In May 2013, a car bomb detonated near the Somair uranium mine in Arlit, in northern Niger, killing one person. Moments earlier, in Agadez, some 150 miles south, Al Qaeda-affiliated militants waged an assault on Nigerien army positions that killed over 20 people.
That same year, Niger’s two uranium mines produced 4,238 tons of uranium, down from 4,572 the year before – but up from 4,159 tons in 2011. The mines didn’t miss their production targets. Extraction continued as if the bombing had barely even happened.
The Somair mine is one of two uranium sites in Arlit that are largely owned and operated by Areva, a majority state-owned French nuclear-services company.
As an integral part of the nuclear-energy infrastructure of a foreign power, the mine was an irresistible target for jihadists exploiting the security vacuum in nearby Mali.
Even a failed attack in Arlit, and on a facility that does not produce or handle enriched uranium, seemed guaranteed to evoke Western fears of nuclear terrorism, vulnerable energy supply chains, and collapsing order in a country less than 1,000 miles from the Mediterranean coast.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of the attack wasn’t Al Qaeda’s success in detonating a bomb at the gates of one of the world’s largest uranium mines. Nor was it the fact that the global jihadist network had credibly threatened a facility that handles radioactive materials while its operatives killed dozens of people several hours away.
The deadliness, sophistication, and ambition of the attacks belied their inevitably negligible upshot. The uranium mines kept right on operating.
This continuity could be evidence of the overwhelming imperatives of resource extraction in an impoverished country with virtually no other industrial base. It could show the commitment of the mines’ French operators to remaining in business in the country, a French colony until 1960.
It could also reflect the economic and strategic commitment of the French government – which has 3,000 of its troops stationed across five Sahelian countries, including Niger – amid fears over jihadist advances in Algeria, Libya, and Mali.
But above all, the fact that the mines were so unaffected by the attacks shows just how separated Niger’s uranium mining industry is from its broader context.
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