NIGER: Killing of humanitarian workers underscores expanding terrorist threat

NIGER: Killing of humanitarian workers underscores expanding terrorist threat

On 9 August, unidentified militants assassinated six humanitarian workers, their driver, and a local guide just outside the south-western town of Kouré, Tillabéri region. The attack, which occurred about 60km south-east of the capital Niamey and in an area hitherto considered safe among the expatriate community, highlights three major security risks.

Firstly, it underscores the expanding threat posed by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) since its formal recognition by Islamic State central and incorporation as a faction of the Islamic State in West Africa Province branch in March 2019. While the group had not claimed responsibility for the attack at the time of writing, we assess ISGS or a group operating on behalf of it or its leader, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, was behind the ambush. 

The assessment is further supported by al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) denying responsibility for the incident shortly after. Nigerien security sources have also pointed to ISGS as the likely culprit. Furthermore, the location of the incident is much closer to ISGS’ usual zone of operations in the so-called tri-border area of Liptako-Gourma between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger; this is also where the G5 Sahel multilateral military mission has focused much of its counter-terrorism operations.  

Although some of ISGS’ operations fall within Tillbéri region, no major incidents have occurred closer than 130km from Kouré over the past year and a half. Nevertheless, several incidents have been reported further south than Kouré. This includes the kidnapping of two French tourists in Pendjari National Park in neighbouring Benin, about 230km south-east of Kouré, in May 2019. The incident was reportedly conducted by militants loyal to ISGS who later transferred the victims to JNIM-affiliated Ansaroul Islam, which is primarily based in northern Burkina Faso. The expanding ISGS threat also follows a trend since March 2019 of improved kinetic capabilities by the group which has conducted increasingly deadly attacks against the Nigerien armed forces over the past year. In December 2019 and January 2020, ISGS conducted two of its deadliest attacks on record in Niger, killing at least 150 soldiers in assaults carried out on military outposts in In-Atés and Chinégodar, respectively. 

Secondly, the latest incident highlights ISGS’ changing modi operandi; the group is increasingly staging attacks outside its traditional operational zone as well as attacking humanitarian operations, a tactic commonly used by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, the tactics used in the attack and the profile of some of the victims – young French professionals who had arrived in the country over the past month or so (one of the victims had reportedly been in-country no more than two weeks) – suggest the incident was opportunistic, rather than planned. A premeditated attack may instead have attempted a kidnapping for ransom, such as the attempted K&R in Benin in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions has likely reduced the number of targets available to ISGS and its allies, elevating the threat profile of expatriate workers in-country. 

Thirdly, the incident signalled lax security preparation or complacency by the employer of the victims, who travelled without any apparent security protection. Although the French ministry of foreign affairs advises against non-essential travel to the southern parts of Tillabéri, some within the expatriate community have regularly travelled to Kouré national park for rest and recuperation (R&R). This point was also highlighted by ACTED management following the attack on its staff. 

Despite the absence of attacks against such sites, security managers should continue to factor the potential for attacks into their security planning, given that Sahelian based non-state armed groups have repeatedly targeted sites akin to Kouré. Al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have both claimed responsibility for the March 2016 marauding terrorist firearms attack (MTFA) on the Ivorian coastal resort Grand Bassam, which was popular among foreign workers. By the same token, in June 2017, JNIM claimed responsibility for an MTFA on Le Campement Kangaba resort on the outskirts of the Malian capital Bamako that left nine people dead, including three civilians. 

At the time, the site was also a common R&R destination among expatriates. In light of the latest attack, security managers of staff and assets in Tillabéri and Niger more broadly, as well as neighbouring countries of West Africa, should review their current security measures. Among other things, this should include assessing the quality of pre-travel briefings and training, testing of codes of conduct for staff – particularly junior staff – and regularly monitoring security issues and trends in and around areas of operations. They should also factor in an increased exposure of expatriate staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which may increase the risk of opportunistic attacks. 


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