Governments issue security alerts to Westerners in Niger
On 22 June the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAIT) issued a security alert indicating that terrorist groups are planning attacks against foreign nationals in Niger. A similar warning was issued by the US Embassy in Niger on possible attacks targeting Westerners in Diffa in early February. These alerts, along with the consistent advice not to travel to Niger provided by several governments to their citizens, highlight the threat to Western nationals in the country despite the lack of high-profile kidnap incidents reported in recent months.
The Persistent Threat To Foreign Nationals In Niger
A variety of armed groups – terrorist and criminal – have a presence in Niger, operating across borders in the Sahel and often targeting foreign nationals. Among these are groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JMIN), and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Operations undertaken by these groups are often indiscriminate and take place in locations visited by foreign nationals.
Two months prior to the DFAIT alert, in April 2018, unidentified gunmen abducted a German aid worker in the western Tillabéri region. The victim and his Nigerien colleagues had been travelling near the border with Mali at the time of the incident. According to the driver, the gunmen surrounded the convoy on motorbikes, physically assaulted the passengers, burnt the vehicle but only kidnapped the foreign national.
There have been no reports regarding the status of the victim since the incident, nor has there been any information regarding the identity of his captors. In a similar incident in 2016, a US NGO worker was kidnapped in the presence of other domestic nationals. Although kidnap incidents targeting foreign nationals have remained sporadic, the modus operandi observed in both incidents demonstrates that foreigners remain an attractive target.
Foreign Nationals – A Target Serving Multiple Purposes
Foreign nationals employed in Niger in the diplomatic, military and extractive industry sectors mostly operate under restrictive movement and residential protocols are therefore less vulnerable – although as high-value targets, they may be more likely to be targeted. However foreign nationals in the aid and development sector and international media are particularly vulnerable, especially when on missions outside Niamey. There is also a small but sustained tourist industry in Agadez. Although there have not been attacks on tourist groups in recent years, these offer targets of opportunity to potential assailants.
Regardless of their professional status, foreign nationals are targeted by criminals and terrorists in the region for a variety of reasons. Foreign nationals provide their captors with the opportunity to receive a larger ransom payment than domestic nationals. Kidnapping or killing foreign nationals can also serve as a method of intimidation and / or a means of garnering media attention.
Depending on the perpetrators’ goals and ideology, harming foreign nationals may be an end in itself. The Islamic State (IS) affiliated group that ambushed a team of US special forces along the Niger-Mali border in late 2016, for example, was described by a former kidnap victim as having “no demands”, interested simply in “[waging] jihad” and wanting to “kill foreign soldiers in particular”.
Violence along the Niger-Mali border has continued to escalate since Mali’s 2012 crisis, despite counter-terrorism efforts by regional governments and their international allies. Jihadist groups, including ISGS, have been able to exploit local tensions and the absence of a strong authority in rural areas of northern Mali to successfully establish a foothold from which to launch incursions into Nigerien territory. Longstanding intercommunal tensions, the transnational nature of the conflict, as well as the disparity among the jihadist groups operating in the region are all factors that contribute to curtailing the authorities’ efforts in addressing the rising insecurity in the region. The security situation in Niger, particularly near the border with Mali, is unlikely to improve in the short to medium term. Locally-based Sahel analysts describe the Mali-Niger border east of Gao as ‘the real frontline in the desert war.’
Recent EU-enforced Nigerien legislation outlawing transit traffic of migrants from Agadez to the Libyan border has impoverished several thousand Touareg and Toubou in the Agadez region. These groups rose up against the Niamey government in 2005, and recent developments have awoken long-standing grievances. There are regular reports of ISGS incursions into villages in the Aïr mountains north of Agadez. For now, Aïr villages appear to be resisting these incursions, but with rapidly declining living standards following the anti-migrant law, former passeur (as the migrant truck drivers are known) are reportedly starting to engage with Sahara-based insurgent and jihadist groups crossing over from Libya.
These developments will likely increase the risk of attack and kidnap to visitors to Agadez and the surrounding area, especially in the Ténéré Desert. A US military base under construction next to Agadez airport which will be fully operational for Special Forces and UAV missions by the end of the year is seen by locals as a mixed blessing for the Agadez region. On the one hand it will provide a security umbrella and a rapid response force in the event of an attack. On the other hand, the base will provide more target opportunities in the area, and feeds into an insurgent narrative of Imperial oppression.
In addition to the ISGS/AQIM threat in the East and West of Niger, there is a consistent threat from Boko Haram (BH) militants based in Nigeria along the Southern border – especially the Maradi – Zinder – Diffa – Lake Chad axis. BH insurgents often cross the border to mount attacks against the Nigerien Army who have been active against BH in both Niger and Nigeria in recent years. Illegal BH roadblocks have been reported along the southern highway, with BH fighters shooting at vehicles and kidnapping travellers. On 30 June / 1 July BH militants attacked a Nigerien military base near Lake Chad, killing at least ten soldiers and possibly abducting others to move across the border to Nigeria. Road travel on the Southern border highway east of Niamey should be considered high / extreme risk.
Accommodation: The two main hotels in Niamey (The Grand Hotel and The Hotel Gaweye) have adequate security protection in place, with good stand-off, multiple levels of checkpoint, and metal detectors at main entrances. However staffing, training and routines are poorly implemented. Hotels in Agadez and elsewhere are effectively unprotected.
Vehicles/road transport/air travel: Road traffic is chaotic throughout the country. Most vehicles are poorly maintained, and professional drivers are uncommon. The only domestic commercial airline, Niger Air, operates a single 40-year old Fokker F40, flown by an exiled Palestinian crew, routing Niamey – Zinder – Maradi – Agadez three times a week, with flights subject to mechanical defect and inclement weather. UNHAS and WFP flights are generally only available to UN-accredited NGO and diplomatic missions.
Personal Security: Personal security and CP teams are not reliably available in Niger. In Agadez and the Ténéré desert armed Nigerien Army escort teams in 4×4 vehicles can be hired on a daily rate. Nigerien authorities require that these be engaged by all foreigners travelling outside Agadez.
NYA Capabilities In High Threat Locations
In the past, foreign nationals have been kidnapped from their homes, vehicles and places of work across the Sahel. It is therefore vital for individuals intending to travel to high threat locations to take the necessary security measures to ensure their safety. Contact us to learn how NYA and our team of experienced consultants and analysts can advise you on local / regional threats and support you throughout your travels.