NIAMEY, Niger – Under the watchful eyes of U.S. authorities, an elite group of local police officers in Niger's capital slipped into a home, rescued a "hostage," detained an "extremist" and pretended to kill another.
The police training in one of Africa's most remote, impoverished countries is crucial as extremists linked to the Islamic State group and al-Qaida carry out increasingly bold attacks in West Africa's vast Sahel region. In October, four U.S. soldiers and five Nigeriens were killed in an ambush claimed by Islamic State group-linked fighters in rural Niger.
Amid questions over the role of the U.S. military in this part of the world, there is a renewed focus on training local law enforcement officers in the hopes that extremism can be better countered at the community level and along borders. The challenges are great in Niger, where residents of its vast, largely ungoverned spaces say they are losing confidence in authorities.
As extremism grows "it's important not to lose sight of the issues at the core of their proliferation and recruitment success, notably bad and often abusive governance," said Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch's West Africa director. "The Islamist groups are cleverly exploiting local grievances to make inroads with local populations."
That includes abusive practices by local security forces, she said, calling efforts to professionalize them key.
The U.S. ambassador to Niger, Eric P. Whitaker, said the U.S. is addressing the "factors that create an environment for extremism" by investing more than $500 million over the next few years into local programs for better governance, education, health, agriculture, security and more.
The State Department's Antiterrorism Assistance Program also is addressing such concerns by training local security forces in everything from border control and investigations to human rights and justice.
After an attack killed 20 people at a luxury hotel in Mali's capital in November 2015, the U.S. invested $15 million in training nearly 100 local police in crisis response. They also were given the necessary equipment to respond to further attacks, according to Samuel L. Pineda, director in the office of programs with the department's Bureau of Counterterrorism.
The program has paid off, he said. Several of the trained officers responded during the March 2016 attack on the European Union military training mission's headquarters in Bamako. And during the June 2017 attack on a resort popular with foreigners outside the capital they helped to kill attackers and rescue victims.
"We want to create transparent forces and we want the people to trust those forces," Pineda said. "Nobody wants their local market blown up ... so if they have the trust of the population, the information comes back in."
In 2018, the Bureau of Counterterrorism will invest an estimated $106 million in sub-Saharan Africa.
About $50 million of that is dedicated to State Department counterterrorism programs in West and Central Africa, including ones in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Mauritania.
The crisis response program in Mali eventually will be replicated in Niger, where the Antiterrorism Assistance Program has dedicated roughly $10 million to training and equipment this year.
During the U.S. military's annual Flintlock counterterrorism exercises this month in Niger local officers put their training to the test, collaborating with Niger's gendarmerie and military as well as security forces from other West African nations.
The officers who participated in the raid in the capital, Niamey, are part of the Special Program for Embassy Augmentation and Response, known as SPEAR, which was created after the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya to train and equip host nation police units designated as first responders to U.S. diplomatic facilities in crisis. They also can respond to other attacks.
"We train them for an eventuality," said Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent Kent Miller, who manages the Antiterrorism Assistance Program in Niger. "In the current year and last year there has been a focus on rural environments."
The goal is to disrupt extremists at borders so they don't make it into more populated areas, he said.
In cities, the hope is that crisis response units and SPEAR officers will respond. They are provided with arms, ammunition, equipment, facilities for practicing raids, a gun range and mentorship.
"The importance of training is that it puts the elements of knowledge for reaction in our hands, and we can then apply them in real-world situations," said Djibril Ousmane, an assistant police commander in the capital.
The challenge, however, is that extremists also are giving money to communities to win them over, he said.
"It's difficult to fight poverty," Ousmane said. "With the right means, more can be done."
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