You may have heard of MUJAO—the West African jihadists who started a war in Mali this year. Well, yesterday they exploded two car bombs that killed dozens of people in Niger. One struck the remote town of Arlit, and another blew up in the nearby town of Agadez, where jihadists also stormed a military barracks and got into a standoff with Nigerien and French troops that ended earlier today. The region is a hub for uranium transportation, which could be why MUJAO—which stands for Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa—struck there. Or was it simply revenge against the French for trouncing the Islamists in Mali?
MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui offered a straightforward answer when he told Agence France-Presse, "Thanks to Allah, we have carried out two operations against the enemies of Islam in Niger… We attacked France and Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against Sharia."
But how do American troops fit into the equation? For over a year now the residents of Arlit have been noticing small contingents of American soldiers around town. Sometimes, they fly in and out by plane, which land at night in Agadez, which is about 150 miles north of Arlit at the edge of the Sahara. Dressed in khaki uniforms, they drive unmarked Land Rovers across the country’s unforgiving desert, populated by members of the indigenous, nomadic Tuareg tribe.
“They are very discreet,” says Azaoua Mahaman, an Arlit resident who works for the US relief organization Mercy Corps. “We can’t tell you what is happening because we are only civilians. But they've been here for a long time, around the extraction sites.”
A uranium extraction site in Niger.
Uranium extraction is one of Niger’s largest industries, and it's been helping fuel nuclear reactors around the world for the past 45 years. The country’s mines are mainly operated by Areva, the French state-owned nuclear company. Residents of the West African nation have long struggled against the company, and it has been accused of labor abuses and irresponsible environmental policies.
When the government of Niger announced in February that its president, Mahamadou Issoufou, signed an agreement with the United States allowing the Americans to build a drone base (located currently in Niamey, the capital), the news came as no surprise to the citizens of Arlit and Agadez. The US had already set up camp in their desert more than a year earlier.
US forces are now gathering and sharing intelligence with French forces in an effort to combat terrorist networks in the Sahel region, which separates the Sahara from Africa’s southern savanna. French troops have been in Arlit protecting Areva’s two main uranium mines since January; their deployment was part of the aftermath of the French-led war against armed Islamists in neighboring Mali.
Tom Saunders, an American military spokesperson, said that US Africa Command has had an ongoing relationship with Niger’s armed forces as part of a larger State Department-led effort in the country. Since January of 2012, small groups of US military personnel have taken part in short-term training and military-to-military engagements with Nigerien military members, he said, adding that “a small team of US military personnel are conducting training with Nigerian forces in the area near Arlit and may on occasion visit the city to purchase goods or participate in cultural events.”
A mining site in Niger.
Already, the locals have seen drones flying in the sky of Agadez. Since the French seem to be gaining traction against the rebels in Mali, the Islamists have started to regroup in the Sahara desert in Niger and neighboring countries, according to Aïr Info, a local paper based in Agadez.
The military has tightened its security on the main roads leading to the Nigerien border and things are tense. Azaoua Mahaman, a relief organization worker in the area, travels from Agadez to his hometown of Arlit each weekend. But after hearing about gunfire exchanges between rebels and military convoys along the road, he stopped driving his car to Arlit and now takes a bus, which he says is less of a target.
Almoustapha Alhacen, an Areva employee and local environmental activist, said that the militarization and the security has become another wall secluding the town's activities from the outside world, and it is contributing to the area's woes. “After 40 years of exploitation, the poverty is worse here than in the 70s,” he said.
But Ibrahim Diallo, the editor of Aïr Info, is more worried about Islamist militant groups launching attacks in northern Niger, or even Bamako, Mail's capital, than he is about the Americans.
“Al Qaeda is an enemy without a face. It could already be within our walls. Nobody can tell you that al Qaeda isn’t here. We believe in this threat, which is why the Nigerien authorities have put their pride aside although the Americans didn’t come with the clearest intentions,” said Diallo. “We are scared, we must regroup. We must pray in our mosques, in our churches, to prevent the worst from happening.”
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