A jihadist attack in Niger on Sunday claiming the lives of six French and two Nigeriens demonstrates the determination of hardline armed Islamist groups to extend the reach of their attacks in the Sahel, according to analysts, targeting a giraffe park in Kouré that had previously not been considered an area at risk.
"Up until now, this zone was considered to be a secure area," Seidik Abba, a journalist and expert on armed groups in the Sahel, told RFI's François Mazet.
Seven humanitarian workers and their guide were killed in the attack during their day off. Aboard a 4x4, exploring the local area, they vistied Kouré, just 70 kilometres outside the capital Niamey, one of the places not considered a red zone, where travel was not forbidden.
The group was attacked on the road that leads to Agadez by jihadists who arrived on motorbikes. The vehicle caught fire, riddled by bullets, and the remains of two victims were found burnt. Five others were shot at close range, while a woman who seemingly escaped was caught and killed.
Kouré is regularly frequented by expat visitors who travel to see West Africa's last giraffes in the wild, seeing the animals up close from just two to three metres away.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in European expat workers visiting Kouré since they could not return home for holidays, instead deciding to go on a day trip within the Liptako Gourma region of south west Niger, according to journalist Abba.
Operational area of the jihadists
"I think that by carrying out this attack, just 70 kilometres from Niamey, the jihadists want to show that they still have operational capacity because it's really far from their base," Abba added, explaining the proximity to the capital.
Analyst Mathieu Pellerin told RFI that the Liptako Gourma region has seen jihadist groups "progressively encircling Niamey" since the end of 2018 to 2019, although it was not yet clear who carried out Sunday's attack.
"All eyes naturally turn towards the Islamic State," said Pellerin, a Sahel expert with the International Crisis Group, describing how there had not yet been a targeted killing in this particular area.
Al Qaeda denied any responsibility for the attack, according to France24 journalist Wassim Nasr, citing a source he spoke to, leaving the attack unclaimed for the moment.
#AQIM #AlQaeda denies « any implication in the murder of 8 persons in #Kouré #Niger » 6 French nationals are among the victims - Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr) August 9, 2020
Pellerin said the attack could perhaps be seen as jihadists responding to the intensification of military operations by the G5 Sahel group, supported by France, since the summit in Pau.
Mourning the victims
"It is with profound grief that we confirm the death of seven of our colleagues as well as their guide in Niger who were senselessly and cowardly murdered by armed individuals in the Kouré area," said a joint statement from ACTED and IMPACT Initiatives, French and Swiss non-governmental organisations whose staff were killed in the attack.
In a post on social media, the Association of Kouré's Giraffe Guides said their president, Kadri Abdou, had lost his life.
Nous avons la triste et horrible nouvelle de vous annoncer le décès du Président de l'Association des Guides des Girafes...
Publiée par Association des guides de girafes de Kouré sur Dimanche 9 août 2020
"We're saddened and are thinking of the victims and their families to whom we offer our sincere condolences, especially to the family of Kadri, our friend," said the association.
French anti-terrorist authorities will investigate the attack, probing charges of "assassinations with links to a terrorist enterprise", according to the prosecutor's office, as reported by the AFP news agency.