France has long understood that its uranium mining facilities in Niger would be attractive targets for regional jihadists. Niger produces 40 percent of France's uranium imports — a significant number for a country that derives 80 percent of its energy needs from nuclear power. Accordingly, the French military dispatched special operations forces pre-emptively in January to augment Nigerien soldiers guarding the facility at Arlit.
However, the facility has nonetheless been criticized for its lax security measures. In September 2010, militants belonging to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb kidnapped several French employees from the Arlit facility. In the May 23 attack, the vehicle's driver penetrated the facility's security perimeter prior to detonation. The jihadists failed to kill any foreign nationals (though reportedly there were as many as 14 casualties among Nigerien Somair employees), but they damaged the crushing and grinding units at the facility, forcing Areva to halt operations.
The other target was a Nigerien military base located some 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Arlit. The explosive device detonated outside the gate of the base, after which several vehicles carrying gunmen entered. Troops engaged the jihadists, and reportedly 20 soldiers were killed during the fight. Reports coming from the Nigerien ministry of defense claim a hostage situation has developed where an attacker carrying a suicide vest is holding four Nigerien soldiers as negotiations continue.
The Nigerien military likewise appeared to be a natural target for the jihadists. The base at Agadez had been selected for the possible deployment of U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles, and it is the main military base in the largest Nigerien military zone. As such, it covers all of northern Niger. The Nigerien army fought in Mali, and it was particularly active in Gao, where the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa had a substantial presence.
An Extant Threat
It stands to reason that the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa conducted the attacks as it claims it did. Since April, French and Nigerien forces have tried to clear the Mali-Niger border of militants. These clearing operations were only somewhat successful; they did not find major concentrations of militants. It is possible that these militants fled to other countries, such as Niger.
Moreover, the May 23 attack resembles attacks previously conducted in Mali. The targets were located within a realistic range of the group's original base of operations in northern Mali. Recently the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa was suspected of conducting an attack on a prisoner convoy in Algeria, a country in which the group has been known to operate. But the May 23 attack shows that the group is now operating in even more countries.
France already was aware of the extant threat posed by jihadists in the Sahel. On Feb. 19, a French family was kidnapped in Cameroon, and on April 23 the French Embassy in Tripoli was destroyed. As a result, France invested $25 million into the security of its diplomatic posts throughout Africa and the Middle East. Likewise, the most recent attack will probably prompt France to bolster the security of its industrial assets and civilians in the Sahel region, bringing with it financial concerns.
This threat is unlikely to compel France to remain in Mali longer than it originally planned. However, continued attacks could aggravate tensions in France if the public believes the government is not doing enough to protect foreign assets — especially if those assets come under attack by the very jihadists that Paris sought to supplant with a military intervention.