WASHINGTON - A senior defense official from Niger has told VOA that different militant groups operating along the country’s borders are threatening the security of the state and the region.
Niger Minister of Defense Kalla Mountari told VOA that the militant groups associated with Islamic State and al-Qaida pose a serious threat to Niger and could infiltrate the country if preemptive measures are not taken against them by regional powers.
“Certainly, this is an existential threat to us. Even though they may look weak now, terror groups are still strong in some areas [around us] and their stated intention is to establish a caliphate and bring our countries onto their knees,” Mountari said.
He added that the threat of militants could also threaten the security of Europe if they manage to establish safe havens in Niger — given the country’s proximity to Libya and the fact that Libya does not have an effective central government to prevent militants from crossing through the country to enter Europe.
Niger’s senior defense official warned about the threat of militants amid reports that the United States has begun arming its reconnaissance drones in an effort to collect intelligence on militant groups' whereabouts in the region.
The drones are being operated from the country’s capital, Niamey.
“They [the U.S.] have answered our calls. This is huge because it will serve as a deterrent to those terrorists who wish to attack us,” Mountari said.
“Unlike before when they attack and disappear, knowing we don’t have the means of pursuing them, now they would be hunted and taken out from above,” he added, referring to armed U.S drones.
The U.S. military has confirmed the deployment of armed drones to Niger in an effort to respond to growing threats in the region.
“In coordination with the government of Niger, U.S. Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger to improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region,” Samantha Reho, a spokeswoman for the U.S military’s Africa Command ( AFRICOM), told VOA.
“Niger is in a strategic location surrounded on three fronts by terrorist organizations based in Libya, Mali and Nigeria,” Reho added.
Last year’s deadly terror attack on a joint U.S.-Nigerien patrol, which was claimed by an Islamic State affiliated group and led to the deaths of four American and several Nigerien soldiers, was a turning point in Niger’s counter-insurgency campaign against militant groups.
Senior Nigerien officials say the attack prompted their government to ask the U.S. to speed up the process of arming surveillance drones in the region.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the U.S military in the region said the issue of using armed drones over Niger has been part of ongoing discussion between the U.S. and Niger since well before the October attack on the joint U.S.-Niger patrol.
Lake Chad region
Although Niger, a landlocked country, does not have a homegrown terror group within its territory, several militant groups operate along its borders with neighboring countries, threatening its security.
Some analysts suggest that weaker and failing states sharing borders with Niger, particularly Mali, could be blamed for some of the insecurity in Niger as militants could easily cross into Niger.
“Jihadist groups present since the 2012 crisis in Mali exploited local unrest and the weak presence of the state in northern Mali to launch cross-border attacks against the Nigerien army,” Hannah Armstrong, a senior consultant on the Sahel region for the International Crisis Group, a global organization monitoring conflicts around the world, told VOA.
Armstrong added that Lake Chad is particularly significant because it is divided among four countries — Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria — and various terror groups, including the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP), have made inroads in the area.
“Despite direct support from Chadian troops since 2015 and closer collaboration with the Nigerian army, Nigerien forces have been unable to fully secure the border with Nigeria from attacks, including some linked to the Islamic State," Armstrong added, referring to the Boko Haram faction that now controls the Lake Chad area.
France has had a strong military presence in Niger as well as several other countries in the region. Currently, the French military is conducting a counterterror operation called Barkhane in the Sahel region, which includes Niger.
The U.S. military said it has been working closely with French troops in the area to better coordinate military efforts against militant groups.
“This mission is critical to the security of countries in the region, our European allies and the United States. We provide support to French counterterrorism operations, including ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconaissance], aerial refueling and other logistics support,” AFRICOM spokesperson Reho said.
Reho added that the U.S. has about 800 Department of Defense personnel in Niger, who train, advise and assist the country’s security forces in their counterterrorism operations, making it the second-largest U.S. personnel deployment in Africa after Djibouti, where the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa is headquartered.
“We secure national strategic interests in Niger by working with and through allies and partners to deny safe havens to terrorists with global reach, and disrupting their ability to direct or support external operations against the U.S. homeland and its citizens, allies and partners overseas,” she said.