior ’23” and held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.  The conference involved military officers from more than twenty African countries and over a dozen other nations with interests on the continent.  According to a story on the conference in Stars and Stripes, “at the top of the agenda were deep dives into the major extremist threats in Africa: al-Shabab in Somalia, affiliates of ISIS and al-Qaida in the Sahel, and ISIS in Mozambique.”  In his opening statement to the conference, General Michael Langley, commander of Africom, didn’t directly address the situation in Niger, according to the story; but he alluded to it when he stressed the need for militaries to respect civilian authority.  “Good governance is a key to countering violent extremist organizations,” General Langley said.  “Yes, we’ve had some challenges across the continent . . . We know that civilian government, they’re the boss.  We [the military] execute the missions.”

On 5 December 2023, Celeste Wallander, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, testified before the Africa subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a hearing on “The Sahel in Crisis:  Examining U.S. Policy Options.”  According to Wallander , “In the short and medium term, we will support African-led counterterrorism operations to disrupt the most acute threats, with a particular emphasis on those targeting U.S. interests.  In the long term, we will emphasize bilateral security assistance to African defense and security forces in order to build their own homegrown capacity to counter these threats without extensive external assistance.”

She noted that military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have resulted in restrictions on military cooperation, led to increased attacks by jihadists, and opened the way for greater Russian influence and military involvement.  “Violent extremist organizations thrive in areas of instability and seek to leverage that instability for their own ends, as evidenced by the attacks we’ve seen in Niger since the coup,” she said.

“Given this elevated threat environment, the Department of Defense is committed to working with our interagency partners to continue to monitor and disrupt the violent extremist organization threats, while constructively engaging with regional states to restore productive, democratic governance in those countries,” Wallander said.  “In doing so, we are consistently working to strike a balance between offering the practical assistance that our African partners need to face emerging threats, while reinforcing our professional values to help them build strong, resilient institutions that will reinforce not only their physical security, but their democratic stability.”

The Pentagon’s requirement “to monitor indications and warnings of violent extremist organization activity in the Sahel has not changed,” she insisted.  “For the last ten years, our posture in Niger has proven critical to this effort.  Moving forward, we have worked side by side with the Department of State and other interagency partners to define conditions for restoring our activities and operations in Niger.  Nigerian officials must quickly and credibly transition back to democratically elected, civilian led government.”

Testifying at the same hearing, Phee noted the threat that violent extremist violence posed to the countries of coastal west Africa, “including Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo.”

On 6 December 2023, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, met with Nigerian Minister of Defense Mohammed Badaru Abubakar and Ghanaian Minister of Foreign Affairs Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey in New York City, New York to discuss UN peacekeeping operations in Mali and Sudan, and the coup in Niger.

On 7 December 2023, she gave an interview to Thomas Naadi of BBC News in Accra, Ghana.  When he asked her if the US was “now recognizing the military junta in Niger as the legitimate authority?” she said “Look, what we’re trying to do is get to a solution that will shorten the transition back to civilian government.  So, we’re engaging with this military [in Niger] to put pressure on them and to urge that they return to a civilian government.  We’re also working closely with our regional partners.  We’re working with ECOWAS.”  And, she went on to announce “we’re working to find new ways of providing support, new ways of providing training and equipment to governments on this continent, and particularly in this region.”

Also on 7 December 2023, President Biden sent a Letter to the Speaker f the House of Representatives and President pro tempore of the Senate regarding the War Powers Report, to inform them about deployments of US military forces equipped for combat, including operations in Somalia, Kenya, and Djibouti, in the East Africa Region, and in Niger and other countries in the Lake Chad Basin and Sahel Region.  The administration, Biden stated, “continues to work with partners around the globe, with a particular focus on the United States Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.  In this context, the United States has deployed forces to conduct counterterrorism operations and to advise, assist, and accompany security forces of select foreign partners on counterterrorism operations.”

In the East Africa Region, the letter stated:
“United States Armed Forces continue to counter the terrorist threat posed by ISIS and al-Shabaab, an associated force of al-Qa’ida.  Since the last periodic report, United States Armed Forces have conducted a number of airstrikes in Somalia against al-Shabaab in defense of our Somali partner forces.  United States Armed Forces remain prepared to conduct airstrikes in Somalia against ISIS and al-Shabaab terrorists.  United States military personnel conduct periodic engagements in Somalia to train, advise, and assist regional forces, including Somali and African Union Transition Mission in Somalia forces, in connection with counterterrorism operations.  United States military personnel are deployed to Kenya to support counterterrorism operations in East Africa.  United States military personnel continue to partner with the Government of Djibouti, which has permitted use of Djiboutian territory for basing of United States Armed Forces.  United States military personnel remain deployed to Djibouti, including for purposes of staging for counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and to provide contingency support for embassy security augmentation in East Africa, as necessary.”

And in the Lake Chad Basin and Sahel Region”
“United States military personnel in the Lake Chad Basin and Sahel Region continue to conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations and to provide support to African and European partners conducting counterterrorism operations in the region, including by advising, assisting, and accompanying these partner forces.  Approximately 648 United States military personnel remain deployed to Niger.”

In fact, according to Africom , force levels are holding steady at about 1,000 American military personnel in Niger.  This includes both uniformed service members and military-affiliated civilians.