Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s top commanders, has taken responsibility for Thursday’s twin attacks in Niger – along with the militant group MUJAO. FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto explains the links between the two groups.
Islamist groups have claimed responsibility for the May 23 twin attacks at a military camp and a uranium mine in Niger, which killed at least 20 people.
French forces intervened
French special forces intervened during an attack on an army barracks Thursday in the town of Agadez in Niger, France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has announced.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a top commander of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has claimed to have supervised the attack on the French-run uranium mine in the remote town of Arlit.
Shortly after Thursday’s sophisticated attacks in Arlit and the desert city of Agadez, located almost 1,000 kilometres northeast of the capital of Niamey, another militant Islamist group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), also claimed the assaults.
FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto discusses the latest developments in Niger.
1. Mokhtar Belmokhtar is a familiar figure to some of us. But the attacks in Niger were also claimed by MUJAO – are these competing claims?
It’s true that in jihadist propaganda circles, different groups can and have made competing claims in the past.
But that may not necessarily be the case with the May 23 attacks in Niger.
Belmokhtar is indeed a well-known figure; some would say he’s even a celebrity figure in jihadist circles.
MOKHTAR BELMOKHTAR: 'THE UNCATCHABLE'
The Algerian-born militant is a top AQIM commander who has several nicknames, including “the One-Eyed” and the “Uncatchable”. This is just an indication of his perceived stature.
Belmokhtar captured international attention earlier this year with the spectacular attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, which killed 39 people, including foreign workers.
In many ways, the May 23 attack on French nuclear giant Areva's uranium mine at Arlit has the hallmarks of the In Amenas attack: we see the use of multiple suicide bombers as well as hostage-taking by attackers strapped with explosives-laden belts. These are very secure sites – the Algerians take their security very seriously – and in Niger, security was tightened at the Arlit facility following the launch of the French military operation in neighbouring Mali in January 2013.
Belmokhtar is a seasoned militant, he has battlefield experience, he claims to have fought and been trained in the al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal. Earlier this year, the Chadian government claimed he was killed in northern Mali. But this report was not confirmed, neither by the French authorities nor jihadist forums, which are generally very good at posting “martyrdom” messages if any of their top commanders are killed.
Then there’s the claim by MUJAO. This is a relatively young group – it was formed in late 2011 after members broke off from AQIM in order to spread their activities into West Africa, according to US State Department records.
There have been reports of an acrimonious split or differences between MUJAO and AQIM, but that’s not strictly true.
The two groups have teamed up and fought together in the past. The organizational structure of these militant groups in the region is based around battalions, or “katibas” (brigades), as they’re called in Arabic.
Last year, a MUJAO battalion called the Osama bin Laden katiba teamed up with an AQIM battalion in the battle for Gao – this was before the January 2013 French military operation, of course. So in that respect, these groups have operational ties, and it’s likely that both AQIM and MUJAO are responsible for the latest assaults. Niger's attacks may be a collaborative jihadist effort.
2. How vulnerable is the West African nation of Niger to such attacks?
Well, frankly in Niger, nature has provided militants with a perfect stomping spot.
You only have to look at a map of Niger – and especially northern Niger – to realize this.
In the first place, Niger is located in the Sahel, the remote, rocky region between the Sahara and the African savannah that has historically been Africa’s badlands, a hostile terrain difficult to administer that has traditionally afforded shelter to smugglers, traffickers, insurgents and militants of various stripes. The rocky terrain provides ideal hiding spots for outlaws.
Niger has an 800 kilometre border with Mali, which is impossible to seal, and ideal for militants fleeing the international military onslaught in Mali.
It has a 900 kilometre border with southern Algeria, the birthplace of al Qaeda’s North Africa branch and its top leaders.
It also has a direct exit into Libya, with which it shares a 300 kilometre border.
In the south, the country shares a 1,500 kilometre border with Nigeria – that is northern Nigeria, where the military is conducting a massive military operation against the Islamist Boko Haram group.
Niger’s President Mahamadou Issofou has repeatedly said the Malian crisis was Niger’s domestic problem, and he has been one of the strongest regional supporters of the French military intervention in neighbouring Mali.
But Niger is an impoverished country and it has a small army, only around 12,000 men to secure a vast area.
President Issofou has been constantly requesting military aid from western nations. In fact, earlier this year, the New York Times revealed that Niger has signed a status-of-forces agreement with the US to set up a new US drone base – this includes surveillance drones, although Washington has not ruled out missile strikes.
The latest attacks in Niger have shown that there is a real need for surveillance technology in this remote West African nation, and I suspect after what happened in Agadez and Arlit on Thursday, Niger’s government may not make the sort of fuss the Pakistani authorities have made if those drones conduct missile strikes targeting the terrorists hidden in the hills of northern Niger.
3. What does this mean for France and French interests in the region?
Niger is a uranium-rich country – about one-fifth of the uranium for France's nuclear reactors comes from this West African nation. This is important since France derives 80 percent of its energy from nuclear power.
'We're going to raise protection levels'
Shortly after the May 23 attack in Arlit, French President François Hollande warned that he will take “every measure” to protect French assets because French nuclear giant Areva has considerable interests there.
Niger officials said the grinding unit had been badly damaged at the Areva mine. This affects not only Areva’s interests, but Niger’s economic interests as well.
Areva is a big employer in this impoverished nation of about 16 million people. France of course is the former colonial power, and it must be said that the Niger government has not been happy with the existing contracts with Areva – these go back to some 40 years.
President Issofou often notes that uranium mining contributes just five percent to Niger’s GDP.
But both France and Niger do need each other, and protecting the uranium mines in Niger was one of the considerations when France launched a military operation in neighbouring Mali. France just cannot afford to allow instability to spread in this difficult, but very strategic region.
Date created : 2013-05-24