An estimated 137 people were killed in Niger in an attack on three villages by jihadist militants reported to be linked to the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara on Sunday 21 March.
The attacks in the Tahoua region near Niger’s border with Mali are thought to be the deadliest Islamist attacks yet on Nigerien soil.
A week earlier at least 58 people were killed by Islamic militants in an attack on four vehicles carrying people from a market in the Nigerien region of Tillabéri, also near the Malian border.
The attacks illustrate a worrying rise in violent Islamic militancy in the Sahel region of Africa. According to a Global Terrorism Index report published in November 2020, the “centre of gravity” for Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) activity has moved from the Middle East to Africa.
The report explains that an “expansion of ISIS affiliates into sub-Saharan Africa” has led to a “surge in terrorism in many countries in the region”.
Al Qaeda and Islamic State destabilising the Sahel
In 2005 the Salafist Group for Call and Combat – an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group which had operated in Algeria since 1992 – affiliated to Al Qaeda and became Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Elements of AQIM became embedded in northern Mali. Here they raised funds through abductions for ransom and by protecting smugglers, gained support by providing communities with assistance the Malian state was either unable or unwilling to provide, and recruited through propaganda and marriage.
In 2017 AQIM merged with two other Al Qaeda-aligned groups to form Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM). JNIM provides services and infrastructure where local and national government has failed to do so, for example setting up Quranic schools where other schools are absent, thereby winning support for and converts to its Islamist ideology.
AQIM was able to take full control of parts northern Mali, including the city of Timbuktu which was ruled by the Al Qaeda group from late 2012 until early 2013. Islamist governance was fairly popular with local people, who like the sharia (Islamic law) courts which deal out justice that is quick, cheap and understandable, and the low crime levels that result from sharia punishments.
Others, however, thirsted for a more violent approach and apparently had no interest in providing basic needs for local people. Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi, the leader of an AQIM-aligned group, argued that JNIM’s tactics were flawed, instead pledging his and his followers’ support to IS and forming the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
ISGS carried out its first attacks in autumn 2016, including in October an assault on a high-security prison near Niger’s capital Niamey. In October 2017 ISGS achieved notoriety with an ambush on Nigerien and US soldiers near the village of Tongo Tongo which killed five Nigeriens and four Americans.
Both groups have benefited from the illegal traffic of weapons and explosives looted from Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Though their methodologies are different, and they have been known to come into conflict with one another, JNIM and ISGS are both responsible for terrorising communities and persecuting Christians across Niger, Mali and the wider Sahel.
Christians suffer sickening violence in Mali
Mali is a Muslim-majority country where Christians, most of whom are found in the south of the country, number only around 2% of the population. The Christian minority continue to suffer persecution despite Mali’s secular constitution and legal guarantee of religious freedom.
AQIM and JNIM still operate in northern and central Mali, implementing sharia law and Quranic schools. This form of Islamism may appear benign compared to the terror attacks of ISGS, but in areas controlled more by Islamists than the Malian government Christians are denied resources and prevented from accessing water and land in order to grow their own crops.
A senior Christian leader in Mali reports that more than 50 Malian Christians – men, women and children – have been shot, beheaded or burned to death by Islamists. In the Dogon area of central Mali around 95% of church buildings have been destroyed. In May 2020 heavily-armed jihadists on motorcycles killed 27 people in three attacks on mainly-Christian Dogon villages.
In central Mali seven Christians have been abducted by Islamists between November 2020 and the end of March 2021. Those who have been released report being forced to speak in Arabic and recite Islamic prayers in an effort by their captors to force them to deny their faith.
Many Christians have been forced to leave their homes to seek refuge elsewhere in the country. In some parts of central and northern Mali Christians cannot meet for worship, such is the fear of being attacked.
Islamic militants step up attacks on civilians in Niger
Niger is another overwhelmingly Islamic country, with Muslims representing 98% of the population and Christians numbering just 0.4%. As in many other places Christians suffer from poverty, lack of resources, and illiteracy, in addition to Islamist persecution.
In 2019 the government affirmed its support for religious freedom in the first article of a new law: “The purpose of this law is to guarantee the free exercise of religion in the Republic of Niger.” The law also highlighted that all are free to worship, but religious observance should be exercised with respect for “public order, peace and social tranquillity”. This law, however, led to violent protests and to reprisals against Christians.
Niger has suffered not only from JNIM and the ISGW, but also from the Nigeria-based Boko Haram (also linked with IS). In June 2019 Boko Haram militants warned a Christian community in south-eastern Niger to leave their homes in three days or be killed.
Most churches are in the Tillabéri region near the border with Mali and Burkina Faso – the area in which militants killed 58 people in March – and which includes the capital Niamey. A Barnabas Fund contact reports that a church minister in this region was abducted and held hostage for several months.
Islamic militants have stepped up attacks on civilians, having previously focused their efforts on military personnel, whether Nigerien or foreign – often French or US. Civilians can be attacked if they are accused of sending information to the governments of the G5 Sahel (a group organised by France, comprising of Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania).
Both the Al Qaeda- and IS-affiliated groups recruit from Fulani herdsmen who lack resources and feel let down by the Nigerien government, and who already tend towards a radical interpretation of Islam. Here, as across the Sahel, Islamists continue their campaign of terror.