On Thursday August 3, the military junta who took control of Niger at the end of July said they would cut military ties with their previous allies, the US and France. This could redefine the fight against the far-reaching jihadists groups in the region. Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24 Expert in Jihadist Groups, explains the impact this new policy could have.
To the consternation of France and the US, soldiers in Niger detained the country’s President Mohamed Bazoum at his home on July 26 and declared a coup. Despite this condemnation of the coup, they have not intervened. And the newly installed junta has made numerous diplomatic swipes against France and the US’s condemnation of the coup and scrapped its military pacts with France.
Niger is of particular strategic value to both the US and France, with both countries having a significant military presence in the West African nation. Over a thousand troops from each country are based there, deployed to help fight the surge in jihadist attacks in the region. US President Joe Biden’s administration sees the country as its best counterterrorism outpost in the unstable Sahel region. France promptly refused to withdraw its military, stating that only “legitimate” authorities were entitled to ask it to.
FRANCE 24’s Jihadist Group’s Expert Wassim Nasr explains the impacts of a potential end to military cooperation between Niger and its Western allies, France and the US.
FRANCE 24: On Thursday, Niger’s ambassador to the USA Kiari Liman-Tinguiri called on the junta to “come to reason” and warned that if Niger collapses, the “entire Sahel” region could fall to jihadists.
He went on to say jihadist groups could “control Africa from the coast to the Mediterranean” [and thus Europe].
Do you share his fears?
Wassim Nasr: I think that it is a bit of an exaggeration. But if Niger enters a phase of chaos, that will surely benefit jihadist groups.
We should define what “chaos” means in this context. One thing is certain, if the military junta stays in power, the policies implemented under President Mohamed Bazoum will unravel.
Supported on the ground by French and US forces, as well as an increasing number of drone purchases, the president waged a war against the terrorists militarily.
The multidimensional battles he fought against the jihadist groups was based on a three-pronged logic: “negotiate, develop, wage war”.
The government managed to conduct negotiations with al Qaeda and in parallel, pursued a policy of “jihadist demobilization”. Niger’s authorities “took” jihadist fighters and reintegrated them into local security forces, like in the Diffa and Tillaberi regions.
The government also implemented a development policy, specifically aimed at tackling land issues and agrarian reforms.
All these elements combined meant that, compared to neighbouring countries like Mali or Burkina Faso, Niger saw far fewer attacks and deaths brought on by jihadist groups. If these multidimensional efforts come to an end, security will certainly deteriorate.
But the policies already belong to the past. Military cooperation with France ended as soon as the junta claimed power, making room for jihadist groups [in the region]. And they could choose to follow the same path Burkina Faso or Mali’s junta took, a “fully military” approach with all of the acts of violence against civilians that come with it. That violence makes it mathematically easier for jihadist groups to recruit members. Bereaved by the army, civilians become driven by a desire for revenge.
What about the potential spread of jihadist groups in the region Liam-Tinguiri alluded to?
Beyond Niger, the Islamic State group (IS group) could benefit from the crisis by establishing a corridor between Lake Chad and the Sahel region. It would facilitate the transit of military commanders, fighters and jihadist recruits, who could replenish the ranks of the IS group in the Sahel.
Al Qaeda has been standing in the way of the IS group. The two are in conflict, particularly in the three border regions [Edit: between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger].
But if the Islamic State group becomes stronger and was to gain the upper hand over al Qaeda, the doors to countries in the Gulf of Guinea would open.
If Russia’s Wagner group admit they are present in Niger, what consequences would this have?
On the ground, the Wagner group doesn’t contribute much security-wise to the junta. In the fight against jihadist groups, Niamey had no better allies than France and the US. The Russians are not efficient in that regard.
The case in Mali bears witness to this (when in 2022, French troops gradually left the country, leaving room for Russian mercenaries to take over). For the past year and a half, jihadist attacks have multiplied in the country and the IS group now has a sanctuary there. It even benefits from a no-fly zone that protects jihadist groups.
For the junta in Niger on the other hand, the drive to gain support from Wagner is political, as they need allies to stay in power. The Wagner group is not Russia, but since it works in Moscow’s interests, it’s associated with the Kremlin.
This vague relationship poses a political dilemma for France, who is asking itself: “Should we strike Wagner or not?” For the junta, the mercenary group acts as a shield against foreign intervention and strengthens them in relation to their rivals inside the country.
The US army has a drone base in northern Niger, in Agadez. If it shuts down, what consequences would that have?
The drone base is a fundamental factor. Let’s not forget that it is now impossible for a foreign presence to stay in Niger without the consent of the junta. From their point of view, tolerating a US presence would be tantamount to accepting the current situation. That is why keeping the drone base doesn’t seem like a plausible outcome [for the Junta].
Washington and Paris are fully aware of the importance of this local security bolt hole. If it breaks, others will follow.
This US drone base may be based in Niger, but it doesn’t concern the country so much as the region as a whole. It covers the entire Sahel.