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.
The recent suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have demonstrated how the Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations that are located within the Sahara. What does this mean for France? The country and its troops may be tied down in the region for years to come. In turn, regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for the French government and its Western allies as a lack of greater cooperation amongst the countries located in the Sahara is only aiding the militants in regrouping in quieter parts of the vast desert. One of these quieter territories is the lawless regions of southern Libya, which security officials have indicated is becoming the latest haven for al-Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from their strongholds in northern Mali earlier this year.
According to a senior adviser to Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore, “the south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like before.” This remark comes just days after Niger announced that last week’s suicide raids, which killed twenty-five people at the army base and desert uranium mine run by France’s Areva, were launched from Libya. Libya however has denied these allegations.
Smugglers have long used Libya’s poorly controlled south – a crossroads of routes to Chad, Algeria and Niger – for trafficking drugs, contraband cigarettes and people to Europe. However the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 resulted in a flood of weapons and ammunition being brought into the Sahara. Tuareg separatists used them in order to seize power in northern Mali, only to be ousted by even better-armed Islamists who set up training camps and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law until French forces arrived. In turn, the Islamists have also exploited Libya’s weakness. It is known that former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had purchased weapons there after Gaddafi’s fall and his fighters passed through southern Libya to carry out a mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, in which 37 foreigners died.
With no effective national army, Libya relies on local brigades in order to police its southern border region, where at least one hundred people died in ethnic violence last year. Tripoli’s failure to restore security in the region may only encourage Islamist militants to set up permanent camps and weapons stores in the area. Since the attack on Areva, France has urged regional powers to cooperate in order to tackle the threat that is coming from Libya as the country relies on Niger for one fifth of the uranium in order to power its nuclear reactors. Niger’s long border with Mali, tough line on tackling militants and its role as a supplier of uranium to France have long made the country a target. Since the attacks, US troops have begun to train the army while the government in Niamey has stepped up its security in the northern regions of the country, where French Special Forces went in earlier this year in order to protect the mines. Four French mine workers who were taken hostage in Arlit in 2010 are still being held.
While Paris is keen on decreasing its troop numbers in the region, the persistent arguing and mistrust amongst the regional powers continues to be an issues, with President Francois Hollande admitting last week that French forces may be used elsewhere in the Sahel. European governments, alarmed with the developments, also approved a 110-man mission this week that will focus on improving border security by training Libyan police and security forces.
In a region that mainly comprises of vast desert regions, borders often have little meaning, and militants can blend in with nomads. Consequently hunting Islamist militants requires states riven by mutual suspicion to work together. Officials in the United States have indicated that efforts to tackle the spreading influence of al-Qaeda’s ideology throughout the Sahara has been beset by long-standing rivalries, notably between Morocco and Algeria, coupled with a lack of trust and communication amongst the regional capitals.
Algeria, the Sahara’s main military power, has long bristled at the idea of outside intervention in the region, particularly one led by its former colonial ruler, France. Although the Algerian government allowed French warplanes operating in Mali to fly over its territory, Malian officials have indicated that Algeria should be more active, whether by arresting militants or preventing the flow of fuel that allows them to cover vast desert distance. The northern Malian town of Gao lies about 1,500 km (930 miles) from the border of southern Libya.
Mauritania also needs to place more of an effort on this issue. This is mainly due to the country’s strategic location on the western edge of the Sahara coupled with a high number of its citizens who are senior militants and with its experience in tackling Islamist militants at home.
The rapidly changing face of Islamist militancy also creates problems for the local governments. For years, al-Qaeda’s North African wing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), relied largely on Algerians. However last year, the militant group was composed of gunmen from across northern Africa along with citizens from West Africa – militants who are more experienced and have a greater knowledge of the territory.
In Mali, drone surveillance and on the ground counter-terrorism teams have put a lot of effort in order to suppress the militants. Suicide attacks around the northern towns of Gao and Menaka this month claimed no victims apart from the bombers themselves. According to officials in France, around 600 Islamists have been killed since Operation Serval was launched in January. In turn, about 200 tonnes of ammunition and dozens of vehicles were seized in operations that scoured the desert regions and mountain bases. This disrupted arms and fuel dumps that militants had prepared during their nine-month occupation of northern Mali. According to a French officer in Mali, “they don’t seem to have the ability to coordinate attacks in Mali anymore…we assume that they will try and regroup but it will take time for them and it is risky as they know we are watching.” The French campaign in Mali has been backed by a British spy plane while the US has drones operating from Niger alongside an established monitoring base in Burkina Faso. But while Islamist militants once traveled in large convoys, they have since adapted and are keeping a low provide. A trend which will likely be seen over the next few years, as militants continue to adapt themselves to nor only the territory, but to the techniques that the West uses in order to track them down.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has declared a state of emergency in three states after a series of deadly attacks were carried out by Boko Haram militants. MS Risk advises any individuals or companies in the states of Adamawa, Borno or Yobe to remain vigilant and to monitor any developments and to be alert to any further announcements made by State Government. We currently advise against all travel to Borno State, Yobe State, Adamawa State as well as Gombe State and Bauchi State. This is due to the continued threat of violent attacks. Recent attacks in these regions have focused on public places, including restaurants and bars, and have resulted in large numbers of deaths and injuries. If you are planning to work in northern Nigeria, even in those regions which are not subject to specific travel advisories, we advise you that you will require a high level of security. Any employers in the region should be reviewing their security arrangements, especially in light of the recent kidnappings of westerners from protected compounds.
In a state address late on Tuesday, President Jonathan indicated that the military would be taking “all necessary action” to “put an end to the impunity of insurgents and terrorists” in the states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. He further noted that “what we
are facing is not just militancy or criminality, but a rebellion and insurgency by terrorist groups which pose a very serious threat to national unity and territorial integrity.” This is in reference to the recent attacks that have occurred on government buildings as well as the killings of officials and other civilians in which the President has indicated that “these actions amount to a declaration of war.” The announcement is also the first time that the President has acknowledged that Boko Haram Islamists have “taken over “ parts of Borno state.
The President also ordered that more troops be deployed to states located in the hostile north-eastern region of the country. Since the state of emergency declaration, Nigeria’s military has announced a massive deployment of troops to the region. Military sources have also indicated that fighter jets would be deployed, raising the possibility that Nigeria could carry out air strikes within its own territory. Since the announcement, top US officials have called on Nigeria to protect the rights of its civilians and to avoid any “heavy-handed” response against the rebels. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell has stated that “we call on Nigerian officials to ensure that Nigeria’s security forces protect civilians in any security response in a wy that respects human rights and the rule of law.” He further added that “we have made clear to the Nigerian government that its heavy-handed response to insecurity in northern Nigeria and the failure to address human rights violations will potentially affect our ability to provide security assistance going forward.”
Although the state of emergency was declared in the states of Yobe and Adamawa, it is widely believed that the military offensive will focus directly on the state of Borno, which shares borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger. It is in this state that Boko Haram, which states that it is fighting in order to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, has used the capital, Maiduguri, as its home base. However it is known that Boko Haram fighters have relocated to the remote border regions following a number of crackdowns that have occurred in the city. Furthermore, the regions‘ porous borders have enabled criminal groups and weapons to freely move between the countries further exasperated due to the Nigerian’s military limited presence in these areas.
The French Presidency has confirmed that death of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, stating that he was killed in fighting in Mali. While this confirmation has ended weeks of speculation about whether one of the group’s leading commanders had been killed, it nevertheless increases fears for the lives and safety of the remaining fourteen French hostages who are being held in captivity in the Sahel region.
The death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior figure in AQIM, has been confirmed by France, which noted that DNA samples had made it possible to formally identify him. A statement released by the Elysee Presidential Palace indicated that “the President of the French Republic confirms with certainty the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid after an offensive by the French army in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in the north of Mali, at the end of February.” The statement went onto say that the death of “one of the main leaders of AQIM marks an important stage in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region.”
Last month, officials in Chad had claimed that Chadian forces fighting alongside French troops in northern Mali had killed Abou Zeid on 22 February. Days later, reports surfaced that fellow militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar was also killed in fighting that occurred in the mountainous regions of northern Mali. The fate of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was reportedly killed on 2 March 2013, has yet to be confirmed. Although AQIM formally acknowledged the death of Abou Zeid, officials in France made little comment regarding his death, stating that while it is “probable” that the commander was killed in fighting, the death would not be confirmed by French officials until a body was produced and verification through DNA testing was completed. Speculation mounted that France’s reluctance in confirming the death of Abou Zeid was due to fears that the remaining French hostages may be used as human shields during bombing raid, or that they could be subjected to reprisal executions.
Abou Zeid, who is believed to be 47, was a pillar of AQIM. Considered to be one of the most radical AQIM leaders, he is responsible for the death of at least two European hostages as well as the leader of the extremist takeover of northern Mali in March 2012. In June 2009, his men kidnapped British tourist Edwin Dyer. According to a number of eye witness reports, Abou Zeid personally beheaded the British national.
While the death of Abou Zeid was confirmed by members of AQIM weeks ago, France’s official acknowledgement and confirmation may result in militant rebels in Mali carrying out retaliatory hit-and-run attacks in an attempt to place increased pressure on France to withdraw its military intervention. Likewise, the lives of the French hostages will likely be in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death. Unconfirmed reports released earlier this week indicated that a French hostage had been executed in Mali on 10 March 2013. A man claiming to be a spokesman for AQIM stated that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” While there was no mention of his execution being directly linked to the death of Abou Zeid, it is highly likely that today’s confirmation by France may lead to further executions which will undoubtedly be blamed on his death.
One Malian solider has died while two others have been left injured in the first suicide bombing to target the city of Timbuktu on the eve of the one year anniversary of a coup that paved the way for the Islamist takeover of Mali and the eventual collapse of one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.
The bombing occurred near the airport in Timbuktu when an attacker set off an explosive belt inside a car that had been stopped at a checkpoint. According to a military source, “the jihadist who set off his belt was killed instantly and one of the soldiers injured in the explosion died in hospital.” Malian army spokesman Captain Samba Coulibaly stated that the suicide bombing took place at a road block that is manned by Malian soldiers, just before a French checkpoint. French military officials also confirmed that at least ten Islamist fighters were killed in clashes that occurred after the bombing while sources in the city have reported that sustained gunfire continued until 3AM (local time) on Thursday morning. French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard stated that French and Malian forces had repelled an attempt by militants to infiltrate Timbuktu’s airport on Thursday morning. He further indicated that there were no French casualties.
Timbuktu was liberated by French and Malian troops in late January 2013 after the city and its resident endured a nine-month rule by al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who had imposed a harsh form of Sharia law on the population. Since then, the town has seen relative clam, unlike the northern city of Gao which has been hit by a number of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks since the Islamist rebels were driven out.
This most recent suicide bombing has further cast a doubt over France’s claims that the Islamist resistance in Mali is close to being crushed. The bombing also comes just one day after French President Francois Hollande stated that the military operation in Mali was in its last phase and that the country was just “days away” from regaining its territorial integrity. Although thousands of Malians have remained skeptical about French assurances that the northern region of the country was increasingly becoming safer, yesterday’s suicide bombing has proven that while French and Chadian troops are continuing their efforts on capturing Islamist rebels in the Ifoghas mountains, groups of Islamist rebels remain throughout the country and therefore are a continued threat to the country’s security and stability. The suicide bombing in Timbuktu also raises questions about France’s possible troop withdrawal which is set to take place at the end of April and whether or not African forces will be ready to cope with a threat that is increasingly turning towards hit and run attacks as a mechanism of maintaining its presence within Mali and as a way of destabilizing the security of the country.