Special Operations Fights Radical Jihadists in Africa


The fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, get all the attention, but American service members are still on patrol all around the globe. The nation was reminded of that last week when the Department of Defense announced that three members of a 12-man Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (shortened to ODA, and better know as an “A-Team”) were killed in an ambush in Niger. The Pentagon did not originally disclose that a fourth Green Beret was missing in action, but announced Saturday that his body was found Friday near the scene.

The special operators, from the 3rd Special Forces Group of Fort Bragg, N.C., had been providing training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces (shortened to FAN, from the French “Forces Armees Nigeriennes”) “in their efforts to counter violent extremist organizations in the region,” according to U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

Their combined unit was ambushed by jihadists in the country’s southwest region, near the border with Mali. Niger, whose population is 80 percent Muslim, faces threats from al Qaeda-linked militants from Mali to its west, and from Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria to its south. The CIA World Fact Book notes that more than 60,000 refugees from Mali are living in Niger, whose $1,100 GDP per capita is the seventh-lowest in the world.

Can you place it on a map?

Most Americans probably confuse Niger (pronounced “nee-ZHER”) and Nigeria (pronounced “nye-GEER-ee-ya”). Americans’ knowledge of African geography isn’t the best; even the president got confused when he tweeted about “Nambia,” when presumably he meant “Namibia.” Niger was a French colony in the first half of the 20th Century, gaining independence in 1960, and French remains the official language.

While the country is landlocked and most of its area is part of the southern Sahara Desert, it is nonetheless important. U.S. interest and involvement in the nation’s security is nothing new.

poor, unstable, but rich in uranium

Those paying attention may remember the controversy surrounding President Bush’s assertion in his 2006 State of the Union address that Iraq had been trying to purchase uranium from somewhere in Africa. That somewhere was Niger, which the nuclear industry’s international trade association, the World Nuclear Association, says is the world’s fourth-largest supplier of uranium. Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s much-discussed trip to Niger to investigate the claims was arranged by his wife, the now-outed CIA operative Valerie Plame.

If Niger is to become a stable country, the time to work on that is now. The country was ruled by a military strongman until 1991. Several coups and counter-coups have happened since then, and the government is as crippled by poverty as the people. To add to that, the country’s 44.2 births per 1,000 people equates to almost seven children for every woman of child-bearing age. That places Niger is a first-place tie with Angola for the highest fertility rate in the world. Consequently, the median age is 15.3 years old, and 49 percent of the population is younger than 15. Only slightly fewer than six percent of the population is age 55 or older.

Buying those 9.4 million Nigerien children some stability and preventing them from becoming radicalized by the jihadist insurgencies raging around them, is rightfully a priority for the United States.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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