Yet on October the 4th, he led dozens of militants allied to Islamic State in a deadly assault against allied U.S.-Niger forces, killing four soldiers from each nation. Nigerien Defence Minister Kalla Mountari describe him as "a terrorist, a bandit, someone who intends to harm to Niger.”
Chefou used to be an ordinary Fulani pastoralist with little interest in jihad, several government sources with knowledge of the matter said. The transition of Chefou and men like him from vigilantes protecting their cows to jihadists is a story Western powers would do well to heed.
For centuries the Tuareg and Fulani have lived as nomads herding animals and trading - Tuareg mostly across the dunes and oases of the Sahara and the Fulani mostly in the Sahel, a vast band of semi-arid scrubland that stretches from Senegal to Sudan beneath it. Some have managed to become relatively wealthy, accumulating vast herds. But they have always stayed separate from the modern nation-states that have formed around them. Though they largely lived peacefully side-by-side, arguments occasionally flared, usually over scarce watering points. A steady increase in the availability of automatic weapons over the years has made the rivalry ever more deadly.
A turning point was the Western-backed ouster of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. With his demise, many Tuareg from the region who had fought as mercenaries for Gaddafi returned home, bringing with them the contents of Libya’s looted armories. Some of the returnees launched a rebellion in Mali to try to create a breakaway Tuareg state in the desert north, a movement that was soon hijacked by al Qaeda-linked jihadists who had been operating in Mali for years. Amid the violence and chaos, some of the Tuareg turned their guns on their rivals from other ethnic groups like the Fulani, who then went to the Islamists for arms and training.
In November 2013, a young Nigerien Fulani had a row with a Tuareg chief over money. The old man thrashed him and chased him away. The youth came back armed with an AK-47, killed the chief and wounded his wife, then fled. The victim happened to be the uncle of a powerful Malian warlord. Over the next week, heavily-armed Tuareg slaughtered 46 Fulani in revenge attacks along the Mali-Niger border. The incident was bloodiest attack on record in the area.
“That was a point when the Fulani in that area realized they needed more weapons to defend themselves,” said Boubacar Diallo, head of an association for Fulani livestock breeders. He has documented dozens of attacks by Tuareg raiders that have killed hundreds of people and led to thousands of cows and hundreds of camels being stolen.
“The Tuareg were armed and were pillaging the Fulani’s cattle,” Niger Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Reuters. “The Fulani felt obliged to arm themselves.”
Gandou Zakaria, a researcher of mixed Tuareg-Fulani heritage in the faculty of law at Niamey University, has spent years studying why youths turned to jihad.
“Religious belief was at the bottom of their list of concerns,” he told Reuters. Instead, local grievances were the main driving force. Whereas Tuareg in Mali and Niger have dreamed of and sometimes fought for an independent state, Fulani have generally been more pre-occupied by concerns over the security of their community and the herds they depend on.b“For the Fulani, it was a sense of injustice, of exclusion, of discrimination, and a need for self-defense,” Zakaria said.
Al-Sahrawi recruited dozens of Fulani into the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), which was loosely allied to al Qaeda in the region and controlled Gao and the area to the Niger border in 2012. After French forces in 2013 scattered Islamists from the Malian towns they controlled, al-Sahrawi was briefly allied with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an al Qaeda veteran. Today, al-Sahrawi is the face of Islamic State in the region. Two diplomatic sources said there are signs al-Sahrawi has received financial backing from IS central in Iraq and Syria.
“There was something in his discourse that spoke to the youth, that appealed to their sense of injustice,” a Niger government official said of al-Sahrawi.
How Chefou ended up being one of a handful of al-Sahrawi’s lieutenants is unclear. The government source said he was brought to him by a senior officer, also Fulani, known as Petit Chapori. Like many Fulani youth toughened by life on the Sahel, Chefou was often in and out of jail for possession of weapons or involvement in localized violence that ended in deals struck between communities, the government official said.
Diall has met Chefou several times, said he was “very calm, very gentle. I was surprised when he became a militia leader”.