CALABAR, Nigeria—When Daouda Chikoto lived in Tongo Tongo in southwestern Niger, a grenade fired from an unknown location fell on a compound in the village, where children were playing on a Tuesday afternoon in September 2016. As he recalls, six were killed, and without knowing where the grenade came from the locals blamed it on the Americans.
The children were slaughtered just at the moment media reported that the United States was building a $100 million drone base in central Niger. Never mind that the reports said specifically the drones were for surveillance, Tongo Tongo villagers understood whatever they heard to mean that the U.S. had already established a drone station and was going to target villages close to Mali. After the September incident they concluded that America had targeted them.
“It was just about four days after we heard about the weapon [drone] station that this happened,” Chikoto, who now lives in the central Niger city of Agadez, told The Daily Beast. “Everyone said it was America.”
The rumor appeared to have emanated from Islamist militants living among the villagers, and before nightfall, on the day of the incident, it had spread like wildfire. The belief that the U.S. wanted to wipe out the Muslim Zarma people who live in Tongo Tongo, and who own most of the arid Sahel lands in Niger, grew stronger afterward.
“Most of the information we got about the U.S. and the Nigerien government came from militants,” Chikoto said. “Everyone believes they [the militants] have a strong intelligence network and probably know everything that happens in Niger.”
Talk of the U.S. firing a grenade at civilians carries no cost and appears to be part of a concerted strategy by militants in southwest Niger to develop hatred for America and, in the process, win the hearts and minds of the local population. So far, it seems to be working.
The U.S. insists that it has not been involved in any combat operations in Niger since President Barack Obama deployed the first set of 100 military personnel to the country in 2013, and it certainly didn’t fire the grenade that killed the children.
But rumors like this may have encouraged villagers into playing a supporting role in the Oct. 3 militant attack in Tongo Tongo on U.S. Special Forces service members that left four Green Berets dead. The 2016 incident and accompanying propaganda may also have influenced the Nigerien government’s reluctance to authorize armed drones because it “wants to protect the civilian population,” as a well-informed African military official told The Daily Beast.
“These drones don’t just target terrorists, they also kill civilians,” said the official, who did not want his name mentioned because he was not authorized to speak on the issue. “The situation in Niger, up until the incident on Oct. 3, did not warrant the authorization of armed drones.”
Before the attack, which also claimed the lives of five Nigerien soldiers, American officials had been seeking the authority to arm drones in Niger, but to no avail, according to a CNN account. In the prolonged skirmish that cost the Green Berets their lives, as The Wall Street Journal reported, a request by U.S. military officials to send an armed drone near a patrol of Green Berets in Niger was denied.
Immediately the exchange of fire began, the service members called in an unarmed American reconnaissance drone but it took an hour before they called in French Mirage 2000 jet fighters. It was another hour before those arrived on the scene, but they did not strike because they could not distinguish the militants from the American and Nigerian soldiers in the close combat, according to the French military.
A spokesperson for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) declined to comment on whether the U.S. sought the permission of the Nigeriens to arm its drones before and during the attack because the incident in Niger “remains under investigation,” but he confirmed to The Daily Beast that “there are no armed remotely piloted aircraft in Niger.”
From the role jihadists play in Tongo Tongo, it is easy to conclude that they were aided by persons in the local community when they set up the ambush that killed the soldiers. A number of U.S. and Nigerien officials suspect foul play.
Almou Hassane, mayor of Tondikiwindi, the rural district where Tongo Tongo is located, told the Voice of America that “the attackers, the bandits, the terrorists [in Tongo Tongo] have never lacked accomplices among local populations.”
After the incident, Nigerien forces arrested Mounkaila Alassane, the village chief in Tongo Tongo, and have kept him in detention since then, as they investigate the level of involvement of the villagers in the attack.
Jihadists in Africa and also in the Middle East seem to be building local relationships and strengthening capabilities they intend to use against local and external forces, especially the U.S., in the future. It appears to be the new strategy of terrorist organizations in the two regions since the project to build a cohesive “caliphate” controlling extensive territory in Iraq and Syria has been crushed.
One report by the Counter Extremism Project, an international organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideologies, revealed that the Somali militant group, al-Shabab, now partakes in infrastructure construction, provides social services to increase its support among Somalis, and collects money to be redistributed to the poor. Somali youths, it said, “are also offered salaries of up to $700 a month for joining the militant group, and promised additional payments if they bring a wife and children.”
In Syria, the jihadist group best known as Jabhat al-Nusra is cultivating local alliances and providing social services in a bid to gain support and influence the religious views of a section in the country. As Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War wrote in her recent article for CNN, the al Qaeda affiliate “is leveraging its battlefield contributions to create relationships with civil society, civilian populations and other Syrian opposition groups.”
“It then manipulates those relationships in order to achieve dominance,” Cafarella notes. “And it directly targets U.S.-backed groups, and defeats them when it can, in order to ensure that moderate forces do not find footing in a new Syria.”
Early this year, AFP reported that the Boko Haram faction loyal to the so-called Islamic State was trying to win over civilians in northeastern Nigeria by holding meetings with villagers and assuring them of their safety and freedom to carry out their businesses.
“Things changed dramatically,” one man said about life under the ISIS-backed faction of the group in the town of Shuwaram. “The raids and the killings [that were frequent under the Abubakar Shekau faction] stopped and we were free to move with our herds for grazing.”
That’s pretty much the same kind of freedom villagers enjoy in Tongo Tongo despite living in a stronghold of jihadists in the Sahara.
Tongo Tongo is located in Tondikiwindi commune in Niger’s southwest Tillaberi Region, an area where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS militants are often present. The impoverished village has far fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, many of whom own cattle, goats, and sheep. When rustlers began to steal cattle and other livestock, militants offered protection for these animals and later began to pay young boys—and their families—to join their ranks.
One evening, a friend of Chikoto had five goats stolen by a group of armed bandits. The man reported the incident to two militants who recovered the animals and returned them to the owner. Another day, it was Chikoto himself who was attacked by armed men close to the market. Militants heard him shout for help and quickly came to his rescue while they seized his attackers.
“At least they are protecting Tongo Tongo from danger,” Chikoto said. “That’s what the government should ordinarily be doing.”
The Nigerien government believes that the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), linked to both ISIS and al Qaeda, is the dominant terrorist group operating in the country. Authorities say the group is responsible for the kidnapping of Jeffery Woodke, a 56-year-old American humanitarian worker, who was seized from his home in the southwestern city of Abalak last year by armed men who killed two guards before driving him across the desert into neighboring Mali.
In March, the Nigerien government declared a state of emergency in Tahaoua region, where Abalak is located, and in Tillaberi region, which covers Tongo Tongo, in response to attacks on police stations and refugee camps in the two areas by MOJWA militants. But the impact wasn’t felt in the country’s most talked about village at the moment.
“We didn’t see soldiers in Tongo Tongo,” Chikoto said. “We rather saw more militants.”
Last week, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said American forces intend to continue operations in Niger, despite the deadly ambush. But success in the war against Islamist militants in the country will depend on how soldiers counter the new jihadists strategy in Africa, and the cooperation of the Nigerien government.
“With this new development [in Tongo Tongo] I’m certain the [Nigerien] government will look at the possibility of armed drones,” the African military official said. “We will do everything we can to defeat these terrorists.”