US Counterterrorism Assistance in Niger

–by Jake Maloley–

Executive Summary

The West has long been in the business of “helping” the less fortunate, and, in particular, Africa. Whether through humanitarian assistance, counterinsurgency operations, or mission work, history has shown that there is no shortage of Western and American “help”. The Sahel region of Africa, and, in particular, Niger, has been at war with Boko Haram in some capacity since its formation in Nigeria in 2002. Since 2014, Niger has been at war with the “terror organization”, but has not been alone in its fight with Boko Haram. Whether through training of Nigerien soldiers, medical aid, or direct counterinsurgency operations, the United States has sought to “help” the Nigerien cause. This paper will provide a brief overview and history of Boko Haram, will examine Niger’s conflict with the organization, and will analyze the counterinsurgency assistance of the United States in Niger and will discuss the implications of such “aid” and its overall effectiveness.


Since the falling of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, the United States of America has been constantly battling in the “War on Terror”. As President George W. Bush stated following the attack of September 11th, the War “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”[1] Though Al Qaeda operatives carried out the attack, the attention of the United States was focused not solely on the terror organization, but also on any affiliates and those that would carry out attacks under the same ideology. Since the 19th century on, Africa has been the epicenter for Americans and Europeans alike to provide aid and “help”. From Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), to missionary work, to humanitarian aid, and counterterrorism efforts, Africa has been stuck in a seemingly continuous cycle of having its needs determined by outsiders. While there certainly is some benefit to those with helping those without, the danger comes not necessarily in the aid given, but rather in the loss of agency when a specific people(s) no longer get to determine what is best for themselves. As early as 1998, “Africa has attracted special interest from the United States” in part “because of its early links to transnational Islamic terrorism.”[2] Though interest had been in place before the attacks of September 11th, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2002,[3] and newly minted American resolve to combat terror around the globe, paved the way for the “helping hand” of the West to come to the assistance of the “poor” Africans in need. The United States has long been active in Niger; “American troops have been involved in training and equipping the country’s military since 2002.”[4] However, the “jihadi occupation of northern Mali”[5] sparked American interest in Niger, and in 2011, the United States Marine Corps began a new campaign to train Nigerien troops in order to “increase the capabilities of Africa’s Sahel region and stem the flow of illicit arms, goods, and terrorists in the area.”[6]  Though the US military has set its aim on helping the Nigerien people combat terror cells in the Sahel region of Africa, the overall effect has been both a self-serving effort disguised as “help”, and an initiative that has brought about little progress in ending Niger’s war.

Boko Haram

Following September 11th, 2001, Al Qaeda took center stage as the enemy of the United States. The “War on Terror” was the new slogan prevalent across every media platform. Al Qaeda, however, would prove not to be the sole “terror organization” that would make appearances on nightly, American news. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram, loosely translated as “Western education is forbidden”[7], would initially prove to be an ally to Al Qaeda, being similar in ideology and goal. Though the group was born in the Borno state of Nigeria, their distaste for the “morally corrupt”, Western education system that was “at the core of the inequality, repression, domination and exploitation that characterised colonialism”[8] was not focused solely on Nigeria, but the entire Sahel region of Africa. In the eyes of Boko Haram, only the “ethnic elite” would ever have access to the schools “that enabled commercial and professional career advancement and access to power.”[9]  Like most “terror cells”, Boko Haram recruited and drew strength from those that were left “unemployed and impoverished” by the government, and blamed Western democracy and education “as the wellspring of corruption and social ills.”[10] Following local run-ins with police in 2009, Boko Haram’s leader, Yusuf Mohammed, was captured and subsequently executed. After a nearly two-year period of relative inactivity, Boko Haram emerged once again in 2011 under new leadership. Having transformed from “the remnants of a radical sect to a fully-fledged terrorist group”, the organization “began to wage the bloody insurgency” that would come to define their reign, taking “the lives of thousands of civilians”.[11]

Niger and Boko Haram

With the resurgence of an increasingly violent Boko Haram in 2011, and the birthplace of the organization just south of Niger’s border, the nation faced a “growing terrorist threat.”[12] Because the United States had declared its global “War on Terror”, it was only a matter of time before United States’ involvement in Nigerien matters would be set in motion. Nigerien President Issoufou has been a steady ally of the West, and continues to voice his support for democracy and US involvement in Nigerien counterinsurgency matters.[13] Much like the United States’ “War on Terror”, Niger’s war against Boko Haram was thought to be “a short war against people who [President] Issoufou described as “‘amateurs’.”[14]  Once again mimicking the United States’ involvement in the Middle East, the war against Boko Haram has proven to be a lasting conflict, completely void of brevity. Niger’s first actions against Boko Haram consisted of surveillance on target areas, and close monitoring of preachers.[15]  At the onset of countermeasures against Boko Haram, Nigerien “authorities viewed Boko Haram as a Nigerian problem” that did not pose “a direct threat” to Niger, though actions need be taken to “monitor its impact on Nigerien soil.”[16]  Prior to 2014, Nigerien authorities had believed that Boko Haram would not directly interfere in Nigerien affairs, but they feared the ripple effect of activity outside Niger’s borders would eventually result in negative consequences for the nation. The belief of senior Nigerien military officials was that it would be in Niger’s best interest to remain neutral in the “Nigerian conflict”, and that “public order” and surveillance was the best way to avoid direct conflict.[17]  However, remaining neutral in the conflict would prove to be futile. Niger decided to go to war against Boko Haram in 2014 because of pressure from outside nations, and the increasing presence of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.[18]  With the organization showing no signs of stopping, Boko Haram now posed a direct threat to Niger. With Boko Haram increasing recruiting efforts in the Diffa region of Niger, the government launched a defensive campaign in June of 2014 in order to “strengthen its military position on the border with Nigeria and gather intelligence.”[19]  The increased mobilization of Nigerien troops and the ensuing armed conflict “escalated”, but by 2015 “operations ended in a stalemate.”[20]  With the war coming to a halt, the Nigerien government once again made an effort to increase monitoring and surveillance in order to keep the violence to a minimum. The Nigerien government had given the green light for the creation of “vigilante committees”, with their role being not to engage in direct combat, but rather “to monitor the movements of combatants and try to prevent surprise attacks.”[21]  A stalemate, however, is not victory, and Boko Haram is still alive and well. Niger’s ongoing fight with Boko Haram and its apparent “need” for outside help is a recipe for one thing: US Intervention.

The Fourth Generational Battle

Having long played the role of “world police”, the United States has set out to aid the Sahel region through various forms of intervention. Looking specifically to Niger, the United States has designated troops to train Nigerien soldiers in the art of warfare. Much like Operation Iraqi Freedom, or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Boko Haram operates on the principles of 4th generational warfare. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 gave the state a monopoly on war fighting, launching the “line-and-column tactics” of the first generation of warfare. [22]  The second generation of warfare began with the advent of artillery; this generation sought to fight wars of attrition, relying on “mass firepower”.[23]  Third generational warfare, the likes of which can be seen in World War II, was now focused not on fighting a war of attrition, but rather on “speed, surprise, and mental as well as physical dislocation.”[24]  The fourth generation of warfare, exemplified by the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, is the most “radical change” in war fighting “since the Peace of Westphalia.”[25]  In fourth generational warfare, the “state loses its monopoly on war.”[26] In this fourth generation, militant groups and insurgencies run rampant, waging war against state actors across the globe. From Al Qaeda, to Hezbollah, to Boko Haram in Africa, with insurgents having no legitimate ties to one state, but rather to an ideology, combatting these new threats has proven to be increasingly difficult.

US Intervention

The United States first presented itself on the scene in Niger in 2002,[27]  with the primary mission at the onset of the occupation being the training and equipping of Nigerien forces. According to the US Department of State, the presence of the United States in Niger continues to play a “critical role in preserving stability” in a nation that is “political volatility”, and at constant threat from “terrorism and the spread of violent extremism, food insecurity, and regional instability.”[28]  In addition, the United States has allocated $437 million dollars to help improve “water availability, roads, and market access” within Niger.[29]  On the military side, the United States has been steadily growing its force in Niger for quite some time. Reuters reports that in 2013, under the order of President Barack Obama, the United States sent an additional 100 US military personnel to Niger in order to “provide support for intelligence collection”[30] and aid to the security of the Nigerien state. In January of 2013, the United States and Niger signed a “Status of Forces Agreement” which would serve to govern “American troops in the country, paving the way for sending unarmed drones and military personnel.”[31] As a result, clearance was given “for U.S. surveillance drones to be stationed” on Nigerien military bases “to improve intelligence on al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters.”[32]  With US assistance, Niger has the manpower, the equipment, and the intelligence to wage war on Boko Haram.

Results of US Intervention

With so much aid being allocated to the Nigerien war, one would expect the war on Boko Haram to be coming to a close. Though the terror organization has certainly had its setbacks and defeats, there is still a strong and looming presence within the Sahel region, keeping Niger in a constant state of danger. “Boko Haram combatants still cross the border freely to extort money from villagers and attack military positions, such as at Gues­ke­rou in 20 January 2017.” In many, rural areas, “the population is ‘caught in the crossfire’”, living in “fear of attacks by Boko Haram.”[33] While the United States has been a powerful friend to the Nigerien government, there is little evidence that the war against Boko Haram is coming to a close. The fault, however, cannot be placed solely on the United States. The nature of fourth generational war fighting entities is manipulative and unpredictable. Insurgencies like Boko Haram seek to implement their ideology on the surrounding territories, but with no allegiance to any one state, the sole necessity for the organization to survive is to keep the ideology implemented in the hearts and minds of its subscripts. Greatly decentralized, but well-connected, Boko Haram cannot be defeated through military means alone.


In order make progress and truly assist Niger’s war against Boko Haram, military might need be only one piece of the counterinsurgent pie. The “unemployed and impoverished” were the first to join Boko Haram under Yusuf Mohammed’s rule, and the destitute and uneducated will continue to be Boko Haram’s primary source of troops.[34]  In order to effectively combat Boko Haram in Niger, the United States must shift its assistance from a primarily militarily focused effort, to one that includes employment and education opportunities to all, rather than the “elite” that Yusuf Mohammed so opposed. A focus must be placed on reviving areas in which economic hardship has left the people in need of employment. Rather than being run as a “security state”, government need provide “services, an economy that creates employment, as well as the rule of law and a reinforced democratic system.”[35] Perhaps the most vital aspect of all when it comes to aid, is a listening ear. In order to truly create a lasting change, and to truly help those in need, the United States need listen to the needs of the Nigeriens themselves. United States Marines on a short deployment to Niger cannot fully understand the weight of living in such dangerous times, and cannot determine the needs of the masses on their own. A comprehensive reform based around the agency and voice of the Nigerien people will bring about a lasting change.


The West has long been involved in humanitarian, mission, and other forms of aid to those they deem “needy”. The counterinsurgency measures taken by the United States in Niger are the latest of these “helpful” measures. With international attention placed on Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the 2001 attack in New York City, the United States launched its “global war on terror”, seeking to punish and destroy those that would seek to do the United States harm. The Sahel region of Africa has been at war with Boko Haram since its birth in 2002, and Niger has been continuously placed in the crossfires. Though the nation declared war on the organization in 2014, there has not been a dramatic improvement in Niger’s war to date. The United States’ occupation of Niger has been, of course, justified through the traditional patriotic mantra that US military personnel were placed to “defend America…to help allies…to prevent another platform to attack America and our allies.”[36] The problem in this, however, is the use of Niger as a stepping stone to achieve American objectives to protect “weak and failing states [that] could become havens for terrorists.”[37]  While the Nigerien military has certainly been better trained and equipped under American oversight, and civil improvements have been put in place through monetary funding, the lack of legitimate concern for the nation cannot allow real, lasting help to take hold. Needs must be decided by those in need, and help must be sustainable and lasting. Niger’s war on terror is no closer to a close than it was before American intervention, but the foundation has been laid for lasting improvement to take place.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.

Works Cited

Bush, George W. “Text of George Bush’s Speech.” The Guardian, Guardian News and

Media, 21 Sept. 2001,



Buchanan-Clarke, Stephen, and Peter Knoope. “Nigeria: Northern Discontent

and the History of Boko Haram.” Africa Portal, Brookings Institution, 2 Oct.




CPL Lameen Witter, “U.S. Marines Start Training in Niger, ” Marine Forces Europe

Public Affairs Release, August 26, 2011.



International Crisis Group, “Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-Insurgency”, 27

Feb. 2017,



International Crisis Group, “Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?”, 18 Aug.




Lebovich, Andrew. “The Real Reason U.S. Troops Are in Niger.” Foreign Policy,

Foreign Policy, 27 Oct. 2017,



Lind, William S. Understanding Fourth Generation War, Military Review, 2004,


Piombo, Jessica R. “Terrorism and U.S. Counter-Terrorism Programs in Africa: An

Overview.” Strategic Insights, vol. VI, no. 1, Jan. 2007.



United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “Strengthening Capacity to Counter

Terrorism in Nigeria”,



“U.S. Military Personnel Arrive in Niger: Obama in Letter to Congress.” Reuters,

Thomson Reuters, 22 Feb. 2013,




“U.S. Relations with Niger.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State,

14 May 2018,


Thurston, Alex. “Niger’s Issoufou Is Everything the West Wants in an African

Leader.” World Politics Review, World Politics Review, 12 Sept. 2017,



“Who Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist Group?” BBC News, BBC, 24 Nov. 2016,

[1] George W. Bush, “Text of George Bush’s Speech”, 21 Sept. 2001

[2] Jessica Piombo, “Terrorism and U.S. Counter-Terrorism Programs in Africa: An Overview.”, Jan 2007.

[3] BBC, “Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist Group?”, 24 Nov 2016.

[4] Andrew Lebovich, “The Real Reason U.S. Troops are in Niger”, 27 Oct. 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] CPL Lameen Witter, “U.S. Marines Start Training in Niger, ” 26 Aug 2011.

[7] Stephen Buchanan-Clarke and Peter Knoope, “Nigeria: Northern Discontent and the History of Boko Haram.”, 02 Oct 2017.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Strengthening Capacity to Counter Terrorism in Nigeria”.

[13] Alex Thurston, “Niger’s Issoufou Is Everything the West Wants in an African Leader”, 12 Sept 2017.

[14] International Crisis Group, “Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-Insurgency”, 27 Feb 2017.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] William S. Lind, “Understanding Fourth Generation War”, Sept 2004.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Lebovich, “The Real Reason U.S. Troops are in Niger”.

[28] US Department of State, “U.S. Relations with Niger”, 14 May 2018.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Reuters, “U.S. Military Personnel Arrive in Niger: Obama in Letter to Congress”, 22 Feb 2013.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] International Crisis Group, “Niger and Boko Haram”.

[34] Buchanan-Clarke and Knoope, “Nigeria: Northern Discontent”.

[35] International Crisis Group, “Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?”, 18 Aug 2016.

[36] Lebovich, “The Real Reason U.S. Troops are in Niger”.

[37] Ibid.

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