The killing of 71 soldiers in Niger, which had been spared the surge in major militant attacks that have destabilized Mali and Burkina Faso, shows that Islamic State is expanding at breakneck speed across West Africa.
The raid on the Inmates base, less than 200 kilometres (124 miles) from the capital, Niamey, is the deadliest-ever on Niger’s army and follows a spate of attacks on military outposts in neighbouring Mali that left more than 100 troops dead last month. It also came days before leaders of five West African nations were due to convene in France on Dec. 16 to discuss security and the French military deployment in the region as anti-French sentiment escalates. French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday postponed the summit to January because of the attack.
“If we look at what’s been happening of late, Islamic State has increased its mobility, its power and its access to resources,” Former Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga told Radio France Internationale on Friday.
Militant violence has engulfed the Sahel, an arid area on the southern fringe of the Sahara, since the 2011 ousting of Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi. Mali was almost overrun by al-Qaeda affiliated militants the following year and Burkina Faso is facing its worst humanitarian crisis due to near-daily hit-and-run attacks in its northeast. Partly due to huge spending on defense, which accounts for almost a fifth of its annual budget, Niger has largely remained stable in recent years, after successfully combating Boko Haram Islamist fighters from Nigeria.
Still, militant attacks, including abduction, arson and pillaging, have jumped roughly four-fold this year compared to 2018, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The group recorded 210 assaults in 2019, compared to 56 last year.
Analysts this week raised the alarm about what’s known as the Liptako-Gourma region, which straddles the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Armed groups are benefiting from the smuggling of goods, ranging from charcoal to fuel and motorcycles. They’re also involved in managing small-scale gold mines, according to a report from the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
“Illicit activities are essential to the establishment, expansion and ultimate survival of extremist groups,” said William Assanvo, one of the authors of the report.
Niger is key to the international effort to fight Islamist insurgencies in the Sahel. The U.S. built a $110 million drone base in the northern city of Agadez, while France operates a base for some of its 4,500 forces in the Sahel. The government also receives European Union funding to stop migrants who try to cross its northern borders on their way to the Mediterranean.
But after the Inmates raid, civil-society groups want to know how the militants were able to enter from Mali and kill so many soldiers in a single attack. President Mahamadou Issoufou cut short a trip to Egypt to deal with the fallout.
For more on the rise of Jihadism in West Africa click here
According to local media and intelligence reports, poor mobile phone connections were at least partly to blame for the high death toll. Several hundred militants — estimates range to as many as 500 — on motorbikes and in pick-up trucks overran a base that had been isolated since July, when assailants sabotaged its communications and largely cut off the base. That meant that soldiers in Inates couldn’t immediately call in reinforcements when they came under fire.
“The Niamey government is very concerned about the security situation and attacks getting closer to Niamey,” Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview in Lagos.“One of the advantages of the militants is that they’ve been able to integrate into communities, exploit, and sometimes even create conflict, to then offer protection and recruit to increase their ranks,” he said.