A soldier stands at a damaged house in Bosso military camp.
Four US soldiers and eight of their Nigerien counterparts were killed in an armed ambush in the restive Tillaberi region of Niger on 4 October. The attack occurred near Togo Togo, a settlement close to the Malian border, when a joint military patrol was ambushed by dozens of suspected Islamist extremists.
Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, both US and Nigerien authorities attributed the first fatal act of violence against US soldiers in Niger and the wider Sahel to the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS). As expected, the symbolic attack has drawn widespread attention to the otherwise obscure ISIS affiliate, its current operational capacity, and the way its presence in Niger could influence extremist dynamics in the West African country and the broader Sahel.
Formed in 2015, ISGS arose after its leader, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Following an initial period of dormancy, ISGS announced its inaugural attack in Burkina Faso’s Soum province with two separate strikes on the settlements of Markoye and Intamdom, both near the Malian border, in September and October 2016 respectively.
Coinciding with the incident in Intamdom, ISGS executed its first attack on Nigerien soil when it targeted the Koutoukalé high-security prison, which is located on the outskirts of Niamey and hosts a number of jihadis. The group was also suspected of being behind a spate of attacks in the historic Liptako region, which comprises modern-day eastern Burkina Faso, southwestern Niger, and eastern Mali and is thought to be the group’s primary operational stronghold.
Although little is known about the strength of ISGS and its exact composition, there has been speculation that the movement may draw significant support from the principally nomadic Fulani communities of the Sahel. The basis for this hypothesis lies in al-Sahrawi’s former position in the leadership of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), which was thought to have primarily recruited among black African communities, particularly the Fulani and its various subgroups, to differentiate itself from the Arab-dominant al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Assuming that al-Sahrawi’s breakaway faction principally comprised MOJWA combatants, it is likely that ISGS had significant Fulani representation in its ranks. Al-Sahrawi’s, and by extension ISGS’, ties to the Fulani were further strengthened by the Islamist commander’s marriage to a member of the Fulani community of the Malian border settlement of Baratam.
The recent attack in Togo Togo may provide additional insight into why ISGS is recruiting among the Fulani population of West Africa, particularly those in the Tillaberi region of Niger. According to research by the International Crisis Group on the dynamics fueling extremism in southwestern Niger, counter-terrorism initiatives launched in the region against groups such as ISGS may, paradoxically, assist their recruitment. Based on interviews with Fulani residents in Tillaberi and the neighbouring state of Tahoua, both of which remain under a terrorism-induced state of emergency, Fulani communities are being ostracised by rival ethnic groups employed by the Nigerien state to spearhead counter-terrorism operations in these regions. In many instances, predominantly Arab tribes have used the spectre of terrorism to exact mass violence against Fulani communities, on the basis that they are natural competitors for access to resources and control of various formal and elicit industries that dominate the region. According to testimonies, ethnic persecution was driving Fulani youths to Islamist extremist movements such as ISGS that could protect them from state-sponsored ethnopolitical violence.
It is in this context that the ambush of Nigerien and US troops in Tillaberi could further shape extremist dynamics in the region. Increased militarisation of the region and an intensified crackdown on communities deemed sympathetic to ISGS could drive more recruits to the movement and swell its ranks. These developments could also allow the movement to increase its resonance with other Fulani communities, such as those in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Mali, that are facing state or communal persecution. More worryingly, such trends could also allow ISGS to strengthen its ties with another ISIS affiliate in Niger that is thought to enjoy significant Fulani representation – Boko Haram.
Claims that the two ISIS affiliates are potentially synchronising their insurgent activities were made in March 2017 when French newspaper Le Figaro – citing confidential sources – noted that ISIS was actively seeking to strengthen its existing affiliates either through patronage or by encouraging transnational linkages between the entities. According to the paper, al-Sahrawi has forged ties with the ISIS-appointed leader of Boko Haram, Abu Musa’b al-Barnawi, with the aim of extending Boko Haram’s footprint from the Chad Basin into Mali, Burkina Faso, and even Benin. In exchange, an alignment will increase ISGS’ operational capacity and, importantly, allow it to recruit among communities with which Boko Haram shares strong ethnic and familial links.
Although the veracity of Le Figaro’s claims have yet to be confirmed or tested, the reality is that Niger currently hosts two ISIS affiliates that may both be exploiting complex and overlapping ethnic, political, and religious cleavages in Niger to their advantage.