ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke about the firefight in Niger on Monday, he described the enemy as local tribal fighters associated with ISIS. We wondered how extensive ISIS's presence is in Africa and what being associated with ISIS means. So joining us is Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center. Welcome to the program.
PETER PHAM: Pleasure to be with you, Robert.
SIEGEL: First, in the area that the U.S. special forces team was operating, how active are ISIS-associated groups?
PHAM: Well, they're present. They've been present. They're not as powerful as and as extensive as the al-Qaida-linked groups. But they clearly are there, and they've been ratcheting up their attacks, as we've seen regrettably with the October 4 attack on the U.S. personnel there. Back in 2015, a small group of al-Qaida-associated fighters broke away and swore allegiance to the so-called caliph of ISIS, al-Baghdadi.
Interestingly, their oath of bay'ah or loyalty was not accepted for over a year until they proved themselves through a series of increasingly lethal attacks in the tri-border region area between Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, the very area where the recent attack took place. And about a year ago, they were formally recognized as a branch of ISIS.
SIEGEL: I mean, did the application sort of ask, how many infidels have you killed lately, and you have to show some answer?
PHAM: Apparently, and apparently they unfortunately had some success. It was a string of three very successful attacks last year that got them the recognition.
SIEGEL: So what does it mean that they're associated with ISIS? Do they have any fighters who've come down from the fighting in Iraq and Syria? Do they get weapons or support by virtue of being affiliated with ISIS?
PHAM: As far as we know, up to now, it's primarily a branding issue. It distinguishes them from a much larger body of extremists in the region who've come together in an umbrella group which earlier this year was recognized by al-Qaida as its regional affiliate.
Now, when the breakaway occurred back in 2015, we're talking about a couple dozen fighters. Apparently they've grown somewhat with these attacks because the attacks - the lethality plus the branding is a marker which attracts others to them. To date, we don't know of any outside resources flowing to them, but certainly with the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, Syria and parts of Libya, the potential does exist.
SIEGEL: But if a group, as you've said, changes from an al-Qaida affiliation to being an associate of ISIS, what does that change? What's the difference in our dealing with them?
PHAM: Well, Robert, you have to look at the timing. This occurred back in 2015. This was when al-Baghdadi was declaring the caliphate. It looked like ISIS was the group on the ascendancy. So these were a group of opportunists wanting to ride the coattails of what seemed to be the dominant movement within global jihadist extremism. Presently that may not seem like a very good bet after the loss of the territorial caliphate. So there's that. There are certainly differences in the interpretation of various parts of Islamist doctrine that I could get into. But if you will, it's a franchise.
SIEGEL: How important is Libya in the spread of this kind of violent Islamism in sub-Saharan Africa?
PHAM: Well, it's the vacuum created first by the intervention in Libya and the collapse of the Libyan state and subsequently the failure of any Libyan state to really emerge. That's created a vacuum that has flooded the region not only with fighters and unemployed trained soldiers but also literally a flood of weapons. And the squeeze that's been put on ISIS in Libya certainly will continue to push fighters south and into this Sahel region.
SIEGEL: How much do you think killing four American soldiers would embolden an ISIS-associated group in Niger?
PHAM: Two things, Robert - first, the killing of four Americans certainly will elevate their status vis-a-vis their al-Qaida - and there is a competition - don't mistake me - a competition for recruits and resources. And this is a feather in their cap, although it's a feather that comes with a price. They are now in the crosshairs of the United States military.
Second point I would make is the reason they were successful in this region in carrying out this attack is the governments of these countries have been weak. They've been unable to extend their governance much beyond the capital. So it's a literal ungoverned space. And add to that the complexities of this particular geography of three countries coming together in a very poorly policed frontier area, and this is an area where this type of activity is - these loopholes we're bound to be exploited.
SIEGEL: Peter Pham, thank you very much for talking with us today.
SIEGEL: Peter Pham is vice president of the Atlantic Council. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.