Extremist attacks escalate in Niger after coup topples American ally
The Washington Post October 30, 2023
NIAMEY, Niger — Islamist militants in Niger have significantly stepped up their attacks in the months since generals here ousted the elected president, jettisoning the counterterrorism support of French forces and throwing into doubt cooperation with the American military.
Until the coup in late July, this West African nation had been a reliable ally of the United States and Europe — a democratic success story in a region plagued by coups, a key ally in battling Islamic extremism and a counterweight to Russia’s growing regional influence.
But the coup leaders, buoyed by a wave of anti-French sentiment sweeping France’s former West African colonies, are increasingly isolated from their onetime allies. Directing much of its vitriol at France, the new government has pressured the French ambassador to leave and asked all of France’s 1,500 troops to depart in the coming months.
The coup leaders have also expelled the United Nations’ top diplomat and proved so intransigent in negotiations that the United States, which has nearly 1,000 soldiers and a drone base in northern Niger, has paused all its assistance to the Nigerien military, according to analysts and Western officials.
Violent incidents targeting civilians by the Islamic State’s Sahel branch quadrupled in the month following the coup, while dozens of soldiers have been killed in attacks blamed on ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) in recent months, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
“Though they are trying to show otherwise, the Nigerien military is weakened,” said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, deputy director of the International Crisis Group’s Sahel project. “The coup is good news for the jihadist groups.”
The drawdown of French soldiers, who began flying out this month, Ibrahim said, will leave an “important vacuum” in the country’s defense. This comes at the same time that Nigerien forces are stretched thin trying to defend their borders against a possible invasion by neighboring countries demanding that President Mohamed Bazoum — who remains detained with his family — be restored to power.
“Overall, we are likely to see the situation continue to deteriorate, at the current or accelerating rate,” said a U.S. Defense Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal analyses. “On the terrorist side, we see few barriers to growth.”
A similar escalation in violence occurred in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso following military coups in those countries in 2021 and 2022 respectively.
But in Niamey, the quiet capital on the banks of the Niger River, many residents said they expect the violence and economic hardships to pass. Maria Saley, a 39-year-old activist in the Goudel neighborhood, said her country and the wider continent are realizing in this “make-or-break moment” that they “must say no to the West.”
“There is always violence before there is peace,” Saley said, fanning herself in an office with no lights or fans because of power shortages that have plagued the country following cuts in the electricity supply from neighboring Nigeria. “We have total confidence in our military leaders.”
A success story cut short
When Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the longtime leader of the presidential guard, mounted his takeover, he said the “harsh reality of insecurity in Niger” had motivated him to carry out the coup.
Africa’s Sahel region, which cuts across the continent below the Sahara desert and includes Niger, has in recent years emerged as a global hot spot for Islamist extremism, accounting for 43 percent of 6,701 deaths in 2022, up from 1 percent in 2007, according to the Global Terrorism Index, compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace.
But Niger itself had seen declines in fatalities in the past two years and has experienced a fraction of the political violence-related deaths as Mali and Burkina Faso, according to ACLED. Analysts attributed those declines to Niger’s strong military, counterterrorism assistance from France and the United States, and successful efforts under Bazoum to dialogue with local extremist groups, including the demobilization of combatants.
That trend has been reversed since the military takeover, according to ACLED’s data, with August marking the deadliest month since March 2021. Analysts and Western officials said that it is unlikely that the extremist groups are ramping up activity specifically because of the political situation in Niger but that the ability of the Nigerien military to counter them has been challenged.
Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow focused on the Sahel at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said that ousting the French military handicapped Niger’s ability to respond to attacks at a moment when the situation is growing “exponentially worse.”
“It seems like they are scoring on their own goal,” he said of juntas in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. “Their first move because they are hoping to secure political points is demonize one of their biggest partners, and that means they are hurting their ability to confront the threats staring them down.”
After Mali booted French forces, it enlisted help from Russia, which in 2021 sent armed contractors from the Wagner Group. Burkina Faso’s president, meanwhile, has talked publicly in recent months about a possible military partnership with Russia.
Officials in Niger’s government have, without citing evidence, blamed France for the escalating violence, saying the former colonial power is looking to destabilize the country. A senior French official said that France, at the request of Niger’s leaders before the coup, had been working with Niger’s army as a partner, with the Nigeriens leading operations.
The Nigerien government did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
American aid suspended
Shortly after the coup, the United States paused a number of counterterrorism operations and joint activities with the Nigerien military, according to a senior State Department official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. The Pentagon pulled out some troops and consolidated the rest at bases in Agadez and Niamey. The French, meanwhile, stopped military operations.
After making little progress in negotiations with the junta, the State Department earlier this month officially labeled the takeover a “coup,” meaning that the United States can no longer help the Nigerien army and that current U.S. operations in Niger are limited to protection of its own forces, the official said. The official designation of the takeover as a coup triggered a cut of more than $500 million in U.S. assistance, although humanitarian aid can continue.
The official added that the U.S. is committed to restoring democracy in Niger, both to set an “example in the region, but also in order to continue the counterterrorism operations that we thought had been going so well.”
Another senior State Department official said that the United States is open to continuing negotiations and is seeking Bazoum’s release, the opening of the country’s borders and a timeline for a democratic transition. Depending on how the negotiations go, the State Department could request waivers allowing certain funding for Niger to resume. But so far, the officials said, there has been little movement by the junta.
Cheering the coup
Hundreds of mostly young men danced and cheered on a recent Saturday night as a popular Nigerien artist praised the coup leaders and sang that it was time for the French army to “Quittez, quittez, quittez” the country.
“Before, even our minds were colonized,” said Adamo Soumana, 21, who was standing in the crowd decked out in an outfit with Niger’s green, white and orange. “But this is the end of colonization.”
Analysts and officials say that although the junta is riven by internal divisions, it has succeeded in mobilizing support among many Nigeriens, hundreds of whom gather nightly at the military airport waving Nigerien flags, and also those from Russia, Mali and Burkina Faso. These demonstrators praise the government’s decision to remove the French military and say that Bazoum and his predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, had been too close with the country’s former colonizers.
Abdoul Wahab, a 27-year-old tailor whose brother was killed during an attack by Islamist extremists on soldiers in Tillabéri on Sept. 28, said that pride in the coup remained high despite the spate of recent attacks on the military.
“In one year, I am confident the terrorism will be history,” he said.
Activists who support the junta said they have seen many signs of disrespect from France and the wider international community, including French soldiers allegedly not saluting Nigerien commanders, even when they ranked lower, and the United Nations’ decision not to recognize Niger’s new government at the General Assembly meeting in New York.
But some here question if the coup was worth the hardship, and others mourn the turn away from democracy.
Moussa Tchangari, a civil society activist, said he worries that most young people have little conception of what it is like to live under a military regime and that the government has few plans beyond recycling Pan-African ideas that have been around for decades.
“I see the great number of people in the road,” he said. “But a great number of people can be wrong.”
Issa Ly Hamidou, Omar Hama Saley and M. Adam Maiga contributed to this report.