With the COVID-19 pandemic hurting the economy, continued instability in the east and a political tug-of-war at the heart of government, the young administration of Félix Tshisekedi is trying to impose its will, seeking allies at home and abroad.
Niger: Why did terrorists choose to strike in Kouré?
In an attack which left two Nigeriens and six French nationals dead on 9 August in Kouré, the terrorists targeted a symbol: the country’s decision to prioritise developing tourism over investing in a full-fledged security apparatus.
According to the French foreign ministry, the site of the attack fell within the orange zone, an area it advised against travelling to “unless for compelling reasons”. However, such warnings have stopped few people acquainted with Niger from visiting the area surrounding Kouré, whether at the weekend or during a long pause between two appointments, where eight people were killed in an attack on 9 August.
At the entrance to the wildlife reserve, the guards are sheltered behind sand bags. Rangers regularly undergo training exercises in the area. Back at the end of June 2019, during our last visit to the site, everyone was happy. There was talk of opening a small restaurant to welcome visitors. The signposts, exceedingly out of date, were in need of being redone.
Niger’s tourism promotion office, the Centre Nigérien de Promotion Touristique (CNPT), while certainly not the country’s most heavily funded outfit, was hoping to attract a large number of tourist groups, especially locals and Africans from other countries. “Our objective is two-fold: incorporate local communities into the tourism economy and invite Nigeriens from other regions as well as foreigners to learn about our culture,” a CNPT official said at the time.
‘We knew there were risks’
“Why not allocate a portion of the security budget to economic activities such as tourism, and in so doing re-establish a connection between the land, communities and the state?” suggested a tourism sector professional who firmly believes that expanding the security services cannot be the only way to address terrorism. ‘Swapping Kalashnikovs for giraffes’ or ‘tourism to fight terrorism’, in short.
For this group of European “tourists”, who were actually a mix of expatriates and workers temporarily posted in Niamey, accessing the park was already on the complicated side. The French embassy explicitly advised against the excursion, but that did not deter everyone. “We knew there were risks of incursions by groups from the north,” a Niamey-based professional said. He stopped bringing groups to Kouré in October 2019.
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“We feared that units typically operating in the Abalak and Chinagodrar area, near the Malian border, would carry out incursions further south, in the direction of Niamey and Kouré,” a source familiar with Kouré said. “Like in Benin, when tourists were attacked in Pendjari National Park, the terrorists wanted to get a message across: there is no ‘orange’ zone, they can strike anywhere.”
President Issoufou, front and centre
On 9 August, the day of the attack, for which no group has yet to claim responsibility and which cost the lives of two Nigeriens (a guide, Kadri Abdou, as well as a driver) and six French humanitarian workers (several of whom worked for the NGO ACTED), France’s President Emmanuel Macron talked with his Nigerien counterpart, Mahamadou Issoufou. According to our sources, the two men agreed to cooperate with the investigation launched promptly after the attack.
Reports also say that five of the French victims had arrived in Niger just two weeks ago. The sixth victim had been in Niamey for two months. The group left the Nigerien capital at 8 a.m. and arrived at the park one hour later, as they confirmed to ACTED’s country-level management.
According to our information, President Issoufou is following the situation closely, assisted by Mahamadou Ouhoumoudou, his minister and chief of staff, Issoufou Katambé, the defence minister, and Alkaché Alhada, the interior minister who was appointed in June to replace Mohamed Bazoum.
Alhada is a close ally of Hassoumi Massaoudou, the former defence minister, and of Ouhoumoudou and the president, for whom he served as deputy chief of staff. A national security council meeting was scheduled to be held on 10 August at 4:30 p.m. local time.
One suspect reportedly arrested, but the hunt is ongoing
Units from Niger’s armed forces and an Operation Barkhane detail are currently working to track down the group of attackers, who arrived on motorcycles and many suspect are based in the tri-border area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. “All of our defence and security forces, aided by our allies, especially France, have been mobilised,” Katambé said.
According to our sources, Nigerien soldiers apprehended a suspect and investigations are under way. “The attackers were on two motorcycles. They must have driven overnight to reach the park and then attacked the first group of white people they stumbled upon,” a local source familiar with the Kouré area said.
The Nigerien army is working hard to step up its presence at the main checkpoints in this woodland region. On 10 August, France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office announced that it had launched a probe into the killings. ACTED’s lawyer, Joseph Breham, said that the NGO would lodge a complaint in order to bring to light the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.
All eyes are currently on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, a terrorist organisation led by Adnane Abu Walid al-Sahraoui. “Since the beginning of the year, the group is under intense pressure from Operation Barkhane and is fighting on another front against the Groupe de Soutien à l’Islam et aux Musulmans, which is led out of Mali by Iyad Ag Ghaly,” a terrorism expert said. “This attack on a non-military target is likely meant to send a message to Paris.”