Will the establishment of US Air Force Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, make a tangible difference in the fight against terrorism? This major project – whose delivery had already been postponed once at the end of 2018 after delays due to weather conditions – is one of the assets of the American military presence in Niger.
With three emergency deployment bases already in the cities of Arlit (Aïr, North), Oullam (Tillabéri region, West) and Maradi (second-largest city, South of the country), Base 201 could become a key multifunctional platform in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. A shared capacity, as assured by the AFRICOM command, which in any case has serious potential in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, provided it gives the necessary guarantees.
Lessons from the past
The spectacular ambush of October 4, 2017, in the village of Tongo Tongo (Ouallam region), which claimed the lives of 5 Nigerien and 4 American soldiers, had the double effect of reminding us of the importance of intelligence in the fight against terrorist groups operating in the Sahel region, on the one hand, and the decisive nature of air capabilities, which were, in this case, provided as support by French forces (4 helicopters and 2 Mirage 2000 fighters), on the other hand. It also seems interesting to consider the strategic utility of the new 201 airbase in the light of this painful experience for the American army and its Nigerien allies. Indeed, as the US Air Force commander within AFRICOM (African Command of the US Armed Forces) points out, the Agadez base offers above all “strategic access and flexibility” in a Sahelian region that the Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian describes it as one of the “most difficult in the world”.
In practice, the main functions of Base 201 can be divided into two: first is surveillance and intelligence, and second, air support to land operations. Thus, the US Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper medium altitude long endurance drones deployed in Agadez could become important strategic assets in air support in the coming months for the American and Nigerien military, as well as the much larger C-17 transport aircraft. They address a recurrent problem of low – if not non-existent – air capabilities of the Nigerien army, and reinforce a trend towards increased use of air capabilities against which terrorist groups active in the region are struggling to find a way out.
Proven (but not always applauded) tactic of “air harassment”
The use of air capabilities is a key asset in achieving one of the central objectives of American anti-terrorist doctrine: terrorist groups’ “leadership decapitation”. Although it has shown varying effectiveness in different contexts and groups, it has contributed more generally to the short-term disorganization and weakening of terrorist armed groups. On the African continent, this tactic has already been tested, especially in Somalia, where recurrent and sustained airstrikes against their rear bases and training sites inflicted heavy casualties on Al Shabaab fighters. Emir Ahmed Abdi Godane (aka Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed, Abu Zubeyr) had himself been shot dead during one of these airstrikes on August 31, 2014. However, voices are increasingly being raised to denounce civilian victims of the American airstrikes, particularly in the Lower and Middle Shabelle regions, but also in Hiiraan and Bakol, which are regularly targeted. On April 5, 2019, AFRICOM admitted for the first time that it accidentally killed civilians during airstrikes against Al Shabaab fighters.
Under these circumstances, it is possible to wonder whether an “air harassment” tactic against terrorist groups in the Sahel region is more to be feared than desired. The demographic structure in these desert and semi-desert areas is mainly composed of mobile nomadic settlements, with recurrent crossing points. Is it possible that isolated nomad groups may be accidentally targeted by airstrikes? What guarantees do AFRICOM and the Nigerien army give in terms of accuracy of strikes and possible collateral damage/victims?