Of all the potential terrorist hotspots in the world today, Niger is an unlikely country to take center stage. However, the killing of four members of U.S. Special Forces in Niger, near the border with Mali and Burkina Faso, on October 4, has forced the U.S. military, Congress and foreign policy community to ask many questions: one such question is “who did it”? This Hot Issue explores the various militant actors present in the area where the attack on U.S. Special Forces took place, assesses which actor was most likely involved in the attack, and offers an explanation as to why there has been no claim of the attack despite the high profile of the operation.
According to the Pentagon, on October 4, 2017, around 50 militants ambushed a 12-member team of U.S Special Forces in Niger, near the country’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, killing four U.S Special Forces members and wounding two. The U.S. patrol was considered routine. This specific patrol, however, may have sought a particular Islamic State (IS) factional leader, such as Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. Some suspect that the U.S. Special Forces team may have been purposefully delayed in the village they were visiting, which allowed the militants to carry out an ambush. Presumably, more details will emerge, and some details about the mission are still being withheld. The Pentagon, however, asserted that IS-affiliated militants or “local tribal fighters” affiliated with IS carried out the attack (defense.gov, October 23; defense.gov, October 23).
Jihadist Networks in the Sahel
The primary militant actors in the Niger–Burkina Faso–Mali border area operate under the al-Qaeda and Islamic State umbrellas. However, the al-Qaeda affiliate in the region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is much stronger than IS in the region and has withstood IS attempts to recruit AQIM foot soldiers.
For much of the past decade, the Algerian leaders of AQIM have sought to devolve power to “sub-affiliates” in West Africa. The apex for AQIM gains began in 2011, when Tuareg militants who fought in Libya for Muammar Qaddafi’s regime returned to Mali after Qaddafi fell from power. They brought with them their weapons and reignited a northern Mali Tuareg separatist insurgency against the Malian state. By 2012, some of these Tuaregs were co-opted by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Tuareg former Malian diplomat-turned jihadist. Ag Ghaly formed a new jihadist group called Ansar al-Din.
In 2012, Ansar al-Din joined in a coalition to govern northern Mali with AQIM and an AQIM sub-affiliate called Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). MUJWA was led mostly by Mauritanian or Malian Arabs. Each of the three militant groups dominated a different region of northern Mali: AQIM was strong in Timbuktu; Ansar al-Din was strong in Kidal; and MUJWA was strong in Gao.
After the French-led intervention in northern Mali began in early 2013, AQIM, Ansar al-Din and MUJWA dispersed. By 2016, however, they resurfaced in the rural areas of Mali. Additionally, AQIM carried out several attacks in late 2015 and early 2016 on an international hotel in Bamako (Mali’s capital), a hotel and a café in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso’s capital) and a resort hotel outside of Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire’s largest city) (Abidjan.net, March 14, 2016; Sidwaya.bf [Ouagadougou], January 16; Jeune Afrique, November 20, 2015). AQIM often praised Fulani members in the attack “martyrdom” claims. As West Africa’s most transnational ethnic group, the Fulanis in AQIM’s ranks are an important and often used asset that helps AQIM expand beyond Mali into a number of other countries in the region.
Enter Ansaroul Islam
Differences exist, however, between AQIM’s current coalition in Mali and AQIM’s allies in Mali in 2013. After France intervened militarily in 2013, MUJWA allied with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s brigades for a short time. Together, they carried out the suicide bombings of French energy installations in Arlit and Agadez in northern Niger, in June 2013, along with elements of the AQIM-overseen Boko Haram breakaway faction, Ansaru (Jihadology.net, September 9, 2013). However, MUJWA and Ansaru are now rarely active, and Belmokhtar is believed to have been killed in Libya (but this remains to be confirmed).
One reported member of MUJWA was Amadou Kouffa, a Malian ethnic-Fulani Islamic preacher who participated in MUJWA’s final battle in Konna in January 2013 before the French intervened and even named himself the “sultan of Konna” (maliactu.net, July 16, 2015; see Militant Leadership Monitor, February 29, 2016). Kouffa has since come to lead the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), which primarily recruits Fulanis. Also known as the Macina Brigade, the MLF is a “sub-sub affiliate” of AQIM under its own sub-affiliate Ansar al-Din.
The MLF has been increasingly active since 2016 and has extended AQIM’s insurgency to central Mali. Additionally, the MLF has its own “sub-affiliate,” Ansaroul Islam — it is technically a “sub-sub-sub-affiliate” of AQIM via Ansar al-Din and the MLF (Le Monde, April 9, 2016). Ansaroul Islam operates primarily in northern Burkina Faso. The group is led by Fulanis and has targeted military outposts in the Burkina Faso–Mali–Niger border area. Ansaroul Islam is a possible culprit in the attack on the U.S Special Forces unit because its area of operations extends near the area of the attack in Niger, and its previous strikes on military outposts show it has the ability to carry out such attacks.
Ansaroul Islam is nonetheless distinct from MLF, Ansar al-Din and AQIM. For example, when the latter three groups merged into a new coalition in January 2017, called Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM, Group for the Support of Islam, and Muslims) with the approval of al-Qaeda’s overall leadership, Ansaroul Islam was not included in the coalition (al-Masra #42, March 6). Before JNIM formed, Ansaroul Islam wrote a message on its Facebook page saying that Ansaroul Islam’s leader, Mallam Dicko, disapproved of Kouffa’s joining JNIM. Rumors swirled around that Dicko suspected Ag Ghaly was an Algerian government agent, that Dicko was coming under the influence of IS or that Dicko had a falling out with JNIM over Ansaroul Islam’s attacks on schools — JNIM had in fact claimed one of those attacks, but this is not generally a tactic promoted by AQIM.
Whereas JNIM prolifically carries out and claims attacks, Ansaroul Islam has maintained only its Facebook page for making attack claims or statements. Ansaroul Islam’s lack of sophisticated media use could explain why so far there has been no claim of the attack that killed the four U.S. Special Forces members. The more media-savvy JNIM’s lack of claim three weeks after the attack strongly suggests that JNIM is not behind the attack.
The Islamic State Network in the Sahel
Ansroul Islam is not necessarily the most likely culprit behind the attack on the U.S. Special Forces, even though some of its members may overlap with the group most likely responsible for the attack. An IS faction under the leadership of Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, which uses the name “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara,” can also be found in the same vicinity of Ansaorul Islam. However, al-Sahrawi’s has more capabilities in Niger than in Burkina Faso. Al-Sahrawi’s faction is most likely to have been behind the October 4 attack on the U.S. Special Forces unit in Niger.
IS’ auxiliary media agency, Amaq, formally recognized the pledge of loyalty of al-Sahrawi’s faction to IS leader Abubakr al-Baghdadi in October 2016. This was followed by a video of al-Sahrawi physically making the pledge alongside over 20 other militants (Jihadology.net, October 30, 2016). However, IS did not name al-Sahrawi’s faction as a “province” like it did when it renamed Boko Haram as “West Africa Province” in 2015. This means that al-Sahrawi’s faction is not a “province” of IS, though it can still feature in Amaq claims and videos.
Al-Sahrawi had initially pledged loyalty to IS in 2015, so the roughly one year between his pledge and IS’ recognition of his pledge raises questions about the proximity of lines of communication between al-Sahrawi and IS. Immediately before Amaq recognized al-Sahrawi’s pledge in October 2016, al-Sahrawi’s faction had claimed three attacks, indicating that al-Sahrawi may have had to prove himself to win IS recognition (alakhbar.com, September 3, 2016; RFI, October 17, 2016). The three attacks that al-Sahrawi carried out before Amaq recognized his faction included:
- An attack on a Burkinabe border post, killing two Burkinabe soldiers;
- An attack on a military post in Burkina Faso near the Mali and Niger borders, killing at least three Burkinabe soldiers; and
- An attack on a prison north of the Nigerien capital of Niamey that held several prominent jihadists, which was repelled. 
In addition to these incidents, the Nigerien interior minister claimed that militants aligned with MUJWA—possibly a reference to al-Sahrawi’s faction, because al-Sahrawi was aligned with MUJWA in 2012—were responsible for the October 2016 kidnapping of Jeffrey Woodke, an American aid worker, in the town of Abalak in central Niger. That kidnapping, like the attack on U.S. Special Forces on October 4 and another attack on October 21, 2017, that killed 12 Nigerien gendarmeries (RFI, October 21), has not been claimed.
Since al-Sahrawi’s faction is the most likely culprit behind Woodke’s kidnapping and the prison break outside of Niamey, his faction may also be behind the other two attacks in October 2017 on U.S. Special Forces, which the United States has said was “Islamic State-affiliated,” and the 12 Nigerien gendarmeries. The killing of the 12 gendarmeries (in the village of Ayorou) occurred so close geographically and temporally to the attack on the U.S. Special Forces (in the village of Tongo Tongo) that it suggests the two attacks may be related. However, these two attacks were also close to the Burkinabe and Malian borders, where Ansaroul Islam operates. Al-Sahrawi’s faction may rely on Ansaroul Islam fighters when his faction, which may only have 50 to 60 members, approaches near the Burkinabe border.
One reason why there may have been cooperation between al-Sahrawi’s faction and Ansaroul Islam — regardless of the former being on the periphery of the IS network and the latter being on the periphery of the al-Qaeda network — is that despite pledging allegiance to IS, a JNIM commander has admitted al-Sahrawi has maintained contact with some elements of JNIM. (alaqssa.org, November 1, 2016). Two months after the commander’s admission of this contact, on January 1, 2017, a prominent online al-Qaeda propagandist also posted a tweet saying that “unconfirmed news indicates that the Abu Walid al-Sahrawi group and Daesh [IS] have split” (Twitter [@Nourdine_1991], January 1). Al-Sahrawi’s ties and even loyalty to IS may now be too tenuous for IS to claim an attack on his behalf, especially with IS on the run in Libya and Syria-Iraq. At the same time, it would not be surprising if al-Sahrawi’s faction cooperated with Ansaroul Islam, which has ties to JNIM.
The attack that killed four U.S Special Forces members was most likely carried out by al-Sahrawi’s faction but possibly with some support from Ansaroul Islam. The attack may not have been claimed because al-Sahrawi prefers to operate in the shadows. Additionally, his faction is only tenuously in contact with IS, and Ansaroul Islam is only tenuously in contact with al-Qaeda (or AQIM or JNIM). Thus, this was an attack that was too far removed from any umbrella group—al-Qaeda or Islamic State—for any claim to be made. Al-Sahrawi’s faction may nonetheless represent a future trend in West Africa, where jihadists shift between alliances but act locally and mostly independently while operating less predictably and leaving less of a “media trail” than do the umbrella groups.
In addition, jihadism is spreading deeper into the interior of Niger and elsewhere on the periphery of West Africa. The region is likely to see more U.S Special Forces encounters with jihadists in the years to come. The U.S. military, Congress and foreign policy community should be aware of the factions in the region and the threats they pose before the next U.S. Special Forces unit ventures into potential enemy territory.
 See Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Jacob Zenn & Nathaniel Barr, “Islamic State 2021 Possible Futures in North and West Africa,” February 2017.