Last week Rachel Maddow offered a hypothesis about why a group of U.S. troops in Niger got ambushed by 50 ISIS militants after months of uneventful patrols. If you couldn’t guess, it’s basically “because Trump.”
Maddow dedicated a 25-minute in-depth segment to why the travel ban was to blame for the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger. If you’re just learning about the region, the theory is compelling. But if you know the region, it was reductive and irresponsible and belied a shallow, recently gained knowledge. (To show I’m not just digging in now, either, I’ve worked for an elite private geopolitical intel firm on global threat analysis. West Africa was at the forefront.)
Though Maddow built her segment on a grain of truth and presented it clearly and seductively, which is one of her great gifts, her conclusions are flawed. Of course much of her devoted audience has taken it as gospel, as have self-identifying “Twitter “journalists and more than a few left-leaning media outlets. Though her report isn’t “FAKE NEWS,” not deliberately false, it is misleading. It’s also misinformation, and misinformation can be dangerous, especially when based on thin and circumstantial evidence that targets someone we’ll take any reason to target. This is how we got Benghazi.
Though this part of the world is almost impossible for Westerners, including myself, to understand without actually living there, here’s a breakdown of what’s really going on with terrorism in West Africa.
Maddow’s basic hypothesis:
Chad, Niger’s neighbor to the east and historically an exceptionally effective counterterrorism partner in the region, withdrew troops from Niger as payback for being inexplicably included in the latest iteration of Trump’s “travel” ban. The weekend after Trump announced the new ban, beginning September 29, Chad started to withdraw hundreds of troops from Niger. This might have been payback for the ban, although the Chadian government says it was just a reallocation of forces to its northern border with Libya. The withdrawal took two weeks.
Five days after Chad begins pulling out, Maddow emphasizes, over and over, four U.S. troops were killed.
Maddow has since been called out by publications and regional experts understandably upset at the segment. She replied, saying, “The upset over my reporting doesn’t mean that anything I reported wasn’t true. Everything I reported was true. Now, this doesn’t mean that Chad withdrawing their troops was necessarily the cause of what happened to those U.S. troops who were ambushed. That ambush is being described by the Pentagon as a shock.”
She might not have said “the two are related,” but did she mean for us to take away that the two were related? Let’s listen to Maddow (starting around 17:00) in her own words:
Those Chadian troops pulling out immediately had an effect of emboldening ISIS attacks. And those troops started pulling out best as we can tell the last week of September…. Those troops from Chad got pulled on the 29th? Well right after that, that’s when U.S. Army soldiers got attacked by a large contingent of ISIS fighters in Niger, and four of them killed. That’s within days of the Chadian soldiers being withdrawn. So no wonder the President doesn’t want to talk about it, right?...
Maddow tacked onto this that the ambush was certainly “different in its result, and possibly different in its cause,” and that this “might explain why we have just had these four absolutely unbelievable gut-wrenching emotional days in American politics and in D.C. in particular.”
This wasn’t enough, though. She added a Trump administration conspiracy: Coincidentally, and conveniently for Maddow, the Chadian government recently fined Exxon for not paying taxes and royalties on oil extraction. At the time of the fine, Rex Tillerson was CEO of Exxon. Tillerson, now Secretary of State, influenced which countries were placed on the travel ban. Chad, for several reasons, was an odd outlier.
These facts have little to do with each other. Many are incomplete and misinformed. They’re all points of light, sure, but that doesn’t make them a constellation. Let’s go point by point.
Though Chad’s exit will in the future weaken the Nigerien security apparatus and jeopardize American operations in the region, it’s irrational to believe it jeopardized that patrol in Tongo Tongo. Chad only withdrew troops 800 miles from Tongo Tongo, in a region called Diffa.
Niger is the nexus of several countries with a strong terrorist presence: Chad to the east; Nigeria to the south; Mali to the west; and Algeria and Libya to the north. The expansive region is mostly desert, with a complex militant landscape that shifts like the sands it’s built on. The only troops Chad withdrew were stationed in Diffa, just north of the northeastern Nigerian border. They controlled militant attacks from a group called the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP; formerly known as Boko Haram), which in the past couple of years wreaked havoc in northern Nigeria and displaced millions of people there in total. Chad’s troops were originally in Nigeria, but when ISWAP began to launch cross-border attacks in Diffa the Chadian troops relocated and successfully put them down. ISWAP has a limited reach, anyway: Over the past year or so it has split into two infighting factions (only one aligned with ISIS) and has overall weakened.
But Tongo Tongo is nowhere near Diffa. It’s about 800 miles west. That region is dominated by French and U.S. special forces, who train, advise, and accompany Nigerien troops on patrol near the nation’s capital, Niamey, and the Mali border. Some Chadian troops help advise operations in Niamey and fight other terrorist groups in Mali, but Chad didn’t pull its troops from those areas. (At least not yet.)
Bottom line here: Chad pulled its troops from the ISWAP (Boko Haram) fight in Diffa. As a result, attacks from groups affiliated with ISIS have indeed increased in that region, and Niger’s counterterrorism capacity will get weaker. But this didn’t attack affect what we did in Tongo Tongo.
But what were we doing in Tongo Tongo?
U.S. special forces in western Niger and Chadian forces in the southeast both fought against groups affiliated with the Islamic State, but in reality these are entirely different groups. And Ms. Maddow, you’re wrong: They’re not “ISIS,” which stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. They’re different groups that have pledged to the Islamic State. Boko Haram itself had fractured into two groups, only one of which became ISWAP, which itself has no relation to the IS-affiliated group menacing western Niger and believed responsible for the attack on U.S. troops.
Also, the U.S. patrolled near the Mali border, where several different jihadist groups operate. Some have pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, and some to the Islamic State (globally, this pledge is often meaningless; a way for new militant groups to promote their brand), and none were affiliated with ISWAP in any meaningful way.
Also, ISIS is fairly new to this region. A group called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has dominated the area around Mali and recently absorbed a number of other regional jihadist and insurgent groups. ISIS has focused its North Africa efforts on cities in Libya and most recently Egypt. It makes sense, then, that Chad would withdraw from southeastern Niger, where ISWAP isn’t too interested in taking the fight to Chad, to focus on a growing threat at its northern border.
What’s more, all these groups splinter and shift allegiances all the time. It’s notable that today, a full two weeks after the Tongo Tongo ambush, we’re still not sure which group actually carried out the attack. The sophistication of the “double-tap” ambush suggests experienced field command, which, likely among other collected intelligence, leads us to believe ISIS was behind it. But it’s particularly significant that ISIS hasn’t claimed responsibility, because they’re desperate to demonstrate their effectiveness against the West in the face of heavy losses in Iraq and Syria. For instance, recall how quickly ISIS claimed responsibility for the Las Vegas attack, an absurd idea. It’s possible, though I’m not privy to current inside intelligence, that the group that carried out the attack isn’t affiliated with ISIS, or that if it is an ISIS offshoot was perhaps a group ISIS central doesn’t want to affiliate with.
Another option is that the fall of Raqqa crippled ISIS’s main media and propaganda channels, and they’re not capable of issuing a quick claim. That seems unlikely: Just take to Telegram.
Finally, many people imagine that al Qaeda and ISIS are either the same thing, or cooperate. They don’t. They hold different ideologies and fight with different goals and grand strategies. They compete with each other, like the Pepsi and Coke of jihad, and often fight each other, as they have been doing in Syria and Iraq.
In short, not only did the group that ambushed our troops operate nearly 1,000 miles from where the Chadians who were removed operated, it wasn’t the same group Chad was responsible for controlling in the southeast. Chad does help us in the Niger-Mali border region, but it didn’t pull out there.
Consider the timing. The ambush occurred October 4, about five days after Chad announced its withdrawal from Diffa. At the peak of Chad’s engagement, in 2016, it had 2,000 troops in that region, but by this September the number already had decreased significantly. Chad phased its troops out of Diffa over the course of two weeks, indicating that at the time of the ambush, Chad was just five days into a two-week-long withdrawal.
800 miles away.
Against a different group.
Though it’s true that Chad’s withdrawal from Diffa has created a security vacuum that militants will fill, that vacuum is far from Tongo Tongo and operationally immaterial. Diffa has already seen an increase in attacks from ISWAP. Unless security forces can restore order, ISWAP will grow stronger and Diffa will face more severe attacks. Such a trend would dilute Niger’s counterterrorism capabilities, which without Chadian support would eventually ripple across the country, but it’s far-fetched (to put it mildly) to imagine this could have affected Tongo Tongo given the disparities in distance and ideology.
Remember: Chad only withdrew from Niger. It’s still active in the Mali border region.
In fact, none of the reports from on-the-ground sources in Niger about Chad’s exit — one of them from Reuters published on the day of Trump’s infamous Niger press conference — have connected Chad’s withdrawal to any failures in the Tongo Tongo ambush.
(To be fair, I had to look up this word to stick with my theme. Polemology is the study of war.)
To be frank, Maddow’s apotheosis of Chad’s security forces is strange. They’re the most capable in that region, but given the persisting political instability in just about every other neighboring country, that’s not saying much. Mali, where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has dug in, has a weak central government incapable of patrolling its borders. Libya currently has three non-functioning governments that are useless against budding terrorism and insurgency threats. Niger itself experienced a coup in 2010.
The United States and France have a combined 5,000 or so special forces in and around western Niger and Mali. It’s remarkable to me that Maddow was willing to overlook the size and capabilities of those U.S. and French deployments, as if Chad were our guardian.
Though it’s true the rules of engagement we’ve negotiated with Niger limit the kind of firepower we can deploy, a deadly ambush of small-arms fire isn’t a failure of our special ops firepower. It’s a failure of collecting good intelligence, and the U.S. and France have easily some of the best intelligence capabilities in the world. Our ability to return fire was affected (most specifically French air support) but we were apparently taken way off our guard.
Our patrol that night reportedly didn’t have any drones overhead, perhaps a function of our overconfidence: U.S. forces hadn’t engaged militants on patrols in that region; and no U.S. soldiers had yet died in battle in Niger. As a result we’d ventured out of our comfort zone into a part of the country where militant activity was much higher. If we’d done the same thing with Chadian troops with us instead of Nigerien troops it likely wouldn’t have made much difference.
Finally, I’ll note that last Friday Trump enacted an Executive Order that allowed commanders to call up retired military to active service. This was reportedly for the Air Force, which is short about 1,500 pilots. And guess which kind of pilots they’re especially short on? Yup: Drone pilots.
This is perhaps the biggest reach of the entire Maddow segment: Rex Tillerson revoked Chad’s travel privileges to the U.S. because of a grudge he held from when Chad sued Exxon for not paying taxes. This plays into an increasingly eccentric narrative rooted in Russophobia about Rex and Exxon. Not that I trust Tillerson at all, and it is strange and dangerous that Chad was included, but this particular theory is insane.
Surprise! Rex “Revenge” Tillerson’s State Department objected to putting Chad on the “travel” ban. (So did the Pentagon.) Also, Chad wasn’t included on the first two travel bans. Why would Tillerson wait to make this recommendation (somehow contradicting the department he is in charge of) until the third ban, which wasn’t even planned to begin with?
Also, Maddow reported Chad sued Exxon for $74 billion. Billion. And what for? Failing to pay at max ~2% on the dollar. To give you an idea of how outrageous this fine was, Forbes calculated that Exxon probably exported somewhere around $74 billion worth of oil from Chad over the course of 13 years. Forbes concluded, obviously, that it was ridiculous.
This story is much more likely: Chad fined Exxon $800 million for the back pay on the $74 billion worth of oil they’d exported. As Forbes noted, the reporting must have gotten turned around at some point. Understandable, given the governing nuances that part of the world.
The truth about the Tongo Tongo ambush is that no one knows the truth. We do know some good questions to ask, though.
Why are U.S. troops fighting and dying in Niger? The U.S. has about 800 special ops “advisers” working with local forces. We’ve had drones there for many years. In fact we’ve had a military presence in West Africa since 2002. Today we help French and national forces fight al Qaeda and ISIS in Mali, Libya, and Chad, as well as in northern Nigeria, where factions of ISIS derived from Boko Haram have carried out several attacks. Niger, a militant transit node and natural resource hub twice the size of France, lies smack in the middle of those places and has its own problems.
As for dying, these are the first battlefield casualties the U.S. has suffered there.
Is the terrorist threat that big? Perhaps: Militants operate more or less with impunity in Mali and Libya, which border Niger, and ISIS is spreading in the region. We apparently see the regional threat as big enough to merit the ongoing construction of a drone base that an Air Force engineering squadron described as “the largest U.S. Air Force-led construction project of all time.”
Is that threat a true danger to our national security? Great national debate to have.
What role did private military contractors have in the ambush and evacuation, and why do we use them anyway? I’m all ears for this one.
Did our special forces act on bad intel? Intelligent question.
What were they doing apparently without backup in a militant hotspot? Another.
Did a village sell them out? Unclear.
What happened to Sgt. La David Johnson during the firefight? We don’t know and might not ever know the truth here, if he was alive or dead when French copters pulled our troops out; if he’d been captured; why it took two days to find his body.
Why didn’t we hear a statement from the Pentagon or White House for 12 days? No idea. The White House prepared an initial statement from President Trump, but it was written when three deaths had been reported, before information about Sgt. Johnson became clear. The White House then sat on it, and Trump said zippo.
We obviously don’t have the whole truth here, so let’s leave it at that, shall we? This story is already a mess, and it’s beyond irresponsible for a journalist to go mucking it up after a day or two of one-dimensional research on a story based on flimsy, fantastical, and flat-out false premises, presented in a way to direct our outrage onto familiar and concrete targets. Not everything is a conspiracy. Journalists have a responsibility to the facts.
I remember when Trump was first elected a quote circulated to the effect of, “In this era, to speak the truth is a radical act.” This was aimed at Trump supporters, but it applies to the left, too. Facts can disrupt anything and anyone. They’ll probably some day disrupt parts of this article. There’s a radical left and a radical right, but there’s also a radical centrism. Sometimes the shoe fits, sometimes it doesn’t, but when you find a story that clicks right into a preconceived narrative, it’s difficult to abandon it, especially when it’s about Trump being stupid, cruel, or corrupt.
Maddow wields tremendous influence over the left. Her segments are entertaining and comfort her viewers. I hope she realizes this, because it demands she take great care with sensationalizing her reporting, especially with a fluid and blurry story such as what went wrong in Niger.
Ms. Maddow, you owe it to Hillary Clinton: Don’t let Tongo Tongo turn into our Benghazi. Air a follow-up segment and complete your report.