On October 4, 2017, four U.S. Special Forces service members were killed in an ambush near the western Niger village of Tongo Tongo in an attack that has since gone unclaimed by any terrorist entity.
U.S. military officials believe the attack came from the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) in the Greater Sahara. However, if ISIS did carry out the attack, why didn't it claim it—especially after its claims of responsibility for attacks like Las Vegas and dozens of others which contain no direct connection to it?
Pro-ISIS media groups and channels have likewise been quiet about the attack: no celebratory graphics or social media campaign—just crickets, outside of disseminating some related news articles. The silence is strange for the killing of American soldiers, which would in many ways be the most valuable type of attack a group like ISIS could capitalize on.
So, is ISIS behind the attack as US government suggests? Yes and no.
Background of the Sahara’s Jihadi Movement
To assess what may have occurred in Niger and the confusion that followed it, one must first understand the jihadi militant groups that have developed significant clout in the region.
For years in the Sahara, groups connected to al-Qaeda (AQ) were the primary belligerents, though many operated under their own accord with separate leaders. The main group operating in the region was Al-Murabitoun, formed in 2013 when veteran Algerian jihadi and former AQ commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar merged his forces with Tawhid wal Jihad, a group headed by Adnan Abu Waleed al-Sahrawi in West Africa.
The circumstances in the Sahara changed with the spread of ISIS around the world, though, especially after its arrival to Africa. In March of 2015, ISIS accepted the pledge of the Nigerian-based jihadi group, Boko Haram, leading to the creation ISIS’ West Africa province.
Two months later, in May of 2015, Sahrawi and aligned fighters also pledged to ISIS, thus separating them from al-Murabitoun.
Belmokhtar and remaining fighters in al-Murabitoun rejected the pledge as being made in their group’s name. Years later, Belmokhtar would merge his faction with others in the region to form an official AQ affiliate called Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen.
Sahrawi’s Short-lived Time under ISIS
On October 30, 2016, a year and half after his pledge to ISIS, the group’s ‘Amaq News Agency released a statement and video showing Sahrawi distancing himself from any AQ affiliation, and pledging allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
'Amaq also issued a statement announcing Sahrawi's pledge:
Unlike the clear transition of Boko Haram fighters into IS’ West Africa Province, the state of Sahrawi’s status as an ISIS member was murky. First, ISIS never officially announced its acceptance of Sahrawi’s pledge or embraced his allegiance as it had for other pledges around the world.
Second, once ISIS accepts a pledge from a group, that group becomes part of ISIS, and all of its actions and media must be approved and channeled through the organization. However, this was not the case with Sahrawi's group. Neither ISIS nor its ‘Amaq News Agency published any releases about or from Sahrawi’s group, despite the fact that he continued to carry out attacks and issue threats in the West Africa region.
During the time period between his pledge to ISIS in May of 2015 and the publication of his pledge by ‘Amaq, Sahrawi had called for attacks on the UN mission in the Greater Sahara. Shortly after, on September 3, 2016, Sahrawi himself claimed an attack on a military position on the border of Niger by the “Burkina Faso branch,” calling it the “First Operation by the ‘State Organization’ in West Africa.”
Sahrawi was also attributed to a small arms attack near Intangom village in Burkina Faso on October 12, 2016 and an unsuccessful raid at the Koutoukale Prison in Niger five days later.
What happened to the Sahrawi-ISIS connection is in some ways comparable to what happened with the ISIS-Boko Haram relationship following its pledge.
But Sahrawi’s attacks and claims were not announced by ISIS or by its ‘Amaq News Agency, but rather by a local media source used previously by Sahrawi and the other Murabitoun leaders. After, Sahrawi continued on with his group of fighters to carry out attacks on the border of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
What happened to the Sahrawi-ISIS connection is in some ways comparable to what happened with the ISIS-Boko Haram relationship following its pledge. Though ISIS accepted the pledge and declared its West Africa Province, Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr al-Shekau, who instigated and executed the pledge, started releasing his own media and statements. Not long after, it was clear he was no longer operating under ISIS. There were many reasons that led to Shekau’s break, among them being his reluctance to accept ISIS’ control of the organization he founded.
Something similar happened with Sahrawi. As seen after his pledge to ISIS, no real ties were created between the two: no communiques, no media, and no further acknowledgement.
Proof of Sahrawi’s separation from ISIS came in a letter dated May 13, 2017 (17 of Ramadan, 1438), in which he warned followers of the Sahara region’s Doshak and Imghad tribes against defending Niger and France. Notably, the three-page letter didn’t once mention ISIS, Baghdadi, or anything related to the group.
It's not clear when Sahrawi’s ties with ISIS disintegrated. It is possible, though, that this break may have been made before ISIS' ‘Amaq News Agency released the video of his pledge in October of 2016, which would explain why ISIS didn't follow up with any more media or acknowledgement of Sahrawi’s activities. In this scenario, ‘Amaq might have used his pledge as a calculated morale booster for other supporters.
So was Sahrawi behind the Ambush on the US Soldiers in Niger?
After the October 4 killing of four U.S. troops, U.S. military officials explained that their objective there was to find an IS leader in the region. Most likely, that individual was Sahrawi, who maintains a large support network from the local tribes in the area.
Based on the aforementioned ways Sahrawi has executed and claimed his attacks, it is not surprising that no official claim of the attack was published, but rather that local media reported: “Local sources indicated that Sahrawi executed the attack.”
To call Sahrawi an ISIS operative would be inaccurate, as he has clearly left behind his ties to the group. But as this tragic killing of U.S. soldiers has appeared to show, he nonetheless exerts a dangerous amount of power in the region.