Niger attacks and the Sahel’s shifting jihad
May 28, 2013 6 Comments
Against the odds and predictions of many analysts, Niger has, up until recently, been able to fend off the security crises that have shaken the Sahel over the last two years. However, with the near-simultaneous suicide attacks that struck two key northern areas — a military base in the key city of Agadez and the uranium mine in Arlit run by Somaïr, a subsidiary of the French nuclear giant Areva — this period of relative calm may have come to an end. While news is still emerging, this post is an attempt to provide context and a preliminary assessment of what we know so far about these attacks. I will also look at what the attacks signify regarding the evolution and current state of jihadist militancy in the Sahel, before briefly looking at the overall security environment in Niger.
The bombings took place in the early morning hours on Thursday, about 30 minutes apart. At Arlit, suicide bombers believed to have been in military uniforms snuck their truck into the compound before detonating their explosives, wounding 13 Nigerien Areva employees and killing one. In Agadez, northern Niger’s most important city and a nodal point for the military as well as licit and illicit business, the toll was far worse: the initial suicide bomb killed at least 20 soldiers and a civilian, while several fighters reportedly equipped with suicide vests took several Nigerien army officer-trainees hostage. It was not until the following morning that French Special Operations Forces intervened alongside Nigerien soldiers to clear the holdouts, but not before the militants executed three of the officer-trainees. While Niger’s defense minister initially denied that any hostages had been taken, as many as three jihadists and three hostages may have been killed in the assault. At least 25 people were killed in total, and at least eight jihadists may have been involved in the attacks, the first suicide bombings ever on Nigerien soil. The attacks were also among the worst security incidents in the region since the January 2013 assault on the Tigentourine gas plant in southern Algeria by fighters operating under former AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Just hours after the attack and an initial claim of responsibility by the AQIM spinoff MUJAO, it was Belmokhtar’s turn to claim that he too was responsible for the attacks. He followed a claim by his longtime media representative Hacen Ould Khelil (also known as Juleibib) with a written claim of responsibility sent to the Mauritanian Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI), and also posted on jihadist forums. The MUJAO statement referenced Niger’s involvement in France’s “war against shari’ah” and promised attacks in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Benin, while Belmokhtar’s statement on behalf of his Katibat al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those who Sign With Blood”) promised further attacks in Niger if they do not withdraw their forces from Mali. It also threatened attacks against other countries involved in peacekeeping and other operations there conducted by “columns of jihadists and martyrdom candidates…awaiting the order” to attack their targets. Juleibib, for his part, said that Belmokhtar himself supervised the “operational plan” for the attack. Both Belmokhtar’s and Juleibib’s statements described the operation as a joint attack by MUJAO and al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima. Juleibib added that the group of fighters involved jihadists from Sudan, Western Sahara, and Mali, and that the operation was named for deceased Saharan AQIM commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, long reputed to be locked in a rivalry with Belmokhtar for dominance in the Sahel.
Belmokhtar’s re-emergence caught many by surprise — at least those who believed the less-than-convincing assertions from Chadian officials and then President Idriss Deby, first that Chad’s forces had killed Belmokhtar in March in Mali, and then that Belmokhtar had “blown himself up.” If Belmokhtar’s role in these attacks are confirmed, it would mark the second time this year that he had staged significant and deadly attacks in the Sahel, attacks that have an increasing geographic footprint at a time when Belmokhtar and others linked to AQIM and a slew of other jihadist groups have also deepened ties in countries like Libya, from where Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou stated the Arlit and Agadez attackers crossed into Niger. And despite the persistence of “gangster-jihadist” headlines and monikers to describe Belmokhtar, he appears to have shown again his willingness and ability to stage attacks against well-protected and vitally important targets.
First, let’s look at what these attacks do (and don’t) tell us about militancy in the Sahel. On the surface, there are points of comparison to In Amenas — the heavy use of high explosives (400 kg at Arlit according to Le Monde), coordinated attacks on heavily-secured targets with an experienced, well-trained, and well-prepared group of fighters who almost certainly had up-to-date information about their targets and a level of local complicity or assistance in planning and staging the attacks, and attacks against targets of strategic importance to regional governments as well as Western countries.
The attacks showed, on the one hand, the continued close relationship between Belmokhtar and the fighters around him and MUJAO. Various sources disagree on when, exactly, the rapprochement between Belmokhtar and MUJAO took place; while MUJAO ostensibly started as a breakaway of AQIM, key leaders of the group included longtime Belmokhtar associates, and Belmokhtar made his headquarters in Gao, MUJAO’s base of operations in northern Mali, soon after the city fell. The two groups of fighters also collaborated militarily throughout last year and the Islamist offensive in Mali in January 2013, and some analysts have even described MUJAO as having initially been Belmokhtar’s initiative.
Regardless, the collaboration has no doubt helped propel MUJAO forward as an extremely active group in terms of military activity. Since the January offensive, MUJAO has claimed all but one of the suicide bombings and combined-arms attacks against Malian, French, and other African forces in Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu, and elsewhere. MUJAO and commanders close to Belmokhtar (notably Omar Ould Hamaha) have also been involved in fighting in places like In Khalil, Ber, and Anéfis against the Tuareg nationalist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), and has deployed suicide bombings to varying degrees of effectiveness.
The assaults in Agadez and Arlit, however, are notable for the scope and tactics deployed, as well as explicit decisions in targeting. The Niger attacks, unsurprisingly, far more closely resemble the siege at In Amenas (and earlier MUJAO attacks in the Algerian cities of Tamanrasset and Ouargla) than the more guerrilla-style engagements in northern Mali. For instance, the Agadez and Arlit attacks appear to have used vastly higher quantities of explosives than other engagements in Mali, and made more of an effort to plan assaults in a way that would create higher casualties and more damage, in particular to infrastructure. While the vast majority of those killed in the attacks died at the military base in Agadez, the attacks at Arlit reportedly seriously damaged the facility, shutting operations down for the moment at the Somaïr mine for at least two months, a shutdown that will cost an estimated 27 million Euro a month as the company continues to assess the true extent of damage there. Likewise, various reports from In Amenas have showed that at least one of the key goals for the attackers was to destroy or seriously damage the facility, not just to kill or abduct foreign workers.
In some ways, the Niger attacks marked not just a continuation but an escalation from In Amenas. Both attacks struck key targets in the energy industry, targets that were not just vital sites of foreign investment, but sites that were of key importance for both international governments but also for local governments. The Tigentourine site (which is still not fully operational nearly five months after the attack) provides close to 10% of Algeria’s natural gas and is exploited jointly by the Norwegian company Statoil and British Petroleum, though the latter have expressed concerns about their the level of security around oil and gas sites in Algeria. The Somaïr mine, meanwhile, is the largest of the Areva-linked mines in Niger, a country which provides approximately 37% of Areva’s uranium and nearly 20% of France’s uranium, in addition to 5% of Niger’s GDP. For a poor country whose biggest private company is Areva, as well as a rich country heavily dependent on nuclear power plants, uranium production in northern Niger is thus of extreme importance.
Moreover, while Arlit has been the site of AQIM activity in the past (notably the kidnapping of seven employees or dependents of Areva subcontractors in September 2010 and the theft in 2011 and 2012 of drilling and other heavy equipment) this attack marks the first attempt to seriously impact production and damage the site itself, much like In Amenas. However, the attacks exhibited differences in the specific use of violence. While the In Amenas attackers brutally executed some foreign workers outright and turned others into walking bombs, Algerian workers at the site were largely spared violence, something the attackers made a point of explaining to the workers. In Niger no such overt attempt to spare Muslims was made, though it is worth noting that Muslim soldiers are hardly a new target for Belmokhtar and AQIM, who have in fact long restricted their attacks either to foreign government targets or regional military targets, and whose units have clashed with Algerian, Mauritanian, Malian, and Nigerien military units. Still, the Agadez bombings and subsequent assaults show a more direct, effective, and planned assault on a major military base, something more familiar to Iraq or Afghanistan than the Sahel.
Rarely, however, have AQIM or AQIM-linked fighters attacked such heavily-protected targets. Since late 2010, France has quietly been increasing its Special Operations and other military presence in Niger and other Sahelian countries, with the troops serving in France’s Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS, more or less the French equivalent of the American JSOC) serving under the auspices of Operation Sabre. American and French (and possibly other) Special Forces have been providing training for Nigerien forces for years. Niger was part of the original four countries under the American Pan-Sahel Initiative, launched in 2002. And intelligence, support, and kinetic forces have been increasingly present in Niamey and points north, notably Agadez — where the American military initially wanted to base surveillance drones currently in Niamey — and Arlit. In addition to the 500 Nigerien troops in Arlit and the 5,000 soldiers on the border with Mali, there are reportedly 60 French SOF members in Arlit alone, likely part of the post-Operation Serval deployment of SOF to reinforce mining sites, including Arlit. Yet despite this impressive array of forces and security arrangements, Belmokhtar and MUJAO still opted to strike.
Niger and the region beyond
The attacks marked the emergence of Niger as a new terrain of combat operations for Sahelian jihadists, demonstrating the migration of fighting away from Algeria and Mali as well as providing more possible evidence of the emergence of southern Libya as a site for militant training, planning, and staging for operations in other countries. This is the continuation of a multi-year process of diversification of militancy in the Sahel. This period has seen splits and subdivisions within militant groups that has allowed for more targeted recruitment and a re-focusing of militant activity along broadly regional lines. In keeping with its stated foundational purpose MUJAO has expanded its operations in Sahelian or Saharan areas (Mali, southern Algeria, Libya, Niger, and possibly Chad), while AQIM, notably the northern Algeria-based katibat have adopted a lower public profile while moving progressively further east into Tunisia, among other areas.
The AP’s Rukmini Callimachi uncovered fascinating evidence of some of these internal splits and divisions in Timbuktu, including a letter from AQIM’s shura chastising Belmokhtar for a litany of purported slights. These critiques focused in part on Belmokhtar’s failure to follow orders, but also failure to stage a large-scale “spectacular” attack, a supposed deficiency many specialists noted Belmokhtar may have been trying to fix first with the attack at In Amenas and now in northern Niger. It is notable, then, that Belmokhtar decided to name the attack after his erstwhile rival Abou Zeid, a sign of conciliation and unity among Sahel-based jihadists after the splits of the last year that could also be seen as a snub in the direction of AQIM in the north — though we should be careful not to read too much into a name. What is clear, though, is that jihadism in the Sahel has bled progressively into new areas even as groups shift and change orientation, all the while continuing to draw in a diverse cross-section of actors and even groups.
Looking at this new map of jihadist activity in North Africa and the Sahel, it would be premature to posit a clean distinction between these groups nor the emergence of what some have termed an “arc of instability” in North and West Africa, but rather to show the diversification and spread of these movements among other salafi-jihadi groups that have emerged in the Maghreb and Sahel and have either sent fighters to places like northern Mali for combat and training or otherwise come into contact and forged relationships with their more-established counterparts. This is an ongoing process that has already had a marked influence in militant attacks from Libya to northern Nigeria, one that will continue to evolve and impact parts of the region in different but serious ways.
This impact will likely be felt in an acute way in Niger. For the past two years, Niger has juggled an almost impossibly complex security situation. The government of Mahamadou Issoufou has dealt with the fallout from the crisis in Libya, including the return of hundreds of thousands of fighters and workers as well as the loss of remittances and patronage, the collapse of Mali next door, a worsening of the security situation on the southern border with Nigeria, and according to interviews in Niamey last month the rumblings of unrest in Toubou areas in northeastern Niger. And now, despite having a fairly professional and well-trained military, not to mention intelligence, material, and combat support from Western countries, a well-trained group of fighters was still able to penetrate and damage two heavily-protected and important areas.
Increased attacks in the country, whether in the north or in the capital, would increase the strain on a government that already prioritizes security issues (albeit with good reason). Niger’s defense budget, which occupies 10% of the total budget, has been increased twice in two years, and nearly half the armed forces are either in Mali or on the border with Mali. Further unrest in Niger or on the borders will make things increasingly difficult for the country to muddle through, despite its intelligent handling of past crises and maneuvering over the last two years. This is a particularly acute concern in light of evidence of local radicalization and Nigerien recruitment to MUJAO, the reports of increased connections over the past several years between AQIM, MUJAO, and Boko Haram, and the increased Boko Haram activities in northern Nigeria.
Many questions remain about the attacks last Thursday and their effect on the region. We will get answers to some of those questions, but not all. But the attacks in northern Niger have once more shown the determination of militants to stage significant attacks, cast a light on the changing nature of militancy in the Maghreb and Sahel, and shown the persistent security challenges facing the region’s fragile states.