In what appears to be a third attack carried out by suspected Islamist militants, officials in Niger have confirmed that twenty-two inmates escaped from the main prison in Niger’s capital on Saturday. This latest attack comes just days after Islamist militants claimed responsibility for two suicide attacks that were carried out on a military base and a uranium mine in northern Niger on May 23. At least twenty-five people were killed in those attacks. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and an al-Qaeda affiliated group, the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, which is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, have claimed responsibility for the two attacks, indicating that they were in retaliation for Niger’s military intervention in Mali, which effectively drove them out of the northern regions of the country earlier this year.
Justice Minister Marou Amadou has confirmed that during Saturday’s prison break in Niamey, three guards were killed. Although there are conflicting reports pertaining to the events surrounding the prison incident, sources have indicated that weapons had been smuggled into the jail while some of the escapees were prisoners who were facing terrorism charges. According to Niger’s Justice Minister, “it has emerged from initial investigations at the site that the aggressors obviously benefited from outside complicity regarding the weapon introduced into the prison.”
Officials have indicated that the attack began when a prisoner, believed to be a Sudanese member of MUJAO, grabbed a gun from a guard and proceeded to shoot three guards and a civilian. Members of the group who were stationed outside the prison then proceeded to open fire. Sources have indicated that four inmates inside the prison had participated in the attack. Residents reported seeing gunmen firing at guards at the entrance to the prison at around 15:00 local time. Nigerien gendarmes later arrived at the prison in order to help the guards, who remained under fire for about forty-five minutes, while police blocked off all roads leading to the facility.
While little information about the prison escapees has been released, officials have confirmed that Malian national Cheibane Ould Hama, who was convicted of killing four Saudi tourists and a US citizen, was amongst those who escaped. Hama killed four Saudis in an attack on a convoy that was travelling near the border between Mali and Niger in 2009. He killed an American national in 2000 in front of a bar in Niger’s capital. Officials have confirmed that he is currently being “actively sought.” The escaped prisoners are a danger to the region and officials in Niger have called on the citizens of all countries in West Africa to “remain calm” and to exercise their “duty to be vigilant.”
Although Niger has seen a number of kidnappings and attacks occur on its territory in recent years, a number of which have been claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the latest string of attacks are directly linked with Niger’s participation in the ongoing war in Mali. Consequently, it is likely that such attacks will continue to be carried out and will likely target Westerners and Western interests.
In a separate incident, officers from Niger’s anti-terror squad killed one person and wounded another on Sunday when they opened fire on what they have indicated was a suspicious-looking four-by-four with tinted windows that had been driving back and forth in front of their headquarters. According to Niger’s Justice Minister, the officers had given the “usual warnings” before firing the shots in order to stop the vehicle. He further indicated that the car’s two other occupants have been taken into custody.
With three attacks occurring in Niger over the last two weeks, MS Risk advises against all travel to the following regions of the country: all areas of the country north of the city of Abalak, including the Air Massif region; the province of Agadez (including the road linking Assamakato Agadez and the city of Agadez); areas of Tahoua province north of the city of Tahoua, including the city itself; the area of Tillaberi province north of Niamey, including the road from Niamey to Gao and the road from Niamey to Menaka; areas within 40km of the border with Nigeria in the provinces of Diffa, Maradi and Zinder. There is a high threat of terrorism and kidnapping in Niger. Any companies and employees currently in Niger are advised to remain vigilant and to continue to monitor the developments.
Ghana’s President John Mahama has warned that Islamist militants pose a threat that could destabilise the whole of West Africa. This announcement comes just days after Niger’s President indicated that Islamist militants, who attacked two sights in Niger, had come from southern Libya. It also comes at a time when Nigeria’s army announces that armory belonging to the Lebanese group Hezbollah is discovered in northern Nigeria.
Ghana’s President Mahama has indicated that while his country has not directly been affected by the threats, no country in the region was safe if an insurgency were to take place in the region. He further stated that while the French-led military operation had helped secure stability in Mali, the conflict was far from being over, stating that “there is the danger of asymmetric attacks like we saw in Niger the last few days, and so it is a matter that worries all of us in the sub-region.” In turn, the operation to drive out al-Qaeda, and other allied Islamist groups, from northern Mali had showed how the whole Sahel region had “become an attractive foothold for insurgents.”
Meanwhile in Nigeria, an army spokesman, Brigadier Gen. Ilyasu Isa Abba has confirmed that a cache, including 11 anti-tank weapons, four anti-tank mines, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and 21 RPG missiles, 17 AK-47’s, two sub-machine guns and 76 grenades, have been found in a warehouse in the northern city of Kano. He further indicated that three Lebanese nationals have been arrested while a fourth is still at large. According to a military statement, one suspect, Mustafa Fawaz, was arrested on May 16 and his “confession unveiled other members of the foreign terrorists network.” A second suspect, Abdullah Tahini, was arrested several day later while attempting to board a flight to Beirut from the airport in Kano. The third detained Lebanese national, Talal Roda, was arrested at the Kano home on May 26 while the fourth suspect, who has been identified as Fauzi Fawad, remains to be at large. Nigeria’s State Security Service has stated that the weapons were intended to be used against “Israeli and Western interests,” with Bassey Ettang, director of the State Security Service in Kano, noting that “this is the handwork of Hezbollah.” He further indicated that “investigations are still ongoing to determine” if the Lebanese nationals “are really connected to Boko Haram.”
This is the first time that Nigerian authorities have alleged that Hezbollah has had an operational interest in the country. Kano, and the north-eastern region of Nigeria, have suffered multiple attacks in the last three years, ever since the home-grown Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, launched an insurgency. According to Mr. Ettang, “you can be sure that if a group like this is existing then it may even lend support to some of the local terrorista we have on the ground.” Hezbollah is a Shiite military and political movement that is based in Lebanon. It is considered to be a terrorist organization by the United States.
Reacting to the latest claims, a security official in Israel has indicated that Nigeria was a “destination state for Shiite terror and global Jihad groups, which are boosting their efforts in Africa as part of international efforts.” The source further indicated that “the cell exposed and arrested is part of a Shiite terror campaign against Western and Israeli targets around the world which has been taking place for a number of years…the possibility that members of the cell acted under Hezbollah’s orders in other African states, such as Benin, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Sierra Leone, is also being examined.”
In a rare show of unity, Mali’s main political parties have welcomed the interim government’s announcement of the 28 July 2013 presidential elections. Meanwhile in neighbouring Niger, French nuclear group Areva has indicated that operations at its uranium mine will continue as usual despite last week’s terrorist attacks. While France’s top diplomat has urged neighbouring countries to find a solution to deal with the growing terrorist threat that is emerging from southern Libya.
The country’s interim cabinet official confirmed for the first time the date of the polls, which are seen as essential in restoring democracy after the country suffered a coup last year, which effectively paved the way for Islamist rebels to seize control of the northern region. Amadou Dire, a member of acting President Dioncounda Traore’s Alliance for Democracy in Mali has stated that “we need a short transition, we need an elected president to deal with the challenges and it was a good thing to make public the date of the presidential election.” The National Congress for Democratic Initiative, which was neutral in the coup but which had originally argued for a later vote, has come out in support of the decision to go ahead with the elections in July. A number of officials have indicated that the unity amongst the disparate parties over the date of the elections could be explained by the fact that there is a broad consensus that moving away from the transitional government is an urgent issue. President Traore was appointed interim president of Mali following the coup which occurred on 22 March 2012 and which precipitated the fall of northern Mali to the Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists. However the Tuareg rebels were soon overpowered by the Islamist militants, who imposed an extreme form of Sharia law throughout the region. Fifteen presidential hopefuls have announced their candidacy, including former prime ministers Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Modibo Sidibe. A number of other prominent political officials have also declared their candidacies. Polling booths are planned for the entire country, even the northeastern city of Kidal, which remains to be under the control of armed Tuareg separatists who have refused to consent to the presence of the Malian army and government in the region.
Meanwhile in neighbouring Niger, French nuclear group Areva has indicated that it will maintain its operations in the country despite last week’s deadly car bomb attack which occurred at its uranium mine. Areva president Luc Oursel confirmed that the company would be staying in Niger. Asked if the attack would lead to a change in Areva’s strategy in Arica, Mr. Oursel stated “no, of course not. We are obviously very sad about the death of one of our employees. We condemn this.” He further stated that “ I was in Niger, I went last week to show our determination to stay. If we leave Niger, we will do exactly what they wanted. We know our responsibility in terms of economic development, in terms of jobs.” Areva, which is the world’s second largest uranium producer, extracts more than a third of its uranium in Niger. It has operated in the country for more than forty years, operating to large mines in the northern regions of the country through two affiliated companies: Cominak and Somair. A car bomb attack that was carried out at Areva’s majority-owned uranium mine in Arlit in northern Niger last Thursday resulted in one person being killed and fourteen others injured. All of them were Nigerian nationals who were working at the facility. A second bombing was carried out that same day at an army base in Agadez, also in northern Niger. That resulted in twenty-four people being killed in addition to the eight attackers who were killed. Two Islamist groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks, calling them retaliations for Niger’s decision to deploy troops to Mali to help the French-led campaign against al-Qaeda-linked insurgents. Since the two suicide bombings, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius has called on neighbouring countries in the region to work together in order to tackle threats from “terrorist groups.” His announcement comes just days after Niger’s President indicated that the Islamist militants were suspected of coming from southern Libya. According to President Mahamadou Issoufou, the raids in Niger had demonstrated that Libya was a source of regional instability, months after France launched an air-and-ground assault on northern Mali, which Paris warned had developed into a launchpad for attacks by al-Qaeda-linked groups. During a press conference, President Issoufou indicated that “according to the information we have, the attackers came from southern Libya.” He further indicated that “I know the Libyan authorities are trying hard. But Libya continues to be a source of instability.” Although he did not give details on who the gunmen were, Mokhtar Belmokhtar has stated that his brigade had organized the raid with the MUJAO militant group. However Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has since denied these claims. Thousands of gunmen and tons of weapons and ammunition flowed south, mainly to Mali, after the fall of Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. A mix of Islamist and separatist rebels then seized control of the northern region of Mali before the French operation launched in January dislodged them from the towns they controlled. According to a number of officials, in recent months southern Libya has become a safe haven for jihadists who have been forced from Mali. In recent weeks, Niger has increasingly warned that Libya was the next potential safe haven for militants. This has prompted France to urge Libya and its neighbors to deal accordingly with the growing threat. According to Laurent Fabius, “it seems we must make a special effort on southern Libya, which is also what Libya wants.” France’s top diplomat further indicated that he had discussed “measures that could be taken by neighbouring countries” in liaison with Libya to deal with possible actions by “terrorist groups.” Mr. Fabius added that “this is also what the Libyan prime minister wants…we will see how we can encourage joint action with the Libyans.”
Two simultaneous suicide car bombing attacks have been carried out during the early morning hours in Niger. The attacks, which occurred at around 5:30AM local time and have been claimed by Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), are believed to have been coordinated. Any individuals or companies that are currently in Niger are strongly advised to monitor the local reports and to remain extremely vigilant. Companies stationed in the regions where the attacks occurred are strongly advised to re-evaluate their security procedures, especially in quarters where workers are living, as further suicide attacks and kidnappings are likely to occur.
Niger’s Defence Minister has confirmed that at least nineteen individuals, including eighteen soldiers, have been killed with another sixteen injured after a suicide attack was carried out at a military installation in Agadez, Niger. The attack occurred when a car bomb was detonated outside the military base. Four attackers died and reports have indicated that a fifth attacker is currently holding four army officers hostages. On the ground reports have indicated that the army is patrolling in and around the city.
A second incident targeted a uranium mine, which is operated by French Areva. This attack resulted in fourteen civilians being injured and one killed. In a statement released this afternoon, Areva confirmed that all those injured in the bombing in Arlit were employees of the mine, further stating that operations at the mine had been “temporarily suspended.” The attack in Arlit comes three years after a 2010 incident where five Areva employees were kidnapped by militants linked to al-Qaeda’s Africa branch. In 2010, militants belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped seven foreigners, including five French nationals, from a residential compound located near Arlit. At the time of the incident, the victims were either working for Areva or other contracting companies in the region. In February 2011, three of the hostages, including one Frenchwoman, were freed. However AQIM is still holding the other four hostages and has repeatedly threatened to kill them in retaliation for the French-led military intervention in Mali which began in January 2013.
Today’s attacks have been claimed by MUJAO, in which a spokesman for the group, Abu Walid Sahraoui, stated that the operations targeted “the enemies of Islam in Niger.” He added that “we attacked France, and Niger because of its co-operation with France, in the war against Sharia,” indicating that Niger’s participation in the war in Mali was the reason behind the attack. French President Francois Hollande has vowed to protect his nation’s interests and co-operate with Niger in its “fight against terrorism.”