The year that passed was a bloody one for the Sahel region. Unfortunately, 2021 also started with a violent outbreak of attacks when more than 100 civilians were killed in Niger by extremists over the weekend.

The attacks took place on the western villages of Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye after the villagers in the Tillaberi region had killed two insurgents. As has been the modus operandi for these attacks, the insurgents arrived on motorcycles and quickly enveloped the communities. The massacre was among the worst attacks on civilians since the violence exploded in the region in 2012. 

No one has yet acknowledged responsibility for the attack.

The Tillaberi region is where four American Special Forces troops and five Nigerien troops were killed in an ambush in October 2017.

A few weeks ago, Niger was again rocked by violence when the Islamic State West Africa Province in the Diffa region launched an attack in which dozens of civilians were killed.

These attacks come on the heels of the deaths of five French soldiers in Mali in two separate IED attacks

Meanwhile, France is wrestling with withdrawing some of its 5,100-strong force from the Sahel as it tries to balance, on the one hand, the defense of the G-5 Sahel countries, and on the other, the demands of the French public opinion.

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French Defense Minister Florence Parly, confirmed plans to withdraw about 600 troops that had deployed a year ago. He told the media that, “reinforcements, are by definition, only temporary.”

French President Emmanuel Macron is contemplating withdrawing even more troops before the 2022 presidential election as the public opinion in France is turning against risking further lives in their former colony. 

“We came to provide moral support and present the condolences of the president of the republic, the government, and the entire Niger nation,” Niger’s Prime Minister Brigi Rafini said as he visited the two villages.

The UN Refugee Agency said that the latest attacks forced an additional 1,000 citizens to be displaced, joining more than 138,000 internally displaced Nigerians. The region is already hosting 60,000 Malian refugees and 4,000 people from neighboring Burkina Faso.

Areas of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are rapidly becoming the scenes of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic compound the humanitarian issue. 

In December 2019, Islamist insurgents attacked Nigerien military bases killing 70 troops. In January 2020, a similar attack at Chinagodrar in the western Tillaberi region resulted in the deaths of 89 troops. Both of those attacks were claimed by the Islamic State. In its statement, ISIS said that fighters from its West Africa Province affiliate had carried out the attacks.

The attacks were stopped when French Mirage jets struck the ISIS fighters chasing them into the rural areas. The U.S. also participated by conducting two drone strikes against the insurgents. 

Niger has been battling both the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara as well as the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM (Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’). The terrorist groups target local government leaders and inciting ethnic violence.

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The insurgents commonly recruit from the region’s nomadic communities. To do so, they portray the sedentary farming communities as the nomads’ enemies allied with weak governments.

Nigerien Interior Minister Alkache Alhada said in an interview with AFP that Niger will send more troops into the region. 

“We have to stop incursions. We have to create a kind of security cordon, but one of the difficulties is that there’s a void on the Malian side,” he specified.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres released a statement from spokesman Stephane Dujarric condemning the attacks. He called for “the solidarity and support of the United Nations to the government and people of Niger in their fight against terrorism, violent extremism and organized crime.”