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Gory Tales Of Women, Babies’ Trafficking By Islamic State In Greater Sahara

December 31, 2019

A brutal militant group in West Africa affiliated to the so-called Islamic State and responsible for the 2017 killing of four American soldiers in Niger is active in a commerce that exploits women and their babies


As Moussa prepared to hit the road for his Monday morning taxi business in the Nigerién capital city of Niamey, the smuggler’s phone rang. The caller was Alhassane, a Fulani herder in Tongo Tongo in South-Western Niger, who knew Moussa during the days he did smuggling jobs for militants under the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, an ISIS affiliated group operating along Niger’s South-West borders. Alhassane helps migrants—smuggled into Niger by ISGS militants—get on vehicles that will take them to Agadez in the central region of the impoverished country. He had called Moussa to find out if he was available to transport three Malian teenage girls from Tongo Tongo to the small mud-brick desert town where thousands of men, women and children from Sub-Saharan Africa seeking to reach Europe through the Mediterranean usually take off from.

I happened to contact Moussa in the same period to find out if he had any information regarding movement of migrants in and out of Niger that he could share with me. He quickly told me he was travelling the following week to Tongo Tongo to pick up migrants whom Fulani herdsmen wanted to send to Agadez. I then told him I was interested in visiting Tongo Tongo and asked if he would be willing to lead me there. The commercial driver reluctantly agreed.

Moussa’s old Toyota Carina is registered with transport and government authorities in Niger, and he belongs to the transport union in the country. So, the fact that he's a legitimate transport operator means he's unlikely to face much security checks on the highway, and it's the reason why most people in the smuggling business are comfortable working with him.

We took off very early from Niamey on a Saturday morning and arrived Tongo Tongo before noon. While Moussa drove alone in his car, I followed closely behind in the vehicle of another commercial driver I had hired for the trip.

The village has virtually no government presence and is so remote, you can’t easily find commercial transport vehicles plying the route. There are less than 200 huts and dwellings that inhabit about 2,300 people, many of whom make a living farming millet and sorghum. Among Tongo Tongo’s very small population are nomadic Fulani herdsmen and Tuareg pastoralists who feed their cattle around the village's vast expanse of hills and plateaux.

Moussa drove straight into a busy settlement inside the village where he met two men waiting in a pickup vehicle that had three young girls sitting on the bed of the car. I told the driver who transported me to park 50 metres away, in a way that I could have a good view of Moussa and the herdsmen without being suspected by anyone.

One of the men Moussa met was Alhassane, the same man he had spoken with on the phone. The other was known as Ali, a young man who had cowries wrapped around his neck and a bullet scar on his right hand. They had a brief talk in the local Zarma language. When the conversation ended, the men handed some cash to Moussa and asked the three girls to move into his vehicle before driving off.

Transporting migrants from one location to another is something Moussa is accustomed to, and it was while in the act that I got to know him.

I first met Moussa in the North-Western Nigeria city of Kano in January in 2017 when he came in an old Volkswagen Passat to the city’s main market to pick up four teenage boys who had left the northeast, where Boko Haram operates, and needed him to transport them—through smuggling routes—across the Nigerian border into Niger, from where they’ll get into pickup vans and mini-trucks headed for Libya’s coast.

Long before then, Moussa had built a rapport with militants in areas around Tongo Tongo. He had been hired by ISGS militants to drive prospective migrants from Mali into the village, from where they are transported in another vehicle to Agadez.

Most times these migrants travel with nicely wrapped parcels containing narcotics like cocaine and heroin which they deliver to militants on arrival in Tongo Tongo.

But Moussa’s relationship with the militants turned sour one afternoon after he arrived with migrants from Mail. Both the driver and his passengers were asked by the jihadists for a parcel the militants said contained cocaine but they all denied they had seen anything like that. The ISGS fighters then beat up Moussa and his passengers with horsewhips after claiming they stole and sold the substance. The driver sustained injuries all over his body, including a cut just above his left eye. He then fled to Maimoujia, a village on the border with Nigeria, and began to transport traders and migrants travelling between the two countries.

Despite losing the trust of ISGS militants, Alhassane and Ali—both of whom had come in contact with Moussa when he did jobs for ISGS militants—saw him as an honest person they could count on when it came to transporting migrants.

“In the past, I took cows they had slaughtered to Markets in Niamey and brought back the monies to them once these cows have been sold,” Moussa said. “I wasn’t surprised when they called this time and asked if I was available to transport some persons.”

Rokia, Ramata and Kandia—the three girls on the journey with Moussa to Agadez—served as maids to ISGS militants in a village called Akabar, located about 6 km inside the Malian border.

The girls used to live in the same compound just after Ansongo, a town in the Gao Region of eastern Mali. When jihadists invaded their compound, they fled the town by foot and hoped to get to Niger, but they ran into ISGS militants as they tried to cross the border.

The militants offered them a safe haven in Akabar and promised to pay them if they agreed to work for them as maids. But, in the long run, they began to witness the hostility of their hosts.

“They would shout at us and beat us with sticks if we woke up late or did something they didn’t like,” Ramata, one of the three travelling girls, told Moussa on their way to Agadez. “Some of them even forced us to have sex with them. We were like slaves in Akabar.”

Even before jihadist groups sprung up, slavery was deeply rooted in the areas where ISGS militants operate today. In South-Western Niger and in some areas along Mali’s South-Eastern border, where the Zarma people are predominantly found, slavery provided the main workforce in agriculture. At the start of the 20th century, about three-quarters of the population (PDF) in southwest Niger’s most important Department of Say were slaves. The practise of hiring slaves—especially in farms—still continues till this day, and Rokia, Ramata and Kandia are happened to be among those at the receiving end of this practice.

In Akabar, the girls lived in a large compound alongside about 10 often armed militants, who looked after cattle and did business with Songhai tribesmen from northwest Mali. There were other girls in the compound but Rokia, Ramata and Kandia—along with two others—were the ones helping to feed livestock and doing most of the cooking.

Alhassane and Ali, the two men making sure the girls are transported to Agadez, are close friends of Doundou Chefou—code-named “Naylor Road” by U.S. intelligence—an ethnic Fulani herder who led dozens of ISGS militants in an assault against U.S. and Nigerién forces that led to the death of eight soldiers, including four American Green Berets in 2017. But neither of them has seen face to face with Chefou in more than three year.

“He’s most often in Akabar,” said Moussa, who has interacted with Chefou on numerous occasions in the past. “He doesn't come to Tongo Tongo as often as he did in the past.”

Chefou is considered to be one of the leaders of ISGS. When he first acquired arms over a decade ago, his motive was to protect his cattle from thieves. Many of his tribesmen also saw the need to protect their livestock from rustlers, and they acted in the same way.

“Virtually every Fulani herdsman, including Alhassan and Ali, took up arms along with Chefou,” Moussa said. “The rate of livestock theft was so high at the time.”

But things changed in 2011 when Nigerién Tuareg tribesmen, who fought as mercenaries for Muammar Gaddafi during the Arab spring in Libya, returned to the country and began to target other ethnic groups including the Fulani.

In November 2013, a Tuareg chief was killed by a Fulani herdsman after both had engaged in a squabble. In revenge, Tuareg fighters murdered 46 Fulani herdsmen along the Mali-Niger border in what is, till date, the deadliest attack carried out by Tuaregs in the area. They then began to constantly steal camels and cows belonging to the Fulani.

“It made Chefou very angry,” Moussa said. “He decided he was going to put a stop to it.”

Chefou then began to build a force capable of fighting the Tuaregs, and many Fulanis in areas around the Mali-Niger border signed up.

In about the same period, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA)—one of several insurgent groups fighting a campaign against the Malian government for independence or greater autonomy for northern Mali—seized several towns, including Ansongo and Ménaka, close to the Nigerién border, and had begun to advance into Niger when French forces pushed them back later in 2013.

“Fulanis didn’t want to have anything to do with MOJWA because they were composed mostly of Tuareg fighters,” Moussa, who is also a Fulani, said. “We were rather prepared to fight them.”

MOJWA didn’t quite succeed in its attempt to seize towns in Niger. Instead, it started becoming fractured, and a section of the group, led by Western Sahara-born Adnan al-Sahrawi, merged with al-Mulathameen—another al-Qaeda affiliate group founded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar—to form al-Mourabitoun.

Al-Mourabitoun was composed primarily of Tuaregs and Arabs, but Sahrawi wanted an expansion of the group to accommodate other local ethnic groups, including the Fulani, especially in Mali in Niger.

“Belmokhtar didn’t want Fulanis in particular because he thought they would be hard to control,” Moussa said. “Fulanis would not even have wanted to join them because they had mostly Tuareg fighters.”

The faceoff between Sahrawi and Belmokhtar grew thereafter. In May 2015, Sahrawi declared al-Mourabitoun’s allegiance to ISIS, but Belmokhtar insisted that the group was allied to AQIM. There were reports that Belmokhtar’s followers tried to assassinate Sahwari after he pledged his loyalty to ISIS.

Sahrawi then left al-Mourabitoun to create ISGS (the Nigerien government rather refers to it as MOJWA), and began to show his affection for Fulanis. He had met a Fulani herder, popularly known as Petit Chapori, during his time at al-Mourabitoun, and became close friends with him. Chapori had also been close friends with Chefou since their youthful days—long before he met Sahwari.

“It was Chapori who introduced Chefou to Sahwari,” Moussa said. “Sahwari has treated him [Chefou] like a brother since then.”

Both Chapori and Chefou became Sahwari’s lieutenants in areas around Mali and Niger, and, in the past year, began to recruit fighters and servants for ISGS. They equally have been portraying Sahwari to other Fulanis as “a man of great character.”

“Fulanis now see him as one of them,” Moussa said of Sahwari who is originally Arab. “His bond with Fulanis became stronger when he married a Fulani woman in 2016."

With less than 100 fighters, according to Moussa, and with not much finances, it is through businesses like drug trafficking and people-smuggling that ISGS uses to fund terror. While it often takes money from prospective migrants hoping to cross into Niger, it appeared as if the jihadists, on this occasion, were spending their own cash to ensure that Rokia, Ramata and Kandia reached Agadez.

The journey to central Niger took nearly 26 hours in total to complete, and was filled with the same events common in Sub-Saharan Africa travelling routes.

On the highways, policemen got what they wanted from commercial drivers. To avoid checks, drivers could either give money or something valuable. One driver in a vehicle overloaded with goods, gave T-shirts to officers to be able to proceed. Oil in liquor bottles, reportedly stolen from Libya, is sold by the roadside in areas close to Agadez, mostly at giveaway prizes.

In Agadez, migrants—mostly from Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Malian, Senegal, and Guinea—arrive in a ghetto, a shabby cluster of buildings on the outskirts of the city known as “connection houses”, guarded by men holding daggers and swords. Sometimes, the migrants had to wait for days until it gets to their turn to cross the desert.

Centuries ago, Caravans brought salt, gold, ivory, and slaves to Agadez. But in recent years, the ancient city—whose historic buildings are constructed from red earth—has become a centre for trading drugs, arms and humans. Following the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, men from the Tuareg and Toubou tribes in Niger crossed into Libya and raided abandoned weapons depots in the south of the country and sold stolen guns to insurgent groups in the Sahel. The smuggling routes between Niger and Libya then reopened, and Agadez—with just over a hundred thousand inhabitants in the desert city—became the hub of migration trade in Africa.

In May 2015, the Nigerién government criminalized the transporting of migrants after the European Union offered financial inducements. The development led to the police confiscating scores of pickup vehicles and arresting smugglers and drivers. The city’s main source of revenue came under threat.

But the crackdown didn’t end the trade. Many agents and drivers devised new ways of beating security. Others found ways of bribing authorities to be able to remain in the business. Regardless of efforts to put a stop to the migrant smuggling trade, Agadez’s central location will always make it a transit point for foreign travellers.

Just outside the city is a connection house owned by Abu Umar, where Moussa usually drops migrants gotten from militants. Umar, a people-smuggling agent, has accommodated hundreds of migrants since he first got involved in the business in 2014 and continuing even after the government of Niger made the trade illegal a year later. It is only through his help that the three girls will reach Libya.

In the past, these migrants didn’t need to work, because their travel had been paid for by militants. They were fed with good food and well protected until it was time to travel across the Ténéré desert to Libya. But in recent years that has changed. Jihadists no longer foot the travelling bills of migrants, rather, they—as we later found out—use them as tools for child trafficking.

We arrived on a Sunday, a day before drivers visited the ghettos to collect cash from the connection men and load the travelling migrants into their pickup trucks. Every Monday, a large number of migrants, in vehicles that carry between 25 and 30 people on their beds, leave Agadez for Libya, and are escorted by a Nigerién military convoy that ensures their safety until they get to North Africa. Rokia, Ramata and Kandia will not be part of those travelling the next day because ISGS militants had not paid their connection fees. Unknown to any of us, including Moussa, the jihadists were working with Abu to use them to do business. 

Abu’s connection house—located in the outskirts of city—is occupied by young girls, most of who are in their teens. Unlike in typical Agadez connection houses, where migrants—who have paid for their journey in full—only have to wait for days or weeks before there are transported to Libya, those being catered for by Abu have to wait for at least a year before making the journey north.

“I want them to first earn some money in Agadez before travelling so that they can transport themselves to Italy,” Abu told me just in front of his own connection house, after the girls had been handed to him. “I will find them jobs here either as cleaners, hairdressers and salesgirls.”

Most female migrants who have made it to Agadez on their own have to do sex work to cater for themselves and to be able to pay for the journey to Libya. They earn about three dollars per client but have to spend much on renting rooms from local madams and connection men.

Abu said the girls in his connection house do only “decent jobs” and are never exploited. But the more he painted his business in good light, the less convinced I was, moreso because I could hear the cry of babies from the building just metres away from where we stood.

The connection man rejected my request to get inside the building, and it made me more suspicious about what goes on in there. Even Moussa who, in the past, regularly took migrants to the connection man, has never been allowed access to the building.

“There are only women staying there,” Abu emphasised. “You could get in there and meet some of them in a naked state.”

The connection man then dismissed Moussa and I, and walked into the building. But as we headed towards the vehicle, the building’s security guard walked up to us and offered to take us inside the connection house once Abu departed the building.

“He’ll leave anytime soon for a meeting,” Bello, as the security man is named, said to us. “I’ll let you in so you can talk to the ladies.”

Moussa and I waited in our respective vehicles which we had reparked about a hundred metres away from Abu’s connection house, in a way that we could get a clear view of the entrance to the house.

After about an hour, a woman walked into the building and re-emerged minutes later with Abu, who walked beside her as they reached for the vehicle that had brought her to the connection house.

Once they departed, Moussa and I walked up to Bello who took us inside the building. The hot and crowded connection house contained a number of rooms. Each room accommodated at least three girls. There were two rooms reserved for anyone who brought a male client for sex.

The client pays around two dollars to the security man at the entrance (usually it is Bello who collects the cash), and another three dollars to the girl before sex.

In the entire house, there were at least nine girls—most of them below 17—under the care of Abu and his wife, Sonia, who had travelled earlier in the day to Niamey and was expected back the following day.

Most of the girls were brought in from Mali in the same way Rokia, Ramata and Kandia arrived Agadez. Three of them were visibly pregnant, and another three had given birth the previous month to male children.

To outsiders, Abu’s connection house is a mere transit home for women hoping to reach the coast of Libya, but, in reality, he operates a baby factor where new born kids are sold mostly to parents in other urban cities.

“The amount is two million CFA francs (about $3,620) for a boy, while a girl usually goes for one million CFA francs (about $1,810).” Bello told me after I persuaded him to disclose how Abu carries out his activities. “The babies are mostly taken to cities like Niamey and Zinder.”

Days or weeks after birth, the baby leaves the connection house with someone who works as a front for the child's new parents or who is a middleman in the baby trafficking trade.

It's not clear whether babies born in Abu's connection house are also trafficked to Libya, although his security guard suggested that may be the case for a few. But it's less likely children just a few days or weeks old will survive the extremely high temperatures and harsh conditions in the Sahara desert. That doesn't mean smugglers wouldn't try.

Monica Chirac, spokesperson for International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Niger told me that she has “seen babies among the migrants rescued, but I don’t have the breakdown by age.” She also mentioned that children rescued in the desert by the organization "are usually accompanied, whether by their mother or father, uncle, etc.”

But it's in other urban cities in the West African nation that most of the children from Abu's connection house go to.

Reports of illegal adoption of children is rampant in Niger, where there is a stigma attached to childlessness. Beneficiaries of the baby trafficking trade have included persons highly influential in the country.

Two years ago, the country's opposition leader, Hama Amadou, was sentenced to jail after he and his wife were alleged to be part of a conspiracy whereby newly born babies were obtained from Nigeria and then sold to wealthy couples in Niger. Amadou, a two-time Prime Minister of Niger, was accused of falsely claiming the parenthood of around 30 children.

In Agadez, where the baby trafficking business is shrouded in secrecy, Abu encourages the girls in his connection house to talk to their clients against using condoms so as to create an opportunity to get pregnant. Most times the girls are successful in preventing the use of protection. Sometimes they are not, but that rarely happens.

“I’ve never used [a condom] before,” Fatou, one of the three mothers in Abu’s connection house, told me. “I’ve never even seen it since I got here.”

Fatou gave birth to a baby boy—delivered by Sonia—right inside Abu’s house in November. She isn’t sure of who the baby’s father is. In the month she took in, she had had unprotected sex with four different men. She hasn’t come in contact with any of them again since then.

Her baby would eventually be transported to an urban city where his future parents have booked in advance and are expecting their new child to be delivered to them soon after birth.

“He will be the fourth child to leave [the connection house] this year,” Bello told me. “Two left in February, while the last one travelled last month.”

Since Fatou arrived Agadez from Tongo Tongo a year ago, she has seen three young girls give birth to babies in Abu’s house, and their babies taken from them within a month at least. It is only after their babies have been handed to Abu and his wife that the girls can make the trip to Libya.

The ladies aren’t sure of the exact place their children are taken to, and no one is obliged to explain anything to them. When it is time for the baby to be separated from his or her mother, Sonia would inform the child's mother a day or two before. Sometimes she would walk up to the nursing mother, pick up her child and ask her to prepare for her trip to Libya which could happen within two weeks.

“If you ask her where the baby will be staying she’ll say ‘it’s not your business,’” said Fatou. “She’ll then ask, ‘Do you think you can successfully take care of a baby?’”

Just before Sonia travelled, she had informed Fatou that her baby would leave the house very early in the morning the next day. Fatou had been thinking about it since then. Not only was she worried that she may never see her son again, but was also concerned about his well-being.

“He has been taking only breast milk here,” she said. “What if he becomes sick because he doesn’t like the artificial food they are going to give to him?”

I returned with my driver very early to Abu’s compound the next morning and waited inside the vehicle—parked 50 metres away—to see how Fatou’s son would be taken out of the house. At about 7:15 a.m., a lady arrived at the compound in a Toyota Hilux pickup truck and waited in the car for the connection man to emerge.

A minute later, Abu come out of the building carrying Fatou’s child. He had a brief conversation with the lady, who was seated just behind the driver, before handing the baby to her.

Fatou stepped out of the building and watched in sorrow as the vehicle drove off. Tears rolled out of her eyes. An excited Abu turned and looked at her but offered no consolation. He simply walked into the building. As the teenager saw me walking up to her, her tears increased. She became uncontrollable as she cried.

“It feels as if my life has ended,” she said. “My baby was everything to me.”