Tactical and Strategic Problems of a Turkish Winter Campaign in Northern Iraq

Andrew McGregor

October 30, 2007

As Turkish troops mass along the border with Kurdish northern Iraq, chief of the Turkish General Staff General Yasar Buyukanit has promised to make the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) “grieve with an intensity they cannot imagine” (AP, October 27). While an attack on northern Iraq seems imminent, important questions are being raised in Ankara about the effectiveness of a cross-border operation. What meaningful objectives are obtainable? Can the PKK be crushed through unilateral military action? Should the campaign wait until spring? There is political pressure on the Turkish government to do something now, a sentiment reflected in the urgency of Turkish demands for Iraq and the United States to take action against the PKK.

Turkish Winter 1Turkish Cobra Attack Helicopter during Winter Exercises

Large-scale PKK attacks, such as the October 21 ambush in Hakkari province (about four kilometers from the border) that killed 12 Turkish soldiers and involved over 200 Kurdish fighters, clearly seem designed to provoke a Turkish border crossing. The aim may be to cause a rift between Turkey and its allies while involving the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in a difficult and dangerous winter campaign in Iraq’s northern mountains. The PKK has also threatened to cut the oil pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and even strike oil tankers heading for Turkey (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 21). Following the deadly attack on the 21st, 11 Turkish battalions were moved up to the border to prevent the movement of PKK fighters across it (Today’s Zaman, October 26).

The electoral success last summer of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in former PKK strongholds in southeast Turkey has put pressure on the PKK to try and draw Turkey into a major struggle in northern Iraq with international implications for Ankara. Iraq’s Kurdish Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, claims that the PKK has been infiltrated by Turkish intelligence, and suggests that Ankara is seeking a provocation that will allow it to intervene in northern Iraq to “disrupt the Kurdish regional administration, (and) to cripple the infrastructure” (Newsweek, October 23).

Public demands for immediate military action against the PKK have dominated raucous protests in several Turkish cities. Many of the demonstrations now condemn the United States as well as the PKK. Senior Turkish politicians have also been abused at massive public funerals for “martyred” troops. In response to the attacks, TSK troops and Cobra helicopter gunships have already begun making “hot pursuits” of PKK fighters across the border. Turkish tanks and artillery shell targets in northern Iraq almost daily.

The difficulty for Ankara is that a quick raid on PKK installations in Iraq is likely to have little long-term effect. Turkey has already launched dozens of major raids on northern Iraq without doing anything to end the PKK presence along the border. PKK guerrillas possess little more than what they can carry on their back, and are thus ready to pull out to safer, pre-planned positions at a moment’s notice. Only an extended occupation stands any chance of success, and this will be difficult, if not impossible, without cooperation from Baghdad, Washington and northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Ankara is receiving mixed messages from the United States. Last week the U.S. military commander in northern Iraq, General Benjamin Mixon, declared that U.S. forces were not involved in tracking PKK movements and intended to do “absolutely nothing” to end Kurdish cross-border attacks on Turkey (AP, October 27). On the same day, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that the United States “will do what is necessary” against the PKK while warning Ankara to abandon plans for a major cross-border incursion (Hurriyet, October 27). There are also signals from the Pentagon that the U.S. military may be ready to use Predator reconnaissance aircraft to supply the TSK with the intelligence necessary to make pinpoint Special Forces strikes against PKK targets while avoiding a larger invasion (CBS, October 26).

Turkish air capability is limited. There are few attack helicopters available, and Turkish F-4 and F-16 jet-fighters flying from the Diyarbakir air base are largely ineffective against PKK mountain positions without the specialized munitions used by the United States or the fuel-air explosives Russia used against Chechen hideouts in the Caucasus Mountains. For now though, the Turkish warplanes continue to mount strikes on Kurdish villages and PKK positions inside Iraq while providing air support for search-and-destroy missions within southeast Turkey.

Turkey’s nine U.S.-built Cobra attack helicopters have undergone extensive refits to enable them to carry out night missions against the PKK. In September Turkey signed a deal with an Italian aerospace firm to provide 51 new attack helicopters to add to Turkey’s force of 90 U.S.-made Sikorsky Black Hawk assault helicopters (Today’s Zaman, October 22).

On October 21, the chairman of Turkey’s Grand Unity Party, Muhsin Yaziciolgu, called on the TSK to develop new strategies, such as the formation of “mobile units composed of high-level officers having extraordinary powers and responsible in taking initiatives” (Today’s Zaman, October 22). A brigade of professional commandos is undergoing training at the Isparta commando school in Egirdir, but these are not expected to take the field until 2009. Six existing commando brigades are replacing conscripts with volunteer professionals in a process that is expected to be completed by next spring.

Last week, 3,000 members of the police Special Forces joined Turkish regulars, mountain commandos, Gendarmerie forces and village guards in the fighting against PKK guerrillas (Hurriyet, October 25). Thousands of imams trained in “national unity issues” are also on their way to southeast Turkey to explain the unacceptability of terrorism in Islam.

Snow is already falling in the higher mountain passes. There is a danger that a Turkish winter offensive could get bogged down in difficult and roadless country without the benefit of the Iraqi Kurdish guides that used to accompany Turkish missions against the PKK. As the earth turns to mud under heavy rains and snow, the TSK’s armor will find the going difficult. Winter storms could also mean troops on the ground might lose the benefit of air cover and medical-evacuation services.

There are several options available. The TSK could cooperate with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in a strike against the PKK and Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) strongholds in the Qandil Mountain region 100 kilometers south of the border, probably the most effective option militarily, but the most dangerous politically, and potentially the most embarrassing for the United States. Such a strike would have substantial risks for the TSK, which has never penetrated so far into Iraq. The onset of winter usually marks the end of the PKK’s campaigning season until spring, as the fighters retire to bases well inside the border while only a small number remains behind in southeast Turkey. The TSK will have to penetrate 20 to 30 kilometers deep into Iraq to get to PKK’s winter camps. The alternative would be to create a buffer zone on the Iraqi side of the border and wait until spring for a major offensive (barring the success of diplomatic efforts in the meantime).

Even if Turkey could obtain Baghdad’s cooperation against the PKK, there is little chance the beleaguered Iraqi national army could carry out a successful campaign in the Kurdish mountains. The Kurdish President of Iraq, Jalal al-Talabani, claims that even the Kurdish peshmerga militias could not expel the PKK (Kurdish Aspect, October 21). The effect of a military offensive on the future status of the disputed oil-centre of Kirkuk must also play into the calculations of Turkish planners.

Turkish Winter 2Bottleneck at the Habur Border Gate (Hurriyet)

Economic sanctions and border closures present an alternative to military action until spring. Sanctions could include closing the Habur border gate through which $3 billion in trade now passes annually. A large quantity of American military supplies also pass through the Habur gate, but Ankara is now exploring the possibility of diverting Turkish trade with Iraq through a number of Syrian border crossings, avoiding Kurdish Iraq all together. Other options include a halt in vital Turkish investment, cutting supplies of electricity to northern Iraq, and the evacuation of Turkish contractors responsible for most of the rebuilding and infrastructure creation in northern Iraq. Over 600 Turkish construction firms are currently at work in northern Iraq (Today’s Zaman, October 26). In the presently charged atmosphere, the Turkish business community has expressed wide support for economic measures if necessary. In the event of economic sanctions by Turkey, Iraq’s government may save the PKK the trouble of cutting the pipelines to Ceyhan. Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Mahmud al-Mashhadani warned on October 25 that the Iraqi government would cut the flow of oil to Ceyhan should Ankara apply sanctions.

There is little chance of a large cross-border military operation starting before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington on November 5. As the TSK awaits orders, every day that passes increases the difficulty of mounting a successful operation in northern Iraq.

This article first appeared in the October 30 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus.

Controversial Syrian Preacher Abu al-Qaqa Gunned Down in Aleppo

Andrew McGregor

October 16, 2007

As Dr. Mahmud al-Aghasi (a Kurdish-Syrian preacher better known as Abu al-Qaqa) left an Aleppo mosque after Friday prayers on September 28, an assassin stepped out of a car and opened fire with an automatic weapon. The controversial preacher received mortal wounds to the head and body, while three others were wounded.

Abu al-QaqaAbu al-Qaqa

Little information on the case has emerged from the normally secretive and tightly controlled Syrian state. Most of what is known comes from al-Qaqa’s own followers in Ghuraba al-Sham (Strangers of Greater Syria), some of whom chased the killer for two to three kilometers before apprehending him. Al-Qaqa’s deputy, Samir Muhammad Ghazal Abu Khashabah, claims to have received information that the assassin was a member of a takfiri group (Salafi Muslims who declare other Muslims infidels) and had been released just recently after having been taken into U.S. custody in Iraq three years ago. Abu Khashabah also suggested that the gunman and his driver were recruited for the job by foreign (i.e. American) interests in Iraq (al-Jazeera, September 28; al-Watan, September 30; al-Hayat, October 1).

Sources in the Syrian security apparatus report that the suspect was a Syrian in his 20s and well known in Aleppo. Personal reasons were discounted as a cause for the murder by the sources, who noted that the accused was “a collaborator with the Americans” (al-Watan, September 30). Thousands of al-Qaqa’s followers attended the funeral of the 34 year-old ethnic Kurd near Aleppo on September 29. A Syrian flag on his coffin and the attendance of numerous members of the Baathist Party suggested that the deceased had closer ties to the Syrian regime than to the radical Islamist community.

Abu al-Qaqa is suspected of having played a major role in facilitating the entry of foreign fighters into Iraq through Syria. There were also apparently conflicting accusations of ties to al-Qaeda and/or Syrian intelligence. Although elements of the U.S. popular press enthused over the death of a “leading al-Qaeda member,” al-Qaqa was highly critical of Osama bin Laden’s methods and organization, describing the latter as a creation of the CIA. According to his deputy, Abu Khashabah, the preacher had been threatened by al-Qaeda and various takfiri groups due to al-Qaqa’s development of a “moderate trend that did not segregate between Sunnis and Shiites” (al-Hayat, October 1). Many of the fighters al-Qaqa is alleged to have funneled into Iraq were Saudis (Gulf News, October 2). In the wake of his death, al-Qaqa’s movement remains adamant that the preacher only provided guidance for young jihadis eager to fight in Palestine or Iraq.

Abu al-Qaqa was frequently criticized by Syrian opposition parties, some of which suggested he was an agent of the Baathist regime. At times, there seemed to be little effort to disguise al-Qaqa’s links to Syrian intelligence. The preacher moved freely around Syria with bodyguards whom many believed were supplied by one of Syria’s four main intelligence agencies. Al-Qaqa gave regular sermons at Aleppo’s al-Tawabbin mosque, something normally done only with the permission of Syria’s Al-Awqaf Ministry (al-Watan, September 30). At one point, al-Qaqa even suggested unifying the religious and security establishments in Syria (al-Rai al-Aam, June 14, 2006). Various mujahideen internet forums warned against dealing with the preacher, accusing al-Qaqa of working for Syrian intelligence or U.S. authorities. Although these types of accusations are common in the covert world, appearance can sometimes be as good as reality. Syria is now trying to act as a sponsor to the armed Sunni opposition in Iraq (including former Baathists), but suspicions in Iraq surrounding al-Qaqa’s loyalties might have necessitated his removal to advance the new policy.

Abu al-Qaqa’s death might also be related to accusations that he supplied Syrian-trained fighters to Fatah al-Islam militants inside Lebanon’s Nahr al-Barid refugee camp. Al-Qaqa’s role in the 106-day battle that ended on September 2 is difficult to confirm but is widely believed in Lebanon, where he has been referred to as the “Godfather of Fatah al-Islam” (Naharnet-AFP, September 29). A captured Fatah al-Islam militant claims that Syrian intelligence aided the organization in infiltrating Lebanon (al-Akhbar, October 3; Daily Star, October 4). These fighters were allegedly on their way to Iraq when Syrian intelligence diverted them elsewhere after deciding to close the pipeline for foreign jihadis in Iraq

Another theory suggests al-Qaqa abandoned his allegiance to Syrian intelligence in favor of employment by the Americans, a move that appears almost suicidal in view of the close monitoring given to the preacher by Syria’s efficient security services. Abu al-Qaqa made revolutionary changes in his message and lifestyle about a year ago that created new suspicions about his activities. Up to that point, members of the preacher’s movement bore the beards and traditional clothing typical of Arab Islamists. Suddenly, al-Qaqa issued a fatwa encouraging his followers to adopt Western clothes. Having sheared most of his once enormous beard, al-Qaqa donned a suit and gold watch and began to drive expensive cars and conduct business from pricey Damascus hotels. The source of al-Qaqa’s sudden wealth remains uncertain.

It is not inconceivable that the United States could have been involved in the preacher’s death, especially if it is believed that al-Qaqa continued to be an important link in the supply of foreign fighters to the insurgency in Iraq. Extraterritorial assassination has become a weapon in the security operations of countries like Russia and Israel and its usefulness has been much discussed in U.S. security circles in recent years. There is, however, no official confirmation of the allegations that the suspect was recently in U.S. detention.  Considering al-Qaqa’s erratic behavior, inconsistent political views and his almost certain involvement in the murkier depths of covert intrigue, it is quite likely al-Qaqa’s death will become one of the many unexplained deaths associated with the war on terrorism.

This article first appeared in the October 16, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Tactical and Strategic Factors in Turkey’s Offensive against the PKK

Andrew McGregor

October 5 2007

A Turkish military offensive in the ethnic-Kurdish provinces of southeastern Turkey began in mid-September. Turkey’s autumn campaigns against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) usually do not begin until October, but the current campaign is designed to reinforce Turkey’s position in negotiations with Iraq over the elimination of PKK bases in northern Iraq. The offensive also delivers a message to Turkey’s U.S. ally, which has been reluctant to move against PKK bases in Iraq. According to Turkish Land Forces Commander General Ilker Basbug, “the U.S. should understand and see that it is not time for words, but for action” (Today’s Zaman, September 25). Turkey’s armed forces, the Turk Silahli Kuvvetleri (TSK), have until the end of October (when winter weather sets in on the mountainous border region) to destroy or capture the 1,500-1,900 PKK militants believed to be in Turkey.

Turkish GendarmerieTurkish Gendarmerie

Large-scale TSK operations are underway in Sirnak, Siirt and Hakkari provinces, where “interim security zones” were established in early June. Up to 40,000 men are deployed, mostly from the Turkish paramilitary Gendarmerie, working under Gendarmerie regional commands. Turkish troops are also conducting “search-and-destroy” operations with the support of helicopter-gunships in the southeastern provinces of Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Bingol and Tunceli. The Gendarmerie is destroying hidden supply depots that would otherwise sustain the roughly 1,000 PKK fighters that might remain in Turkey during the winter rather than take refuge in the PKK bases in northern Iraq.

Cross-border shelling into northern Iraq’s Erbil and Dahuk regions may be intended to cut off PKK escape routes. Thousands of Iraqi Kurds are reported to have been displaced by the shelling (Today’s Zaman, September 27). Iran’s Republican Guard has also been shelling Kurdish targets in Iraq’s Sulaimaniya province for several weeks now. If the PKK fighters can be eliminated or driven from Turkey’s eastern provinces before the winter starts, they may not pose much of a threat by spring if Turkey’s simultaneous diplomatic offensive is successful.

The PKK has responded to the offensive with landmines, car bombs, suicide bombings and attacks against security posts using small arms and rocket launchers. According to General Basbug, typical PKK operational units are 7-8 members in size, smaller than the groups of 20-30 militants common in the mid-1990s. Kurdish websites describe 13 straight days of fighting in Sirnak, Hakkari and Siirt provinces in September (ROJ TV, September 26). Nearly 30 PKK militants have been killed since the operation began, while the PKK claims almost the same number of TSK killed.

The Turkish Gendarmerie operates under the control of the army, while its law enforcement role is under the minister of the interior. The Gendarmerie is responsible for border patrols and internal security (especially in rural areas not served by other police forces). Special operations units of the Gendarmerie have been deployed to Diyarkabyr and other Kurdish centers, with more units in training. Together with selected TSK units and agents of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT), the Gendarmerie will try to negate the PKK’s territorial advantage by flooding the region with federal security forces, flushing PKK operatives from their hideouts to force them into open confrontation with superior Turkish forces (Today’s Zaman, June 14). Unfortunately, the Gendarmerie’s offensive coincides with the release of a new book by a retired Gendarmerie colonel who describes faking fire-fights to intimidate local Kurds, and the deployment of bearded units of fake PKK members in Hakkari province during the 1990s (Bya News Centre, September 26). The revelations would seem to confirm allegations of “false-flag” operations by Turkish security forces in the region during that period.

Turkey is phasing out the use of conscripts in counter-terrorism operations in favor of a professional force of volunteers. The move is in part a reaction to a popular perception in Turkey that TSK casualties are largely the result of insufficient training for conscripts. Under the new plan, six commando brigades will be drawn from highly trained professional soldiers to operate in southeast Turkey and along the Iraqi border. The TSK’s two existing Special Forces mountain commando brigades (Bolu and Kayseri) are an important element in most counter-terrorist operations in southeastern Turkey. Human rights organizations have accused the mountain commandos of numerous human rights abuses during the large-scale operations of the mid-1990s.

The TSK is also attempting to reform the controversial “Village Guards,” a local militia force accused of many human rights abuses, including the deployment of “death squads” to terrorize civilian Kurds in the 1990s (New Anatolian, September 22). The Village Guards and their intelligence agency, JITEM, have been called up to assist the Gendarmerie in the current campaign with their knowledge of local conditions. Often acting as guides for the TSK, they are sometimes exposed to retributive attacks as a result. Last week, 12 people, including seven Village Guards and their relatives, were killed in Sirnak province when PKK fighters ambushed their minibus (Reuters, September 29). A few days earlier, the same Village Guards had been involved in tracking down and killing Nazan Bayram (aka Nuda Karker), a female militant and senior PKK commander.

On the political front, the interior ministers of Turkey and Iraq concluded a new security arrangement in Ankara on September 28. Following up on last August’s Memorandum of Understanding between Turkey and Iraq, the security agreement is intended to deal with the problem of cross-border movement by Kurdish militants. Provisions for cross-border “hot pursuits” of PKK suspects were dropped from the final agreement after strong opposition from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) threatened to stalemate negotiations. Such provisions would have deprived the PKK of sanctuaries close to the Iraqi-Turkish border, a prerequisite for effective Turkish anti-guerrilla operations.

Before the ministerial meeting, northern Iraq’s KRG issued a statement declaring the PKK and its Iranian-Kurd offshoot Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) illegal organizations. The KRG “doesn’t consider these two organizations to be a part of political life in Kurdistan” (Peyamner News Agency, September 24). The KRG opposed the security agreement, however, forcing a change to the terms and the exclusion of the “hot pursuit” clause. Nevertheless, the agreement forms the basis for future cooperation while defining Iraq’s responsibility for suppressing terrorism. The deal also contains provisions for the arrest and extradition to Turkey of PKK members. To assist Iraqi authorities, Turkey has provided the names of 150 PKK members wanted for terrorist offenses from the 3,600-4,000 PKK militants Ankara claims are based in northern Iraq (Hurriyet, September 25).

In conclusion, Baghdad and Washington continue to urge Ankara to deal directly with the autonomous KRG, something the Turkish government refuses to do. The KRG statement declaring the PKK and PJAK illegal is clearly intended to invite bilateral discussions with Turkey on security issues. In the meantime, the ongoing offensive satisfies calls from the Turkish public and the armed forces for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to take action against terrorist threats. The arrival of winter, which usually enforces a pause in PKK operations, may give the Ankara, Baghdad and Washington governments time to arrive at a diplomatic solution to the PKK problem.

This article first appeared in the October 5, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Fueling the Dragon: China’s Uranium Industry in Niger

Andrew McGregor

October 3, 2007

A latecomer to the exploitation of foreign energy resources, China has resorted to developing economic relationships with high-risk yet energy-rich nations like Niger in order to maintain its extraordinary pace of development. According to the International Energy Agency, with China’s demand for energy resources steadily increasing, it faces the possibility of having to import 80 percent of its energy needs by 2030 [1]. Demand for oil products in China is expected to grow by at least 5.6 percent each year for the next five years (Xinhua, October 25, 2005).

Niger energy mapFor several years now, China has looked to Africa for its energy future, and the continent already supplies 25 percent of China’s oil needs. Niger, an impoverished former French colony, has been targeted by China for energy resource development due to its potential reserves of petroleum and its vast confirmed reserves of uranium. Uranium production in Niger (until recently dominated by France) represents 8-10 percent of the world’s supply (3,400 tons in 2006) and accounts for nearly 70 percent of the country’s exports. Given China’s recent emphasis on developing additional nuclear power plants, such a supply of uranium has proven to be incredibly attractive for China’s state-owned energy companies.

The Diplomatic Front

China and Niger first established diplomatic relations in 1974. After a four-year hiatus due to Niger’s short-lived diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, China resumed official relations with Niger in 1996. Since then, Nigerien and Chinese leaders have been frequent visitors to each other’s capitals. The groundwork for the resumption of relations between the two nations was laid during meetings between Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 2001. During the same visit, Tandja became the first foreign head of state to visit the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of northwest China, a largely Muslim province that has had experience in anti-desertification and irrigation techniques (People’s Daily, June 6, 2001).

China’s main exports to Niger include textiles, communications equipment and rice. Niger, like most other African countries, supplies China with raw materials but has had great difficulty in establishing a Chinese market for its own manufactured goods. China’s booming export industry tends to suppress the manufacturing sector in many African countries, hindering local development. Sino-Nigerien economic relations are governed by a bilateral trade agreement and a joint economic and trade commission. China also provides scholarships for Nigerien students to Chinese universities and medical assistance in the form of a 36-member medical team. In addition, Chinese goodwill has also been expressed through prestige development efforts like the Zinder water supply project, completed in May 2006.

A Strategic Energy Supply

Niger presents the most promising source of uranium to fuel China’s program to dramatically increase its use of nuclear power. China’s current reliance on coal-powered energy plants is quickly choking its cities in layers of toxic smog. To remedy this, China plans to build one nuclear plant a year until 2020, mostly in the rapidly expanding industrial centers along the Chinese coast. The project will increase China’s nuclear generating capacity from its current nine gigawatts (GW) to 40 GW (Reuters, September 20). China’s attempt to develop cleaner energy sources, however, could come at a cost to Niger’s environment, a cost Niger seems willing to bear given its desperate need for capital.

Chinese firms active in Niger’s energy sector include the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-Uranium), the China National Uranium Corporation (CNUC) and the Société des Mines d’Agelik, a Chinese prospecting company owned by the China Nuclear Engineering and Construction (Group) Corporation. The CNUC is developing two sites in the Agadez region of Niger, Teguidda and the smaller Madaouela. Production was scheduled to begin in 2010, though this is now threatened by rebel activity. The CNPC is currently exploring for oil in the Agadez region’s Bilma and Tenere concessions.

Domestic Instability

Rebel activity in Niger’s resource-rich north has threatened the short-term development of its resource industry and has made it much more difficult for Chinese firms to operate in the region. A Tuareg-led rebel group, Le Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (MNJ), is demanding an end to economic marginalization, environmental degradation and ethnic discrimination. Under pressure from the elusive rebels, the northern region of the country has reverted to military rule. While President Tandja has attempted to stifle all news coming out of the north, Niger’s rebel movement has been effective in capitalizing upon modern communications technology as a medium for public relations [2].

Already, the rebels have already begun harassing Chinese companies, and the July kidnapping of a Sino-Uranium executive by the MNJ was intended as a warning to foreign mineral firms that their disregard for the environment and their present arrangements with the Niger government are unacceptable (Xinhua, July 7). (The executive was later released unharmed.) Rebels also attacked an armed supply convoy heading to a CNPC exploration camp in July, killing four soldiers. Following these incidents, the Chinese pulled out of their field operations to return under military escort to Agadez.

The MNJ accuses China of supplying arms to Nigerien military operations in the north in exchange for mineral concessions. They also accuse the government of using mineral revenues to purchase military arms and equipment, including two Russian-made helicopter gunships. Niger’s government denies the charges, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry maintains that it takes a “cautious and responsible approach” to arms exports, strictly observing “domestic laws and international obligations” [3]. Yet, rumors abound in West Africa of a Chinese military presence in the region; in January, the Nigeria’s Defense Minister was forced to issue a public denial after reports of Chinese troops operating in the Niger Delta under contract from the Lagos government were published in a local newspaper (The Guardian [Nigeria], January 24).

French-Chinese Competition

Until recently, the French uranium company Areva had a virtual monopoly on uranium production since the material was first discovered in Niger in 1957. In early September, several Nigerien civil-society groups organized marches to demand Areva’s departure from Niger for allegedly supporting the northern rebels, though no concrete proof was offered to support the charges. The leader of one of the groups involved in the protest suggested that Areva was hiring mercenaries to plant landmines (VOA, September 8). Concurrently, officials of the Niger government have accused Areva of plotting to frighten off their Chinese rivals in the uranium-rich Agadez region by financing MNJ attacks. Even the French government was pulled into the dispute, eventually offering resolution services as well as a team to demine northern Niger. After both the rebels and the French uranium miners denied the accusations of collaboration, Areva increased its payments to the Niger government and committed itself to improving environmental safety measures. It should be noted that Areva has hardly been immune to MNJ activities; on April 30, rebels attacked Areva’s Imouraren exploration camp, killing one and wounding four (AFP, April 20). Areva was subsequently forced to halt operations in the area for a month.

Areva is also making efforts to enter China’s nuclear development sector, but there are reports that China has recently cancelled plans for two Areva reactors to be built in Guangdong Province in favor of using domestic technology (though there is still the possibility that the Areva reactors might be relocated) (Reuters, September 20). France relies heavily on the Areva operations in Niger for uranium to supply its own reactors and nuclear weapons program. Without alternative sources of supply, France will use all of its influence to maintain its leading position in Niger’s resource sector. Reflecting energy competition abroad, India has also suddenly emerged as a major competitor for undeveloped energy supplies in the West African region, though in Niger, China may have acted quickly to sideline India’s offers to the Niger government (Times of India, September 23).


The recent international revival of interest in nuclear power has created an opportunity for Niger to break out of the neo-colonial legacy of French rule by broadening its trade and cooperation with countries like China. As Niger’s Prime Minister Seyni Oumarou recently said of this shift in patrons, “Nothing is going to be as it was in Niger…Today the whole world is seeking to profit from the partnership with the Chinese and we should not isolate ourselves from that” (Reuters, August 1). Yet China’s sense of urgency in locking up energy supplies makes it vulnerable to major disruptions from opposition groups, such as Niger’s MNJ. Efforts to secure energy resources irrespective of market supply and demand threatens to destabilize global energy markets while perpetuating corrupt and undemocratic regimes that are able to offer protection to Chinese operations, thus leading China into a neo-colonial style relationship it has long tried to avoid in Africa.


  1. Osumi, Yo, “World Energy Outlook, and Energy Security and Cooperation in Northeast Asia,” presentation at IEA Conference, “The Korean Peninsula and Energy Security in Northeast Asia: Toward a Northeast Asian Energy Forum,” November 27-28, 2006, available online at: www.iea.org/textbase/speech/2006/yo_neasia.pdf.
  2. The MNJ posts information about itself at: m-n-j.blogspot.com.
  3. The statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry is available online at: www.china-embassy.org/eng/gyzg/t339261.htm.

This article first appeared in the October 3, 2007 issue of the China Brief