Eighteen Islamic State fighters were killed in a joint operation involving U.S., French and Niger troops near the border with Mali, Niger’s defense minister said in a Thursday statement.
That comes days after France and Mali said 20 “terrorists” were killed on the Mali side of the border during the same operation, and, in a separate June 20 release, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces gave additional information about the wider cross-border operation.
But a U.S. spokesperson told The Defense Post that U.S. forces were “not involved.”
18 ISGS fighters killed near Tongo Tongo
“A major joint military operation called ACONIT involving the Armed Forces of Niger (FAN) and Force Barkhane with the support of U.S. Partners” was conducted between June 8 and 18 “in the northern border region of Tongo-Tongo where a terrorist gang” from Islamic State of the Great Sahara (ISGS) were operating, the statement signed by Niger’s Minister of National Defense Kalla Moutari said.
It said 18 “terrorists” were “neutralized,” and five others, of whom three are Nigerien, were taken prisoner, while there were “no human or material losses” to report.
The group targeted were involved in the May 14 ambush in Balley Béri, near Tongo Tongo in northern Niger in which 28 soldiers were killed, the statement said.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the ambush two days later, saying fighters from its Islamic State West Africa Province affiliate killed and wounded 40 soldiers near “the artificial border with Mali.”
“Important materiel was recovered including equipment belonging to the Armed Forces of Niger which was taken by the attackers following the ambush,” the statement said.
On behalf of the president, Moutari congratulated “the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Niger and those of the French Armed Forces (Force Barkhane) who took part in this large-scale operation, as well as the American Partners, for their technical support,” and welcomed “the fruitful military cooperation between Niger and its strategic partners.”
US military denies involvement in Niger operation
Niger hosts an estimated 800 U.S. troops, the largest American deployment in Africa. The U.S. is building a large and controversial drone base known as Niger Base 201 in the northern city of Agadez, and Niger recently gave the Americans permission to arm their drones.
But Samantha Reho, spokesperson for the U.S. military’s Africa Command, told The Defense Post on Thursday that “U.S. forces were not involved in this operation,” and that AFRICOM was “tracking this open source reporting.”
Operation Aconit followed a June 8 attack on U.S. forces in Niger, when an American Oshkosh Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV) was struck by an improvised explosive device as it entered a firing range near Ouallam, which is around 85 km (53 miles) north of the capital Niamey. There were no casualties, Africom said. The area is near a major training camp where Nigerien soldiers train to serve in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, and the U.S. personnel were there for a joint training exercise.
ISIS said ISWAP fighters were responsible for that attack in issue 187 of its weekly al-Naba propaganda magazine which was released on Thursday, claiming that it “resulted in the death of a Crusader American soldier.”
The Tongo Tongo area, around 20 km (12 miles) from the Mali border, gained international notoriety in October 2017, after four American and five Nigerien soldiers were killed when their convoy was ambushed, an attack later claimed by ISGS.
Operation Aconit in Mali and Niger
Some information on the cross-border Operation Aconit – which is an apparent reference to deadly poisonous plants that include wolfsbane – had already been released by the French military on Monday, focusing on a joint Mali-France commando operation that killed 20 ‘terrorists’ in Mali’s Menaka area.
On Thursday, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces released additional information about the large-scale operation in Mali, which it said was conducted by soldiers deployed to Operation Barkhane, the France-led counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel, alongside the Armed Forces of Mali (FAMa) and the FAN between June 7 and 19 in the Liptako border region.
The Monday release had given some information about the operation on June 13 and 14, and more detail was added on Thursday.
The ministry said Operation Aconit was planned and conducted “with very little notice” and illustrating Barkhane’s “responsiveness and agility,” saying that it was carried out after a request from Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, in response to the Baley Beri ambush.
The “rapid exploitation of intelligence provided by the FAN made it possible to locate a large terrorist group in the Azambara forest on the Malian side of the border” and “a series of actions” was launched on June 13.
“The presence of FAMa and FAN liaison officers within the tactical command posts and at the heart of the subgroups contributed to the success of the operation, making it possible to effectively coordinate the efforts of the different forces” in the area of operation, which included the villages of Akabar, Taglal, Kosseye, Tongo Tongo, Tabarkone, Zongo Dey and In Foukareteine.
Barkhane deployed more than 400 personnel and nearly 100 vehicles from Desert Battle Group (GTD) “Edelweiss” from Gao and Menaka in Mali. A section from Mali’s armed forces and a company from Niger fought alongside the French troops in their own territories.
French helicopter commandoes conducted an airborne operation supported by a Tigre helicopter patrol and a Reaper drone, entering “a wooded area in the Azabara area to directly confront the terrorist group that had been spotted there.”
The Thursday release added that a French Atlantic 2 long-range patrol aircraft was also deployed to the area.
Air strikes were carried out by helicopters from GTD “Hombori 22” as well as by Mirage 2000 jets, and a sweeping operation was conducted by the armored GTD “Edelweiss” in support of the commandoes.
“This speed of execution and the rapidity of the maneuver” created a “shock effect on the clearly identified terrorist group belonging to the Islamic State in the Great Sahara,” forcing it into confrontation.
The Thursday release did not mention casualties, but the ministry said on Monday that three crew members were injured on June 14 when a Gazelle helicopter was “forced into an emergency landing.”
“More than 20 terrorists” were neutralized, and a large quantity of resources including more than 20 motorcycles, small arms, a rocket launcher and communications equipment were seized during the operation in Mali.
“The seized material confirmed the link between this terrorist group” and the May 14 Baley Beri ambush – optical devices “stolen from the FAN” were recovered, the French release said.
ISIS acknowledged Operation Aconit in Al-Naba 187, but played-down losses. Citing a “special source” who it said was at the scene, the propaganda magazine said ISWAP fighters clashed for several hours with Malian and “French Crusader forces” in the Akabar area of Menaka. The “source” said “a number of us were wounded,” but were able to withdraw safely from the area.
Al-Naba claimed that during the engagement a French helicopter was shot down “killing and injuring those aboard.”
Update June 22 The French Ministry of the Armed Forces gave additional information on the operation in Niger in a Friday release.
Over 10 days, 110 Nigerien soldiers and around 40 French parachute commandos near the Niger border carried out an “in-depth reconnaissance and action patrol … to dislodge and disrupt the activities of armed terrorist groups (GATs) in the region,” the release said.
Over ten days the patrols covered more than 450 km, and were resupplied by a U.K. Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter and tactical transport aircraft with more than 2500 litres of fuel, 250 rations and more than 2 tonnes of water.
The France-led operation is Niger is not the first involving the two states in northern Niger. Last December, around 15 ‘terrorists’ were killed in French airstrikes followed by two days of clearance operations on the ground near Tongo Tongo.
Insurgencies on two fronts in Niger
Niger faces insurgency on two fronts: the southeastern Diffa region near Lake Chad is increasingly frequently hit by Nigeria-based Islamic State West Africa Province insurgents, while Mali-based militants, some linked to al-Qaeda, are active in the west of the country and the wider Sahel region.
Attacks carried out by ISIS-affiliated militants in the Sahel have previously been attributed to ISGS but since May, Islamic State has attributed insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to ISWAP, rather than ISGS.
In a June 15 ISIS propaganda video, ISWAP militants purportedly in Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso were shown reaffirming their pledge of allegiance to ISIS.
Security is being significantly tightened in Niamey ahead of an African Union summit on July 7 and 8, with high-profile deployment of the military and police and checkpoints on the highways into the city, but attacks continue near the capital.
On June 3, Niger’s defense ministry said said five people including “two known terrorists” were arrested near the Niamey international airport two days earlier, and on Tuesday, two police officers were killed when gunmen attacked a police station between Ouallam and Niamey.
The recent unrest in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012 with Tuareg separatist uprising which was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north.
France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, but the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali, and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
The French mission evolved in August 2014 into the current 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel, and other nations including the United Kingdom and Estonia have deployed troops and aircraft to the mission. Troops deployed to Barkhane work alongside other international operations, including the roughly 14,000-strong MINUSMA mission in Mali, and the regional G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train and deploy up to 5,000 personnel from the five members – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
France maintains a military base near Niamey airport and another at Madama in the north.
With reporting from AFP