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Islamic State Attacks Show Ambition to Control Mali-Niger Border

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Islamic State attacks in the Sahel have shifted in recent months toward towns along the Mali-Niger border.

Civilians continue to pay with their lives.

“Armed men arrived on motorbikes and shot at everything which moved,” a local official said to France 24 about attacks on three Nigerien villages — Intazayene, Bakoarate and Wistane — where terrorists killed at least 137 people in late March.

Hundreds have been killed this year, and nearly half a million Nigeriens have fled the violence.

In Mali, the United Nations peacekeeping force MINUSMA responded by deploying two units to the tri-border area where Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger converge.

“The security situation in the tri-border area … particularly in the [Malian] localities of Tessit, Talataye, Ansongo and the Menaka region, has deteriorated considerably in recent weeks,” the U.N. said in a statement.

Experts say the shift is part of a strategy to seize territory in the tri-border region, which has become the epicenter of extremist violence in the Sahel.

“The Islamic State is on the offensive since the beginning of the month of April in many places on the border between Mali and Niger,” France 24 terrorism analyst Wassim Nasr said in a studio interview after visiting Niger.

“It’s very clear that they are trying to control this border.”

Islamic State-affiliated groups have either seized control of, or forced civilians to flee from, at least five towns on the Malian side of the border, Nasr said.

“We see clearly that they aim to control this area, which is rich in water but also in hiding places, because they are trying to anticipate what is going to happen next, and they want a sanctuary in this part of Malian territory,” he said.

Mali’s army conducted airstrikes in the area surrounding the desert town of Menaka on March 13, which it said helped break the momentum of the terrorist groups.

Overall, however, the Malian government has been unable to protect civilians in the area, Nasr said.

“They had only one clear reaction at the beginning of April, where there was a helicopter strike,” Nasr said. “But it happened after the battle, and they even committed human rights abuses on civilian populations that were trying to escape the Islamic State.”

Mali has waged a bloody war with multiple armed groups since 2012. The vast rural desert lands of the tri-border region, sometimes known as Liptako-Gourma, historically have been difficult for countries to defend.

Terror groups have crossed the border from Mali into western Niger to launch frequent attacks since 2017. Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum has said 12,000 of his country’s Soldiers are deployed full time in counter-terrorism operations.

The deteriorating relations between Mali’s military junta and external partners have led to the withdrawal of French and European forces that have operated there for years.

On February 17, Bazoum welcomed the European forces to establish a base of operations in Niger.

“Our goal is for our border with Mali to be secure,” Bazoum tweeted on February 18.

He anticipates the withdrawal from Mali will create a vacuum that will be filled by armed groups, increasing the threat of violence in the tri-border region.

“This area will be even more infested, and the terrorist groups will strengthen,” Bazoum tweeted. “We know that they are destined to extend their influence.”

Mali’s junta in mid-May pulled out of the G5 Sahel joint force, which launched in 2017 and includes troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

After speaking with Bazoum in the capital, Niamey, Nasr reported that Niger is responding to the recent rash of violence with a multi-dimensional approach.

Niger has undertaken negotiations with terrorist leaders in an attempt to demobilize them.

Where dialogue has failed, the country has found success with recently acquired drones deployed in tri-border region battles. Niger is constructing a base for military and surveillance drones in the central Niger city of Tahoua, according to a May 21 report by the ActuNiger news website.

“The clear answer is coming from Niger, which is confronting jihadist groups on several fronts,” Nasr said.

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