NIAMEY, Niger — Hidden among the curios and trinkets in Niger’s National Museum, a small, seemingly innocuous glass vial filled with thin metallic pellets is perched tenuously atop a wooden stand.
A sign behind the display explains that the contents of the vial, no larger than a jar of jam, can provide energy equivalent to 2.5 tons of wood, 1.5 tons of coal, or one ton of petroleum.
“This,” a guide announces to the museum’s trickle of visitors, “is 100 grams of real uranium.”
Niger’s uranium deposits, among the world’s largest, have drawn the attention of two very disparate groups. On one hand, international investors, led by the French state-owned energy giant Areva and joined more recently by the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation, have long coveted these reserves for use as nuclear fuel.
On the other hand, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, which thrives in the vast and porous Sahara spreading across Northern Niger and its neighbors in the Sahel, has come to regard Western interests in the region, drawn by the lure of uranium, as an easy and readily accessible target.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has carried out a series of high-profile operations in Niger in the last six months that have left many here with the impression that the group can operate with virtual impunity. That perception, some worry, could have devastating effects on foreign investment, damaging both the economic and political stability of one of the world’s poorest countries.
The activity of AQIM has been noted by Niger's northern neighbor, Libya, where embattled leader Muammar Gaddafi has linked the current revolt against his rule to Al Qaeda. While AQIM is not considered to be a significant part of the Libyan situation, experts are concerned about its growth in Niger.
“The security situation now is very bad in the north, very dangerous — and it’s spreading,” said Moumouni Mamane Laouali, editor-in-chief of Radio Television Tenere, one of the largest private media outlets in Niger.
In July 2010, AQIM executed an elderly French aid worker kidnapped from northern Niger two months earlier. This was followed last September by a dawn raid in which nearly 30 armed AQIM members entered Areva’s camp at Arlit and took seven employees hostage. Though three of the hostages were released in late February in a surprise move, the fate of the remaining hostages remains in doubt. In exchange for their freedom, AQIM is rumored to have demanded the release of several of its members currently being held in prison, the withdrawal of French soldiers from Afghanistan, and a ransom of 90 million euros.
In January, however, it became clear that the two attacks in northern Niger were merely the prelude to a wider campaign. In their most brazen attack yet and their first in the capital, Niamey, AQIM gunmen burst into a popular restaurant and seized two French citizens. A rescue mission mounted by French and Nigerien troops in the hours immediately after the abduction resulted in the deaths of both hostages along with several AQIM members.
Analysts worry that AQIM is becoming further emboldened with each attack. The group’s leader, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, is known “to meticulously follow the spirit of, if not closely coordinate with, Al Qaeda’s senior leadership,” according to Jarrett Brachman, author of "Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice." Within Al Qaeda, he explains, Abdul Wadud is regarded as “devoutly loyal to the cause and to Bin Laden — a true lieutenant in Bin Laden’s global army.”
AQIM’s exact motives, murky at first, became clearer following a subsequent statement by Abdul Wadud demanding France’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Brachman believes the prospects for a peaceful resolution to the Areva crisis are bleak.
“Given the high level of visibility of this issue within Al Qaeda — it has been referenced both by the group’s emir and Bin Laden himself — AQIM will believe that they have no choice but to hold firm to the letter of their initial demands. Since those will more than likely not be met, I don’t see this ending happily.”
But the offensive being waged by AQIM is having consequences beyond regional security. Niger, a desperately poor country ranked 167 out of 169 states in the 2010 UN Human Development Index, has already felt the economic impact of AQIM’s campaign.
“AQIM has the power to make it very dangerous for the country to extract natural resources from the north,” said Abdou Mohamed Gazali, Radio Deutsche Welle’s correspondent in Niger. “The tourism industry there has already died. The economy of the whole country will be affected.”
For now, the threat from AQIM appears to have only caused a temporary disruption in the activities of Niger’s few foreign investors, which are critical to the national economy.
The French mining firm, Areva, says it is determined to continue extracting uranium in Niger.
“Following the abductions, all French nationals working in Niger were sent back to their homeland,” said Fleur Floquet-Daubigeon, a spokeswoman for Areva. She emphasized, however, that Areva’s work on the soon-to-open Imouraren mine, the largest known uranium deposit in Africa and the second-largest in the world, would soon resume. “It has not been canceled and will not be canceled.”
Gazali agrees: “Areva will never leave the country. Even with the instability, their interests here are too great.”
But the consequences could be dire if AQIM is able to widen its area of operations by gaining support among sympathetic local populations. Analysts warn that ethnic kinship coupled with the lack of economic opportunity in northern Niger could lead to the formation of a tactical alliance between AQIM and local Tuareg groups — only a few years ago themselves rebels against the national government — further increasing the group’s ability to mount attacks.
“Many of the people of Agadez were once rebels — they will join AQIM and operate together in the north,” Gazali predicts. “It’s the only activity they have apart from rebellion. There is resentment against Areva, which is seen as extracting without investing in local development. The government does not have the means to give economic opportunity to the north.”
In fact, such tacit collaboration between Tuaregs and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and may have already begun. One largely overlooked facet of the September kidnapping was how the AQIM captors were able to enter Areva’s camp. The guard force, unarmed to comply with local laws, was made up of ex-Tuareg rebels.