During the early hours of 31 October 2020, United States Navy SEALs from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), parachuted from Air Force Special Operations aircraft, and conducted a successful rescue operation of an American hostage in northern Nigeria killing six of the seven captors. The hostage, 27-year-old Philip Walton, had been kidnapped in front of his family at his home in the village of Massalata in neighboring Niger on 26 October by armed gunmen, who intended to sell him to armed terrorist groups in the area.
In 2020, Niger experienced a multitude of attacks by extremists linked to both Islamic State (IS) groups and Al-Qaeda. About two months prior to the kidnapping of Walton, IS-linked militants killed six French aid workers and their Niger guide while they were visiting a wildlife park near the capital Niamey. Additionally American aid worker Jeffery Woodke was kidnapped from Abalak in October 2016, and is believed to be held in Mali.
Philip Walton is an American citizen and the son of missionaries, who has lived in Massalata with his wife and child for two years. His father lives in Birni-N’konni, and has lived in Niger for about 30 years.
Walton was kidnapped by six men armed with Kalashnikovs, from his farm in Massalata in southern Niger in the early morning of 27 October 2020. The kidnappers initially demanded money from Walton, but abducted him after he was only able to offer US$40. The kidnappers then demanded a US$1 million ransom from Walton’s father via a phone call.
The Nigerian Interior Ministry announced the incident via a statement read on national radio, which claimed that the kidnappers had searched Waltons home before fleeing with him. The country sent additional security reinforcements to the area and began efforts with the United States to secure the release of Walton.
Walton was rescued on 31 October 2020, in northern Nigeria. Officials from the US Department of Defense and US Department of State have not linked the kidnappers to any terrorist organization.
US President Donald Trump hailed the operation and the rescue team on Twitter, where he said that the operation was a “big win for our very elite U.S. Special Forces” and added “[…] we got our young man back.” Trump also referenced the rescue at a campaign speech in Pennsylvania stating; “The kidnappers wished they had never done it.” and “…we got our young man back.”
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also reacted on Twitter where he described the operation as “outstanding.” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany spoke on Fox & Friends about the rescue and stated that the president prioritizes the safety of American citizens.
Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and retired CIA officer, said “These types of operations are some of the most difficult to execute. Any mistake could easily lead to the death of the hostage. The men and women of JSOC, and the CIA should be proud of what they did here. And all Americans should be proud of them. “ Eric Oehlerich, a retired Navy SEAL, said, “Men in these top-tier special forces units train their entire adult lives to be ready when called upon, hostage rescue operations are inherently dangerous. Those men put someone else’s life above their own, they do so selflessly….it’s an illustration of utter commitment.”
Niger kidnapping signals Salafi-jihadis’ growing influence in West Africa
Salafi-jihadi groups’ strengthening in West Africa is incentivizing attacks on foreigners, even in areas where Salafi-jihadi groups have a limited presence. Six criminals kidnapped an American farmer, Philip Walton, in southwestern Niger near the Nigerian border on October 27. The kidnappers, who were not themselves members of a Salafi-jihadi group, demanded nearly $1 million and threatened to turn Walton over to Salafi-jihadi militants if the ransom was not paid. US Special Operations Forces rescued Walton on October 31. The kidnappers’ threat reflects the growing influence of Salafi-jihadi groups in the border region of northwestern Nigeria and southwestern Niger.
Salafi-jihadi groups are increasingly active in and around the region of northwestern Nigeria and southwestern Niger where Walton was kidnapped. Three groups are active in this area. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) has two branches: one based in northeastern Nigeria and its environs, and one based in the tri-border area of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The latter group is commonly referred to as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Al Qaeda–linked Ansaru also operates in northwestern Nigeria.
All three groups have recently resumed activity in or advanced toward northwestern Nigeria. On August 9, ISGS killed eight French aid workers in southwestern Niger’s Giraffe Zone, expanding its operations to an area previously considered safe. ISWA is already active in southeastern Niger and regularly claims attacks in Niger’s Diffa region and in northern Nigeria. ISWA’s area of operations may be expanding westward, and the group is active in regions outside its control.
ISWA may also be competing with Ansaru, an al Qaeda–linked group that resurfaced in northwestern Nigeria in 2019. ISWA and ISGS have recently stepped up attacks targeting foreigners and aid workers. US security forces rescued Walton in Nigeria, which may indicate the kidnappers’ intent to transfer him to ISWA.
Two major areas of Salafi-jihadi activity may be merging across northwestern Nigeria. ISGS’s eastward shift and ISWA’s westward advance could connect the two main areas of Salafi-jihadi activity in West Africa and increase interaction between the two groups. This interaction could include sharing tactical and strategic guidance, accessing each other’s safe havens to weather counterterrorism pressure, or even coordinating joint attacks.
Salafi-jihadi groups will likely benefit from lucrative illicit economic activity along the Niger-Nigeria border. The area of Walton’s kidnapping is a key crossing point for trafficking and smuggling, including the moving of migrants toward the Maghreb and Europe. A greater presence along the Niger-Nigeria border may allow a Salafi-jihadi–criminal nexus to exploit these routes for transit and profit-making. Salafi-jihadi groups may also expand ties with local criminal groups to facilitate their expansion into new areas.
Rising Salafi-jihadi threats in West Africa will increasingly strain Niger, a US partner. Niger is already fighting Salafi-jihadi groups on two fronts and may now confront the merging of these two theaters along its entire southern border. Niger is a key player in counterterrorism efforts in West Africa and contributes troops to counterterrorism missions in Mali and Nigeria. Niger also hosts US and French forces. A serious uptick in Salafi-jihadi activity in Niger could worsen its already struggling economy by disrupting tourism and targeting the significant humanitarian presence in the country.