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.
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.”
Cameroon’s Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary has confirmed that seven members of a French family who were kidnapped by gunmen in northern Cameroon back in February of this year have been freed and are in good condition. France has also confirmed there release however President Francois Hollande denied that a ransom payment was made to free the family who is currently in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde. Despite this release, seven other French hostages are being held throughout Africa.
A statement released by Cameroon’s Presidency indicates that the family had been handed over to Cameroonian authorities late on Thursday however the circumstances of that hand over remain to be unclear. Since then, they have arrived at the French embassy in the capital, under heavy security escort Both the French and Nigerian governments were thanked in the statement however no further information on their release was provided.
Meanwhile the French president’s office has confirmed that Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has already left the country, heading for Cameroon where he will greet the family. Mr. Fabius has indicated that the French hostages were freed overnight “in an area between Nigeria and Cameroon,” and that they would be flown back to France on Saturday. President Hollande also indicated that secret talks had been taking place over the past few weeks in order to help secure their release, noting that “France has not changed its position, which is not to pay ransoms.”
The family, who live in Yaounde, had been returning from a holiday in Waza National Park in the northern region of Cameroon when they were kidnapped by gunmen on motorbikes on 19 February 2013. Mr. Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, along with his wife Albane, and four children, aged between five and twelve, had been joined on their vacation by his brother Cyril. A video that was released about one week after their capture, depicted the militants demanding the release of prisoners being held in Cameroon and in Nigeria. A video released later also criticized President Hollande for deploying troops to Mali in January 2013. Since their release, Mr. Moulin Fournier has indicated that ‘we are all very tired but normal life will now resume.” He further noted that “the conditions in which we were held were very difficult, it was extremely hot. But we did not have any serious problems. We are alive and we are infinitely happy to be free. It has been very long and difficult, it was hard psychologically and we had some very low moments. But we stuck together and that was crucial. As a family, we kept each other’s spirits up.”
With the release of this French family on Friday, at least seven French citizens are still being held hostage in Africa. The abductions have all been claimed by Islamist groups, in which at least six have been claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). An eighth hostage was reported to have been executed in March 2013 in Mali by AQIM however his death has yet to be confirmed.
On 16 September 2010, kidnappers abducted five French nationals along with a Togolese and a Madagascan national who were mostly working for French public nuclear giant Areva and its subcontractor Satom in the uranium mining region of the country. AQIM claimed responsibility of the kidnappings on 21 September. A female French hostage, Francoise Larribe, was freed along with the Togolese and Madagascan nationals in February 2011. The four other French hostages, Theirry Dol, Daniel Larribe, Pierre Legrand, and Marc Feret, are still being held, with French authorities stating that they are still alive.
On the night of 24 November 2011, Frenchmen Serge Lazarevic and Philippe Verdon were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori in northeastern Mali. According to their families, they were in Mali on a business trip. On 9 December, AQIM claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and released photographs of the two men. On 10 August 2012, a video distributed by Mauritanian website Sahara Medias depicted Mr. Verdon speaking of the “difficult living conditions” and health problems. On 19 March 2013, AQIM announces that it has killed Mr. Verdon, citing that he was a spy for France. Although officials in Paris have yet to confirm the report, on 28 March, French President Hollande stated that the signs are that Mr. Verdon is dead.
On 20 November 2012, Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, a sixty-one-year-old Portuguese-born French citizen was abducted by at least six armed men in Diema, in western Mali, as he was travelling by car from Mauritania. On the 22 November, al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. On 26 January 2013, MUJAO indicated that they were ready to negotiate Mr. Leal’s.
On 19 December 2012, French engineer Francis Colomp is kidnapped by around thirty armed men who attacked the residence of the company where he was working in the state of Katsina which is located in the northern regions of Nigeria, near the border with Niger. During the attack, the hostage-takers killed two bodyguards and a neighbour. The act has since been claimed by Nigerian Ansaru, which has links to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. They have since indicated that the kidnapping was in reaction to France’s preparations for a military intervention in Mali.
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.
Unconfirmed reports have indicated that a French hostage has been executed in Mali. A man claiming to be a spokesman for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has stated in a telephone call to Mauritania’s Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) news agency that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March 2013 in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” Although the news agency could not confirm whether or not the spokesman is in fact a member of AQIM, ANI did confirm that they had received a phone call from a man who presented himself as Al-Qairawani and who claimed that the “spy” Verdon had been executed. He further stated that “the French President Hollande is responsible for the lives of the other French hostages.” In the past, al-Qaeda groups have often used ANI in order to broadcast their claims or statements, which often turn out to be true.
Mr. Verdon was seized on the night of 24 November 2011 along with Serge Lazarevic. According to their families, the two men had been on a business trip when they were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori, in northeastern Mali. The families of the two men have however denied that they were secret service agents. Shortly after the kidnapping, AQIM claimed responsibility and in August 2012, a video depicting Mr. Verdon describing the “difficult living conditions” was released.
Early Wednesday morning, a French Foreign Office spokesman indicated that they were attempting to verify the reports of the killing. Currently, no further information has been provided however a spokesman for the French Foreign Office has confirmed that the family of Mr. Verdon has been notified. If these reports are confirmed to be true, it will be a worrying development for Paris as it will greatly increase the risk of those hostages who are being held in Africa. There are still some fourteen French nationals who are being held in West Africa, including at least six who are being held in the Sahel by AQIM and its affiliates. Over the past few weeks, a number of the hostages‘ families have expressed their growing fears for their loved ones in light of the ongoing French intervention in Mali.