A State Department spokesman has confirmed that early on Tuesday an American citizen was kidnapped in the village of Massalata in Niger near the Nigerian border. U.S. government officials and local authorities have commenced a search.
The State Department reported that it is providing “all possible consular assistance,” to the individual’s family.
Kidnappings are relatively common in Niger. The State Department‘s website lists the dangers associated with travel in the country:
“Terrorist groups continue plotting kidnappings and possible attacks in Niger. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting foreign and local government facilities and areas frequented by Westerners. Terrorists operate in the areas bordering Mali, Libya, Burkina Faso, and throughout northern Niger. Avoid travel to Niger’s border regions, particularly the Malian border area, Diffa region, and the Lake Chad region. Mali-based extremist groups have crossed the border and conducted multiple lethal attacks on Nigerien security forces.”
The spokesman declined to provide the kidnapped individual’s name additional information on the incident due to privacy reasons.
However, Reuters, which broke the story, has identified the kidnapped American as 27-year-old Philip Walton. He was abducted at around 01:45 local time by armed men on motorcycles, local police and government officials said.
It appears, the kidnappers only targeted Walton as they left his wife, brother, and a young daughter at the family’s home.
Walton had been living in Massalata for less than two years and was frequently seen accompanying his camels for walks into the bush. He kept camels, sheep, and poultry and grew mango trees in the area.
The kidnappers were identified as Fulani tribesmen. They spoke some English and demanded money but received only 20,000 CFA francs (about $35). So they decided to abduct Walton. They left the rest of the family tied up, and then fled to Nigeria.
Fulani tribesmen are nomadic Muslim herders who are being forced from their traditional grazing lands due to climate change. They most frequently attack Christian farmers and try to take over their farming lands. They are increasingly falling under the auspices of terrorist groups, mostly the Islamic State (ISIS) and Boko Haram. Boko Haram, also known as the Islamic State in West Africa or the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Violence is spreading out of control in the Sahel, the semi-arid region which borders the Sahara in the south. The Sahel encompasses the countries of Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Burkina Faso, known as the G5.
Terrorist attacks have increased seven-fold in the past three years in the Sahel according to a July report published by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Due to governmental paralysis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, terrorist attacks in the region have been increasing as the terror groups have taken advantage of the Sahel governments’ inability to respond.
Both Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are very active in the region. Their typical mode of attack is to use fighters on motorcycles.
In August, six French humanitarian workers along with their Nigerian driver and a guide were killed in an ambush in the Giraffe Zone in southwestern Niger. ISIS had claimed responsibility for that attack.
ISIS terrorists had claimed to have conducted a “blitz attack on the six humanitarian workers and their two local guides as they visited the giraffe preserve.” This attack “resulted in the killing of six of them after their capture, as well as two of their companions,” ISIS had reported.
American Special Operations troops have trained troops from Niger in the past and there have been recent deployments of the Security Force Assistance Brigade into the country.