The relatively little-known Aïr Mountains of northern Niger extend around 400 kms southward from Niger’s border with Algeria to the city of Agades and cover some 84,000 kms squared. Aïr’s highest peak, Bagzane, reaches 2022 metres. Historically, they have provided the local Tuareg tribesmen with imposing and almost impregnable defences.
The majority of the approximately 500,000 people of the region live in the city of Agades and in the towns, villages and encampments of the Aïr Mountains. The well-watered Aïr mountains currently provide exports for hundreds of tonnes of vegetables to the towns of the Sahel as far south as Nigeria.
The people of Aïr, believe that Islamic State (IS) terrorists in Libya view Aïr and its lush villages as a potential haven. There is a growing fear that they — along with the rebel armed groups from Sudan and Chad who are now establishing rear bases in Libya’s ungoverned extreme south — have their eyes on Aïr as their next regional base in North Africa.
An early 2018 report by the United Nations’ Panel of Experts on Libya estimated the strength of these rebel formations to be 2,000-3,500 men. It is unclear, however, whether this number includes the Islamic State (IS) cells already in Libya, and if it does, this total number could be nearer to four or perhaps even five thousand.
Neither the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) nor Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east have much, if any, control of southern Libya’s deserts which are of increasing concern to Sudan, Chad, Niger and of course Libya itself.
The end of May signing of a security cooperation agreement — which notably allows a ‘right of pursuit’— between Sudan, Chad, Libya and Niger will legalise possible incursions by the Chadian army into Libya to hunt down anti-N’Djamena rebels. The US is also using its temporary drone base at Dirkou in eastern Niger to launch armed drone attacks on ‘terrorist’ groups in Libya.
As attacks on these terrorist and rebel forces increase, so will the likelihood that these targeted groups — and especially IS cells — will move south into the relative protection and sanctuary of the Aïr Mountains.
Local people fear, and are talking about, the Aïr Mountains becoming ‘another Afghanistan’.