On October 6 (yesterday), gunmen attacked the Tazalit refugee hosting center in western Niger. The attackers killed twenty-two Nigerien soldiers, although none of the center’s approximately 4,000 refugees were wounded or killed. UNHCR describes the attack:
The armed assailants are reported to have arrived at the site in two pick up trucks. Witnesses say that following the attack, the assailants stayed in the area for up to 2 hours, and looted the health centre, stealing vital medical stocks. They also burned a UNHCR ambulance. No UNHCR staff or partners were present when the attack took place. The attackers then stole a military vehicle and fled, before support arrived.
This is not the first attack against security forces guarding Malian refugee camps in Niger. On the 10th of September, armed assailants attacked a security post at the camp of Tabareybarey in the region of Tillabery, which also borders Mali and is home to almost 10,000 refugees. A young Malian refugee woman of 18 years was killed, as well as a 5 year old refugee boy. Five others were shot and wounded.
The refugees, as UNHCR points out, are primarily Malians. These refugees were displaced during and after Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war – Tazalit itself was established in 2013 (.pdf). Part of the context for this attack is that Mali’s conflict is in many senses ongoing, including through continued displacement and attacks such as these. In a May 2016 update (.pdf), UNHCR estimated that there are 134,262 Malian refugees currently living in Mali’s neighbors. Of these, over 60,000 are in Niger. Throughout the region, many refugees remain reluctant to go back to Mali.
Who were the attackers? Nigerien authorities (French) and international voices have been quick to call the incident a terrorist attack, but few details have emerged yet about the identity of the attackers. They stole some military equipment, but as Philippe Frowd points out, their “motive can’t have been simply material.”
Niger’s Defense Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou has pointed to “narco-terrorists” as the responsible party. His statement was a highly interesting take on how Nigerien authorities view conflict dynamics in present-day Mali (French):
This attack was perpetrated by narco-terrorists coming from northern Mali, probably from the zone of Kidal and Tin Zaouaten…The armed groups of northern Mali, it’s a continuum between terrorist groups and the armed groups who participate sometimes in the Algiers [peace] process and the groups of traffickers, narco-traffickers. So, there not a distinction between these different groups: Ansar Dine, [Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb], [the High Council for the Unity of Azawad], narco-traffickers. In reality, they go from one position to the other. We have pursued them, [but] they entered Malian territory.
The statement says two things to me. First, the Nigerien authorities do not know which group was responsible. Second, the Nigerien authorities have a cynical (though not completely unfair!) perspective regarding the armed groups in northern Mali. Essentially, Massaoudou said that no hard and fast distinctions can be made between groups there. (There is significant evidence to show that he’s partially right, although I think he is over-simplifying the situation.) The implication, though, is that the Malian authorities and the international community have maintained some rather arbitrary, or at least problematic, definitions concerning who is mainstream and who should be able to participate in politics and peace deals (the High Council), and who is anathema and should be excluded from politics and peace deals (Ansar Dine, AQIM, etc).
It will be interesting to see which group, if any, claims responsibility.