November 06, 2020
Niger kidnapping signals Salafi-jihadis’ growing influence in West Africa
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
Salafi-jihadi groups’ strengthening in West Africa is incentivizing attacks on foreigners, even in areas where Salafi-jihadi groups have a limited presence. Six criminals kidnapped an American farmer, Philip Walton, in southwestern Niger near the Nigerian border on October 27. The kidnappers, who were not themselves members of a Salafi-jihadi group, demanded nearly $1 million and threatened to turn Walton over to Salafi-jihadi militants if the ransom was not paid. US Special Operations Forces rescued Walton on October 31. The kidnappers’ threat reflects the growing influence of Salafi-jihadi groups in the border region of northwestern Nigeria and southwestern Niger.
Salafi-jihadi groups are increasingly active in and around the region of northwestern Nigeria and southwestern Niger where Walton was kidnapped. Three groups are active in this area. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) has two branches: one based in northeastern Nigeria and its environs, and one based in the tri-border area of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The latter group is commonly referred to as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Al Qaeda–linked Ansaru also operates in northwestern Nigeria.
All three groups have recently resumed activity in or advanced toward northwestern Nigeria. On August 9, ISGS killed eight French aid workers in southwestern Niger’s Giraffe Zone, expanding its operations to an area previously considered safe. ISWA is already active in southeastern Niger and regularly claims attacks in Niger’s Diffa region and in northern Nigeria. ISWA’s area of operations may be expanding westward, and the group is active in regions outside its control.
ISWA may also be competing with Ansaru, an al Qaeda–linked group that resurfaced in northwestern Nigeria in 2019. ISWA and ISGS have recently stepped up attacks targeting foreigners and aid workers. US security forces rescued Walton in Nigeria, which may indicate the kidnappers’ intent to transfer him to ISWA.
Two major areas of Salafi-jihadi activity may be merging across northwestern Nigeria. ISGS’s eastward shift and ISWA’s westward advance could connect the two main areas of Salafi-jihadi activity in West Africa and increase interaction between the two groups. This interaction could include sharing tactical and strategic guidance, accessing each other’s safe havens to weather counterterrorism pressure, or even coordinating joint attacks.
Salafi-jihadi groups will likely benefit from lucrative illicit economic activity along the Niger-Nigeria border. The area of Walton’s kidnapping is a key crossing point for trafficking and smuggling, including the moving of migrants toward the Maghreb and Europe. A greater presence along the Niger-Nigeria border may allow a Salafi-jihadi–criminal nexus to exploit these routes for transit and profit-making. Salafi-jihadi groups may also expand ties with local criminal groups to facilitate their expansion into new areas.
Rising Salafi-jihadi threats in West Africa will increasingly strain Niger, a US partner. Niger is already fighting Salafi-jihadi groups on two fronts and may now confront the merging of these two theaters along its entire southern border. Niger is a key player in counterterrorism efforts in West Africa and contributes troops to counterterrorism missions in Mali and Nigeria. Niger also hosts US and French forces. A serious uptick in Salafi-jihadi activity in Niger could worsen its already struggling economy by disrupting tourism and targeting the significant humanitarian presence in the country.