Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel on October 24, 2017
As an international lawyer and former World Bank and U.N. official with significant experience in zones of conflict in Africa, I am writing to honor the lives of Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright — who were tragically killed in an ambush by terrorists in Niger while assisting the Nigerien government to fight terrorism abroad to protect the American homeland.
John Adams said that “facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Yet the administration and media are sadly reducing the tragedy in Niger into rap-style beef between President Donald Trump and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. In doing so, they are dishonoring our fallen troops, miseducating the American public; thereby raising more questions than the known facts or media pundits can answer.
Although I disagree with Wilson’s willingness to jump into the weeds with Trump and his chief of staff, John Kelly, she is not a liar, “an empty barrel” or “wacky.” Wilson is more than a member of Congress to her constituents; she is a highly respected elder speaking on behalf of a broken and widowed 25-year-old mother of three small children. Wilson is a mother figure and mentor to Staff Sgt. Johnson’s family and a stalwart advocate for Miami Gardens.
Let’s begin with the basics: Niger and Nigeria are two different countries located in West Africa. Niger is a former French colony, and Nigeria a former British colony. Niger is about the size of Texas. A person from Niger is Nigerien; whereas a person from Nigeria is Nigerian. Niger is a key U.S. ally. The four slain sergeants were among about 800 military personnel in Niger and 6,000 throughout Africa. The small nation of Djibouti, which hosts America’s Camp Lemonnier and about 4,000 troops, is the only permanent American military base in Africa.
U.S. military personnel in Niger provide, among other things, vital security and support to the U.S. Embassy in Niger’s capital, Niamey, and are building Air Base 201 in Agadez. A small number of U.S. Special Forces provide counterinsurgency and tactical-security training, logistics, intelligence and surveillance support, and unofficially engage in counterterrorism operations with France, which has 4,000 troops stationed in the country. Niger has been a recipient of U.S. peace-enforcement training since the 1990s, and, since 2005, has been a participant in U.S.-led joint military training exercises under the auspices of AFRICOM.
Niger is one of the poorest nations in the world. It is increasingly destabilized by extreme drought, the Tuareg rebellion, and significant security challenges birthed in the 1994 closing of 22 CIA stations in Africa by the Clinton administration, and the 2011 toppling of the Gadhafi regime by the Obama administration. These events spawned dangerous intelligence failures and unleashed a new era of African instability responsible for the spike in violent extremism, deadly conflict and spillover effects in Mali and radical Islamic extremism in northeastern Nigeria. In Africa, satellites are no substitute for human intelligence.
Think Somalia, not Benghazi. Niger’s participation in the French-led intervention in Mali and involvement in U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region and in the international fight against Boko Haram make it a target of radical Islamic extremism groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and other violent extremist groups such as Al Murabitun.
I believe that the Oct. 4 ambush and killing of four U.S. Special Forces and four U.S.-trained Nigerien soldiers was a paramount intelligence failure. I believe that the ambush was carried out by radicalized village elements in Tongo-Tongo (Tondikiwindi district) near the Niger-Mali border, under the direction of known terrorist-jihadist Abu Adnan al-Saharaoui. Al-Saharaoui, a North African Arab, is the self-appointed Islamic Emir of the Great Sahara and affiliated with various terrorist movements, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Again, think Somalia, not Benghazi.
Jeremy Levitt is the distinguished professor of international law at the Florida A&M University College of Law. @drjeremylevitt