A pair of suicide bombers from the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Tawhid [Oneness or Unity] and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) killed 19 people, including 18 soldiers, in attacks that targeted a military barracks and a French-run uranium mine in Niger. The attacks are the first of their kind in the West African country, and signal that the jihadist insurgency that is raging in the neighboring countries of Mali, Nigeria, and Algeria is spreading.
The first attack was executed by a suicide assault team against a military barracks in the town of Agadez in northwestern Niger. Five suicide bombers carried out the attack in Agadez, which killed 18 soldiers and a civilian, according to the BBC. Gunfire between the attackers and Nigerien troops was reported after the initial explosion. Four members of the assault team were killed, while the fifth is said to be holding four Nigerien soldiers hostage.
The second attack took place at the Somaïr mine in Arlit, which is just north of Agadez. A suicide bomber who was dressed as a soldier detonated his explosives near a group of workers. AREVA, the French company that runs the uranium mine, said that “13 colleagues have been injured” and were “taken into the care by local emergency services.”
In early February, France deployed special forces to beef up security at the Arlit and Imouraren mining sites, a month after launching an operation against an alliance of jihadist groups who had taken control of northern Mali. France derives about 20 percent of the raw material for its nuclear reactors from Niger.
MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui claimed credit for the attacks and said they were carried out to punish Niger for participating in operations in Mali.
“Thanks to Allah, we have carried out two operations against the enemies of Islam in Niger,” Sahraoui told AFP. He accused the Nigerien government of action in “cooperation with France in the war against Sharia,” or Islamic law. By the end of 2012, MUJAO, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ansar Dine had seized northern Mali and were seeking to impose sharia in areas under their control.
Although today’s bombings are the first suicide attacks recorded in Niger, MUJAO has targeted Nigerien forces at least once in neighboring Mali over the past month. On May 10, a MUJAO suicide bomber attacked Nigerien soldiers in the Malian town of Gao; no soldiers were killed in the attack. Nigerien forces are part of a multinational force attempting to secure northern Mali.
The US added MUJAO and two of its top leaders to the list of global terrorists and entities in December 2012. MUJAO was formed in late 2011 as an offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, for the purpose of waging jihad in western Africa. Although MUJAO leaders are said to have leadership differences with the Algerian-dominated AQIM, MUJAO conducts joint operations with AQIM in northern Mali and other areas. At the time of its formation, MUJAO expressed affinity to al Qaeda and its founder, Osama bin Laden, and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Jihadists in West Africa have attacked energy production sites in the region in the past. In January, just after French forces invaded Mail, the al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam, or Those who sign with Blood Brigade, launched a deadly suicide assault on the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria. The group is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who split off from AQIM to form his own unit. He claimed the In Amenas attack under al Qaeda’s banner.
In addition to the Islamist insurgencies raging to the north and west of Niger, another is underway to the south, in Nigeria. There, the al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram has launched numerous deadly attacks and suicide bombings against the military, government officials, and Christian churches in the north. Last week, the Nigerian government declared martial law in the north and launched an offensive to root out Boko Haram after the terror group killed more than 200 people, including scores of security personnel, in attacks in the northeast near Lake Chad. Boko Haram is believed to use the porous borders to move between Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. On May 20, Nigeria formally requested Niger’s military help in combating the Boko Haram insurgency.