In the heart of Sahel desert territory ravaged by jihadist attacks, Niger faces growing threats to its security four months ahead of a presidential election with high stakes.
As in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, the security forces and the government work above all to keep the large, landlocked nation afloat while the security threat takes multiple forms.
On Sunday, six French tourists and their two Nigerien guides were slaughtered in the Koure National Park, just 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the capital Niamey.
The killings were the first by jihadist gunmen in that area, a destination for weekend leisure trips by Niamey residents, including foreigners.
Niger's army is "extremely mobilised and sought after" on "three fronts of destabilisation", said Niagale Bagayoko, chair of the African Security Sector Network.
In the west, the vast and unstable Tillaberi region is part of the "three-border region", a hotspot of jihadism where the frontiers of Burkina, Niger and Mali converge.
Armed groups have made camps there for several years and regularly launch attacks on local symbols of state authority. Military bases are their prime target, but they also kidnap civil servants and carry out planned assassinations.
The main jihadist group in the region is led by Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and affiliated since 2015 to the Islamic State organisation.
Its men have carried out dozens of attacks in the three countries. In Niger, the group killed 71 soldiers at Inates at the end of 2019, then killed 89 troops at Chinegodar early this year.
Other jihadist forces in the region include the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), affiliated with Al-Qaeda. While they have occasionally joined forces to carry out specific raids, the different groups linked to the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have battled each other since early 2020, mainly in the Gourma region of Mali.
The jihadists benefit from a feeling of abandonment in the rural population and exploit pre-existing conflicts between communities.
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group think tank found that in northern Tillaberi, "as elsewhere in the Sahel, an excessive focus on counter-terrorism has however resulted in the overuse of military tools for a conflict that is fundamentally driven by inter- and intra-communal competition over rights and resources, which the Islamic State has exploited."
In the east, Niger faces a different jihadist threat around the shores of Lake Chad. The Nigerian-born extremist movement Boko Haram is active in the area, together with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which split with Boko Haram in 2016 and is linked with the Islamic State.
Attacks in this part of Niger, particularly in Diffa, the main town in southeast Niger, have been numerous in the past five years.
To the north, Niger shares a border with Libya and its turmoil. The Salvador Pass, a huge stretch of desert at the frontier with the two countries and Chad, is reputedly a haven for trafficking in weapons, drugs and migrants.
Niger has sent troops for duty in two regional forces, the G5 Sahel joint mission and the joint multinational force at Lake Chad. Niger soldiers are also part of MINUSMA, the United Nations mission in Mali.
While Niger's army is held to be "more solid" than some other armies in the region, according to Bagayoko, the soldiers remain inadequately trained and under-equipped. They have paid a heavy human cost since the start of the crisis.
— 'Problems of governance' —
This is the context in which Niamey authorities are approaching the presidential vote at the end of December.
President Mahamadou Issoufou has served two terms and will not be standing. One of the pillars of power, former interior minister Mohamed Bazoum, will be the candidate of the presidential party.
"The image of Niger as a stable hub in the region has been undermined by the many recent attacks on the army and by embezzlement scandals," said Yvan Guichaoua, a researcher at the University of Kent in England.
In spite of "the efforts made towards consolidating peace, (there are) problems of governance in the security sector," Bagayoko said.
She cited "a revealing audit of the fraudulent management of defence budgets, the passing of a disputed law on cybersecurity and the arrests of journalists and bloggers."
Moreover, the security threat has edged towards the capital. Jihadists in May 2018 attacked the most heavily guarded prison in the country, at Koutoukale, killing 28 soldiers.
In June 2019, jihadists raided a police station at the gates of the city, killing two officers.