NIAMEY, 26 March 2021 – Jihadist militants active along Niger’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso appear to be expanding their geographic scope, staging more daring and deadlier attacks.
Over the last fortnight, Jihadists in these regions have killed at least 195 civilians and 33 members of the armed and security forces of Niger in a series of raids, according to the most updated military intelligence reports.
This latest killing spree started last March 17, when an estimated 100 assailants on motorcyles and pickup trucks, killed 33 soldiers and injured an additional 14 in an attack near Tessit in central Mali.
United Nations peacekeepers operating in the area under the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) assisted the evacuation of the dead and wounded.
It took the support of the French-led counterinsurgency force stationed in West Africa, Operation Barkhane, to the Malian military before the area where the attack occurred could be secured.
Only four days later, perpetrators killed 137 in coordinated attacks in the southwestern Nigerien region of Tahoua.
The attacks took place near the border with Mali, not far from Tillabéri, another Nigerien border region, where at least fifty-eight people were recently killed by gunmen on motorcycles.
The Islamic State’s “West Africa affiliate” has claimed responsibility for the Tessit attack.
This most likely refers primarily to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which is known to operate in the tri-border region where the frontiers of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet.
Although no confirmation has been provided, reporting on the attacks at Tillabéri and Tahoua suggests ISGS involvement.
There are additional reports that militants from the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA)—a splinter group of Boko Haram—provided reinforcements to ISGS in the Tahoua attack.
Military intelligence concurs that these latest atrocities in Mali and Niger indicate a new expansion of ISWA’s geographic scope in this part of the Sahel region.
These new hotbeds of ISGS activity are located well over one thousand kilometers from Boko Haram and ISWA’s main area of operations in northeastern Nigeria.
Analysts worry that vicims were killed, not kidnapped during the most recent attacks – a sign that the militants may be bent on committing more atrocity crimes on a systematic basis.
The killers did not appear to be interested in looting, leading analysts to that the attacks were retaliatory in nature with rival groups fighting for control of smuggling routes.
The attacks leave the United Nations worried on what next.
The now 16,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping force was established in 2013 after the French Operation Serval and the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) failed to stabilize Mali.
The mission has not been spared.
Some 235 peacekeepers have been killed since 2013.
The latest string of atrocious attacks, along with rumored cooperation between jihadi groups, are a warning that stability and security in the Sahel are far from achieved.
Any premature withdrawal of either French troops or of the UN peacekeeping force could open the way for jihadist militants and criminal forces to severely threaten not only the survival of Mali’s military-led government but also of governments in neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.