Tag Archives: CIA Mali

Favorite of the West: Niger as Police State

Niger Soluxe hotel

Niger, a poverty-stricken nation perched on the southern belt of the Sahara, is rapidly being transformed into one of the world’s most strategic security hubs….“This place is a nest of spies,” said one contractor … “Below the radar, it’s become a key country for the West.”  A surge in financial assistance from European nations seeking to stem the flow of African migrants has made Niger the world’s largest per capita recipient of European Union aid…Western military forces operate from at least nine bases in Niger, government officials said…. The U.S. is finishing a large air base in Agadez, while the Central Intelligence Agency has begun flying armed drones from an airstrip outside the northern town of Dirkou, Nigerien officials said.

U.S. and European policy makers praise the government as a good partner that has welcomed foreign military personnel and slashed the migrant flow by almost 90% from 2015 highs. …Locals, nongovernmental organizations and opposition activists say the government is using international backing to neutralize dissent and embezzle millions of dollars in aid, charges the government denies. The opposition—backed by rights group Amnesty International—says President Mahamadou Idriss Issoufou, in power since 2011, is arbitrarily jailing activists and spending Western aid on bolstering his elite Presidential Guard…

Swaths of the nation’s centuries-old transportation economy—the movement of people and goods from West Africa through the Sahara—has essentially been criminalized by the EU crackdown on migration.  Some of the desert-dwelling Tuareg people, who have transported goods for centuries, are now smuggling weapons, men and money for cash-rich jihadist insurgencies. Migrants are dying in the desert in failed attempts to find new routes.

“The West is pleased because Niger’s government is a willing partner,but as Niger’s security chief, Mohammed Bazoum, says “We have become a hinge country, a geostrategic hub, but it is a disaster for us. We are known as a land of terrorism and migrant traffic.”

Across Niger’s western border with Mali, jihadist groups including Islamic State and al Qaeda franchises control stretches of territory around the northern city of Gao. Along the southern frontier with Nigeria, a rejuvenated Boko Haram is mounting intensifying attacks against security forces, including around the city of Diffa, where the U.S. has dozens of troops stationed. To the north lies Libya, which has become a hotbed of instability, weapons and radicalization.

The European Development Fund last year awarded $1 billion to Niger through 2020, and unusually for a country governance watchdogs deem chronically corrupt, 75% is now infused directly into the Nigerien budget instead of through nongovernmental organizations.The money funds hundreds of off-road vehicles, motorcycles and satellite phones for Nigerien security forces as well as new infrastructure and technology along the borders and countrywide development programs.

In Niamey’s central Plateau district, tall black screens block the soaring new U.S. Embassy headquarters, which will be one of the largest in West Africa. Saudi Arabia has broken ground on its own huge mission, while buildings belonging to EU agencies occupy whole city blocks. Hotels and conference centers are rising in tandem, reconfiguring the economic and political landscape of a nation ranked the world’s second-poorest behind the Central African Republic.

The government says the building boom is creating jobs. Locals say it has stoked runaway inflation and priced them out of their neighborhoods. In the past year, the cost of a kilogram of rice has risen 29%, sending shock waves through homes where the average wage is $2.66 a day.

“The cost to live here rises with each new European coming,” lamented Abdulraham Mamoudou, repairing his motor scooter on a dusty corner near the expanding U.S. Embassy compound.

A similar pattern is playing out further north in the smuggling hub of Agadez, where the EU-coordinated migration crackdown has transformed a boomtown into a simmering bust.  The city’s jails are bursting with men who have been convicted of smuggling. Vast depots on the town’s outskirts house hundreds of trucks confiscated by authorities…“This place is now for the Americans and French,” said Sadiq, a former migrant smuggler who evaded arrest and is now unemployed. “They took our livelihood and don’t give us anything in return.”

Excerpts from ‘A Nest of Spies’: Niger’s Deserts Become Front Line of Fight Against Jihadis, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2018

Right-sizing the CIA in Iraq

The Central Intelligence Agency is preparing to cut its presence in Iraq to less than half of wartime levels, according to U.S. officials familiar with the planning, a move that is largely a result of challenges the CIA faces operating in a country that no longer welcomes a major U.S. presence.  Under the plans being considered, the CIA’s presence in Iraq would be reduced to 40% of wartime levels, when Baghdad was the largest CIA station in the world with more than 700 agency personnel, officials said.  The CIA had already begun to pull back in Iraq since the height of the war, officials said. But the drawdown, coming six months after the departure of American military forces, would be significant. The officials declined to provide exact numbers, give a breakdown of levels of analysts versus covert operators or say where agency workers would be redeployed, all of which are classified.

Proponents of the change say the CIA can make better use of its personnel in other areas. Those could include emerging terrorist hot spots such as Yemen, home to the al Qaeda affiliate the U.S. considers to pose the greatest threat to the homeland, and Mali, where an unstable government has fanned concerns.

The move comes amid worries over possible gaps in U.S. intelligence about the threat posed by al Qaeda in Iraq. Administration officials, diplomats and intelligence analysts have in recent weeks debated whether the militant organization is a growing threat after an internal government report pointed to a rise in the number of attacks this year, officials said.  The plan would also reduce the U.S. intelligence presence in the region as neighboring Syria appears to be verging on civil war. Al Qaeda in Iraq is also sending fighters to Syria to battle the Assad regime, Pentagon officials say.

The spy drawdown is part of a broader shift in U.S.-Iraq relations, with Washington moving to scale back diplomatic and training missions in the country. But it illustrates the limits of the Obama administration’s national-security strategy, as it steers away from ground wars and toward smaller operations that combine intelligence and special-operations capabilities.  Such a strategy relies heavily on cooperation from host governments, and as the CIA’s Iraq experience shows, cooperation can wane even where the U.S. has invested billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives.  The Iraqi government, including Iraq’s intelligence service, has scaled back its counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. as it asserts its sovereignty, U.S. officials say.  “If you don’t have that cooperation, you are probably wasting the resources you are allocating there and not accomplishing much,” said Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Near East analyst.

Backers of the drawdown say al Qaeda in Iraq doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S  [as they are involved in the battle for Syria?]. “This is what success is supposed to be like,” said a senior U.S. official who has worked closely with the Iraqis. “Of course we don’t want to have the same number of people after all U.S. troops go home that we had at the height of the war.”  A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. is in the process of “right-sizing” its presence in Iraq. Both President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have “made very clear that we’re going to continue to have a close and strong security partnership,” this official said.

The planned reductions at the CIA represent a major shift from the approach under consideration just six months ago. Late last year, the CIA and Pentagon were considering several options for CIA and special-operations commandos to team up in Iraq, according to current and former officials. One option was to have special-operations forces operate under covert CIA authority, similar to the arrangement used in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.  “There was a general consensus,” said a former intelligence official, “that there was a need for this in Iraq.” But as it became clear that the U.S. would withdraw all troops and that the Iraqi government was less inclined to accept an expansive CIA-special operations role, those plans were tabled. “It’s not going to happen,” said a U.S. official.  Iraq requires CIA officers to make appointments to meet with officials who were previously easily accessible, one of several obstacles that add to a mood of growing distance between the sides. The result is a degraded U.S. awareness about the activities of al Qaeda in Iraq, particularly at a tactical level, officials said.  “Half of our situational awareness is gone,” said one U.S. official.

Iraqi officials said they continue to cooperate with the U.S. on counterterrorism. Hassan Kokaz, deputy head of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s intelligence service, said the U.S. may be adjusting to the new “state-to-state” relationship between the countries since the military withdrawal in December.  “We have asked them to wear civilian clothes and not military uniforms and to be searched when they visit Iraqi institutions,” he said. “Perhaps they are not used to this.”  In the northern oil city of Kirkuk, police are pursuing al Qaeda-linked militants without needing U.S. special-operations forces or the CIA, said Gen. Sarhad Qadir, a local police commander.

Another senior Iraqi security official, however, said Iraqis don’t have the necessary surveillance and other technical capabilities. Iraqi forces also are plagued by clashing sectarian and political loyalties, the official added. “We need the Americans because they were able to work with all the [Iraqi] forces without exception,” he said.  The CIA drawdown would recalibrate the agency’s responsibility in the country away from counterterrorism operations and back toward traditional intelligence collection, with a sharpened focus on neighboring Iran, officials say. Baghdad will remain one of the agency’s largest stations, they say; Kabul is currently the largest. 

Excerpt, SIOBHAN GORMAN And ADAM ENTOUS, CIA Prepares Iraq Pullback, Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2012