Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) constitutes an evolving threat in the Sahel region. The inability to contain the threat posed by the group offers opportunities for operational expansion in coastal West Africa, making the group even more influential at the expense of regional stability.
1.0. Situational Report
JNIM is a merger of four salafi-jihadi groups from 2017 when AQIM’s Sahara Emirate, Ansar al Din, the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), and al Murabitoun were joining forces into a single entity operating under a common umbrella [source].
Today, JNIM is the most active and lethal actor across the Sahel [source]. Even though efficient counterterrorism efforts have inflicted harm on a tactical level, the organisation’s leadership remains strong. JNIM is primarily active in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Still, there are indications of a spillover targeting neighbouring West African coastal states, with Togo as a prime example. Moreover, clashes with rivalling groups such as the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Russian Wagner Group show no signs of limiting or containing the organisation’s operational capability.
1.1. Leadership of JNIM
International efforts targeting JNIM leadership have proven successful on a tactical level, resulting in the elimination of the higher echelons in the organisation. Among prominent actors killed in French counterterrorism operations are the founding member Hasan al-Ansari and former Al Mourabitoun leader Abu Abdul Rahman al Sanhaji (Ali Maychou) [source; source].
Contemporary leadership is currently held by Iyad Ag Ghali, founder of Ansar Dine and the emir of JNIM. Further prominent members are the former emir of AQIM in Timbuktu, Yahya Abu Hammam, and former emir of the MLF, Amadou Kouffa [source; source; source].
1.2. Ideology and Strategic Goals of JNIM
JNIM promotes a conservative interpretation of Islamic law based on an ambition to build a salafi-jihadist state. As a formal al-Qaeda affiliate in Africa, the organisation’s goal is to dismantle the regional government’s influence in favour of sharia (Islamic law) in its operational areas [source]. By weaponising and utilising local grievances, the organisation strives to appeal to local communities at the expense of trust towards government stakeholders [source], which serves its strategic goals, i.e., restoring the caliphate. An illustrating example is the massacres conducted by governmental security forces on civilians because of perceived links with jihadist actors. For example, the 2018 Ogossagou massacre in central Mali left 150 dead. Shortly afterwards, JNIM attacked a Malian military base as a claimed revenge [source; source].
1.3. Operational Area of JNIM
JNIM is primarily operational in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Since 2019, there has been increased activity, with a monthly average of 32 attacks attributed to the group. The numbers rose to 41 events in 2020 and 59 in 2021 [source]. Since the start of the French withdrawal in 2021, JNIM has conducted around 50 attacks targeting UN forces, with at least 20 killed MINUSMA peacekeepers. During the first half of 2020, over 400 attacks were launched in 10 of Burkina Faso’s 13 regions, counting for approximately 70 percent of the overall attacks [source]. In 2022, there are indications of an increasing presence in Togo, with lethal attacks mainly targeting and killing security forces [source].
1.4. Targets and Tactics of JNIM
JNIM is regularly targeting security forces and high-profile attacks on military and political targets. Moreover, the group orchestrates high-profile kidnappings of humanitarian workers, politicians, and journalists [source]. Other targets are the livelihoods of civilian populations to undermine the government’s influence and trust. An illustrating example is JNIM’s violent campaigns to obstruct the planting season in central Mali [source].
JNIM’s tactics include:
- Small arms attacks.
- Rocket and mortar attacks.
- Suicide bombings.
- Different attacks using improvised explosive devices (IED) [source].
1.5. Prominent Attacks
While not an exhaustive list, below is a timeline of some of the more prominent attacks in JNIM’s history:
2017: Just days after its founding, JNIM targeted a Boulikessi military base in Mali, killing 11 Malian soldiers [source].
2018: In March 2018, JNIM attacked the French embassy in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, killing eight and wounding 80. Later, in April, the group conducted an operation targeting the Timbuktu airport. However, the operation was largely unsuccessful, resulting in the death of 15 insurgents and one UN peacekeeper. Then, in June, a suicide bombing of the Malian headquarters of the G5 Sahel Joint Force killed six people [source].
2019: In September, JNIM conducted two coordinated attacks in Nassoumbou and Baraboulé in Burkina Faso, targeting military positions. A signal to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stakeholders is reportedly the intention behind the attack [source].
2022: In May, JNIM fighters killed at least 17 soldiers in north Togo. A month later, a large-scale operation took place, killing 130 civilians in attacks targeting villages in central Mali. Later in September, an attack in Gaskinde, Burkina Faso went on killing 11 soldiers, and 50 soldiers are missing. Finally, in November, at least 17 soldiers were killed in Kpendjal, Togo [source].
1.6. Funding of JNIM
JNIM’s primary financial source comes from kidnappings [source]. Moreover, the group conducts narcotics, weapons, and human trafficking operations. Further funding comes from criminal activities such as robberies [source; source].
1.7. Rival Groups
1.7.1. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara
Starting as a splinter group from Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Mourabitoun in 2015, The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) initially aligned under the JNIM umbrella. When the relation towards JNIM leadership deteriorated in 2017, the group emancipated itself, leading to clashes from 2019 to present. A significant power struggle took place in 2020, with JNIM emerging victorious, making it the primary armed group in the region [source]. However, like JNIM, ISGS utilise local grievances among populations targeted by Malinese forces with support from the Wagner Group [source].
The ISGS is drawing a considerable number of fighters from the Fulani and Dawsahak populations [source]. This shows a causal relationship between atrocities committed by governmental forces and ISGS efforts to win the hearts and minds of populations. Moreover, the increasing support from targeted civilians shows a power measurement beyond that of territorial control, i.e., consent from local populations. Hence, ISGS makes up a prime rival to the JNIM beyond explicitly territorial terms.
1.7.2. The Wagner Group
After the 2021 Malian coup d’état and the withdrawal of international peacekeeping forces, the Malinese government turned to the Wagner Group for security. In October 2022, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland stated that there had been a 30 precent increase in terrorist acts since the Russian PMC arrived in Mali [source].
The company is mainly operating in Central Mali, targeting the Fulani community. Since JNIM presents itself as a security provider to the Fulani population, the Wagner Group constitutes a prime enemy. On the other hand, the hostile operations targeting civilians increase the influence and legitimacy of JNIM’s presence among local communities. The Wagner Group is operating along governmental forces across the Sahel, with many atrocities reported since its arrival. Among them is the Moura massacre in 2022, resulting in the execution of 300 civilians in a proclaimed counterterrorism operation [source].
1.7.3. Dan Na Ambassagou
Dan Na Ambassagou, or the Dogon militia, emerged as a band of hunters in late 2016. The group is a loose coalition of primarily Dogon self-defence militias operating under the authority of Youssouf Toloba. The group’s operational area is the central and eastern part of the Mopti region in Mali. It is targeting Fulani populations due to believed jihadist ties [source]. Like the Wagner Group, the Dogon militia’s operational focus makes them a prime opponent of the JNIM. Still, atrocities targeting local populations play JNIM and other jihadist actors well and continue to serve as an opportunity for increased influence.
2.0. Assessment of Future Development
JNIM will likely continue increasing its operations in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Moreover, the organisation will most likely continue its expansion into neighbouring countries such as Togo and further into countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Benin. The international coalition’s withdrawal from Mali starting in 2021 indicates an inability to translate tactical victories into strategic objectives of peace and increased security. The following power shift offers opportunities for external actors, with the Wagner group as a prime example. Continuing atrocities committed by governmental forces with the support of the Russian private military contractors (PMC) will likely increase JNIM’s influence in its operational area and possibly beyond. The displacement of civilians following misdirected governmental operations creates an opportunity for increased influence on a cross national level.
Moreover, the coup struck the Sahel region, especially in countries within JNIM’s operational area, constitutes a further challenge for regional stability. As there are minor results in containing the organisation’s expansion, there are prospects for future disturbances, potentially undermining the efforts to counter not only JNIM operations, but jihadist activities in West Africa as a whole.
However, even though promoting the establishment of a caliphate, the organisation’s main objective is not likely to overthrow West African governments. Because of the external influence and increasing international interest in the region, it is doubtful if JNIM is able to benefit from the power vacuum of such a quest. The value in such a development is further complicated by the regional influence of IS affiliated groups. Still, the organisation constitutes the deadliest actor in the region. It will most likely continue to do so if joint efforts targeting JNIM and other cross-bordering actors are founded on indiscriminate tactics targeting civilian populations.