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Niger: Behind the Jihadist Attack in Inates

Source: International Crisis Group Country: Mali, Niger
A shocking attack by an Islamic State affiliate has killed more than 70 Nigerien soldiers, the most ever in a single incident. Crisis Group expert Hannah Armstrong explains that the jihadists’ strength is rooted in decades-old communal grievances in the Mali-Niger border zone. Hannah Armstrong
Consulting Analyst, Sahel What happened in Niger? On 10 December, assailants struck a Nigerien military camp close to the settlement of Inates on the border with Mali, killing more than 70 soldiers in the deadliest attack on security forces in the country’s history. The Islamic State’s affiliate in Mali and Niger claimed responsibility for the attack. Its fighters reportedly used mortars and kamikaze vehicles to storm the base. In its statement, the Islamic State said it had captured weapons, ammunition, vehicles and even “a number of tanks”. This claim could not be independently confirmed. The attack by the Islamic State affiliate, which has escalated its campaign in the area around Inates since April, is part of an emerging trend of large-scale jihadist operations against military outposts in the central Sahel. On 30 September, almost simultaneous attacks on a Malian military unit at Mondoro and a Malian battalion of the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force at Boulikessi, both near the border between Mali and Burkina Faso, killed at least 40 – mainly soldiers – and left more than 60 people missing. The Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which comprises several jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, claimed these attacks. Just weeks later, on 1 November, Islamic State militants also killed more than 50 Malian soldiers in an assault on the Indelimane base on the Mali-Niger border. As a result, the Malian military retreated from Indelimane, as well as two other strategic frontier posts at Labbezanga and Anderamboukane, leaving Nigerien forces more vulnerable to infiltration and attacks from across the border. Why do jihadist groups have such a grip on the area around Inates? The area around Inates is fertile ground for the Islamic State and GSIM, which have exploited longstanding grievances among and within nomadic communities that straddle the Mali-Niger border. Since the 1990s, these local tensions have fuelled cycles of violence in the border zone, with young men from the Tuareg, Daosahak and Peul ethnic groups protesting their neglect by the state but also increasingly taking up arms to pursue their disputes with each other. In 2012, a chiefly Tuareg separatist Malian rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by the French acronym MNLA) armed young Tuareg and Daosahak men, while a coalition of jihadists took control of Mali’s Gao region, welcoming Peul fighters into its ranks. As the MNLA and jihadists vied for influence among the Tuareg and Daosahak, cracks appeared within these communities, with some choosing the jihadists’ side. These historical communal divisions have continued to provide entry points for the Islamic State and GSIM to exploit local rivalries and recruit from among the disaffected. The introduction of military operations in this milieu has made things worse. As discussed in a June 2018 Crisis Group report, local communities in the border area, armed and mobilised as far back as the 1990s, have now become increasingly polarised and warlike amid recent military operations because they are often forced to choose between siding with the state or with jihadists. In May 2017, faced with the Islamic State threat emanating from Mali, authorities in the Nigerien capital Niamey initiated cooperation with Malian Tuareg and Daosahak armed groups, the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defence Group and Allies (GATIA) and Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), both of which have ties to the Malian government and drew upon France’s military venture in the Sahel, known as Operation Barkhane, for support. Their sweeps in North Tillabery (the region surrounding Inates) seemed to halt the jihadist threat in the short term but also caused tit-for-tat ethnic massacres and drove even more Peul and other fighters to ally with the Islamic State. Niger suspended its operations in July 2018, as did France, realising that they had backfired. As the jihadist groups have implanted themselves deeper into communal conflicts, they have developed systems of coercion and control over populations that Sahelian governments struggle to cope with by military means. With allies in all three major nomadic ethnic groups, jihadists have thus been able to set up effective informant networks, which help them intimidate local civilians – who might otherwise report on their movements to state security forces – with the threat of reprisal. While the jihadists attack those who collaborate with the state, they have generally been careful not to target civilians, winning them a level of trust that is difficult for the state to match. When they do attack, the jihadists appear to come out of nowhere, swarming around their targets on motorbikes and then melting back away. They also avoid occupying any territories where they could be easily identified and thus become ready targets themselves. With Nigerien and other military forces so spread out, and so isolated, they may be facing a war they cannot win.

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