Days after Nigeria’s government imposed a state of emergency to counter the growing threat of Islamist extremism – and hours after a brutal terrorist attack in London – a double suicide bombing in Niger killed 26 and injured 30 on Thursday, and at least three military cadets were taken hostage.
A Mali-based Islamist group — the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) — claimed responsibility for the attack, which targeted a military camp as well as an uranium mine operated by French nuclear power company Areva. The bombings are a clear retaliation against an aggressive French campaign launched this January to rout out an alliance of Islamist rebels in Mali, including MUJAO, AQIM, and another militant group, Ansar Dine. France’s Operation Serval prompted jihadist movements across Africa to target both French interests worldwide, and France’s African allies. But while this de facto declaration of war has already resulted in a January assault on an Algerian gas compound by the al Qaeda-linked Masked Brigade, isolated kidnappings of Westerners and a series of MUJAO suicide attacks in Mali towns (which have had limited success, often killing only the suicide bomber), the Niger bombings represent the most sophisticated and destructive reprisal yet.
Indeed, the simultaneity of the attacks – they were both carried out at 5:30 am over 100 miles apart — and MUJAO’s ability to penetrate an army barracks and a uranium mine display the militant group’s preparedness and broad reach: strong indicators that despite the relative success of Operation Serval at reconquering northern Mali, religious militarism in the region is far from tempered. Rather, it has expanded beyond Mali – thanks to the porosity of West African borders — notably to Nigeria, where Islamist extremists have benefited from training with members of AQIM and MUJAO. That Niger is the latest target comes as little surprise: the African country is a strong ally of both France and the United States, contributed 650 troops to the French Mali campaign and has served as fertile ground for MUJAO kidnappings in the past (most recently of five Nigerians and one Chadian in October 2012). Which means that even if MUJAO and company can be successfully rousted from Mali – a dubious hypothesis given the country’s vast, mountainous northern region – neighboring power players will still have regional spillover to contend with.
In the meantime, the shocked Niger government declared a national mourning period and is reportedly negotiating for the release of the kidnapped soldiers. France had a similarly immediate, though more robust, response: President Francois Hollande vowed to help Niger “annihilate” the militants behind the bombings, before carefully adding, “We will not intervene in Niger as we did in Mali, but we have the same willingness to cooperate to fight against terrorism.” However, while France has proven reluctant to intervene in other former African colonies – notably the Central African Republic despite last week’s S.O.S. from deposed leaders facing a pointedly domestic rebellion – the Niger attacks have all the ingredients that pushed France to take action in Mali, i.e., a globally relevant villain with ties to al Qaeda and potential regional fallout. What’s more, Niger is home to significant French assets, namely profitable uranium mines that supply 20% of the European nation’s nuclear reactor needs.
If additional Areva mines are threatened, look for Hollande’s hedging to give way to a more concrete “willingness” to intervene. Then again, with a bull’s eye painted squarely on France and its interests, the embattled French leader’s best move may be to lie low in Africa and concentrate on domestic affairs.