Islamic State Affiliate Claims October Attack on U.S. Troops in Niger
Posted January 13, 2018 4:49 p.m. EST
A group in northwestern Africa that is loyal to the Islamic State issued a statement Friday claiming responsibility for the October attack in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers who were on patrol with Nigerien forces.
The statement offered no explanation for the delay in claiming responsibility for the Oct. 4 attack, which U.S. officials had said was probably carried out by the group.
“We declare our responsibility for the attack on the U.S. commandos last October in the Tongo Tongo region of Niger,” said the statement, attributed to Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, who was a member of al-Qaida’s regional branch before pledging allegiance to the Islamic State nearly two years ago.
The statement was issued to reporters at the Nouakchott News Agency, a website in Mauritania to which fighters from Sahraoui’s group have previously sent missives.
The assault last fall was one of the most deadly recent attacks on U.S. soldiers in Africa. In addition to the four Americans, including two members of the Green Berets, five Nigerien soldiers who were with them on a joint mission were killed.
Details of the attack remain murky, and members of the patrol have given conflicting accounts of it. It is unclear whether the patrol was simply ambushed, or whether it was attacked after the troops were reassigned to support a separate, clandestine counterterrorism mission against Islamic militants in the area.
Aid workers and tourists have long been urged to avoid the area where the attack occurred, near Niger’s border with Mali, because of the presence of both al-Qaida- and Islamic State-affiliated groups.
In its statement sent to the website, Sahraoui’s group also claimed responsibility for an attack on a convoy of French troops in Mali on Thursday, which the French military said wounded three soldiers, according to Reuters.
The extent of Sahraoui’s ties with the Islamic State is unclear. The website in Mauritania that carried the group’s statement Friday is an outlet favored by Sahraoui’s former colleagues in al-Qaida, not by the Islamic State. The area in which Sahraoui’s group operates contains some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet, a landscape of undulating dunes where cellphone towers are few and far between.
“There is a lot we don’t know about how his operation connects back to the mother ship — what’s the connective tissue?” said Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst who has tracked the group for years as a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “There are a lot of possibilities and many factors in play.”
The remoteness of the area in which Sahraoui’s group operates, and the difficulty of getting reliable cellphone signals or internet access, could be one factor to explain the delay in releasing the statement. Another possibility is that the Islamic State’s media apparatus was disrupted after the group lost nearly 98 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria.
Additionally, there have been reports of unrest among from al-Qaida loyalists after Sahraoui made his pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. “There were even reports at one point that he was injured in a shootout with al-Qaida,” Joscelyn said.
Sahraoui cut his teeth in al-Qaida’s branch in the region, which reported to Osama bin Laden through letters that were carried across the desert by couriers. He joined the Qaida branch sometime in 2010, according to one account, and became a deputy to Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, one of al-Qaida’s most notorious commanders in the area and among the first to discover that foreigners were lucrative bargaining chips. He bankrolled his operations through kidnappings for ransom, pioneering a business model that was later adopted by the terrorist group in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
By 2011, Sahraoui was in charge of taking care of foreign hostages kidnapped by the group, according to Mariasandra Mariani, an Italian who was held by him for more than a year after her abduction in Algeria on Feb. 2, 2011.
He parted ways with al-Qaida in 2012, after the jihadis seized most of northern Mali. He resurfaced as the spokesman of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a separate jihadi group based in Mali, which merged with a third group in 2013.
Then in May 2015, he swore loyalty to the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But his video pledge was not released by the group’s news agency for more than a year, until October 2016. Since then, Sahraoui’s statements have not been promoted on Islamic State media outlets, including Friday’s claim, which was sent to the Mauritanian website. The Islamic State affiliate operating in Nigeria regularly succeeds in uploading messages and photo essays through established Islamic State media channels. That lack of a consistent media presence may suggest that Sahraoui’s unit has not been fully accepted by the Islamic State, or else that the group has not managed to establish the logistical ties that have allowed other affiliates to post statements and videos of attacks on its platforms.
In Bangladesh in 2016, for example, a relatively new affiliate was able to send images of an attack on a restaurant to the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency before members of the security forces broke down the doors and ended the siege. Survivors later described how the attackers had demanded that employees turn on the restaurant’s wireless network so that they could send their images.
Similarly last June, the assailants who broke into Iran’s parliament and the tomb of its revolutionary founder, managed to send a graphic, 24-second video to Amaq, showing them inside the building, walking past the dead and shouting Islamic State slogans.