Despite years of intimidation by the violent extremist group Boko Haram, the people of southeastern Niger’s Diffa region had never held a summit to confront the threat - perhaps with good reason.
“One person could come here and kill us all!” Diffa’s prefect, Inoussa Saouna, told 75 village leaders assembled along with politicians and military commanders in the city’s pale blue-walled cultural center.
That same early September day, a double suicide bombing that bore Boko Haram’s hallmarks killed 19 people in nearby Cameroon.
The group, best known for its kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in April 2014, has expanded from its base in northern Nigeria to threaten the region. It has menaced U.S. and European allies in West Africa, and leader Abubakar Shekau in March pledged its loyalty to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The Diffa meeting was a modest success not just for its mutually suspicious tribes but for a small team of fewer than 20 U.S. Special Operations Forces conducting an experiment that is part of President Barack Obama’s new counter-terrorism strategy.
The soldiers, who encouraged the meeting and helped provide a ring of security, do not go into combat, or even wear uniforms. They are quietly trying to help Niger build a wall against Boko Haram’s incursions and its recruitment of Diffa’s youth.
A Reuters reporter was the first to visit the detachment, which is among about 1,000 U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed across Africa.
In Chad, Nigeria, Niger and elsewhere, they are executing Obama’s relatively low-risk strategy of countering Islamic extremists by finding local partners willing to fight rather than deploying combat troops by the thousands.
The new approach, which Obama announced in May 2014, is far from being a silver bullet for the United States in its global battle against Islamic militancy. The indirect strategy appears to be faltering in the Middle East, where the United States has found few reliable allies on the battlefield in Syria. In Iraq, U.S.-trained and -equipped forces evaporated last year in the face of ISIS’s offensive.
In Niger, there are signs of success against Boko Haram, although progress will likely be slow in a years-long effort, U.S., European and African officials say.
“For the region, this is going to be a struggle that’s going to be with them for a long time, not just in Niger, but elsewhere,” said Army Col. Bob Wilson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in north and West Africa.
U.S. officials say they see predominantly Muslim Niger as worth helping. Relatively stable, but facing national and local elections in 2016, it is threatened by Boko Haram in Nigeria to the south, chaos in Libya to the north and an al Qaeda affiliate that operates in neighboring Algeria and Mali.
The U.S. soldiers in Diffa described their mission as a sharp and welcome pivot from the Iraq and Afghan wars, where virtually all of them served. The U.S. military has not said how long their presence will last.
“It’s a totally different approach to the problem set,” an American team sergeant said in an interview. The Special Operations soldiers cannot be identified by name under military ground rules.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States also works with local security forces and leaders - but has wielded thousands of combat troops, drone strikes and pricey aid projects.
There is none of that in Diffa, a region that includes more than 200 villages along a 170-mile (273-km) stretch of the Komadougou Yobe River that marks the porous border with Nigeria.
نستخدم ملفات الكوكيز لنسهل عليك استخدام مواقعنا الإلكترونية ونكيف المحتوى والإعلانات وفقا لمتطلباتك واحتياجاتك الخاصة، لتوفير ميزات وسائل التواصل الاجتماعية ولتحليل حركة المرور لدينا...اعرف أكثر