THE LOOK ON Miriam’s face was abject fear. Her pink, white, and green veil had mostly slipped from her head, and her dark eyes grew wide as she stared down at her lavender smartphone. In a flash, she pulled it to her ear. “Allo!” she said, her pitch rising as her other hand nervously cradled her chin.
In the courtyard of her family’s tree-lined compound in a well-to-do neighborhood in Niger’s capital, members of Miriam’s ethnic group had been describing jihadist attacks on their historic community in a rural region to the north. Now, the six or seven men wearing tagelmusts — a combination of turban and scarf worn by Tuareg men to provide protection from sun and dust — were also glued to their phones as chimes announced incoming texts and calls. Voices on the phones sounded panicked. There were gunshots, and a familiar roar rumbled through the desert scrubland 100 miles away. At any moment, relatives warned, they expected an attack by the “motorcycle guys.”
Over the last decade, Niger and its neighbors in the West African Sahel have been plagued by terrorist groups that have taken the notion of the outlaw motorcycle gang to its most lethal apogee. Under the black banners of jihadist militancy, men on “motos” — two to a bike, their faces obscured by sunglasses and turbans, armed with Kalashnikovs — have terrorized villages across the borderlands where Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger meet. These militants, some affiliated with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State group, impose zakat, an Islamic tax; steal animals; and terrorize, assault, and kill civilians.
Jihadist motorcyclists, Miriam reminded me, had thundered into the village of Bakorat on March 21, 2021. As described afterward by one of the survivors, the motos “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.” Attacking in overwhelming numbers and with military precision, the jihadists executed men and boys while looting and burning homes. “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,’” another survivor told Human Rights Watch. “I collapsed, seeing the carnage … my father, my brothers, my cousins, my friends lying there, dead and dying.” Human Rights Watch said more than 170 people were massacred near Bakorat and Intazayene villages and nearby nomad camps that day. Miriam and her relatives put the number at 245.
As we sat in the courtyard, it all seemed to be happening again.