Niger rebellion targets foreign companies Foreign companies operating in the Sahara are facing two new security threats. One is the new rebellion in Niger associated with the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la Justice (MNJ) The other possible threat relates to evidence associated with the newly named al- Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Sahara Focus published warnings of the MNJ rebellion in our last issue (SF0407). That was after the attack on the northern Aïr village of Iferouane and the threat made by the rebels to China’s CNPC International Tenere (CNPCIT) which is prospecting in the Tenere region of Niger. Since then there have been attacks on AREVA’s uranium exploration base at Immouraren on 20th April, Agades Airport (17th June), as well as a number of assaults on Niger’s security forces. The most notable was on 22nd June when the rebels attacked two columns of Niger army (Forces Armées Nigeriennes - FAN) soldiers, reportedly killing 15 soldiers, wounding 43 and taking 72 hostage. Northern Niger, notably the Agades region and the entire Aïr mountain region to its north is now a ‘war zone’ with access only by army convoy. The Red Cross moved into the region on 26th June, heading north out of Agades with four trucks loaded with medical and other relief equipment to treat the several dozen wounded army soldiers and negotiate their safe return. Concurrently, Sahara Focus is receiving reports, as yet unconfirmed, of fighters moving south from Algeria to join the rebellion, suggesting that there is a distinct possibility of an open rebellion igniting across the entire Tuareg Sahel – an eventuality which Sahara Focus has repeatedly warned as being a possible outcome of US and local government so-called ‘counter-terrorism’ policies in the region. Prior to the 22nd June attack, some 17 FAN soldiers had been killed with several more wounded. Both sides are laying land mines, a new and serious development in the region. We know of at least one Tuareg and several Niger soldiers who have already been killed by mines. Since the outbreak of the rebellion, Sahara Focus’ editor has undertaken a detailed reconnaissance of the region, including meetings with members of the security forces, local leaders, ordinary people and foreign companies operating in the region, as well as opening contacts with the MNJ. Our assessment of the situation is very different from the wholly misleading picture being portrayed to foreign companies and the international media by the Niger government, and especially Niger’s President, Mamadou Tandja who steadfastly denies a Tuareg rebellion. Sahara Focus’ detailed and long-standing knowledge of the ground situation, the principle actors involved (and their backers), and the background to their demands also enables us to provide readers with a far more accurate and meaningful level of analysis than that provided by most other security analysts and intelligence services. As far as the MNJ rebellion is concerned, the most ‘high-risk’ regions for foreign companies and their personnel are Niger - where companies involved in both oil and uranium prospecting in the Tamesna and Tenere regions, as well as other extractive sectors such as coal, are now facing serious risk of armed attack or kidnap of personnel - followed by northern Mali and southern Algeria, although wider geographical ramifications cannot be ruled out. Full details of Niger’s latest rebellion can be read in the forthcoming July issue of Sahara Focus. The salient points, which we publish here, are as follows. The rebellion has taken several months to coalesce from what was seen by many, and with good reason, as nothing more than a ‘bandit’ attack on the town of Iferouane (8th February) in northern Aïr into a fully fledged rebellion, although several questions still surround the motives of its leaders and its backers. Three Niger army soldiers died in the attack on Iferouane. However, it is now fairly clear that the attack on Iferouane was designed to intimidate the Niger government, with the death of the three soldiers being an unintended accident. The three attackers, all Tuareg, were Aboubacar Alambo (aka Alembo) (known as ‘Boukri’ to his friends and family), Kalakoua and Al Charif (Acheriff Mohamed). The first two had criminal records, while the third was a former rebel who had subsequently deserted the Niger army. The apparent leader of the three, Aboubacar Alambo, has been well known to Sahara Focus since he came onto the political scene some five years ago after deserting from the Niger army and killing two policemen in a series of bandit acts in northern Niger. Since then he has been responsible for numerous such acts, including a savage attack on French tourists near Djado and countless attacks on clandestine immigrants trying to make their way across the Sahara. Such actions brought ‘shame’ on his people and family who, in 2003, made a concerted but failed attempt to assassinate him. Throughout these five years, he has been protected and used on several occasions by Algeria’s secret intelligence services, notably the Direction des Renseignements et de la Sécurité (DRS). A number of Aboubacar’s former comrades in the 1990s Tuareg rebellion, have described him to us as being ‘psychopathic’, enjoying ‘violence’ and always being entrusted to do the ‘dirty work’. Aboubacar Alambo is, however, well connected to the administration and security services, on both sides of the Niger-Algerian border. Sahara Focus’ research has unravelled a complex kinship network which relates him to: > members of the Algerian security and regional government services in both Tamanrasset and Djanet; > the former sous-préfet at Arlit (the capital of Niger’s uranium-mining region); > several travel agencies and known drug traffickers; > as well as the Commandant of Niger’s Force National d’Intervention et de la Sécurité (FNIS), which is the new security forces (under the direction of the Ministry of the Interior) intended, amongst other things, to protect foreign companies. Meanwhile Kalakoua is known to have recently escaped from prison in Tillabery where he was serving a sentence for having kidnapped three senior Malian military officers in 2006. Less well known is Al Charif, another former rebel and army deserter with connections to a travel agency in Agades. Our research has provided strong evidence to indicate that the vehicles and arms used in the attack were provided by Algerian connections, believed to be associated with factions within Algeria’s security intelligence services, the Direction des Renseignements et de la Sécurité (DRS), via Mali. It was on Mali where the DRS, with the backing of US Special Forces, was instrumental in promoting the short-lived Tuareg rebellion at Kidal and Menaka on 23rd May 2006. This Algerian link raises a number of serious issues which will be analysed at greater length in the July issue of Sahara Focus. Aboubacar’s brother, Aghaly Alambo, the former sous-préfet at Arlit and now the operator of a travel agency in Agades, was not present at the Iferouane attack. However, he has since become the ‘self-appointed’ President of the MNJ and is regarded by many as its ‘brains’. At around the same time as the Iferouane attack, at least one local radio broadcast was made by a spokesman claiming to belong to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of the Sahara (FARS) (who are effectively allied to the MNJ) calling on workers from the CNPC International Tenere (CNPCIT) to leave for their own safety. The broadcast warned that: "The Chinese are somewhat in danger because they are in our zone, a few kilometres from our base. The company must stop operating until further instructions." It is clear from Sahara Focus’ investigations in the region and our contacts with the rebels that one of the main aims of the rebellion is to get foreign companies to leave the region, or to comply with the MNJ’s demands (which are in accordance with the 1995 Peace Accords) to reach an agreement over a share of the mining and/or oil revenues. Shortly after these events, local Tuareg became aware of a ‘List’ being drawn up by the Niger government to detain several dozen former Tuareg rebels. This precipitated many former rebels (from the 1990s rebellion), many of whom are now responsible local community and political leaders, to take to the mountains with their arms. It is estimated that as many as 200 former rebel fighters, provoked by the government’s ‘List’, gathered in and around the Tamgak region. It is from around this time that the situation began to take the form and momentum of a more widely-based rebellion. It was also in the second half of March that the MNJ published its demands for greater justice and a share in the region’s mineral wealth, in accordance with the 1995 Peace Agreement and subsequent internationally agreed indigenous land rights conventions, It was clear from our investigations on the ground that one of the main issues behind the rebellion is the way in which foreign companies, supported by the Niger government, are exploiting the region’s resources. Foreign companies are now being targeted. Top of the list is the French company AREVA, which has a long track record of flagrant abuse of health and safety and associated environmental damage in the region. AREVA is followed by the CNPC and the raft of several dozen other foreign companies either in or about to move into the region (mostly for the expansion of uranium mining). Foreign companies, along with Niger’s security forces, are the rebels’ designated targets. It was therefore no surprise to us when the MNJ launched an attack on AREVA’s base at Immouraren (south-east of Arlit) on 22nd April, killing one guard and wounding three others. This attack was a clear warning to other foreign companies. It also followed a visit to the region by the French ambassador who was given a long dressing-down and an explanation as to how and why France had lost all respect and standing in Niger (at least by people of the region) as a result of its complicity in AREVA’s appalling practices. The attack on AREVA, with the likelihood of more to come, has made corporate France take stock. Niger’s President Tandja, however, has continued to deny the existence of a rebellion, saying that there are no political problems in the region and that the perpetrators of these attacks are just bandits, drug-traffickers and other such criminals and ‘terrorists’, which his government, with the support of US Special Forces (believed to have left the area), had been fighting for the last 3-4 years. Tandja’s denial of the region’s political problems and his ‘rubbishing’ of the MNJ as bandits and terrorists have merely incensed the rebels. The MNJ has been further galvanised by the FAN killing of three elderly and innocent civilians earlier in June in an army crack-down in the north. The MNJ and local people now sarcastically dub the FAN the Tandjaouide militia after President Mamadou Tandja and the pro-government Janjaweed fighters in Sudan’s Darfur region. Up until mid-June, our records indicate that some 17 members of Niger’s security forces had been killed by the rebels in a number of small engagements, mostly in and around the Tamgak region of NE Aïr. Then, on 17th June, the MNJ undertook an audacious attack on Agades airport. No casualties were reported and the damage to the aircraft being used by the FAN to try and spot rebel positions is not yet known. This was followed by the attack, which was massive by Saharan standards, on two FAN columns at Tazerzait, just to the north of Tamgak, on 22nd June. This engagement, which appears to have once again humiliated the US-trained Niger army, has hugely raised the stakes (In a similar, but smaller, operation in 2004, the Tuareg captured a number of Niger soldiers in Aïr and held them hostage in Libya). This is without doubt the most dangerous situation to have developed in northern Niger and this part of the Sahara-Sahel since the 1990s Tuareg rebellion. The situation is made more critical by the MNJ’s connections with both Algeria and Libya (where the Niger Tuareg have an ‘army in waiting’), [The Algerian and Libyan connections are explained in the July issue of Sahara Focus]. This destabilisation of the region, combined with the activities of AQIM (outlined below), has primarily resulted from the US’s post-2002 policy in North Africa and the Sahel of fabricating (with the help of Algeria’s DRS) terrorist incidents including the kidnap of 32 European hostages in 2003 and the escapades of ‘El Para’ across the Sahel in 2003-2004. This was done to justify its launch of a new Sahelian or ‘second’ African front in its global ‘War on Terror’, its Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) and its subsequent Trans-Saharan Counter- Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI). The end product is that Niger now rests on a knife-edge. The prospect of a Saharan-wide conflagration cannot be ruled out. The local Tuareg population in northern Niger do not want a rebellion: the memories and suffering of the slaughter that government forces inflicted on many Tuareg villages to bring the 1990s rebellion to an end are still raw. Nor are Iferouane’s three attackers seen or respected as potential political ‘leaders’. Nevertheless, the MNJ’s cause is seen by the vast majority of the people as ‘just’ in terms of its demands on both the Niger government and foreign companies. It is this perception of ‘justness’, combined with President Tandja’s fool- hardy obstinacy, that may well elevate the current state of seriousness into a wider struggle that would lead to foreign investors abandoning these parts of the Sahara as they did in the 1990s. If that were to happen, few local people would mind. As it is, they see themselves benefiting little from what they see as crude foreign exploitation. Uranium extraction has already caused widespread ecological and health damage and threatens to do even more as new concessions expand southwards across the pastures of Tamesna. Nor are there benefits from labour. Most foreign companies pay ‘sub-human’ rates and rely on labour brought in from the even more impoverished non-Tuareg areas to the south. As for Niger’s finances, the government’s allocation of US$60 million extra security for the region probably comes close to nullifying its mineral rents. Our advice to those many companies who are currently in the process of investing in Niger’s extractive industries (notably uranium), or considering doing so, is to take security guidance from beyond the normal ‘governmental’ and ‘security’ circuits. The track records of most western governments, intelligence services and security firms in assessing conditions in these regions of the Sahara-Sahel over the last three or four years is now beginning to look horribly inept.