A few months before the July military coup that toppled Niger’s civilian government, a visiting team of American counter-terrorism officials dropped by the U.S. embassy in Niamey, the capital, where the CIA station chief briefed them on the security situation in the West African country. The visitors’ asked about the possibility of a military takeover in Niger, having in mind the government’s poor showing against Islamist militants and the coups that have plagued other countries in the region in recent years.
“Not gonna happen,” the station chief confidently assured them, adding: “Don’t worry, we got this.”
Fast forward to the morning of July 25. At another embassy briefing, American diplomats told NBC’s Courtney Kube that despite the Nigerien government’s reputation for corruption, it was still far more stable than others in West Africa. That wishful assessment of Niger’s political stability fell apart just a few hours later, when the country’s military leaders overthrew the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.
It’s no surprise that the coup in Niger—the seventh country in Africa’s Sahel region to be taken over by the military since 2020—blindsided both the CIA and U.S. diplomats. For years, the United States has seen Africa as a low strategic priority, posting relatively small numbers of diplomats, intelligence officers and troops there. President Biden has tried to reverse that policy, introducing ambitious plans to deepen diplomatic and trade relations with African governments as a way to compete with the China and Russia’s growing presence of China and Russia on the continent. But the burgeoning strength of Islamist militants across the Sahel, a roughly 3700-mile wide, semi-arid band stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, still remains the dominant focus of U.S. intelligence collection there, current and former U.S. officials say—not on the internal disputes or tensions between the region’s political and military leaders.
“Our intel is focused squarely on counter-terrorism,” Michael Shurkin, a former CIA Africa analyst, told SpyTalk. “We’re not spying on the military or the security forces. Though it’s well within their capabilities, the NSA is not listening in on the private phones of the Nigerien general staff and all of its general officers. They’re not focused on that. They’re focused on counter-terrorism.”