Islamist militants launched simultaneous attacks in Niger on Thursday, killing 26 people and injuring dozens more.
The coordinated attacks - which included armed gunmen and suicide bombers detonating two car bombs - targeted a military camp in the desert city of Agadez and a French-operated uranium mine in the remote town of Arlit.
The dual attacks come amid growing fear that the conflict in northern Mali, as well as Islamist insurgencies in Nigeria and southern Libya, could further destabilize the region. Until yesterday, Niger - a poor, landlocked country of 17 million - had largely been spared from the violence that has plagued its neighbors over the last year.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an Al Qaeda offshoot known locally as Mujao, has claimed responsibility for both attacks. An online statement reportedly signed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian national and veteran jihadi who led the deadly attack on the In Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria last January, claims that he “supervised” the attack on Arlit in conjunction with Mujao.
The attacks come four months after a French-led military intervention in Mali drove Mujao and its allies from the northern towns and cities once under their control.
The government of Niger has sent more than 600 troops to northern Mali to help France combat Mujao, and has often advocated a more forceful approach to dealing with the proliferation of Islamist insurgencies throughout the region. At times authorities in Niger have expressed frustration with its neighbors handling of Islamist militants.
The apparent ease with which France and its African allies were able to liberate northern Mali, however, prompted many to wonder if groups like Mujao were actually defeated -- or if they merely blended into the landscape and crossed borders to regroup in vast, ungoverned swaths of the Sahara.
In recent months Mujao has vowed to attack French targets in the region while Belmokhtar, who heads his own extremist group that calls itself, “Those Who Sign in Blood,” has repeatedly made similar threats against France and the regional governments who have sent forces to Mali.
The twin attacks of yesterday, aimed at both types of targets, have put to rest any lingering doubts that groups like Mujao are capable of backing their threats with action.
The assault on Arlit in particular, which hosts a uranium mine run by French nuclear-engineering giant Areva, is a direct affront to France and its interests.
French president Francois Hollande vowed to remedy the hostage situation, but told AFP "we will not intervene in Niger as we did in Mali, but we have the same willingness to cooperate to fight against terrorism."
Yet Mr. Hollande added, "Everybody should know that we will let nothing pass and support Niger's authorities to end the hostage taking and annihilate the group that carried out these attacks."
Meanwhile, the US military has started flying unarmed Predator drones out of a base near Niamey, Niger's capitol, as part of an initiative to give it a presence in West Africa. The base will be used for surveillance aircraft as part of a broader campaign to address threats emanating from North Africa and the Sahel. Another such base is opening in Burkina Faso.