Witnesses reported Friday that Nigeria’s Boko Haram militant group has attacked a town in neighbouring Niger for the first time.
The attack targeted the Nigerien border town of Bosso, which is located just across the border from Nigeria. Fighting broke out around 9:00 AM (0800 GMT). According to one resident, locals “…can hear the sound of weapons all around the town…” adding “there is the noise of heavy weapons and of light arms, making our houses shake.” Yacouba Soumana Gaoh, governor of the regional capital of Diffa confirmed the attack, stating that troops pushed back the attack by the end of the morning, adding that by noon, order was restored. On the ground sources have reported that Niger’s army, alongside troops from Chad who have been stationed in Bosso since Monday, took on the Nigerian armed militants, adding that Boko Haram “took the municipality” for a time before being “driven back to Nigeria.” The attack comes as Niger’s parliament in the capital city Niamey is due to vote on 9 February on a proposal to send troops to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram.
Friday’s incident is the militant group’s second attack on a neighbouring country in the past two days. On Thursday, Boko Haram militants reportedly killed at least seventy people in an attack on the town of Fotokol in Cameroon. According to local officials, the militants attacked civilians in their homes and in the town’s mosque, setting many buildings on fire, including the mosque. Residents of Fotokol have reported that the militants had killed many people by slitting their throats. The militants were eventually driven back by Cameroonian troops, backed by Chadian forces, who had been deployed to the nearby Nigerian town of Gamboru as part of a regional force. The attack came a day after a regional force indicated that it had driven the militants from a Nigerian town located near Fotokol.
On Tuesday, Chadian army disclosed that its troops had killed more than 200 militants in a battle to recapture Gamboru. Officials did note that some of the militants had escaped the offensive. Chadian troops have entered Nigeria and Cameroon to join the fight against Boko Haram.
The latest attacks come as Nigeria’s influential council of state announced Thursday that it has decided to go ahead with the presidential elections on 14 February, rejecting calls for a postponement.
Last month, Nigeria’s national security adviser had called for a delay to allow more time for voter card distribution. Officials have also raised their concerns over the on-going insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, which in recent months has seen Boko Haram mount its attacks both in Nigeria and in neighbouring Cameroon. However Imo state governor Rochas Okorocha indicated Thursday that election officials have insisted that they are “very ready.” Reports also emerged Thursday that a Nigerian government spokesperson disclosed that intelligence reports have indicated that the militant group is planning steal voter cards from women in a bid to use them to get suicide bombers into polling stations. In recent months, Boko Haram has increasingly been using female suicide bombers to carry out deadly attacks across northeastern Nigeria.
New information has revealed that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the militant leader responsible for the bloody siege on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in January 2013, is alive and plotting new attacks from Libya. The report contradicts earlier intelligence suggesting Belmokhtar had been killed in fighting in Mali.
Belmokhtar, a native Algerian, was a key member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until political infighting lead to a fallout with Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar split from the group and formed Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade (aka: Masked Brigade, aka: Signatories in Blood). Over the past year Belmokhtar was known to be working with Islamist group MUJAO to drive the Taureg separatist group, MNLA, out of Gao in Mali. His aim was to expand his land base and increase the numbers in his brigade. However a French-led intervention in Mali successfully put down the rebellion, and Chadian troops claimed to have killed both Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid in March of last year. The US however, still offered a five million dollar reward for information leading to his detention.
A security source in Niger and another close to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) have confirmed that Belmokhtar has left Mali and taken refuge among armed militias in Libya. Belmokhtar is has evaded detection in Mali where French troops and US drones were searching for him. One source has stated, “From the Libyan territory, he intends to control the entire Sahel,” and many sources beleive that Belmokhtar is planning attacks on Westerners and their interests. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita believes that if Belmokhtar is in Libya, he posts an “obvious threat” to the entire region.
Malian Analyst El Hadj Konate warns, “Even if he has retreated to Libya, he is still masterminding deadly operations in northern Mali […] he has all the time he needs to regroup his forces because [Libya] is a lawless area.”
Officials in Niger are particularly concerned. On 23 May, 2013, a double attack was carried out on a military base and a French-operated uranium mine in northern Niger, killing several dozen people. Niger shares a long border with the relatively lawless Libya. Southern Libya, according to Niger’s interior minister, “has become an incubator for terrorist groups.”
The Nigerian government is increasing security and development in the north of the country, and focusing on issues including the addressing marginalisation of Tauregs in the area. However, officials fear that the youth of the nation could be influenced by terrorist recruiters.
Niger’s interior minister recently called on France and the United States to help “eradicate the terrorist threat” in Libya. However, the Chief of Staff for the French military has suggested that an international operation in the region could avert the creation “of a new centre of gravity of terrorism”.
Despite an appeal for intervention from neighboring Niger, on Monday officials in France announced that, for the time being, they ruled out Western military action against Islamist fighters in southern Libya.
Asked about Niger’s recent call for action, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated Monday that there was no question of putting foreign troops into a region that the United States has identified as an increasingly worrisome new haven for al-Qaeda-linked militants. However the French Minister further noted that while France has ruled out Western military action, Western powers are aware of the problem and are drawing up plans in order to help the Libyan government deal with this issue.
Speaking in Paris, Mr Fabius stated “…we are going to have an international meeting in Rome at the beginning of March to give Libya more help because its true that there are terrorists gathering in the south.” Mr Fabius further indicated that officials from Britain, Germany, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and the United States were all involved in talks on aid the Libyan government, adding “we have to fight terrorism everywhere….That does not mean we have to have people on the ground, it means we have to help governments that want to get rid of terrorism, which is the case with the Libyan government.”
The response by officials in France comes after Niger last week called on the West to finish the job they had begun in Libya by dealing with those Islamist groups that have established bases in the southern region of the country since the 2011 overthrow of former dictator Moamer Kadhafi. The call by the Niger government comes shortly after an annual intelligence report, released in December 2013, which indicated that the United States had stated that southern Libya had become an “incubator” for terrorism in a “hothouse” region and described a possible intervention as “within the bounds of the possible.”
A poor, but mineral-rich former French colony, Niger has had to contend with numerous Islamist attacks and kidnappings on its own soil, some of which have threatened the security of its uranium production.
According to residents, an air strike in southern Somalia has killed two senior al-Shabaab commanders. Meanwhile in Niger, a number of travellers are feared to have died of thirst while attempting to cross the Sahara on their way to Europe.
According to local residents, an air strike destroyed the vehicle of al-Shabaab militants who were travelling in between the towns of Jilib and Barawe, which is seen as a major base of al-Shabaab. A Kenyan military source has indicated that their troops raided Jilib however it is unlikely that they carried out the airstrike. Reports have indicated that the strike was probably a drone attack. Jilib is located some 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the port city of Kismayo. The air strike comes weeks after the US launched a failed raid in Barawe earlier this month. The US was believed o have sought to capture al-Shabaab commander Abdukadir Mohamed Abdukadir, also known as Ikrima, whoever US commands were forced to retreat after meeting heavy resistance. Ikrima is an al-Shabaab leader who is responsible for logistics. According to residents of Barawe, he is known to be usually accompanied by about twenty well-armed guards.
The US has previously carried out a number of air strikes in Somalia. In 2008, a US strike killed al-Shabaab commander Aden Hashi Ayro. One year later, another strike killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. He was accused of being involved in the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi along with the 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombasa.
Meanwhile in Niger, officials have stated that dozens of people traversing the Sahara desert, on their way to Europe, are feared to have died of thirst. According to the governor of Agadez, five bodies have been found while a further thirty-five are missing after a vehicle carrying the passengers broke down, forcing them to set off in order to seek help. The bodies found are of two women and three girls aged 9 – 11. The rest of the travellers consisted of “entire families, including very many children and women.”
Reports have indicated that after one vehicle broke down, passengers went to look for spare parts in order to bring them back for repairs. It is believed that the migrants broke up into small groups. Days later, the survivors, who reached Arlit, a town known for its uranium mining, alerted the army however the troops arrived too late at the scene. The authorities have called off the search for the missing. According to the mayor of Agadex, Rhissa Feltou, two vehicles had left the town of Arlit, which is located north of Agadez, earlier this month. They were carrying “at least” sixty migrants. The city of Agadez lies on one of the main migrant routes from West Africa to Europe.
Over the past month, hundreds of migrants have died after their boats sans as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
On the ground sources have indicated that gunfire broke out at a paramilitary barracks in Niamey, the capital of Niger, with sporadic shots lasting for about one hour. According to statements from local residents, “the shooting began around 21:30 local time (2030 GMT).” Sporadic gunfire could be heard for an hour and then the sounds of shooting stopped. At the beginning of this year, the camp hosted troops from Chad who were at the time on transit to Mali where they have since fought jihadist militants alongside French and West African forces.
Military and government officials could not be reached in order to provide further details, and it was not immediately possible to indicate whether the gunfire was linked to a number of recent attacks in the country which have been carried by Islamist militants. Since the incident, the area around the gendarmerie camp in the northern regions of the capital has been almost deserted. A jeep carrying paramilitary members was seen travelling in the direction of the city centre. A road block has also been set up at the road which heads to the northern part of the city.
With a number of violent attacks occurring in northern Niger of the past month, citizens of the country have begun to express fears of a “war on terror” in their homeland. Tensions were raised by two suicide bombings on May 23 in the north of Niger. The attacks targeted an army base in Agadez and a uranium mine at Arlit which is run by French nuclear giant Areva. More than twenty people were killed in those attacks. Earlier this month, government officials confirmed that twenty convicts escaped during a jailbreak from a prison in Niamey.
Responsibility for both suicide attacks, the first to have occurred in the west African country, have been claimed by two armed Islamist groups: the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Signatories in Blood. Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reported to have organized the two bombings, has threatened to attack Niger again, together with any other country that has troops stationed in Mali, where a French-led military intervention launched in January has seized back control of the northern towns from groups linked to al-Qaeda.