Plentiful data indicate that ISIS has been working to consolidate its bases in Niger, where it has recently launched several bloody attacks killing dozens of civilians. The most notable of these was its operation in the village of Tillia, in the southwest of the country, in March 2021, which killed more than 141 civilians, including men, women, and children. ISIS members also stole nearly 5,000 camels and more than 20,000 cattle and sheep, along with many vehicles.
1- ISIS’s widening influence: Many international and regional forces are trying to check the influence of various terrorist organizations in the African Sahel now that they have become a serious threat to the security and stability of that region. At the same time, we find an increase in the frequency of ISIS attacks in Niger, indicating that the organization has begun to enjoy broad influence inside the country, enabling it to launch distinct attacks in multiple areas within a short timeframe. Its attacks are dispersed throughout various locations, concentrated in areas near Niger’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, where dozens have been killed.
2- Increased targeting of the Tuareg: It is also remarkable that the majority of the victims of recent ISIS attacks are from Tuareg tribes known for their alliance with Al-Qaeda through Ansar Dine, a group that entered into the coalition Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimin, which includes Al-Qaeda, the Macina Liberation Front, and Those Who Sign in Blood. Thus, one of the factors behind these attacks is retaliation against Al-Qaeda allies to give the impression that Al-Qaeda is unable to protect them. This may compel many tribes in this region to cooperate with ISIS in order to avoid its attacks that are more brutal and bloody than those of other organizations and militias deployed in this region. This situation may help strengthen ISIS’s presence in Niger.
3- Further consolidation of bases: ISIS is consolidating its bases in Niger, which it considers a suitable environment for expansion and spread. Numerous reports indicate that ISIS’s latest attacks were personally overseen by the organization’s leader, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, which means that ISIS’s leadership was eager to execute those attacks in such a horrific way so as to send the message that there is no government or army in Niger capable of preventing it from carrying out its bloody attacks. The organization’s leaders are capable of mobilizing and overseeing attacks, indicating that Niger has become an exclusive area of influence for ISIS.
The escalation of ISIS’s recent attacks in Niger has led to several explanations of the motives behind these attacks, especially as they coincide with ISIS’s attempts to consolidate its presence in other regions of the continent, such as Central and West Africa. The most pertinent of these explanations involve the following:
1- Acquisition of new funding sources: By intensifying its attacks in Niger, ISIS is seeking new sources of funding that would enable it to spend on recruitment and criminal activities. In particular, many young men in Niger suffer from extreme poverty, which may compel them to join the organization to obtain the financial and economic benefits ISIS provides to its members and adherents. In this regard, we find that ISIS was able to steal huge amounts of money when attacking pastoral tribes and villages, along with hundreds of head of livestock, while also imposing levies and taxes on merchants. Notably, these resources enable the organization to expand its activities in the African Sahel.
2- Creation of an ISIS stronghold in Niger: ISIS’s activities in Niger indicate that the organization is racing against time to create a new stronghold there in an attempt to exploit the fragility of the state, its deteriorating internal security and economic conditions, and its weak military capabilities and inability to confront terrorist organizations that thrive in the country. Undoubtedly, all these issues constitute a conducive environment for the organization to establish bases and training camps that encourage many extremists in Niger and neighboring countries to join its ranks, especially amid the spread of extremist ideology in those areas.
3- Exploitation of failed international counterterrorism efforts: On the other hand, ISIS is attempting to exploit the failure of international counterterrorism efforts, led by France, to curb terrorist organizations in the African Sahel in general and Niger in particular. In Niger, ISIS is also trying to compensate for the losses and fragmentation of the parent organization in Syria and Iraq.
4- Support for other branches of ISIS: By escalating its recent attacks in Niger, ISIS may be seeking to transform itself into a transborder organization that supports other branches of the organization. If the caliphate moves to the African continent, ISIS’s leader, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, may qualify to assume the position of ISIS caliph by trying to take advantage of his Arab origin, which is one of the main conditions for holding this position.
Likewise, by increasing attacks in Niger, al-Sawari is trying to install his new branch, Greater Sahara Province, in the organization, especially after raising the fears of international stakeholder powers in the region, led by France. ISIS’s strengthened presence in Niger may also help the Greater Sahara branch extend its influence into Central Africa via organizational contact with ISIS’s branch there, Central Africa Province, which the US recently put on its terrorism list after its crimes increased greatly in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, killing hundreds and displacing thousands of late.
5- Competition with other terrorist organizations: The brutality of ISIS’s latest attacks in Niger, and the high number of victims, indicate that the organization is not trying to lead the terrorism scene in Niger alone but in the entire Sahel region. This is occurring in the context of organizational competition between it and Al-Qaeda, where the capability to launch horrific attacks is one of the most important mechanisms for demonstrating power and influence. This is consistent with ISIS’s effort to expand into more countries in the African continent as part of its quest to make the continent the next headquarters of the so-called ISIS caliphate.
Thus, ISIS’s success in consolidating its presence in Niger would greatly help expand the new ISIS crescent, beginning with the Greater Sahara Province operating in Niger, Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso, extending through the West African Province in Nigeria and Cameroon, and ending with the Central African Province operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and Tanzania. This may open the door again for foreign fighters wishing to join the ranks of ISIS to come to Africa, especially with the organization’s activities on the continent on the rise. In parallel, numerous reports indicate that many foreign fighters from Kenya and Tanzania, and perhaps Uganda and the Comoro Islands as well, have joined ISIS’s ranks in the Central African Province.Finally, ISIS has multiple goals behind the recent escalation and severe brutality of its attacks in Niger. The organization aims to demonstrate its power and influence and expand its sources of funding in the context of competition with other terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. This signals that Africa is atop a wave of ISIS violence that may exceed the previous wave seen in Syria and Iraq, unless international and regional powers take serious steps to stop the organization’s expansion and spread on the continent.