TSG IntelBrief: Niger’s Security Strategy in Boko Haram’s Badlands
February 12, 2014

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• Niger is cracking down on Boko Haram in Niger’s Diffa region, using the breadth of its security apparatus to include local neighborhood patrols

• Boko Haram cells are known to operate in Diffa, but Niger focuses on elements that are an imminent threat, while monitoring defector and “retired” fighters, whom it allows to remain in the city

• The coordination between government security forces and local communities facilitates effective national level counterterrorism policies to be implemented on the ground in Diffa.

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Dangers in Diffa

The Diffa region of landlocked Niger is demographically similar to Nigeria’s Borno State where Boko Haram is based and carries out more than 85% of its attacks. Most of the population in Diffa and Borno is ethnically Kanuri, including Boko Haram’s deceased founder Mohammed Yusuf and current leader Abubakar Shekau. Diffa is, therefore, a natural recruitment ground within its own tribal networks for new Boko Haram militants who blend into the local population in areas where Nigerian security forces face challenges in tracking them down.

Diffa also has few natural barriers that can obstruct travel from Borno to Diffa. The border between Diffa and Boko Haram’s base city of Maidurguri is located in a porous desert region. Some Nigerian customs officers have also been implicated in Boko Haram activities for accepting bribes to allow arms shipments into Borno from Niger. This has allowed Boko Haram to funnel in weapons to Borno from Libya and other North African locations, and may have been the route that Libyan anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weaponry landed in Boko Haram caches.

Since Nigeria declared a State of Emergency in Borno and two neighboring states in May 2013, Boko Haram militants and waves of refugees have fled to Diffa. Nigerian security forces intercepted some Boko Haram militants traveling to Diffa, while other militants safely made their way there. Boko Haram, however, rarely carries out attacks in Diffa, even though Boko Haram militants on the other side of the border now appear to control several villages. On January 15, for example, Boko Haram attacked a community of fishermen in Gashigar, Nigeria, only miles away from the border with Niger. After the attack, locals report that security officials abandoned their posts and were no longer protecting civilians because of the dangers involved in working in the area.

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Reasons for Success

Diffa is in a precarious location. Yet, unlike northern Cameroon, which saw Boko Haram kidnap a French family and French priest in February and November 2013, respectively, and launch dozens of raids into Nigeria from Cameroon, Diffa has remained much quieter. There are several security measures that Niger is implementing that may explain its success in mitigating Boko Haram activity in Diffa.

First, Niger has arrested Boko Haram militants in Diffa, but targets them in a way that minimizes civilian casualties and collateral damage. For example, Niger’s security forces raided a house in the Dubai neighborhood of Diffa where three Boko Haram suspects were based on December 2013. The militants fled but were arrested the next morning when security forces cornered them. There were no civilian casualties or other major disturbances in the neighborhood. This can be attributed to the exhaustive investigatory work the security forces carried out on the house days before the arrests and the intelligence work in tracking down the militants after initially failing to capture them.

Second, the Nigerien Gendarmerie, National Guard, army, and police coordinate security operations together, keep each other informed of their operations, and maintain close contact with civilians. The police, for example, operate a 24-hour phone service in the event civilians report emergencies, and then contact the appropriate military command to launch an operation. In the border regions of Diffa, such as Zinder, the police and the National Guard provide security together at hotels, which allows international NGOs to continue their servicing the community, with reduced fear of militant attacks.

Third, locals in Diffa report they have a high level of trust in their security. One reason is that many of the security forces are from Diffa and speak the local Kanuri language and understand Kanuri culture and traditions. In Borno, by contrast, many of the security officials come from southern Nigeria where Kanuri language and even Islam are rarely seen. In addition, many of the patrols in Diffa include Tuaregs, Tubus, Hausas, and other ethnic minority groups in Niger, who can vet any outsiders in the city and ensure that they are conducting legitimate business or other activities in Diffa. Niger also sponsors a program to recruit youths in cities along the Nigerian border to form neighborhood watch patrols, which receives the backing from tribal and religious leaders, reduces unemployment, and provides a set of eyes and ears for the security forces.

Finally, some locals in Diffa report that many known Boko Haram militants live in the city but may have “retired” from the terrorist group and are now monitored by the Niger authorities. In the absence of any amnesty deal for Boko Haram in Nigeria, Diffa may be the last resort for Boko Haram militants, who reject the extremist group’s mass killings of civilians but have no other means of escape. In northern Cameroon, which has a less developed  security program relative to Niger’s, Boko Haram defectors have been killed on several occasions, but there are no such reports of killing of defectors in Niger.

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• As a result of continued violence in Nigeria’s Borno State, Niger will face the continued threat of Boko Haram militants fleeing into Niger, but national intelligence officials, security officers, and community patrols will vet which militants present an imminent threat to Niger and those which do not, with the former facing security operations and the latter likely allowed to remain while under monitoring

• Despite the success of Niger in mitigating the threat of Boko Haram in Diffa, neighboring Nigeria and nearby Cameroon will likely be slow to adopt similar measures because of the lack of sharing of best practices between the three countries, even though there are institutions, such as the Multinational Joint Task Force, to discuss cooperation

• The cycle of violence will continue in Borno State, and Boko Haram militants will retreat into northern Cameroon, which is a more conducive operating environment for their violent extremist activities than Diffa. 

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• Niger’s population is almost 17 million, with over 68% of the population aged 0-24

• Islam is the religion of around 80% of its citizens, with 20% Christian and traditional religions

• Overall literacy rate is estimated at around 30%

• Niger’s GDP Real Growth Estimate for 2012 was over 11%

• The World Bank’s 2014 Ease of Doing Business ranking listed Niger at 176 of 189 countries assessed.

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