A “Great victory to the assets of our special forces”. It was with a tweet that President Donald Trump, vying for re-election on Tuesday, praised the action of American forces in northern Niger. Carried out in the night from Friday to Saturday, the operation indeed allowed the release of an American citizen who was detained four or three days by a group of armed men.
The raid was carried out by soldiers among “Our bravest and most skillful fighters”, also welcomed the head of American diplomacy, Mike Pompeo, without specifying the identity of the perpetrators of the kidnapping.
The ex-hostage, Philip Walton, will soon be able to find his relatives. This son of a missionary lived in Massalata, a village located a few kilometers from the Nigerian border. Shortly after his kidnapping, the kidnappers called his father to ask him for “a ransom”, as the prefect Ibrahim Abba Lélé explained.
Americans in support of Operation Barkhane
The Americans are present in this area of northern Niger, notably through two drone bases, which constantly fly over the Sahel and provide invaluable support to the French anti-jihadist Barkhane force.
In October 2017, four American Special Forces soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush in Tongo Tongo, near Mali, in southwestern Niger, when officially the United States had no troops in ground operation. This attack was claimed by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS).
The Sahel, theater of repeated kidnappings
The Sahel is regularly the scene of kidnappings of Westerners by jihadist groups. On October 8 in Mali, the French Sophie Pétronin and two Italian hostages, one of whom had been kidnapped in Niger, were released, but several remain detained in the Sahel. Among them, the American humanitarian Jeffery Woodke kidnapped in Niger in October 2016 in Abalak, about 200 km north of Birni Nkonni.
However, the area in which Philip Walton was kidnapped is far from the usual reach of jihadist groups. It is an area of active smuggling and banditry, due to the porosity of the border between Niger and Nigeria.
In August, six French aid workers and two Nigerians were murdered 60 km west of Niamey in the Kouré nature reserve, an attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.