Niger: Surging Atrocities by Armed Islamist Groups

Over 420 Civilians Killed During Attacks, Massacres in 2021

(Bamako) – Islamist armed groups have killed over 420 civilians and driven tens of thousands from their homes during attacks in western Niger since January 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The armed Islamist groups should cease all abuses against civilians, and local authorities should step up efforts to protect vulnerable villages. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that armed Islamist fighters entered their villages on motorcycles, killing men and boys, and burning houses and granaries. The attackers summarily executed civilians in their homes, after forcing them off public transport, at wells, and funerals; and while they farmed or watered their animals. Among those killed were village chiefs, imams, people with disabilities, and numerous children, some executed after being ripped from their parents’ arms. “Armed Islamist groups appear to be waging war on the civilian population in western Niger,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “They have killed, pillaged, and burned; leaving death, broken lives, and destruction in their wake.” From June 23 to July 4 Human Rights Watch visited Niger and interviewed 44 witnesses to abuses and 16 other people, including ethnic Peuhl, Tuareg, and Zarma community leaders; local government and security officials; members of Nigerien human rights organizations; and foreign diplomats. Human Rights Watch interviewed five other witnesses in July by telephone.

The nine attacks that Human Rights Watch documented took place between January and July in towns, villages, and hamlets in western Tillabéri and Tahoua regions, located near the Mali and Burkina Faso borders. Since 2019, this area has experienced a dramatic spike in attacks against military targets and, increasingly, civilians by armed Islamist groups allied to the Islamic State and, to a lesser extent, Al-Qaeda. These groups have also destroyed schools and churches, and imposed restrictions based on their interpretation of Islam. On March 21, armed Islamist fighters killed at least 170 ethnic Tuaregs in the Tahoua region, the deadliest attack on civilians in Niger’s recent history. “A mother threw her arms around her 17-year-old son, but the jihadists beat her mercilessly until she could hold on no longer, then executed the boy in front of her,” a witness said. A villager described the January 2, twin attacks on Tchomabangou and Zaroumdareye in which 102 civilians, nearly all ethnic Zarma, were killed: “As the jihadists patrolled through town, I saw them killing people at close range, sometimes shooting them twice, three times, to make sure they were dead.” All parties to Niger’s armed conflict are bound by Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and other treaty and customary laws of war. The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilians and civilian property and the mistreatment of anyone in custody. People who commit serious violations of the laws of war, including summary executions and torture, may be prosecuted for war crimes. The Niger government has an obligation to investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes committed within its territory.

Human Rights Watch has previously reported on abuses by Niger’s security forces, including over 150 alleged killings and enforced disappearances of people during counterterrorism operations in 2019 and 2020. An investigation by Niger’s National Human Rights Commission documented the enforced disappearance of 102 people and located 71 of their bodies in common graves. Niger’s authorities should take urgent steps to stop the upsurge in killings of civilians, Human Rights Watch said. They should establish early warning networks, reduce the army’s response times to threatened villages, and create committees composed of civilians, security forces, and civil society groups to identify and respond to urgent protection needs. “After slaughtering my people, the jihadists moved slowly because of the livestock they’d stolen,” one villager said. “There was plenty of time for our army to pursue them, but they didn’t.” “Concerned governments should help Nigerien authorities better protect civilians from such horrendous and deadly attacks, and increase assistance for the growing number of displaced,” Dufka said. For detailed accounts of the attacks, please see below. For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Niger, please visit: Niger’s Conflict Since 2015, armed Islamists have carried out attacks against Niger’s security forces and civilians. Until 2019, most of these attacks occurred in southeastern Niger by the Nigeria-based groups Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Beginning in 2019, armed Islamist groups ramped up their attacks in western Niger. Several – on soldiers, army bases, and civilians – were claimed by Islamic State affiliated groups, but groups allied to Al-Qaeda have also reportedly carried out attacks, including near the Burkinabé border.

The armed conflict in western Niger is underscored by intercommunal tensions. Throughout the Sahel, Islamist armed groups have concentrated recruitment efforts on the nomadic Peuhl, which has inflamed pre-existing tensions between the Peuhl and various agrarian groups, including the Zarma, dominant in Tillabéri region, and certain Tuareg clans in Tahoua region. The tensions are largely over access to land and water, and accusations of banditry. With few exceptions, civilians killed during the armed Islamist attacks Human Rights Watch documented in June and July were ethnic Zarma and Tuareg. While some Zarma have joined the Islamist armed groups, the community is largely perceived as loyal to the Nigerien state. Peuhl leaders say that other ethnic groups and security forces blame and subject them to collective punishment for their perceived support of armed Islamists. Most of those killed by Nigerien security forces in 2019 and 2020 were Peuhl, and to a lesser extent Tuaregs. Community leaders and analysts fear the growing communal violence could lead to the formation of ethnic self defense groups, with even more deadly results. Dramatic Rise in Attacks on Civilians in 2021 Villagers from western Niger said armed Islamists had frequented the area for several years, largely without committing abuses against civilians, but beginning in 2019 these groups became more threatening and violent. Elders from the Banibangou and Tondikiwindi administrative areas in the Tillabéri region cited a spate of executions of village leaders in November 2019 as a turning point. Dozens of villagers said that since 2019, armed Islamists allied to the Islamic State and based in Mali increasingly imposed repressive policies on the population. They cited the groups’ declaration as haram (forbidden) smoking or selling cigarettes, consuming alcohol, listening to music, wearing certain clothing, and men mingling with women. Villagers said the armed Islamists closed schools, destroyed shops selling cigarettes, and beat people for refusing to adhere to their interpretation of Islam. They also pressured the population to provide recruits and to pay zakat, or Islamic tax, usually in the form of livestock, money, or grain. The groups threatened and attacked villagers who rejected the demands, gave them ultimatums to leave, and looted their livestock – at times entire herds – destroyed fields and granaries, and more recently, killed farmers in their fields. An elder from the hard-hit Banibangou administrative area said armed Islamist groups had destroyed 147 granaries in his area since the start of 2021. Villagers attributed the dramatic increase in attacks on civilians in 2021 to several factors. First, was the Zarma villagers’ alleged unlawful killing of Peuhl men or suspected armed Islamist fighters, and retaliatory attacks by the armed Islamists days or weeks later. A few of these killings were of men that the Zarma community accused of being “jihadist spies” or of pressing them to pay zakat, but others were reportedly ordinary villagers. They included three people on their way to the Tchomabangou clinic in December 2020 and the village chief of Bissaou village, killed in Banibangou with four others including members of his family, on May 5, 2021. Second, was the 2019 recruitment by the Nigerien security forces of several hundred men from the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions, and their deployment to their home areas in early 2021. Third, was local efforts by Zarma villagers to acquire military firearms and form village self defense groups. Fourth, was the refusal of some Zarma and Tuareg villagers to pay the increasingly punitive zakat demanded by the armed Islamists. Finally, they cited the refusal by some villages to provide armed Islamist groups with recruits or intelligence on Nigerien security force activity. Three security analysts noted another reason: that armed Islamist groups, under increasing military pressure in Mali, might be trying, as one said, to “clear areas of hostile civilians so as to eventually base themselves in western Niger.”

Atrocities in Tahoua and Tillabéri Regions Human Rights Watch documented nine attacks by armed Islamist groups on or near Bakorat and Intazayene villages, in Tahoua region, and affecting Tchomabangou, Zaroumadareye, Chinedogar, Darey-Daye, Gaigorou, Danga Zawne, Fantio, Dorbel, Wiyé, and Deykoukou in Tillabéri Region. Witnesses, community leaders, and security analysts believed that the attackers were armed Islamists because of their consistent modus operandi; because villagers had for several years interacted with them and recognized individual fighters known to belong to these groups among the attackers; and because of what the attackers said. Most believed that those involved in these attacks were affiliated with the Islamic State. Survivors and witnesses said the attacks were over quickly–often under an hour–and that nearly all occurred in villages within 40 kilometers of the Mali or Burkina Faso borders. Security analysts believed that in all but a few cases, the attackers had crossed over to Niger from bases in Mali or Burkina Faso. Villagers said the attackers travelled on motorcycles, typically with two fighters on each, and were dressed in military attire, boubous (flowing robes), or jeans. Most had military ammunition vests or bandoliers, and many wore military boots referred to as “rangers.” Most wore turbans or balaclavas. The attackers were armed with Kalashnikov semi-automatic assault rifles, pistols, rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs), and machine guns with tripods. Some were observed talking on what witnesses described as satellite phones and walkie-talkies, or “Motorolas.” Witnesses said they overheard the attackers speaking in Pulaar (spoken by the Peuhl), Tamashek (spoken by the Tuareg), and to a lesser extent, Zarma, Gourmanché, and Arabic. Human Rights Watch has on file the names of 10 men whom witnesses observed taking part in atrocities. Zarma and Tuareg leaders strongly complained about inadequate security for their villages. They criticized the Nigerien army for failing to detect concentrations of armed Islamist fighters prior to attacks, for failing to act on the intelligence that villagers provided, and for not pursuing the attackers as they escaped to Mali.

Attack on Tuareg Villages in Tahoua Region, March 21

Witnesses said dozens of armed Islamist fighters on motorcycles attacked the Tuareg villages of Bakorat and Intazayene, and the nearby nomad camps of Warisanet and Tangaran, killing at least 170 people, nearly all from the Alfakaritine clan. Among the dead were the 70-year-old clan chief, Bouloua Barawakass; the imam, Al Makmoud Al Mustapha; and 22 children. "The motorcycles split up – 13 to Bakorat, 8 to Intazayene, others to the smaller camps,” said one survivor. “It started around 2 p.m. The killing was fast, but it took the assailants a few hours to round up and drive off our animals.” An elder said, “They attacked us because we refused to pay their punitive tax, but also as punishment for refusing to give our children [as recruits] to the Jihadists. Two days before the massacre, they told us to leave or be killed.” A woman from Bakorat, who lost 28 family members in the attack, said: “They swept into the village like a sandstorm, killing every man they saw. They shot one of my uncles in front of me. His 20-year-old son ran to save him, but he perished as well. We found them, slumped over each other.” A clan elder who helped organize the burials said: “We found several youth, burned, near a hut. Others [we found] near wells, mosques, and many along paths separating the different camps, scattered, separated by a few meters, hunted down as they fled. Honestly, most were shot in the head. Some we found only by following the vultures’ flight.” At least 39 people were killed near the Bakorat village well. “They calculated and struck at the very hour our men congregate to water their animals, share news, and chat,” one villager said. A survivor who counted up the dead, which included several pairs of brothers and fathers and sons, said:

They attacked the well like it was a military objective, opening fire on the dozens of men there. As they killed, I heard the attackers saying, “This is your time … for working with the state,” and asking, “Are you a true Muslim?” before saying Allahu Akbar, then bam! … bam! bam! I collapsed, seeing the carnage … my father, my brothers, my cousins, my friends lying there, dead and dying.