Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part investigative series on U.S. and French counterterrorism efforts in Niger. Part I examines Niger’s emergence as a target of terrorist groups active in the Sahel region. Part II will examine the growing U.S. security presence in Niger, and the nascent tensions with France over how best to counter terror and bolster Niger’s security.
Until May 23, Niger, a desperately poor, landlocked country of 17 million that shares long borders with volatile states including Mali, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria, had been spared from the violence that has plagued its neighbors over the past two years. But when Islamist militants launched simultaneous attacks in the country’s north, killing 26 and injuring dozens more, Niger suddenly found itself fighting battles at home that it had hoped others would fight abroad.
The coordinated attacks, which included armed gunmen and suicide bombers detonating two car bombs, targeted a military camp in the desert city of Agadez and a French-operated uranium mine in the remote town of Arlit.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an al-Qaida offshoot known locally as Mujao, claimed responsibility for both attacks. An online statement reportedly signed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian national and veteran jihadi who led the deadly attack on the In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria last January, claimed that he “supervised” the attack on Arlit in conjunction with Mujao.
Nine days later, 22 inmates, some of whom are linked to terrorist groups, escaped after Islamist gunmen attacked a prison in the capital city, Niamey. Though the prison raid was initially attributed to Mujao, suspicion quickly turned to Boko Haram, an Islamist sect based out of Nigeria that has been at the forefront of bloody, intercommunal violence in northern Nigeria.
Click here to continue reading.