A deadly ambush near the Niger-Mali border on 4 October marked the unprecedented killing of American and Nigerien forces in the region. In this Q&A, Deputy West Africa Project Director Jean-Hervé Jezequel and Research Assistant Hamza Cherbib say that jihadist violence cannot be divorced from deeper inter-communal tensions related to local competition over resources and illicit economic activity.
What happened and where?
According to U.S. and Nigerien security sources, on 4 October 2017 a mixed patrol of U.S. and Nigerien special forces was ambushed near Tongo Tongo, a village located in the Tillabery region (about 120km north of the capital, Niamey), a few kilometres from the border with Mali. The precise death toll is still uncertain but at least five Nigerien and three U.S. soldiers were killed. Several others are wounded or missing, and Nigerien sources say the patrol's vehicles were looted or destroyed.
The patrol may have been attacked by jihadists operating in the region, but there was no early claim of responsibility and what happened may only become clear over time. U.S. troops are supporting Nigerien armed forces fighting jihadists in at least two locations in the country, Aguelal and Diffa. The U.S. also is present elsewhere in Niger (and the region): it is establishing a drone and airbase near Agadez (northern Niger) and its forces are present at Niamey airport where they share space with French and Nigerien forces.
This is not the first attack against security forces in the area. Indeed, Nigerien forces have suffered repeated attacks there since early 2017, including against the special counter-terrorism unit whose men are trained by the U.S. But this is the first attack to have claimed the lives of U.S. soldiers.
What is known about jihadist groups in the area?
In recent months, several attacks targeting security forces near the Mali-Niger border have been claimed by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the Islamic State's local branch led by Abou Walid Al Sahraoui. This includes a raid on the Koutoukale prison in October 2016 that was fended off by Nigerien security forces.
Another recent attack was claimed by the Jamaat Nosrat al-Islam wal-Mouslimin (JNIM, the "Group for the support of Islam and the Muslims"), a jihadist coalition of militant groups with a history of cooperation that was established in March 2017. JNIM's leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, a Malian Tuareg, declared his allegiance to al-Qaeda and other top leaders of the group have well established al-Qaeda ties.
What might be behind these attacks?
While international attention focuses on jihadists and sees their ideology as the source of the problem, there are other important dimensions. Indeed, attacks against military personnel represent only a small part of the problem as armed violence exacts a heavy albeit underreported death toll among civilians in the regions of Tillabery and Tahoua, especially among isolated nomadic communities.
In July 2017, alone, local representatives of the Fulani community - one of the largest ethnic group in West Africa comprised mostly of herders - claimed that militias of rival ethnic groups, the Tuareg and Doosaak (a nomadic group close to and often confused with the Tuaregs but with a distinct language) killed some 46 civilians, purportedly as part of counter-terrorism operations. Conversely, Tuareg representatives repeatedly accuse local Fulanis of murdering members of their communities with jihadist support.
In reality, jihadist violence often intertwines with local intercommunal tensions related to competition over natural resources and trafficking, making it difficult to distinguish the real nature and motives of many incidents.
Is this a home-grown problem to Niger or one that is spilling over from nearby states of the Sahel?
Nigerien officials often claim that perpetrators of these attacks hail from neighbouring Mali and especially from the Menaka region where jihadist groups are entrenched. (Crisis Group commentary, "Forced Out of Towns in the Sahel, Africa's Jihadists Go Rural", 11 January 2017). But there is far more to this than spillover from the Malian crisis. In addition to the intercommunal tensions just noted, and which reflect local Nigerien dynamics, most sources agree that jihadist groups have taken root in the northern Tillabery region, especially but not exclusively among young Fulanis looking for ways to counter their ethnic rivals or protect their businesses or communities.
Ethnic and counter-jihadist agendas mix, at times to highly damaging effect. Authorities suspect Fulani communities in particular of having ties with jihadist groups. In turn, the Nigerien government reportedly authorised Malian Tuareg Imghad and Doosaak armed groups to hunt jihadist elements; under that pretext, those groups are said to repeatedly have targeted Fulanis from the Tahoua and Tillabery regions. Fulani representatives told Crisis Group they suspect that France - through its operation Barkhane, a military mission centered on fighting jihadist groups in the Sahel and with troops deployed in Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali - also provided support to these groups. In July 2017, Malian armed groups reportedly killed dozens of Fulani herders.
But does the Fulani community in fact have close ties to jihadist groups?
Jihadist groups do tend to recruit among Fulani youth, part of a strategy that aims to capitalise on intercommunal conflicts, local grievances and frustration with the state about bad governance, lack of services, unemployment and corruption. Crisis Group examined this dynamic in a previous report (Central Mali: an uprising in the making?, 6 July 2016). However, the notion of a "Fulani jihad" is dangerously misleading. It distracts from the reality that Fulani often are drawn to jihadist groups because of underlying communal tensions, not out of ideological affinity.
A similar situation exists in other West African countries (Herders against Farmers: Nigeria's expanding deadly conflict, 19 September 2017). A central problem is that this overall dynamic paves the way for Sahelian states such as Niger, whose security apparatus already is overstretched due to threats emanating from the north (Libya) and south east (Boko Haram), to enlist ethnic-based militias as proxy counter-terrorism forces. This in turn risks aggravating intercommunal tensions and thus, in a vicious cycle, encouraging more young Fulani to seek protection from jihadist groups. Such groups adapt accordingly, forging relations with local rural and semi nomadic communities based on matrimony, business ties or the provision of protection and dispute resolution mechanisms to marginalised communities.
Do you think this attack will lead the U.S. or other powers to change their policy toward Niger and the greater Sahel region?
As noted, the attack against U.S. soldiers was a first for this region. It is likely to lead to increased military operations against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the JNIM and other associated groups, with both French and U.S. support. Whether it will persuade the U.S. to switch its position on the G-5 Sahel, a French-backed regional military operation comprising forces from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad is unclear. That force is intended to fight terrorism as well as trafficking in humans, weapons and drugs in the Sahel and expected to be deployed later this year. However, it faces a substantial funding shortfall. The French have sought funding through the UN, but thus far Washington has resisted such efforts, preferring to channel any support to the countries involved bilaterally.
Deployment of a regional counter-terrorism force in the Sahel could be a welcome first step toward ensuring African states take responsibility for their security. But myriad questions surround the G5's putative role and mandate, particularly its relationships with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the French Barkhane operation already deployed in the region. Nor is the enemy well defined: many armed groups in the Sahel - and certainly not only jihadists - are involved in trafficking. Failure to clarify its mandate, which armed groups it will fight and its relationship with other forces risks stirring up further instability and could lead to a security traffic jam in the region.
What can the Niger government and Western partners do?
There will be a natural temptation to up the tempo of military operations. Clearly for Niger and its Western partners, such operations are a critical component of their response to militant groups that attack security forces and whose violence and intolerance threaten state and society alike.
Focusing only on military action would be shortsighted, however. Instead, what is urgently needed is to end the cycle of violence that is harming civilians far more than Western or Nigerien soldiers and is creating propitious conditions for the spread of jihadist groups. That entails above all addressing problems related to the management and sharing of natural resources and providing dispute resolution mechanisms and security for all communities.
Opening channels of communications with armed groups is another necessity. Earlier this year, the government of Niger reportedly established contacts but nascent discussions were challenging because of mutual distrust and ultimately were aborted after militant attacks on its security forces. Officials told Crisis Group that no serious negotiation could begin with these groups at this point and that the only option was military.
This too is likely to be self-defeating. Rather, the goal ought to be to try to disentangle hardcore militants from others who join these groups out of despair or for lack of viable alternative options. The government should prioritise efforts to rebuild relations with nomadic communities in the northern Tillabery area, especially with the Tolebbe (a Fulani subgroup), one of the few remaining Nigerien communities that lack a district chief ("chef de canton") recognised by the state.
Deputy Project Director, West Africa
Research Assistant, West Africa