In the Sahel, terrorists exploit ungoverned spaces and porous borders to attack vulnerable populations. These ungoverned spaces are safe havens and allow terrorists to threaten U.S. and Western interests, flout the rule of law, raid rural communities for food and weapons, and foment instability. Local security forces lack the capacity to mount an adequate response, making communities more vulnerable to terrorism. To hinder terrorists' ability to operate in these communities, the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (CT) is strengthening bonds between security forces and the communities they serve.
Niger is one strong example of how this works across the Sahel region. In addition to being a critical partner in the effort to combat Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa along its southeast border, Niger has invested its limited resources in countering violent extremism and led the international response to al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslim, and ISIS-Greater Sahara. However, Boko Haram, ISIS-West Africa, and ISIS-Greater Sahara spill into Niger from Mali, Libya, and Nigeria, launching attacks on Nigerien villages to steal supplies, murder and intimidate, and attack vulnerable, poorly equipped security outposts. Local populations often are aware of imminent threats, but do not have mechanisms to call the police for help.
CT has been working to address this critical security gap since 2016. By building communication tools between local community leaders and local security forces, we have helped each group develop the ability to report and respond to threats. In the event of an attack, CT’s emergency management training and equipment programs empower local communities to protect themselves while waiting for security forces – that are often too far from the remote villages – to respond to their call.
We are supporting exercises at the local and national levels that test and hone these new skills, helping Nigerien partners identify key lessons. In one simulation, for example, Nigerien security forces recognized that a mass migration emergency was the result of a terrorist attack, so they began to screen the population for terrorists. They quickly realized that only male law enforcement officers were available and had to rely on female civilians to help screen women. As a result of exposing this gap, subsequent exercises and real-world crisis response plans now include female law enforcement.
Improvement in communication between local populations and security forces is perhaps the most important result of this program. Threats or concerns that once may have gone unreported – or dealt with outside the legal system – are now reported to authorities. Communities will only report threats if security forces are trusted to respond properly in a way that protects civilians while respecting human rights. Terrorists often exploit grievances against security forces to recruit new members. It is critical that the Nigerien government, and its security forces in particular, demonstrate their commitment to public security and uphold human rights. This program has helped Nigerien government and security actors understand this very issue.
New channels of trust and communication between communities and security forces are producing tangible results. For instance, Nigerien law enforcement received reports of a weapons cache and seized the stockpile to protect the local community. In another case, a family giving aid to Boko Haram was reported by community members and subsequently arrested for providing assistance to terrorists. Elsewhere, a Boko Haram member defected to a local community leader, who delivered him to security forces for processing within the Nigerien criminal justice system. Such actions illustrate how Nigerien security forces are better protecting their communities from terrorist threats.
Improved internal communications strengthen our partnerships in this fragile region, hinder radicalization to violence, and prevent terrorism in the future. Through efforts and partnerships like this community resiliency program, Niger is gaining recognition as a strong counterterrorism partner.
About the Author: Jane Kaminski serves as a Regional Program Manager in the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.
Editor’s Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.