Authorities in the border region of Diffa, in southeast Niger, banned the full Islamic veil Wednesday, following a string of suicide attacks in the province.
Boko Haram — which pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in March and officially renamed itself the Islamic State Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya (Islamic State West Africa Province) — has made a point of expanding its attacks in Nigeria and in neighboring countries. In turn, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger have stepped up military efforts to contain the Nigerian Islamist insurgency.
During its six-year insurrection, Boko Haram has often used female suicide bombers concealing explosives under the traditional religious garment.
To prevent further attacks, Niger's authorities have implemented a number of security measures. As well as banning women from wearing burqas in public, officials in Diffa have imposed a night-time curfew and extended a February ban on motorcycles, which are often used by Boko Haram militants during raids. Speaking to the French daily Le Figaro, the mayor, Hankouraou Biri-Kassoumdoes, said that only army vehicles will be allowed to circulate after 10PM.
"We are counting heavily on the cooperation of the people," a spokesman for Diffa's regional authorities told VICE News. "A great many practicing Muslims live in Diffa," the spokesman said, adding that the measure is not intended "to restrict the freedom" of citizens.
"This [security] measure has been more or less welcomed by the population," said Adam Boubakar, head of the local Anfani radio station. Speaking to VICE News Thursday, Baboukar said the atmosphere in Diffa was "heavy." The decision to ban the veil, he said, was made "during a meeting between authorities, religious chiefs and the local authorities in Diffa."
"People know that the [security] measure is first and foremost for their benefit. They've seen what Boko Haram did around here and in other towns in the region," he added.
On February 6, Boko Haram carried out its first assault on Niger when it launched two raids against the towns of Bosso and Diffa. Up until those attacks, militants had focused their attention on neighboring Nigeria and along the border with Cameroon.
During the raids, militants fired shells on Diffa, triggering a retaliatory aerial assault from Chad and Niger. Speaking to VICE News at the time, a local resident described Diffa as a ghost town, with stores shut down and people fleeing en masse. The man said that authorities had banned "motorcycles — the attackers' vehicles of choice, because they are easy to hide."
Thousands of residents had fled west to escape the violence, causing a population drain that is ongoing as a result of the group's continued attacks in the region. In a recent report on south Niger, African news site Jeune Afrique called Diffa a "garrison town," and said that the town had become a battleground for Niger's army and Boko Haram insurgents.
On June 18, Boko Haram waged particularly violent attacks on villages in the Diffa region, killing 38 people, mainly women and children. Less than a month later, three heavily armed militants stormed the prison in Diffa, killing a soldier. All three militants died in the raid.
On July 11, a woman wearing a burqa killed 15 people when she detonated her explosive in the central market in Chad's capital, N'Djamena. On Saturday, a 12-year-old girl detonated a belt of explosives in a popular bar in the town of Maroua, in north Cameroon, killing 20 and injuring a further 79.
In neighboring Nigeria, these types of attacks occur on an almost daily basis. On Sunday a 10-year-old suicide bomber strapped with explosives detonated her belt in a crowded market in the northeastern town of Damaturu, killing at least 19.
The countries around Lake Chad have set up a cross-regional force to combat the Islamic insurgency, which is due to become operational on July 30.
On Thursday, Nigerian general Iliya Abbah was appointed to lead the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which will be staffed by 8,700 troops from Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Benin.
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Image of central market in Diffa via Wikimedia Commons / Mab.Black