Niger is becoming a new battleground of sorts for competing international powers and terror groups alike, thanks in part to the French-led war on neighbouring Mali’s militants. Despite making significant gains in Mali, France’s Operation Serval has also forced armed groups in their hundreds to migrate throughout the Sahel, many of which are now wreaking the very same havoc in Niger. In particular, Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (also known as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO), has already been blamed for a number of high-profile attacks across the border in Niger. To that end, on 23 May 2013, MUJAO militants reportedly planted a series of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) beneath two vehicles located in opposite ends of the country. The first IED-laden vehicle exploded outside a military barracks in Agadez, which resulted in the deaths of twenty-four soldiers and one civilian. Meanwhile, approximately 240 kilometres north in Arlit, more explosive devices detonated inside a vehicle parked near a uranium mine facility. Whilst zero fatalities were reported at the site of the second bombing, at least thirteen employees of the French-run nuclear firm, Areva, were left seriously injured.
Both bombings have been described as proof that the overused social science phrase, the “balloon effect”, is more than just a theoretical concept. In this case, military pressure applied against armed Salafists in northern Mali has clearly pushed militants toward other less resistant areas, namely the remote, mountainous region along the border with Niger. But the two attacks have also shed light on another interesting development: the growing role of Niger as a “playground” for global power politics.
The Players of the Nigerien Game
As can be expected, the twin-bombings in Niger has incited feeling of paranoia among the highest ranks of the Nigerien political establishment, with leaders rushing to figure out which groups – both supposedly ‘respected’ nation states and rogue militant organisations – are operating inside the country. Indeed, when news of the attacks reached the offices of Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, the embattled leader took it upon himself to spread the blame not only on the Malian fallout, but also north toward higher-ups in Libya. On 25 May 2013, an angry Issoufou claimed that most, if not all, of the alleged attackers were Libyan nationals, an accusation which Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan quickly refuted.
Whilst Issoufou’s fears of international meddling are not out of the question, Zidan’s position is perhaps more accurate. Of course, some of the attackers could be Libyan nationals. However, it is more likely that the militants are from the Sahel in general, with most extremists arriving from Mali and Algeria. Many of MUJAO’s members are probably even Nigerien themselves, considering the attackers’ obvious knowledge of Niger’s lucrative uranium sites. But this does not mean there are no Libyan links to the Nigerien problem. The overwhelming majority of the militants’ weaponry, including their bomb-making materials, were probably shipped from Libya, given the Maghreb country’s post-Gaddafi reputation as Africa’s arms-trafficking nightmare. Nevertheless, these atrocious scenes were without a doubt caused mainly by Mali’s displaced extremists. As if more proof were needed as to Malian-connection, immediately following the attacks, the once Mali-based MUJAO spokesman, Abu Walid Sahraoui, announced that, thanks “to Allah, we have carried out two operations against the enemies of Islam in Niger”. Not one to mince words, Sahraoui added that his group “attacked Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against Sharia” – a clear reference to the Parisian-launched Operation Serval in Mali.
Global Powers Plant Their Feet
So just how deeply entrenched is the West in the security affairs of Niger? Whilst France’s involvement in Mali is widely established, less known may be its role in Niger. On the surface, Paris appears to be publicly ridding itself of its Malian engagement and its aftermath. However, behind the scenes France is actually working with US intelligence officials in Niger to gather more information regarding the post-Mali surge of Sahel militancy. Niger’s role in this intelligence-gathering operation has become so critical for US and French forces, that the African nation has been labelled a new ‘launch pad’ for American regional interest. Like France, US involvement in Niger is also often left out of the headlines. However, Washington has been sending drones to monitor the country since at least February 2013. To be sure, on 22 February 2013, the US confirmed it had deployed Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to Niger in order to “assist” in surveillance missions in the neighbouring state of Mali. The confirmation by US military superiors comes after US President Barack Obama announced on 22 February 2013, that an additional forty soldiers would be sent to the Nigerien capital of Niamey as part of a greater effort to collect intelligence and share their findings with the French military. This forty-member team of American soldiers may seem small, but the group only serves to bolster the already sixty-strong contingent of US forces in country.
An Iranian Connection?
US interest in Nigerien security, however, is not simply a matter of Malian-spillover ‘curiosity’. Washington is clearly concerned about the potential for militants to strike uranium sites that produce supplies for the world’s nuclear facilities. These fears have led to speculations that the US has deemed Niger a new ‘playground’ for power politics, where other regional leaders, including far away Iran, could use their influence to obtain nuclear supplies. Indeed, Iranian desire for Nigerien influence and its potential use of militancy to achieve such aims are not out of the question. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first infuriated American leaders after he visited Niger on 15 April 2013. Whilst the lame duck Iranian president described the event as just a harmless meeting between old friends, Washington remains sceptical. When considering that Niger is the world’s third largest producer of uranium, a necessary ingredient in the Iranian nuclear experiment, it is conceivable that the Islamic Republic may be “cosying up” to Niger to secure much-need resources. Adding more intrigue to the Iranian factor is that Tehran has never been one to shy away from supporting militant groups to achieve its objectives, even in the African continent. Case in point: just over a week ago, Azim Aghajani, an Iranian soldier, was convicted of allegedly trying to ship weaponry to Boko Haram elements in Niger’s southern neighbour, Nigeria. Of course, Iran’s links to MUJAO are far-fetched. However, the constant finger-pointing by Nigerien President Issoufou and others arguably illustrates how important Niger has suddenly become in the global political power struggle.