Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass visited troops in West Africa at the end of December, highlighting not only her first visit to the region since assuming her role as the Air Force’s senior enlisted leader, but the military’s continued presence in the Sahel amid the exponential uptick in extremist violence in recent years.
“In 2020, the Sahel saw a 44-percent increase in violent events in the region,” Col. Daniel Kobs, 409th Air Expeditionary Group commander, said in the Air Force press release marking Bass’s visit. “The threat is real. Our partnerships in West Africa, now more than ever, are key to the counter-violent extremist organization fight. Our Airmen are critical to enabling our partner forces and building trust within the region.”
The Sahel, a semi-arid region crossing northern Africa between the Sahara to the north and and tropical savannas to the south, extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea across Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea. The increasing violence in 2021 can largely be attributed to state military coups and armed militant groups such as the Islamic State West Africa Province, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, al-Qaida-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin and Boko Haram.
The U.S., which has been partnering with Niger, specifically, since 2013, currently has forces stationed at two locations, Air Base 101 in Niamey and Air Base 201 in Agadez.
”Africa is an emerging front for strategic competition,” Bass said. “The United States, more than any other nation, can point to a strong history of partnership with African nations, and it’s gained us credibility as the preferred partner in Africa.”
During her visit, Bass met with airmen and joint force personnel to examine how airmen are helping deter and defeat extremism in the region.
“Whether its communications, air transportation, logistics, or things we’d think are simple such as potable water, our Airmen in Africa are constantly finding innovative solutions with limited resources to deliver secure, reliable, flexible expeditionary air power capabilities for combatant commanders,” said Chief Master Sgt. Corey Crow, 435th Air Ground Operations Wing and 435th Air Expeditionary Wing command chief, in the release.
Airmen currently serving in Niger fall under the 435th AEW, with elements from the 409th AEG, conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. They also provide remotely piloted aircraft efforts that support U.S. forces and their allies in Niger.
“Our Airmen supporting our AFRICOM mission are incredible,” Bass said. “We’re asking them to think strategically and execute tactically while combating violent extremist operations, building partner capacity, and strengthening African security institutions to meet shared security goals. This is the human element at its finest, they are at the heart of this mission.”
In addition to providing in-person support through the expertise of airmen and joint task force troops, the U.S. also recently gave a second U.S. Air Force C-130H Hercules aircraft to Nigerien forces during a Dec. 7 ceremony in Niamey.
Bolstering the Nigerien Air Force’s C-130 program is part of U.S. efforts to combat extremism and humanitarian crises in the area; the U.S. has put more than $30 million toward those goals since 2015. The first C-130 was delivered back in January 2021, with a third and — for now — final aircraft set to arrive sometime in 2022.
Bass said those efforts — from providing troops for a physical presence to helping train and arm Nigerien forces — seek to prove the U.S. is looking to help provide stability to the people of Africa in a way that other nations are not.
“Global competitors recognize Africa’s importance to their strategic interests, but their interest is more akin to exploitation than mutual cooperation,” she said.
“Our Airmen in Niger have more than demonstrated U.S. commitment to helping our African partners create opportunities for economic and political stability and security. That’s a win and it’s a credit to every Airman in Africa.”
But it is a difficult undertaking.
Just in the past year or so alone, villages in western Niger have been the scene of multiple shootings, with a Jan. 2, 2021, attack leaving more than 100 people dead. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the incident in addition to a multitude of others in the area, such as the killing of 28 people in the southeastern region of the country in December.
Troops from Nigeria have also been facing extremist-related casualties, with six troops killed during an operation conducted with Niger against ISWAP extremists near Lake Chad at the end of December.
Violence in the Sahel has also included multiple coup d’états, with a recent military coup in Sudan near the end of October. Anti-military protestors have been shot, beaten and arrested on multiple occasions since the Oct. 25 takeover, with more than 60 people killed in the past two months, Reuters has reported.
Mali has also faced two coups since 2020, and is combating not only Islamic State extremism, but attacks from al-Qaida affiliated groups as well. Around 2,000 Malians have died from extremist violence in the past year alone.
While less recent, the deaths of four U.S. soldiers — Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sgts. Bryan Black and Dustin Wright, and Sgt. LaDavid Johnson — can also be attributed to the rise of terrorist activities and violence in the region. The Army Special Forces team was ambushed in Tongo Tongo, Niger, during a now-infamous operation in October 2017.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master's candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.