KJ-1. JNIM and ISGS mainly operate in the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The groups comprise the leader militant Islamist groups in the Sahel adding to the sharp increase in violence in West Africa in 2020.
KJ-2. It is almost certain that the groups continue to conduct operations to increase power over the tri-border area. Recent attacks by JNIM and ISGS indicate continued offensive capabilities despite the military pressure from foreign forces.
KJ-3. It is highly likely that the growing competition between the two groups escalates the tensions, therefore posing a major threat in the region. The latest incidents indicate breakdowns in relations of JNIM and ISGS and attempts of domination over the tri-border area, putting civilians at great risk.
KJ-4. It is highly likely that the growing competition between the two groups escalates the tensions, therefore posing a major threat in the region.
Conflicts between jihadi groups in the Sahel continue to pose a major threat to the stability in the region. Terrorist activity in West Africa was significantly increased in 2019 and 2020 as a result of the multiple terrorist incursions of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in Great Sahara (ISGS). The peaceful relationship between JNIM and ISGS during early 2020 is replaced with intense confrontations as a result of the status quo change in the region.
Size, Structure, Leadership
JNIM was created on the 2nd of March 2017. The group, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, operates in the tri-border area. JNIM has 1,000 to 2,000 fighters and, as a Sunni Islamist organization, it fights foreign and non-Muslim occupying powers to implement Islamic governance in the region, identifying France and its allies as its most major adversaries. Interestingly, JNIM is an amalgam of four Al-Qaeda-linked militant Islamist groups in the Sahel: Ansar Dine, Al Mourabitoun, Macina Liberation Front (FLM) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
JNIM conducted more than 64% of all violent episodes linked to militant Islamic groups in the Sahel since 2017, with FLM being the most active of its affiliate groups. FLM uses increasingly violent tactics to make progress at “the more densely populated areas” of central Mali and north-central Burkina Faso embracing recruitment and revenue generation.
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, some experts argue that JNIM-affiliated groups’ revenue amount to $18 – $35 Million annually, mainly earned by extortion of the groups’-controlled transit routes, artisanal mining, and kidnapping for ransom.
Although JNIM is considered to be a united group for all Salafist jihadist in the Sahel, there are four areas of operation driven by local dynamics shaping the actions of the component groups: Northern Mali, Central Mali and Northern Burkina Faso, Eastern Burkina Faso and Niger Borderlands, Southwest Burkina Faso.
JNIM’s peculiar structure makes it more complex to analyze the groups’ objectives and functions “within the larger coalition” leading to misperceptions about the groups’ strength, capacity, methods, and local support. However, the structural ambiguity weakens JNIM in terms of potential conflicts of interest and the growing competition between the groups.
ISGS emerged in May 2015 when its leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui split from Al-Mourabitoun and pledged alliance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The group is based in Mali and Niger, operating along the borders. In May 2018, the leader was designated by the US a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” In fact, the US offered a $5 million reward for any information regarding al-Sahraoui, making him West Africa’s most wanted jihadist.
Contrary to JNIM’s numerous groups, ISGS had an estimated 425 fighters as of July 2018 following the numbers of 40 and 60 fighters estimated on May 2015 and October 2017 respectively. Although ISGS has smaller cells in comparison to other ISIS affiliates in Africa, the group continues to pose a major threat to the tri-border. The group conducted some of the deadliest attacks in the region, using highly developed and state-of-the-art tactics proving its abilities and capabilities of operation despite its limited number of fighters. ISGS carried out a series of major strikes resulting in almost 300 deaths within only two months,
Recent Attacks Proving Further Capability
Following the military coup in August 2020 and the efforts to reshape Malian politics, the country hosts foreign forces and international troops to help stabilize the West African nation: UN peacekeeping missions, French counterterrorism, EU capacity building training regional security forces, G5 Sahel Force. In this context, JNIM and ISGS focus on fighting both regional and foreign forces to alienate them and gain control over the region.
JNIM conducts assassinations and complex IED attacks against French, Malian, and UN forces. On the 20th of January 2020, the group killed over 20 soldiers in an attack against a Malian military base in Bamba, Mali. On the 14th of January 2021, JNIM released a statement claiming responsibility for VBIED and rocket attacks that took place on the 8th of January 2021 against French and Malian troops at Serma as a response to French airstrikes carried out in a wedding ceremony.
Following the French government’s announcement that a senior commander of JNIM was killed during France’s Barkhane military operation in Mali against Islamic fighters, JNIM killed 2 French soldiers in Menaka in an IED attack in January 2021. Additionally, on the 21st of January 2020, JNIM attacked a UN outpost in Aguelhok, Mali killing 10 Chadian Peacekeepers while injuring 25 others.
In May 2019, 28 Nigerian soldiers were killed in the village of Tongo Tongo near the border with Mali as a result of the ISGS ambush. On the 1st of November 2020 members of the group attacked a military base at Menaka region near the border with Niger and killed at least 54 soldiers. Later that month, on the 11th of November 2020, ISGS attacked a military convoy in Tin-Akoff, Burkina Faso killing 14 soldiers. Between 2019 and 2020 there was a 60% increase in militant Islamist violence in the Sahel with an overall estimate of 4,250 fatalities – half of which linked to ISGS – making 2020 the deadliest year of Islamist violence in the region.
Jihadists versus Jihadists
While JNIM and ISGS tried to maintain a jihadi unity in the Sahel, the latest incidents indicate that there are growing competition and a breakdown in relations between the two groups. In an attempt to maintain peace with ISGS, JNIM published two treatises urging all jihadis in the Sahel to work based on common goals until the confrontation started to emerge. As ISGS increases its personnel, it approaches more of JNIM’s areas of operation leading to violent clashes and confrontation among the two camps. However, while clashes escalate and weaken both groups, they put civilians at great risk forcing them to live in a regime of extreme violence and fear.
There is an increase in attacks against schools across West Africa, which according to experts, are due to either ideological reasons against the education system as a whole or because they are attacks in the wider context of jihadi violence against civilians. Schools are part of the group’s strategy against Western civilization and at the same time can be centred on recruiting potential fighters.
On top of that, they seem to be ideal targets for the groups since they are crowded, relatively unguarded, and linked to extensive media coverage that can catch global attention in the group’s favour. On the 8th of January 2020 four students were injured due to a grenade explosion at Franco-Arab Darou Kour An Hadis School, while the next day presumed members of JNIM and/or ISGS burned offices and material and threatened teachers at the primary school of Nagare village. Moreover, on the 23rd of January 2020 two teachers were kidnapped presumedly by JNIM or ISGS in Donla village.
Image: Screen Capture of Islamics State Propaganda Video