(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.
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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.
A 30-year-old woman who lived in a Tuareg camp near Intayazane described the killing of five family members:
The men had just left the mosque. The attackers yelled, “Look, over there, block them!” Without asking a question, they jumped off their motorcycles, dragged the men for some meters, then executed them. Two of my cousins, each around 16, ran toward the women, who surrounded them, screaming, “No, not the children!” The attackers pushed the women away, grabbed the boys and shot them point-blank. Then they burned our tents, stole our jewelry, and rounded up our animals. It took 15 minutes to leave our lives in ruin.
A villager from Bakorat said that, after killing the men, the attackers “chased out the women hiding in the houses; ransacked and stole everything of value; and burned the rest. As I fled, I saw smoke rising all over our area.” Another villager said, “They put clothing, fabric, mats, blankets, jewelry, and grain into a pickup they stole from Bakorat, then used their motorcycles to round up thousands of our animals.”
One older woman wept as she described the impact of losing her husband and several sons: “They took all that gives us meaning – our husbands, our children, our clan chief, our imam, our animals. What am I without them? I begged them to kill me too.”
Attack on Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye, Tillabéri Region, January 2
Eight villagers said that at about 9 a.m. on January 2, armed Islamist fighters attacked Zaroumdareye, killing 33 people, and shortly thereafter Tchombangou, seven kilometers away, killing 69. Village elders said nearly all of the 102 victims were Zarma men and boys, and most had been shot. The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, said that 17 children were among the victims.
A villager from Zaroumdareye said:
As the cloud of motorcycles approached, I hid under my bed. I heard the crack of gunfire, cries of “Allahu Akbar,” people begging for mercy, and the sound of walkie-talkies. After they fled, I saw the bodies … in and outside houses, in the street, next to walls. Around seven people including a child had been executed in a ravine where they’d tried to hide. But most bodies were on the road, shot as they ran. I saw them for several kilometers as I fled with my family.
Another villager said, “It seemed like the attackers split into groups – one to burn, another to round up animals, another to kill … Those ones walked around shooting at everything that moved. I saw them kill eight people at the well in a hail of bullets.”
A 25-year-old farmer hiding in his house with numerous family members said: “There was an explosion – like a Molotov cocktail l– the house went up in flames. We debated: either we die in this fire, or we’ll be executed. But just then, they mounted their motorcycles and drove off … we waited a bit, then escaped through the window.” A mother said, “As I fled, I saw around five bodies burning – near the well. I shielded my children’s eyes as we passed by … no child should see such things.”
After attacking Zaroumdareye, the attackers went to Tchombangou. A farmer, who had been wounded in the chest, said:
Around 10 a.m., the terrorists burst into the village … gunfire erupted. We darted off in every direction. I was hit but dragged myself into a house. As the jihadists patrolled through town, I saw them executing so many people. I feared they’d catch me or that I’d bleed to death. Later, on my way to hospital, I saw my uncle, dead, near where we’d just been drinking tea, and further on, two children – Yacouba and Karim – dead in their field.
A 37-year-old woman whose husband, brother, and four cousins died said:
We were at the well … we dropped the water bottles, dashed home, grabbed the children, and ran. I collapsed on the road from thirst, and later learned my husband had perished. They stole hundreds of animals and the solar panels for the call to prayer. They burned the grain that we needed to feed our children. Before the attack, the jihadists taxed our animals, we complied. They asked for grain, we complied. What do they want?”
Attack on Traders Near Banibangou, Tillabéri Region, March 15
At about 5 p.m. on March 15, in two coordinated, simultaneous attacks, armed Islamist groups attacked five vehicles of traders returning home from the Banibangou market. Three vehicles were returning to Chinegodar and two were returning to Darey-Daye. After forcing the vehicles to stop, the attackers ordered the passengers to line up on the road, separated them on the basis of ethnicity and gender, and executed 66 men and boys, all Zarma except for one driver. UNICEF said 6 of the victims were children, between ages 11 and 17.
A Nigerien human rights investigator characterized the attacks as “a clear and terrible incident of targeting on the basis of ethnicity.” A Zarma community leader who participated in the burials said that “the only non-Zarma was a Hausa driver, apparently executed for driving a vehicle owned by a Zarma.” He said the dead were buried in mass graves near the attack sites and that 29 died in one attack, and 37 in the other.
A trader who survived the attack said:
We were about 30 kilometers from Darey-Daye when over 40 jihadists on motorcycles emerged from the bush. They fired in the air, yelling “Allahu Akbar,” forced the drivers to stop, then swarmed the two Toyotas. They yelled at us to line up on the road. They were armed with AKs; a few had rocket launchers. They ordered the Tuareg and Peuhl, identifiable by their dress, to one side; the women and small children to another; and the Zarma men to another.
We thought it was a robbery, or a kidnapping, but when they ordered the Zarma to lie, face down, they knew what was coming and begged for their lives. The jihadists sprayed them with gunfire, and then searched the pants pockets of the dead and dying, taking out the money they’d made at market.
Two traders observed one armed Islamist fighter making a call with a satellite phone just minutes after the killing. “I heard the commander say, ‘It’s done, we’ve killed them all,’” one said. “After hanging up, he ordered his men to burn the two Toyotas, like he’d just received an order to do so.”
Attack on Gaigorou, Tillabéri Region, April 17
Armed Islamist fighters executed 19 Zarma villagers, 9 of whom were attending a funeral, during an attack on Gaigorou village. Witnesses said the attack lasted under an hour and that the attackers fled after the army, based several kilometers away, fired mortar shells in the direction of Gaigorou.
“One group of jihadists attacked the cemetery, and others hunted down many of the people who’d run off as the attackers approached,” one witness said.
An older man who was wounded in the cemetery said:
After breaking the Ramadan fast, we, the men, gathered in the cemetery to bury our friend Sadou. Our prayers were broken by the buzzing of motorcycles. The jihadists. Seeing them – heavily armed with AKs, RPGs and bandoliers – we took off running, but 12 of us were stuck … Many of us were older and couldn’t run fast enough. They interrogated us about where the army was based. We said we didn’t know, which infuriated them.
Without wasting time, they yelled, “Lie down, now!” and counted, in Pulaar, “one, two, three …” until reaching 12. Then they opened fire. One jihadist started walking around, checking to make sure we were dead. I was hit twice, but another man fell on top of me, dead. When our army fired a few mortar rounds, the jihadists panicked and sped off toward the Mali border.
Attack on Danga Zawne, Tillabéri Region, June 24
Nineteen Zarma civilians were killed by an armed Islamist group during an attack on Danga Zawne village and a few nearby hamlets. Six witnesses said they believed the attackers, who were “speaking Pulaar with a local accent,” were based in and around their village. Among those killed was a 27-year-old man who was preparing to marry, and at least 12 farmers working their fields. Two of the dead were men displaced from Siwilli, a village near the Mali border, whom, a village elder said, the attackers had asked for by name.
A man wounded in the attack said, “I was on my way to meet the groom, Habi, when the shooting started. Later, I saw the groom and his uncle – both shot in the head. They stole the special fabric, which was to be given to the bride, and broke into two shops.”
Other witnesses said that farmers from nearby Talabkoraba and Koubikoura hamlets were gunned down in their fields, as was a 15-year-old, killed as he drove a donkey cart to fetch his grandfather at his farm. A village elder said 20 granaries and 12 thatched huts were burned during the attack.
The witnesses said the attack deepened ethnic tensions between the Zarma and their Peuhl neighbors, most of whom, they said, had fled the area after the attack, fearing reprisals.
Attacks in Téra Administrative Area, Tillabéri Region, May and June
Nine civilians were killed in three separate attacks in the Téra administrative area, near Niger’s border with Burkina Faso. During the attacks, in May and June, an armed Islamist group killed a school director, a shop owner, and a man with a disability; and looted and destroyed a church and a school.
At about 7 a.m. on May 12, the day of Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan, alleged armed Islamist fighters attacked Fantio village and killed five Zarma. A villager said:
From a distance, I saw them emerge from a wooded area near the river, then approach town. They ordered the first group of men they encountered to recite a verse of the Quran – one was a Christian, but he knew the verse, which saved him. As they moved on, they saw a disabled man – I think they targeted him because he wore a cross … he was on crutches so he couldn’t run. They wasted no time in killing him. A friend of mine fled in his brother’s car, but the jihadists caught up with him and executed him as well.
Another villager said, “One group attacked the church – I later saw the Bibles, instruments, and other church things burning – and then they attacked the school director’s house, where they burned books and notebooks. Then they shot open the lock of a shop and stole all the phone recharge cards.”
During a second attack on Fantio, on June 22, alleged armed Islamist fighters killed a retired policeman and a teacher, and looted livestock. A villager who helped bury the dead said: “They rounded up every living animal in the village except the chickens and pheasants. They found the teacher hiding behind a dresser in his house and killed him in front of his family. After the second attack, hundreds of villagers fled to safer ground.”
A witness to the June 13 attack on Dolbel village, which left two shopkeepers dead, said: “They had AKs, RPGs, and walkie-talkies. Their objective seemed more about resupplying than killing. They broke into shops, stole every animal they found. After 45 minutes, they regrouped near the market with their loot and sped west toward Burkina.”
Attacks on Wiyé and Deykoukou, Tillabéri Region, July 25 and July 28
At least 33 Zarma civilians were killed in two attacks in the same area in July. The dead included farmers working in their fields and 17 people shot while retrieving the bodies of two herders killed minutes before.
On July 25, 14 villagers were killed during an alleged armed Islamist attack near Wiyé. Nine were shot while working in their fields and five were found dead along two local roads. A witness from Wiyé who helped retrieve the bodies said, “Six were killed in the same field, 1.5 kilometers from Wiyé. Near the bodies I saw motorcycle tracks – they’d been shot at very close range.”
One farmer said: “As we heard the motorcycles, we took off running, but they chased us down. As I hid, I saw them shoot a friend three times, but he survived … they took him for dead. We think the assailants are trying to drive us from our zone.”
A villager from the July 28 attack on Deykoukou which killed 19 men said:
Around 8:30 a.m., shots rang out near the village. We worried about two young men who’d just taken their animals to pasture. After it went quiet, we went, hoping to find them alive. We saw their bodies – about 300 meters from the village. As we were about to retrieve them, we were ambushed by the attackers, who were hiding behind bushes and granaries. They shot and shot, killing all the men within range.