March 22, 2024

IntelBrief: Niger: The Inevitable Revocation

AP Photo/Carley Petesch, File

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Niger’s revocation of its defense agreement with the United States points to the geopolitical miscalculations of Western states in the Sahel.
  • Pivots by juntas in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso from the West towards Russia shows that political security provides a more reliable indicator of Sahelian government decision making than counterterrorism objectives or historical grievances.
  • Ten years after benefitting from the regional surge of Shia militias to fight Islamic State, Iran is now apparently seeking Niger’s uranium, according to the United States.
  • Without French and U.S. support, Sahelian militaries have proven ineffective in their fights against jihadist groups.

After months of negotiations, Niger has revoked its 14-year-old defense agreement with the United States. Leading up to the decision, Washington committed the same mistake that France did in Mali, and to a lesser extent, in Burkina Faso. Strategically blinded by the counterterrorism (CT) objectives it shared with Niger, the United States incorrectly assessed that, because its government was nor burdened by the colonial history of its French ally, Niamey might be willing to continue relying on the U.S. military following the departure of French military forces from the country. These developments show that the United States, France, or any European country that still has military assets in Niger must reassess the new geopolitical dynamics of the Sahel and realize that CT and historical grievances are not the sole issues guiding the region’s juntas. For these unelected governments, international partnerships are based on securing their undemocratically acquired power. Russia is now extending its influence in the region and jihadi factions are consolidating their grip on vast territories through Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger after five years of bloody interjihadi war. Ten years after benefitting from the regional surge of Shia militias to fight Islamic State, Iran is now apparently seeking Niger’s uranium, according to a U.S. delegation that recently visited the African state.

After pulling off successive coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, juntas led by Assimi Goïta and Ibrahim Traoré, respectively, revoked defense agreements with France and aligned with Russia. The Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group arrived in Mali on December 2021, hasting the departure of French forces in 2022 and of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) in 2023. In Burkina Faso, Traoré tried to involve France and the United States in arming and financing the “Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie” (also known as the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland, or VDP) militia before completely turning towards Moscow. In July 2023, Niger’s junta followed the same path as its neighbors by reassuring its Western partners before turning the local inhabitants of Niamey against the French presence and revoking defense agreements with Paris, leading to the full departure of French forces from the country last December. France declined to militarily restore the rule of Niger’s deposed, elected President Mohamed Bazoum, mainly because of U.S. opposition and France’s unwillingness to conduct such a mission without international partnerships.

Days after the coup, Niamey’s new rulers made contact with Wagner in the Malian capital of Bamako. A few weeks later, an official Russian diplomatic and military delegation met a Nigerien delegation led by General Salifou Mody in the Malian capital on the same day that witnessed the United States resumed military activity in Niger. This marked a clear act of defiance, or at least a lack of consideration, by the new junta for its American partners. According to a knowledgeable local figure, “since that day, the new ruling junta was waiting for an opportunity to push U.S. forces out of the country, as [doing so] was the prerogative for any Russian direct or indirect involvement”. While the internal dynamics of the five coups were quite different, each junta attempted to justify its seizure of power by pointing to the country’s deteriorating security situation. However, unlike its anti-Western neighbors, prior to its coup, Niger had adopted a broad CT approach that had been bearing fruit. This delicate progress – the result of combining direct and backchannel negotiations, demobilization of militants, and military firepower – was cut short by the coup, as happened in Burkina Faso after its 2014 coup.

Since then, Malian armed forces killed an negotiator from the historic Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP) stronghold of Inarabane and arrested a prominent religious figure who served as a key negotiator with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaa’t Nousra’t al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), who later died in prison. While Niger tried, without any notable success, to reactivate the negotiation channels created under President Bazoum, local sources say that “some demobilized jihadis are still roaming the desert not knowing whom to turn to.” Like Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger is creating local militias in areas of jihadist activity. Poorly equipped and untrained, civilians enrolled in these militias are regularly massacred in their own villages by ISSP and its rival JNIM. Sahelian militaries have become inefficient without French and U.S. support, especially as Nigerien pilots have flown missions to support Mali's war against Tuareg rebel using air assets donated to Niger by the United States. Even after the United States renewed its policy to work with the junta and enhance on-the-ground cooperation, this did not prevent the defense agreement from being revoked.

The number of attacks by both JNIM and ISSP has increased in Niger since the coup. Nevertheless, the junta still seems to be benefiting from the policy dividends of the Bazoum government, in contrast to the chaotic situations in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. In Niger, both JNIM and ISSP are trying to acquire as much territory as possible before they are forced to face off with one another. In Mali and Burkina Faso, the government has lost significant territorial control, leading to the expansion of JNIM and the ISSP’s territorial consolidation in Ménaka, where the group has fought local factions, the Malian army, and JNIM. ISSP has imposed a siege on Ménaka, while the region is under siege by JNIM as it seeks to deprive ISSP of access to goods and of any financial benefit granted by the region’s economic activity.

JNIM’s commanders appear to be concentrating their efforts on military targets, while the group positions itself as “the defender of the oppressed” against the unchecked abuses of local armies, militias, and Russian mercenaries. ISSP has concentrated on administrating the Malian Ménaka region, and has succeeded in creating a sanctuary on the region between the shared borders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. JNIM and AQIM have issued public statements framing their war as being against France both in the Sahel and Africa more broadly. The head of JNIM, Iyad Ag Ghali, has also made his first recorded video appearance since 2017 focusing on fighting African juntas and the Russians. In the absence of permanent military forces and government territorial control, local populations have been forced to choose a side in the jihadist rivalry.

Despite daily victorious communiqués, CT has fallen behind the juntas’ other priorities. The biggest military effort conducted by the Malian, coordinated with Russian mercenaries, targeted territories held by northern Tuareg rebel factions. The success of the joint military campaign materialized with the takeover of Kidal, marking political success for the Malian junta. One source claimed that “the loss of Kidal will open the eyes of local populations [to] the division among factions and drag them to join jihadi ranks”. A few weeks after that comment, a prominent Arab rebel leader and former Malian National Guard colonel joined the ranks of JNIM.

The endgame for the Sahel’s new juntas is to hold on to power, an objective that Russia is willing and obviously capable to grant at a politically, diplomatically, and militarily low costs. Other African countries like Chad could turn to Russia, even without instigating a coup, for the same purpose. In the wake of the ongoing war in Gaza, the evolution of the Iraqi and Syrian landscapes with the prominence of Shia militias once partners in the "war on terror" should remind Western government decision makers that regional powers and local actors have other priorities besides the West’s CT objectives.

Wassim Nasr is a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center, focusing on jihadist dynamics in the Middle East and Africa and European responses. He is a French journalist who has been monitoring jihadist groups for more than a decade for the French news outlet France24 in French, English, and Arabic. He has conducted multiple investigations and several high level interviews on this topic. He is the author of État islamique, le fait accompli (2016). He has also served as a contributor to The Soufan Center, The Hoover Institute, the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, and as a speaker at the Global Security Forum, organized by The Soufan Center.