December 17, 2019

IntelBrief: Islamic State Massacre in Niger Latest in Series of Major Attacks in Sahel

FILE - This Feb. 6, 2013, file photo shows French armoured vehicles heading towards the Niger border (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File).
  • Another major attack in Niger by Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) signifies the group’s growth as a significant threat throughout the Sahel.
  • Recent deaths of French troops in Mali and rising anti-French sentiment throughout West Africa is straining France’s relations with regional governments.
  • There is yet to be any regional progress in preventing ISGS from crossing the borders between Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and possibly also Nigeria.
  • The massive deaths tolls caused by ISGS attacks and the failure of regional militaries to respond effectively is increasing the reach of violent non-state actors as they carve out larger swaths of operational space.


In one of the most brutal and lethal attacks in recent memory, the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) raided a military barracks in Inates, Niger last week, killing more than 70 soldiers. Many others were injured or remain missing. This was not only a devastating attack for Niger, but also represented a major warning for two of Niger’s neighbors also combatting ISGS—Burkina Faso and Mali. In the attack in Inates, ISGS deployed at least two vehicle-borne suicide bombers and fired dozens of mortar shells toward the military base. Dozens of fighters on motorcycles then stormed the base and massacred soldiers. ISGS immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, albeit in the name of Nigeria-based Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP, aka ‘Boko Haram’), which has subsumed ISGS in the Islamic State’s organizational structure. ISGS also released a video several days after the attack of its fighters summarily executing three captured soldiers. What makes this latest attack particularly disconcerting is that on July 2, ISGS also attacked this same base using similar tactics. That previous attack was also deadly, with 20 Nigerien soldiers killed—around 100 Nigerien soldiers have been killed in the last six months in Inates alone.

The Inates attack is just one in a steady progression of terrorist incidents. In November, ISGS attacked another military base in Indelimane, Mali and killed more than 50 soldiers. ISGS released a video of that attack showing fighters convening before the attack and then riding on motorcycles toward the base, where they massacred the soldiers. Astute observers noted the Nigerian army camouflage worn by one of the fighters in the video, suggesting ISWAP’s claims of ISGS attacks are not the only form of cooperation between the groups—it appears that personnel and equipment are also being transferred. This could be occurring as a result of ISWAP’s shifting cells from northeastern Nigeria to northwestern Nigeria, which borders Niger and is only around 300 hundred miles from the Malian border. Inates and Indelimane are also in strategic locations, both straddling the borders of Mali and Niger. It is certain that ISGS fighters regularly cross these borders both before and after carrying out attacks and venture into Burkina Faso, where ISGS attacks have also escalated in 2019. ISGS has even entered Beninese territory one time in 2019 when it kidnapped two foreign tourists and killed their tour guide, although a special forces operation later led to the two tourists’ rescue.

As a regional security guarantor, France would normally be expected to react to these ISGS attacks by further strengthening security collaboration with Mali and Niger. However, French military morale may be lower now than in previous years. In November, two French Air Force helicopters collided in the air in Mali, leading to the deaths of 13 soldiers. This was the largest loss of French military lives in four decades. In what some regional observers viewed as an excessively haughty display, French President Macron subsequently ‘summoned’ West African heads of state to France for mid-December meetings where Macron is expected to raise the issue of ‘anti-French sentiment’ and threaten—but likely not follow through with—removing French forces from the region.

The al-Qaeda-loyal group known as Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), or Group for the Supporters of Islam and Muslims, is also active throughout the Sahel. While JNIM has been a more consistent threat than ISGS, for the first time ISGS is now eclipsing JNIM in media attention as a result of its major attacks like those in Indelimane and Inates. It would not be surprising if JNIM seeks to outbid ISGS by conducting its own spectacular attacks in Niger, Mali, or Burkina Faso. Such attacks could occur against international targets or military bases or even in Benin, Togo, or Ghana. JNIM’s brigade operating in Burkina Faso is already operating near the borders of those three countries. Crossing the Burkina Faso border to launch an attack would allow JNIM to also take credit for expanding into yet another new country in West Africa. Considering current trends, it is only a matter of time before JNIM or ISGS, or perhaps both, expand their presence into those littoral West African countries. Until then, both groups will continue to target military bases along the borders between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Consequently, any semblance of state presence in certain border areas is diminishing, which contributes directly to paving the way for the jihadists’ realizing their longer term of objective of controlling territory without interference from the state.


For tailored research and analysis, please contact: