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Is Niger ISIS' Newest Arena in Africa?

Is Niger ISIS' Newest Arena in Africa?

Commentary

4 min read

Ryan Cummings Signal Risk, Director

Posted on: 27th October 2016

The militaries of Chad and Niger killed as many as 38 suspected members of Boko Haram in Niger's south-eastern Diffa region on 13 September. The joint military initiative followed reports that Boko Haram insurgents had invaded the locality of Toumour, purportedly with the intention of disrupting Eid al-Adha festivities in the border settlement. At least five security personnel were allegedly killed in the counter-terrorism operation, which also saw large quantities of militant weaponry, equipment, and other supplies seized.

According to the Africa Conflict Location Event Data (ACLED) project, the attack in Toumour would mark the 36th act of violence perpetrated by the ISIS affiliate in Niger since the beginning of 2016. More than 150 people have been killed in these incidents, which have all occurred within the territorial confines of Diffa. Akin to other conflict zones outside of Boko Haram's operational stronghold in north-eastern Nigeria, Boko Haram's presence in Niger is by no means a novel development.

Boko Haram violence in Niger only commenced as of 2015.

Suggestions of an established Boko Haram presence in Diffa go back as far as December 2011, when a group of suspected sect members were arrested by Nigerien security forces. Further Boko Haram-related arrests were also made in Diffa in February 2012 and in February 2014. In addition to the detention of Boko Haram militants, Nigerien security forces uncovered a number of training bases in the Diffa region, one of which was purportedly facilitating the group's training in the use of long-range anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

As was the case in Cameroon, and to a lesser extent Chad, Boko Haram violence in Niger only commenced as of 2015 when the country's military begun conducting punitive strikes against cells located within its borders. Since a twin suicide bombing in Diffa's eponymous capital in February 2015, levels of Boko Haram violence in south-eastern Nigeria have escalated markedly. Perhaps the most disconcerting development has been the group's activity in the Bosso commune where the militant group has orchestrated a number of attacks, including the temporary capture of the town of Bosso in June 2016 – marking the first administrative territory to fall to the sect outside of Nigeria.

Conspicuously, Boko Haram violence in Niger has routinely been claimed by ISIS – to whom the group pledged allegiance in March 2015 - via its Amaq mouthpiece, while attacks either claimed or attributed to Boko Haram in neighbouring countries have occurred without recognition. Indeed, between May 2016 and July 2016, ISIS released 10 separate communiques in Amaq and al-Naba, another mouthpiece, claiming attacks in Niger. These included the 5 July release of a 14-minute video from its Telegram account depicting the June assault on Bosso. This was soon followed up by an infographic noting the weapons and supplies it had seized during the same incursion.

Moreover, amid the commemoration of the second anniversary of its founding, ISIS released an infographic detailing countries where the group had established an operational footprint and the degree to which it exerted control within these environs. Conspicuously, of the 17 countries listed, Niger was noted as a country where ISIS exerted medium-control, placing it in the same bracket as countries such as Somalia, the Philippines, and Afghanistan. Chad and Cameroon, the countries where Boko Haram also maintains an operational presence outside of Nigeria, were not included in the publication.

Niger shares a porous and protracted border with Libya.

The infographic, in addition to recent developments indicating schisms within Boko Haram's leadership, suggests that Niger may serve as the rubicon separating the operational theatre of the Boko Haram faction led by ISIS-backed leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, and a rival faction led by Abubakar Shekau. If this is indeed the case, then it may indicate that Niger could soon become a new front for ISIS, or more correctly Boko Haram, which has detached itself from its Nigerian-centric outlook and which could have the operational and logistical backing of ISIS. The goal of this faction will likely be to exploit the resource shortages of the Nigerien military and seek to establish territorial control in parts of the Diffa region, which would consequently become an extension of the ISIS caliphate.

A longer-term goal for the group would be to continue to expand its presence, albeit tactically, northwards in order to link ISIS' southern-most affiliate with its most northern offshoot, namely ISIS in Libya. Pressure exerted on the group by militias loyal to Libya's two opposing centres of power has seen ISIS being both territorially and operationally dismantled in a country where their footprint was once nearing that of their counterparts in the Levant. With counter-terrorism operations against the group unrelenting, a feasible option for ISIS would be to disperse its remaining resources outside Libyan borders to evade counter-terror operations. In Niger, which shares a particularly porous and protracted border with Libya, ISIS forces could find a safe haven to both regroup and recalibrate their armed campaign and where such initiatives could be supported by a fellow affiliate in Boko Haram.

In the meantime, Boko Haram will likely continue its armed campaign in Niger via acts of violence that will continue to discriminately target security outposts and installations straddling the Niger-Nigerian border. However, major incursions on populated settlements also remain a strong possibility, as does the kidnapping of both local and foreign nationals operating outside of major urban areas in the Diffa region. A notable concern is that Boko Haram could also shift its operations westwards to administrative areas such as Zinder and Dosso which has been less affected by the cross-border insurgency and where associated counter-terrorism measures are less robust. In addition to expanding its presence in Niger, it would also facilitate Boko Haram's ability to expand into north-western Nigeria which itself has seen a significant downturn in militancy in recent years, but which continues to have the prevailing socio-political and economic conditions deemed conducive to radicalisation.

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