Before the tragic deaths of four American and five Nigerien soldiers on Oct. 4, few Americans realized that U.S. troops were deployed to the West African country. While much of the media coverage since then has focused on how long it took President Trump to call the families of the four Americans who were killed, and what he said to them once he did, questions are also now being rightly asked about the incident itself. How could well-equipped American special forces have been ambushed and overwhelmed? Why did it take so long to recover the body of one of the fallen? What was the role of military contractors in this situation? And just what are American troops doing in Niger to begin with?
Those are reasonable and important questions, and the families of the nine soldiers deserve answers. But some normally responsible commentators are delving into speculation about the cause of this crisis that crosses the line from reasonable speculation to irresponsible conspiracymongering.
Case in point: MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. On her Thursday night show, in her trademark “I’m just asking questions” style, Maddow suggested that the Trump administration’s recently implemented travel ban against Chadian citizens might have something to do with the deaths of these soldiers. On Sept. 24, Chad was added to the list of countries in the latest edition of the administration’s ban. This puzzled many observers, as Chad is a major partner of the U.S. in counterterrorism missions. (A CBS report this week suggested that the Chadian government’s failure to provide new passports for analysis was to blame.) Since then, Chad has withdrawn hundreds of troops from Niger, where they were working with local forces to fight Boko Haram, and there’s been some speculation that this was related to the ban. Maddow took this speculation a step further by suggesting that because the Chadian troops had been pulled out, American troops were left more vulnerable than they otherwise might have been.
Many on the left are comparing the Niger story to the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. Attempts on the right to pin responsibility for the tragedy on incompetence or malfeasance by the Obama administration came to naught, despite 33 congressional hearings on the events of that day. Maddow’s approach to this story—“just asking questions” that are neither based in evidence nor likely to contribute to an accurate understanding of what happened in Niger and why—drags liberals down the same path that conservatives traveled with Benghazi, one of irrational, fearmongering claims that only serve to prolong the suffering of the families of the fallen while doing nothing to explain the root causes of the event. In doing so, Maddow also preyed upon Americans’ lack of knowledge about Africa, a widespread problem that ranges from not understanding how large the continent is to major news organizations mislabeling maps for national broadcast.
Maddow’s speculation, which mirrors a conspiracy theory pushed by the Palmer Report, a fringe website, might be tempting to believe, but it makes several key errors. First, there is simply no evidence that the withdrawal of Chadian forces from Niger had anything to do with the ambush. Examining the basic geography of the crisis makes this clear. Chad’s involvement in Niger was limited to the fight against Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based extremist movement that terrorizes civilians in northwest Nigeria, southeast Niger, southern Chad, and northern Cameroon. The Chadians were deployed to the Diffa region, where they fought effectively against Boko Haram and restored a semblance of stability to communities the extremists had terrorized. Their withdrawal has upset communities in the Diffa region, who (rightly) believe that their own government’s forces are incapable of protecting them from a renewed Boko Haram threat.
As you can see from this map, Diffa is on the opposite side of Niger from Tongo Tongo, where the ambush occurred. Nigerian forces and their American advisers in this region of Niger were not dealing with Boko Haram but instead were working to protect communities from other extremist groups that are active in the region where Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet. One of these groups, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, is suspected of perpetrating the Niger attack.
Chadian forces were not involved in counterterror efforts in this area. There are Chadians involved in the fight against ISGS and other extremist groups across the border in northern Mali, where they continue to serve, but they do not engage in Niger.
In her segment, Maddow incorrectly claimed that Chadian forces were protecting civilians from the ISIS-affiliated ISGS. This simply isn’t true; Chadian forces were never fighting ISGS in Niger. They were fighting a completely different enemy in a different part of the country.
Might the withdrawal of the Chadians have somehow emboldened ISGS to feel more confident in attacking American forces in Tongo Tongo? It’s unlikely due to the geographic factors noted above. There’s also no evidence that Niger withdrew troops from its west to fill the security vacuum left by the Chadians in the east. Even if that had happened, Nigerien military forces are so weak that their presence likely would have made little difference in the moment of crisis.
The sad truth is that what happened in Niger was almost certainly the result of human error coupled with bad luck. The attack’s perpetrators sensed an opportunity, American and Nigerien forces underestimated their vulnerability, and the attack had tragic consequences. What unfolded in those hours is unknown to most of us for now, but there will surely be investigations into what happened. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the FBI has joined military investigators looking into the incident.
American forces have been in Niger since 2012. Currently, there are about 800. Their primary mission is to advise and assist Niger’s armed forces in their fight against terrorist groups that attack their citizens. This means that American soldiers are not technically at war with the terror groups; they are there to assist the Nigeriens with tasks like locating the enemy, developing strategies and tactics, and building relationships with local leaders, whose knowledge is essential for getting accurate information about terrorists’ activities in a very remote part of the world.
The Niger mission is part of the growth of the U.S. military presence in Africa that began under the Bush administration and greatly expanded under Obama. American forces are deployed to numerous countries undertaking a wide variety of missions, almost all of which fall under the “advise and assist” mode of operation. While many of these missions are secretive for obvious reasons, their existence is not.
Advise and assist missions are often more dangerous than they sound. As they have increased over the years, so have the risks to American and partner forces. The likelihood was high that a tragedy of this nature would happen somewhere in Africa, sooner or later.
So why is Maddow pushing this narrative? It’s true that by framing it as a hypothesis she didn’t say events actually unfolded this way. But using her considerable platform to introduce a wild conspiracy theory into the public debate about a confusing and unfamiliar situation was irresponsible and unnecessary. Why didn’t Maddow’s producers call any of the number of academics who study terrorism and counterterror efforts in the Sahel? Every one of those scholars would have shot down this idea immediately, based on simple, readily available public information.
Niger is unfamiliar to most Americans, and there’s a need for a long-overdue debate about why American forces are there and in other places around the world in the borderless and seemingly endless “Global War on Terror.” Are the threats to the United States from groups like ISGS really significant enough to spend billions of dollars deploying troops to fight them? Should lives be risked and lost in service of murky goals that often seem tangential to U.S. interests? These are questions worth asking. But trying to score political points by politicizing a tragedy with factual errors and the confusion of correlation for causation won’t bring the answers we, and the families of the Niger fallen, so desperately need.