Nigerien Coup Offers Window of Opportunity for Jihadist Groups in the Sahel

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 21

Nigerien protests following the toppling of Bazoum. (Source: GH Headlines)

On July 26, a military coup d’état ousted the President of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, who was democratically elected in 2021. This resulted in the establishment of a military junta, or “Conseil national pour la sauvegarde de la patrie” (National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland-CNSP), which is led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani (Jeune Afrique, July 26). The coup came as a surprise because Niger had for several years been considered a stable democracy—albeit one that faced many challenges. The state had also shown some deftness in dealing with the multiple security issues in its region (see TM, July 29, 2011). Niger, moreover, was on the road to overcoming its structural weaknesses, ranging from poverty, food insecurity, and ethnic fragmentation to environmental issues.

However, considering the specifics of Nigerien history and the regional trends in the Sahel over the past few years, this coup might not look that surprising at all. Many of the same pressures brought other military juntas to power in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad. After all, Bazoum’s victory in the second round of elections in 2021 was the first transfer of power from one democratically elected president to another in Nigerien history. The crisis in Niger is multi-layered, and isolating any single element to explain why this coup occurred is impossible.

Factors contributing to the coup nevertheless include:

  • Domestic dynamics, from a power struggle between Bazoum and the military to the possible deterioration of relations between Bazoum and ex-president Mahamadou Issoufou, Bazoum’s former mentor;
  • International dynamics, from the mounting anti-French sentiment across the Sahel over the past few years to the capacity of Russia to exploit and fuel these feelings; and [1]
  • Military-security dynamics, from the military’s disappointment in Bazoum’s handling of security matters and the fight against jihadism to the growing rift between elites in Niamey and local communities in the areas under direct attack from jihadist groups (along the border with Mali, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria) (France 24, 27 July; Jeune Afrique, July 28; The Conversation, July 31; France Info, August 3).

By looking at the significance of these developments from the lens of jihadist activities and goals, one can understand how the coup in Niamey may affect jihadist actors operating in Niger and, more broadly speaking, in the region in the near future.

Jihadists’ Post-Coup Reactions 

Several days after the coup, on JNIM-linked Telegram channels, the coup was described as a “golden opportunity” to strengthen the al-Qaeda-affiliated group’s presence in Niger. According to JNIM’s messages, it could exploit the situation to launch attacks against Western military bases and embassies in Niger. Further, JNIM could halt the production of gold and uranium by foreign companies, attempt to kidnap Westerners to hold as hostages, and target the Nigerien army to seize weapons and ammunition (SITE, August 3). Indeed, a few weeks after the coup, Niger suffered a particularly significant JNIM attack. On August 15, a detachment of Nigerien special forces was attacked on the road connecting the cities of Boni and Torodi in the Tillabéri District (about 60 kilometers west of Niamey, toward the border with Burkina Faso). According to sources from Niger’s Defense Ministry, at least 17 soldiers were killed and 20 were injured in what became the deadliest attack in the past six months (Jeune Afrique, August 16; Le Sahel, August 17).

Just a few days before that attack, six other soldiers were killed near Sanam (a village near Niger’s border with Mali). A group of jihadists riding around on ten motorcycles ambushed the soldiers, who were on patrol. Moreover, on August 9, five soldiers from the national guard were killed and four others were injured in an attack in Bourkou-Bourkou, near the gold-mining town of Samira (ActuNiger, August 11).

In the days that followed the August 15 attack, the Nigerien authorities took action against some of these groups. According to the state news agency, ANP, the army killed an unspecified number of jihadists in the Tillabéri District on August 22. This included several known leaders of Islamic State in Sahel Province (ISSP; the group is also known as Islamic State in Greater Sahara [ISGS]). They additionally destroyed around 200 motorcycles and five vehicles used by the jihadists (Agence Nigérienne de Presse, August 22). These attacks all indicate that, even if the situation in Niger cannot be compared to that of Mali or Burkina Faso, the various jihadist groups in the country retain a significant capacity to strike.

Jihadist Dynamics: Opportunities and Divisions

Establishing a direct and causal link between the latest attacks in Niger and the coup is possibly too attenuated, as the attacks might have occurred even if the political situation were to remain unchanged. While Niger has been able to avoid the rapid downward spiral of violence experienced by its neighbors (namely Mali and Burkina Faso) over the past few years, the country has experienced phases of sustained violence that had little connection with specific domestic political and institutional developments. However, the coup itself represents, at the same time, an inevitable victory for jihadist groups and present an opportunity for them. This is because jihadist groups ideologically and ontologically despise Western-style democracy. As previously noted, one of the official motivations provided by the Nigerien military to justify the coup and undermining of the democratic system was the worsening security situation, the state’s lack of capacity to address it, and these issues’ subsequent impact on soldiers. This means that the jihadists—JNIM and ISGS—have accomplished part of their goals (ActuNiger, July 28).

After a coup, there is always a phase of political and institutional destabilization whose duration, characteristics, and impact cannot be assessed in advance. In Niger’s case, the threat of military intervention from ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) has had an effect: It forced the new junta to plan on how to respond to a military intervention against the coup leaders. Thus, unsurprisingly, the junta—at least when an external military intervention seemed possible—was shifting its attention and part of its resources towards this possibility and away from extant jihadist threats (see TM, September 15).

The coup also halted Niger’s cooperation with external actors that were supporting the state in its fight against jihadists, such as France and the United States. In the case of France, the coup had an obvious anti-French overtone; several days after the coup, the junta denounced a series of military agreements with France. In the following weeks, civil society groups, such as the M62, also called upon French soldiers to leave the country (Africa News, August 23). In the case of the United States, in contrast, it seems that after weeks of negotiation with the junta, counter-terrorism cooperation restarted sometime around mid-September. This is a demonstration that among external partners, there are different sensibilities regarding cooperation with the coup leaders (Tam-Tam Info News, September 14). As such, external support to Niger may not be completely extinguished.

Call to Unity

For jihadist groups operating in Niger and in the Sahel more generally, there is a chance to exploit the window of relative uncertainty to strengthen their positions on the ground. This window offers an opportunity not only vis-à-vis state authorities, but also vis-à-vis themselves as these groups continue to fight one another. The latter unleashes a paradoxical dynamic: the JNIM-ISGS rivalry creates insecurity because it leads these groups to fight amongst themselves, which threatens civilians. However, at the same time, the infighting reduces the systemic scope of the jihadist threat, which could actually be much more significant if the various local factions were to work together.

Some jihadists are aware of how these divisions represent a point of weakness for them. In fact, it is no coincidence that in the weeks following the coup audio files began to circulate suggesting the formation of a new jihadist group, called Wahdat al-Muslimin (Unity of Muslims), which was allegedly the result of a split within JNIM (see TM, October 11). This group appealed to local factions for unity and an end to hostilities between al-Qaeda-loyal and Islamic State (IS)-loyal forces, arguing that unity would “preserve the blood of Muslims, especially ordinary ones, who are killed day and night without any fault” (Twitter/@MENAStream, August 24).

The specifics of these messages and dynamics largely remain to be determined. However, the mere fact that there are emerging movements that call for the unity of local jihadist forces suggests that the coup in Niger has at least represented a moment for these groups of strategic reflection and tactical repositioning. They will likely leverage the coup to further strengthen their positions on the ground. Should this turn into even a partial rapprochement of the various jihadist factions, there is a risk of a new phase where these groups can become a distinctly more organized and structural threat than they had been when divided.


The July 2023 military coup in Niger underscores the fragile nature of political stability in the wider Sahel region. Niger was formerly viewed as a beacon of democratic hope, despite grappling with a myriad of threats from various neighbors as well as several jihadist groups. While not entirely unpredictable, this abrupt political shift has created a number of opportunities for jihadist groups operating in Niger and in the region writ large.

Although the wave of attacks that occurred in August might not be necessarily linked to the coup itself, they show how the capacities of these groups to operate in the country remain significant. Moreover, as demonstrated by the reactions among JNIM fighters, this coup is indeed seen as an opportunity to capitalize on the inevitable vulnerability caused by institutional and political uncertainty. Jihadist groups see the coup as an opportunity to fortify their positions and intensify attacks against Nigerien security forces.

However, some militants seem to be calling for unity among jihadist factions, as shown by the rise of Wahdat al-Muslimin. A renewed unity between these groups could change the nature of the danger they pose by making the threat more systemic and structural. Finally, while Niger had been making strides in de-radicalization programs under Bazoum’s leadership, the future of these initiatives now is uncertain under the new regime—and their lack of continuity can potentially be a boon to both JNIM and ISGS.



[1] While Russia has used anti-French sentiment and France’s withdrawal from the region to their advantage, envisioning a direct Russian role in Nigerien dynamics currently is complicated and likely overstates Russian influence.