Several militant groups which operate in the Sahel, such as al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, al-Murabitun and Ansar al-Sharia, praised the 7 January attack against the Paris-based offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people were killed (see our 7 January Special Report). The Somalia-based al-Shabab and Boko Haram in Nigeria also welcomed the attack, which has been claimed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
France is a popular target because of anger over Charlie Hebdo’s perceived
The raised threat also applies to countries where al-Shabab has demonstrated a capability, namely Kenya, Somali, Uganda and Djibouti. Moreover, Boko Haram is increasingly associating itself with the global jihadist movement and so could look to target French interests in Nigeria and Cameroon. Jihadists will also likely seek to strike against the country’s presence in Algeria, but this threat will be mitigated by ongoing security operations there which increased following the death of a French hostage in September.
The risk to other European and US interests is also now elevated, in part because France reduced its non-military presence in the region following its intervention in Mali in January 2013. This could lead jihadists to attempt to strike other Western-linked facilities in the region as a way to respond to the Paris attacks and to boost support by demonstrating their capability to target foreign interests. Indeed, on 22 January three Somali nationals were killed when al-Shabab conducted a suicide car bombing at the entrance of a hotel in Mogadishu that was being used by a delegation of Turkish officials who were preparing for President Erdogan’s visit to the city the next day.
Meanwhile, protests took place across the region in response to Charlie Hebdo’s publication on 14 January depicting an image that is considered offensive by many Muslims. The only outbreak of violence occurred in Niger when clashes took place in Zinder, Maradi, Goure and Niamey on 16 and 17 January. Ten people were killed in the protests, in which several churches were torched, a police station attacked and a French cultural centre set alight.
Perceived anti-Islamist provocations have prompted violence in the past, most significantly in September 2012 when the emergence of a film which ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed triggered an attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi in eastern Libya in which the US Ambassador was killed. Anger over the recent cartoons will fuel further protests in the region, especially after Friday prayers. There is also a risk of further clashes in Niger during these demonstrations. However, we expect the situation will begin to calm in coming weeks, although there is a risk that further controversial publications could trigger renewed demonstrations and unrest.