Attacks in Niger Underline a Spread of Islamist Extremist Groups in West Africa

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". We begin today with a story out of the West African nation of Niger and it's a story that seems to illustrate the complicated nature of the global fight against terrorism right on the heels of President Obama's counter-terrorism speech yesterday. What happened in Niger is this: Islamist militants launched two suicide bombings yesterday. One targeted a Uranium mine run by a French company, the other hit a military base. About 20 people were killed in addition to the bombers. And today, French Special Forces helped Niger's military secure the military base where it turns out two militants were still hiding in a dormitory. They were shot dead in the operation. Thomas Fessy is the BBC's West Africa Correspondent. He's in Dakar, Senegal. He says the attacks in two separate cities were very well coordinated.

Thomas Fessy: It's sort of joint organized attack by the well-known former al-Qaeda's field commander named Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Remember, he was the one who organized the spectacular attack earlier in January in Algeria against a gas plant where a few dozen westerners and oil workers died there. He jointly organized this attack with an Islamist militant group that is operating in northern Mali and called MUJAO. I mean most likely there were able to come through southern Libya which would confirm suspicions that these groups operating in Northern Mali were able to flee elsewhere in the region to relocate and strike again as they have said they would do.

Werman: So it sounds like what you're saying, what the conventional wisdom is is that these attacks in Niger were a result of spill-over from the conflict in Mali?

Fessy: Yes, exactly, I think there is little doubt that ever since the French intervened in northern Mali early in January, at the end of January, the al-Qaeda groups and their allies had said that they would strike any French interest in the region or any African country that would participate in the pan-African force that is deployed in northern Mali at present. And obviously Niger has been at the front line of those forces participating in the conflict. They have already been targeted in northern Mali, but didn't suffer any casualty there. This is the first time that they suffer such an attack on their territory, the first time they actually suffered from a suicide attack, and this is one of the bloodiest attacks since the French intervention in northern Mali.

Werman: Well, I mean yesterday we heard from President Obama on the way forward with counter-terrorism. What do you think these attacks on Niger say about the effectiveness of an intervention by a small number of French troops in Mali?

Fessy: Well I think that on the one hand, everybody sort of recognizes that the rapid intervention from the French has been quite successful in the way that they managed to strike at the heart of al-Qaeda's bases in northern Mali. On the other hand, it will take much more time to make sure these combatants will not come back and strike again in northern Mali or be able to reestablish themselves as they have been able to do over the past decade. And certainly what they are proving right now is that they are able to move and move very fast across the Sahara region, either through southern Algeria, southern Libya, and northern Niger, all of which are neighboring to northern Mali.

Werman: Thomas Fessy, BBC West Africa Correspondent. Thanks so much for your time.

Fessy: Thank you.