Groups affiliated with Islamic State and al Qaeda are killing and kidnapping elder statesmen and their families in villages across Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. The violence mimics their tactics in other parts of the world where they have seized control.
Extremists target African village leaders in wave of assassinations
Scrawled onto a cement gravestone in the village of Tchombangou is the date when the calm of the remote community in southwest Niger was shattered: Friday, Nov. 22, 2019.
Before dawn that day, gunmen approached on motorbikes across the surrounding scrubland. Their target: Boubacar Lawey, the 95-year-old village chief who walked with a cane and for 55 years had settled local disputes, collected taxes and registered births and deaths.
While residents slept, the men led Lawey a short way from the village and shot him dead.
Lawey wasn’t the only local leader they were after. A West African affiliate of Islamic State killed or abducted the chiefs of at least three other nearby villages that day, said Marsadou Soumaila, the top government official in the department of Ouallam, where the attacks took place.
“That day, the war started between us,” said Lawey’s son, Moumouni Boubacar.
The ambushes were part of rapidly growing violence by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in the Sahel, a band of arid terrain south of the Sahara Desert. In the past four years, thousands of people have been killed in attacks in three Sahel countries – Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, conflict data show. France, the United States and neighboring countries have deployed thousands of troops to try to secure the area. Millions have been displaced and thousands of schools have shut, as these groups strive to win control of rural communities and rid the region of international forces.
Amid the chaos, a pattern has emerged. Since early 2018, Islamist groups have assassinated or abducted at least 300 community leaders, state officials and family members in the borderlands between the three countries, an area bigger than Germany, according to a Reuters analysis of thousands of violent incidents and interviews with more than two dozen witnesses and officials. In the six years before, they killed or abducted fewer than 20 leaders.
The Reuters analysis used records from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a research and consulting group that collects reports from media and non-governmental organizations to track political violence. Those targeted include chiefs, mayors, council members and religious leaders. The tally is likely an undercount: It omits dozens of attacks carried out by unidentified groups in areas where Islamists operate.
The attacks have weakened ties between rural communities and central governments in the Sahel and helped militants gain control of large areas. It follows the same playbook Islamic State and al Qaeda militants have employed to wield power in other parts of Africa and the Middle East, researchers say.
Without strong leaders to push back, populations in the Sahel are vulnerable to recruitment, extortion and attack, and security forces are stripped of a key source of intelligence and support, say government officials and analysts. Militants swoop in to steal cattle, money and food, and in some cases form their own systems of government and schooling.
The ongoing violence is an enormous obstacle to local security forces trying to restore government control, just as former colonial ruler France seeks to withdraw thousands of troops from a nine-year war against Islamist insurgents in the region. The longer the militants hold sway, the more likely their influence will spread across West Africa, where poverty and weak states make other countries ripe for infiltration, security analysts say.
“If you want maximum disorder, you kill the chief,” said Rahmane Idrissa, a political scientist at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, who focuses on Nigerien politics. “If the agenda is to replace the state, killing the village chief is just the beginning of the process.”
After the killings in Tchombangou and nearby villages of Niger’s Tillaberi region, public life in the area came to a grinding halt. Fearful residents stopped visiting markets, and the government outlawed motorbikes, the transport of choice for the insurgents, said residents and local officials. Sixty village chiefs fled, giving militants more freedom to roam, said Soumaila, the Ouallam official.
“By attacking village chiefs, they are attacking state authority,” he said. “Village chiefs are an extension of our administration.”
One source of hope, said Soumaila, is the death in August of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the head of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the group responsible for the attacks in Ouallam. The French military said it killed him in a drone strike. So far the impact of his death on the group’s operations is unclear.
The Nigerien government says it is reclaiming zones near the Malian border, allowing some civilians to return in recent months. Troop units that once concentrated on combat missions are now focused on protecting communities.
Interior Minister Alkache Alhada is optimistic. Islamic State is “extremely weakened” in Niger, he told Reuters, and people can once again “carry out their rural activities in a completely normal way.”
Yet in areas where the military says it is regaining control, militants continue to carry out devastating attacks. So far this year, Islamist groups have killed at least 537 people in attacks against civilians in the border regions of southwest Niger, over five times more than in all of last year, according to the ACLED data. In August, militants carried out a string of attacks in the area, including one in which 37 people were killed.
The sheer size of the terrain and a lack of resources in some of the poorest countries in the world make it difficult to end the attacks, government officials say.
“In Niger, we need 150,000 troops if we are to secure the territory,” said Brigadier General Mahamadou Abou Tarka, who runs Niger’s High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP), a council charged with finding ways to end conflict in Niger. “We have 35,000.”
A recycled playbook
Islamic State has publicly described a strategy to wage war against community elders who oppose it. In a November 2018 issue of al-Naba, Islamic State’s official newsletter, the organization urged followers to target tribal chiefs to make an example of those who help and collaborate with its enemies.
In Iraq, Islamic State targeted local chiefs, or mukhtars, for years, said Michael Knights, a researcher specialising in military and security affairs at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.
The aim, said Knights: “To terrorize people, to show that the most important person in the village could not be protected and that the link between the people and the Iraqi government was being broken.”
This targeted violence complicated counterintelligence efforts in Iraq, he said. “Because eventually people didn’t stand up to be the new mukhtar, they managed to destroy the leadership of numerous communities.”
The attacks in Africa follow the same pattern, he said.
In Somalia, al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab has killed or abducted hundreds of local leaders in recent years, the ACLED data show. In Nigeria, where Boko Haram and its Islamic State offshoot have made parts of the northeast ungovernable, dozens of leaders have been killed.
The Islamist groups could not be reached for comment.
In Niger, unlike in some areas of Mali, Islamists have not replaced local government, and fighters continue to tussle with security forces for control, officials and security analysts say. But the power vacuum worries local leaders.
Almiska Alamjedi, the head of a group of tribal chiefs from the Nigerien commune of Inates, fled in 2019 after fighters killed his uncle and brother, who were also chiefs. At least 57 other chiefs have left Inates and the surrounding villages near the Malian border, he said, and no established leadership remains. Militants linked to Islamic State carried out two major attacks on the military in the area that year, including one in which more than 70 soldiers were killed.
The lack of leadership leaves the area vulnerable to unrest, researchers say. Ethnic rivalries abound, and without mediation, normally led by the chiefs, clashes could open the door to Islamist groups seeking disaffected recruits. Military officials told Reuters that armed groups are recruiting in the area.
“If people need food, the chief takes it to the government. If they need a health center, the same,” said Inates leader Alamjedi. If someone is suspected of being a militant, “the population informs the village chief, who in turn transmits the information to the authorities.”
Central Mali offers a view of how Islamic State’s strategy might play out if Niger cannot defeat the militants.
Occasional attacks on local leaders began in Mali in 2012, when Islamist militants flush with guns from Libya hijacked an ethnic Tuareg uprising. The French military initially pushed them back. But by 2018, armed groups had retaken control of parts of the center and north and had spread into Burkina Faso and Niger. That year, attacks on community leaders in this part of the Sahel rose sixfold, and they continue unabated.
At 4 p.m. on April 6, 2015, gunfire rang out across Diafarabe, a village overlooking a popular cattle crossing on the Niger River in Mali’s Tenenkou Circle area.
The shots came from the town hall and were meant for the mayor, Lamine Djiré, who had left moments earlier to have tea nearby. Instead, the gunmen killed an official from the forest and water authority, said a witness and an official from a nearby village, both of whom asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Mayor Djiré left town. A week later, the gunmen came to his home and told his family that if he returned, they would slaughter him like a sheep tied to a post, the witness said.
The assailants’ identity was unclear. But the men arrived on motorbikes with guns, hallmarks of Islamist groups that were active in the area, the sources said.
“If you want maximum disorder, you kill the chief.”
For years after that, fighters linked to al Qaeda continued to carry out attacks in Tenenkou Circle, an administrative area of more than 11,000 square kilometers, the ACLED data show. Most officials have fled, the town hall is closed, and there is no sitting mayor, the Diafarabe sources said.
“The vacuum left by the flight of state representatives in some areas of Tenenkou Circle has been filled by armed Islamists who are quasi-governing,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
They preach in mosques, enforce a dress code of short trousers for men and veils for women, and before harvest time remind farmers that they must hand over part of their crop as a form of Islamic tax, said the official from a nearby village. In Diafarabe, state officials have not collected taxes for years, he and security analysts said. Mali’s military has an outpost nearby, but residents said the soldiers do not carry out patrols anymore. Militants killed three of them in an attack in April, the government reported.
Officials from Mali’s government and military did not respond to requests for comment.
As in communities across the Sahel, some in central Mali welcomed the order and protection that the Islamist groups brought. That’s especially so in areas where the existing local government is corrupt or where military abuses and deadly attacks against civilians have eroded trust in the armed forces and international allies, rights groups and community leaders say.
“It is a permanent competition between the state and the terrorists for the hearts and the minds of the population, for their loyalty,” said Abou Tarka of Niger’s HACP. “If people are leaderless, they will go in any direction.”
With their foothold in Mali secure, groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State spread. The violence followed.
In Burkina Faso, Islamist fighters killed or abducted at least 11 local officials, community leaders and family members in December 2018, the ACLED data show. Those strikes were part of a wave of violence that prompted the government to declare a state of emergency across much of the rural north. Three officials were targeted in the Est region on the same day, including one who was beheaded.
Attacks continue, and much of the east and north is now out of government control. Across Burkina Faso, more than 1 million people are displaced.
The government of Burkina Faso did not respond to requests for comment.
The militants show persistence across the region.
Islamist gunmen returned to Tchombangou three times over the course of 2020, demanding money, said Boubacar, the late chief’s son. First they asked for 380,000 CFA francs ($670). Two months later, they wanted another 850,000 francs, about double what most Nigeriens make in a year. The village paid both times, but the residents had had enough. When the militants came again in mid-December, a band of villagers killed at least two of them, said Boubacar. His account was confirmed by Almou Hassane, the former mayor of the area that oversees Tchombangou.
The violence quickly spiraled. One night in late December, gunmen returned to the village and kidnapped Boubacar’s uncle, Hamani Lawey, who had taken over the role of chief. A group from the village searched for him the next morning. All they found was a pool of blood outside Tchombangou, Boubacar said. Lawey is still missing.
Nearly two weeks later, on Jan. 2, 2021, fighters on motorbikes unleashed coordinated attacks on Tchombangou and a neighboring village, killing more than 100 people. It was one of the deadliest raids in Niger’s recent history. Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Boubacar, a teacher, fled Tchombangou and has not returned, for fear that he will be targeted.
He misses his old life. For comfort, he scrolls through photos on his phone. In one, his father poses with a white beard, headscarf and billowing teal robes; another shows the crudely-built gravestone that Boubacar cannot visit.
“I used to take him to Niamey for medical treatment,” he said in a courtyard in the town of Ouallam, near where he now lives. “I sold my land so that I could buy a car to transport him.”
Boubacar is one of millions of people who have been uprooted by the violence in the Sahel. Thousands of Nigeriens have been forced into a dusty camp 100 kilometers from the capital, Niamey, where girls pound grain in large wooden mortars and skinny chickens peck at the bare earth. Everyone has a tale of escape. Despite a shortage of water and food, and the unremitting heat, many would rather be there than home.
Adamou Foga and Hassane Younoussa had prayed together for over half a century in the mud-brick mosque of Ingaba, their village in southwest Niger. On Jan. 20, 2020, they laid their prayer mats side by side for the last time.
Over the years, the two men had become leaders of the remote farming community, near the border with Mali. Foga, 72, was a Muslim religious teacher who counseled villagers on their personal problems. Younoussa, 75, was village chief, the face of the community and its link to the government, 170 kilometers away.
Their status made them targets.
Fighters affiliated with Islamic State stormed the mosque in Ingaba and ordered everyone outside, Foga and two witnesses told Reuters. The gunmen hauled Foga and Younoussa in front of the crowd and demanded they identify an army informant the fighters believed was in the village. When the men refused, the militants shot Younoussa in the face. He fell at Foga’s feet, motionless in red robes.
“Even now when I sleep I have nightmares about that,” said Zara Hamidou, 37, who witnessed the shooting from the doorway of her home, a few meters away. “I see it again and again and again.”
After shooting Younoussa, the fighters beat residents and ordered everyone to leave within 24 hours or be killed, the witnesses said. Residents scattered; only seven stayed to bury their chief.
Foga, the religious elder, now lives in a straw hut held up by sticks at the camp on a barren plain dotted with scrub and acacia trees. No one approaches him for advice anymore, he said.
“There is no life without security,” said Foga. “I have no land to farm. Don’t even talk to me about going home.”
Reporting by Edward McAllister in Ouallam, Niger, and Lena Masri in London. Additional reporting by Paul Lorgerie in Bamako and Omar Hama Saley and Garé Amadou in Niamey.
In the Crosshairs
By Edward McAllister and Lena Masri
Data: Lena Masri
Graphics: John Emerson
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Art direction: Catherine Tai
Edited by Janet Roberts and Ryan McNeill