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French president Emmanuel Macron and Chadian president Idriss Déby. (Francois Mori/AFP).
French president Emmanuel Macron and Chadian president Idriss Déby. (Francois Mori/AFP)

A transport vehicle carrying French troops came under fire from Chadian security forces outside the private residence of President Idriss Déby on Monday night. Luckily, no injuries were sustained and the vehicle continued on toward a French base, returning from a sortie carried out earlier in the day.

An investigation has been launched into the events leading up to the incident, but observers have expressed concern that this was the second time that Chadian troops have engaged in accidental friendly fire against French forces, the first occurring on June 9, again outside the presidential residence.

 

The US expressed deep concern over allegations of human rights abuses

 

The June 9 incident happened three weeks after a meeting between the heads of state of the G5 Sahel military alliance and French president Emmanuel Macron, where all parties agreed to stay the course while noting the deteriorating humanitarian situation.

Last Thursday, the United States Department of State released a statement expressing deep concern over allegations of human rights abuses committed by Sahelian security forces, and threatened to cut support for the offensive should they persist. This is an outcome the G5 Sahel cannot afford, nor can France, which has asked its European partners to send more soldiers and equipment to the Sahel.

 

In the Badalabougou neighborhood of Bamako, people gather on July 12 at the mosque where Imam Mahmoud Dicko led prayers for the victims who died in clashes between protestors and government forces the previous two days. (Michele Cattani/AFP)
People gather in the Badalabougou neighborhood of Bamako on July 12 at the mosque where Imam Mahmoud Dicko led prayers for four victims of clashes between protestors and government forces. (Michele Cattani/AFP)

Mass demonstrations have persisted in Mali despite the threat of COVID-19. Many thousands of Malians have taken to the streets since June to protest against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s handling of the jihadist insurgency, a declining economy, and government corruption. On July 10 and 11, these actions culminated in the death of up to eleven people as protesters blockaded roads, stormed the national assembly, and occupied the offices of the state broadcaster in Bamako, forcing it off the air.

 

President Keïta announced the dissolution of the constitutional court

 

In response to this latest escalation, President Keïta announced the dissolution of the country’s constitutional court, which had been the focus of public frustration after overturning several provisional results for parliamentary seats of the hotly contested elections held in April. In a televised address on Saturday, Keïta insisted on working with the political opposition to create a new constitutional court and implement some of the demands issued by the Mouvement du 5 Juin–Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques, a coalition of opposition political parties and civil society organizations headed by Imam Mahmoud Dicko.

Opposition leaders have reacted with suspicion at Keïta’s plea for collaboration, pointing to the arrest of several protest leaders by security forces on the same say. Even the Convergence pour le Développement du Mali (CODEM), a party that is ostensibly aligned with Keïta, issued a strongly worded condemnation of the disproportionate use of force against demonstrators and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Boubou Cissé.

 

Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore poses for a group picture during the G5 Sahel summit on June 30, 2020, in Nouakchott. The leaders of the G5 Sahel West African countries and their ally France are meeting to confer over their troubled efforts to stem a jihadist offensive unfolding in the region, six months after rebooting their campaign in Pau, southwestern France. Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP
Burkinabe president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, photographed during the G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott, Mauritiania, on June 30, 2020. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP)

A coalition of trade unions gathered in the Burkinabe capital, Ouagadougou, on July 4 to restate demands to the government and motivate its members to take part in a mass general strike on July 8 and 9. The coalition’s demands have largely been focused on charges of corruption and poor economic management on the part of the ruling MPP party and President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré.

The fact that the coalition successfully convened the general meeting is a strong sign that it will deliver on the threat of a strike, given that its spokesperson, Bassolma Bazié, had announced the group’s intention to hold such a meeting and a general strike on these dates about two weeks earlier.

 

Compounding a Crisis

The threat of a mass strike places further pressure on the Kaboré administration, which has been trying to get a handle on the spread of COVID-19 in the country while contending with a dire humanitarian crisis. More than 800,000 people have been internally displaced due to an escalating jihadist insurgency and food insecurity.

The pandemic has further put a grinding halt to most mining exploration in the country, which forms the backbone of the country’s exports, 75 percent of which is gold.

 

Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the most influential personalities in Malian political landscape, addresses the crowd the Independence square in Bamako on June 5, 2020 after he've called for a political march to be held after the Friday prayer, against Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and his politics. Tens of thousands of people rallied in Mali's capital Bamako on Friday demanding the departure of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, in a show of force from his recently energised opponents.  MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Imam Mahmoud Dicko addresses protesters at Independence Square in Bamako on June 5, 2020. (Michele Cattani/AFP)

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali met with Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the main leaders of the mass protest movement against his administration, on Saturday, July 4. The meeting comes after weeks of demonstrations involving tens of thousands of Malians in the capital Bamako and other large cities such as Sikasso and Mopti.

These demonstrations quickly crystalized into the Mouvement du 5 Juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5–RFP). Named after the date of the first protest action, it has come to include virtually all of Mali’s political opposition.

The meeting with Imam Dicko comes shortly after M5–RFP said it would no longer insist on Keïta’s resignation on condition he acceded to a set of new demands, including the dissolution of parliament, the formation of a transitional government, and the appointment of a new prime minister.

After the meeting between Keïta and Dicko on Saturday, M5–RFP published a statement saying Keïta had refused to accede to the latest demands, so it was reaffirming its intention to get him to resign.

 

Who Is Imam Dicko?

Mahmoud Dicko, who is the head of High Islamic Council in Mali, has been a prominent force in Malian politics since democratization began in 1991. He has conservative views, but is opposed to violent jihad.  

He is said to have played a key role in President Keïta’s decision to engage in dialogue with jihadists active in the country’s north, whose attacks have been responsible for killing hundreds of Malian soldiers and civilians despite the presence of French troops under Operation Barkhane and a UN peacekeeping force under MINUSMA.

 

Boubacar Keita
Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, photographed wearing a mask during the G5 Sahel summit on June 30, 2020, in Nouakchott, Mauritania. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP)

The Malian protest movement against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has said it would no longer insist on his resignation. To explain this new position, the Mouvement du 5 Juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5–RFP), the protest movement headed by Mali’s chief opposition leaders and tens of thousands of Malians displeased with Keïta’s presidency, said it wanted to show it was open to dialogue. As recently as last week, the movement had seemed adamant about Keita vacating the office due to the country’s deteriorating security situation, the COVID-19 pandemic, a slumping economy, and a mass teacher strike earlier in the year.

 

The M5–RFP has drawn up a draft proposal for a way out of the crisis

 

This latest development in Mali’s political crisis comes after numerous meetings between ruling party members and the M5–RFP, alongside mediation efforts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations, the African Union, and the heads of state of neighboring countries.

The M5–RFP has drawn up a draft proposal for a way out of the crisis with eleven demands. If President Keïta accepted this proposal, he would keep his seat but his powers would be reduced. The demands include the dissolution of the national assembly and the establishment of a transitional legislative body, with a prime minister appointed by the M5–RFP.

 

A man painted in the colours of Malian flag gestures at Independance square as protesters gather to demand that Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta leaves office in Bamako on June 19, 2020. Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the most influential personalities in Malian political landscape, called for a political march to be held after the Friday prayer, against Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and his government. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
A man painted in the colours of the Malian flag gestures at Independence Square in Bamako as protesters gather on June 19, 2020, to demand that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta leave office. Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the most influential personalities in the Malian political landscape, called for a political march to be held after the Friday prayer against President Keïta and his government. (Michele Cattani/AFP)

ECOWAS, the West African regional bloc, has urged Mali to organize new local elections in districts where recent election results have been subject to review, and to convene a government of national unity. This comes as tens of thousands of Malians rallied in the streets of the capital Bamako and elsewhere for the second time this month, demanding the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

 

The voter turnout was low due to threats of jihadist violence and fears over the pandemic

 

Since winning a second five-year term in 2018, Keïta has faced several crises severely undermining the stability of Mali, including ongoing jihadist attacks, a teacher’s strike, an ailing economy, and COVID-19. The legitimacy of legislative elections held in early March has been contested because of low voter turnout due to threats of jihadist violence and fears over the pandemic. These fears were exacerbated by the abduction of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé just a few days before the election. His whereabouts are still unknown.

Members of the National Assembly are torn between going ahead with ECOWAS’s recommendation to hold partial elections, or to simply dissolve parliament and start all over.

A meeting was recently held between representatives of the ruling majority coalition and of the Mouvement du 5 Juin (M5), a coalition of the main opposition parties that helped organize the protests (first held on June 5, hence the name). At the meeting, the presidential camp recognized the grievances of M5, but insisted on the need for a joint framework to move past this political crisis, and asked that M5 drop the demand for President Keïta to resign. M5 is, however, not likely to budge on the issue of his resignation.

 

Soumaila Cisse
Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé has been missing since March 26, 2020, when he was abducted while campaigning in the Timbuktu region. (AFP)

It has been more than two-and-a-half months since Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, head of the Union for the Republic and Democracy party, was kidnapped while campaigning in his home district only a few days before parliamentary elections. No group officially took credit for the abduction, but given years of conflict between state security forces and jihadist groups in the region it is suspected that one of the terrorist organizations was behind it.

On Tuesday, June 16, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta gave a public address insisting that his administration had concrete proof that Cissé was still alive and knew the identity of his captors, but did not disclose this information and urged patience. Some outlets claim Cissé is being held by Katiba Macina, a jihadist group predominantly made up of Fulani herdsmen and aligned with the al-Qaida-affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims (known by it transliterated Arabic acronym JNIM). If this were true, it raises significant concerns over the handling of Cissé’s kidnapping, as JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Tuareg militant who helped instigate the 2012 rebellion that kicked the Malian military out of the northern territory of Azawad.

 

It would do even further damage to his credibility

 

President Keïta confirmed in February that his government was reaching out to Ag Ghaly and other jihadist leaders to conduct formal negotiations and help bring an end to the perennial conflict. Should Cissé’s release become integrally woven into conflict negotiations, it would do even further damage to his credibility, which has already been rocked by thousands-strong demonstrations that began on June 5. All of the opposition parties are represented among the protesters, who have been calling for Keïta’s resignation for failing to effectively manage the worsening security situation, the economic contraction, and the crisis of political legitimacy.

 

Niger Niamey Billboard G5
A billboard in Niamey, Niger, announcing a summit of heads of state of the G5 Sahel regional security forum. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 

In the intensely hot, semiarid Sahel zone that bridges the climatic transition from lush West Africa bordering on the Atlantic Ocean to the rocky deserts of North Africa, a deep ideological schism has emerged between competing Salafi-jihadi fighting groups. This rancorous divide, once a topic of speculation, has been manifested in declared pitched battles. The local militants who have sworn an oath to either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) in the Sahel are openly competing for influence within the Salafi-jihadi thought spectrum, geopolitical and matériel resources, and additional followers to replenish their ranks.

Kalashnikov-tipped sparring between the two absolutist movements has already been reported from Syria to Yemen, and it should not come as a surprise that such clashes are taking place in the impoverished Sahel. It has been speculated that there was some level of cooperation between al-Qaeda and IS factions in West Africa, but the relationship between the otherwise peer competitors has been far from clear.

 

The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations

 

On May 7, 2020, the IS weekly publication al-Naba described clashes with al-Qaeda’s current incarnation in the Sahel, an umbrella organization known as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimeen (Group to Support Islam and Muslims, commonly reported by its transliterated Arabic acronym JNIM). IS characterized its antipathy toward JNIM as a betrayal, which may indicate that some form of modus vivendi existed between the two groups, as has been speculated by Sahel security analysts for some time. If this were in fact the case, it certainly is no more by IS’s own description. This allegation of betrayal does not, however, indicate that the two groups in fact ever collaborated on the battlefield. It more likely means they coexisted without clashing. IS makes an implicit accusation that JNIM may in fact be collaborating with counter-terror elements in an effort to diminish IS, a grievous slander in jihadi circles. The Salafi-jihadi competitors are trading barbs usually reserved for secular Muslims involved in state bureaucracies or non-Muslim populations. Terms such as “apostates,” “hypocrites,” and “dogs,” have been hurled across social media platforms in recent months by these two now bitter opponents.

 

Ideology, Ungoverned Spaces, and French Intervention

The instability in the Sahel today is rooted in a convergence of three key events occurring in the past three decades: the Algerian Civil War turned insurgency, which was triggered in late 1991 following an Islamist electoral victory annulled by the military; the Libyan revolution turned civil war, which began in February 2011; and a hybrid Salafi and ethno-nationalist Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali that sparked a coup d’état in the capital Bamako in April 2012.

The events in Mali in 2012 whereby the country’s already lightly governed north was lost to the aforementioned rebellion led to large-scale foreign military intervention led by France in 2013, soon joined by other extra-regional state military actors. In the post-colonial context, French forces have been continuously present in the wider region since at least 1986, when Operation Épervier was launched in Chad to halt the creeping expansion of Libyan forces below the 16th parallel in that country. French troops remained in Chad for decades, long after the conflict with Libya concluded. Such policies of heavy economic and political engagement in Francophone Africa are known derisively by the controversial portmanteau “Françafrique.” Deep-seated resentment toward Françafrique across the Francophone Sahel has been seized upon by Salafi-jihadi leaders since French boots-on-the-ground overtly returned to Mali and across the Sahel region in the name of aggressive counter-terror operations.

 

Macron Flight to Mali
French president Emmanuel Macron, pictured arriving at Modibo Keita International Airport in Bamako, Mali, on July 2, 2017. Macron traveled to Mali to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force as France beefed up its counter-terror operations in the area. (Luc Gnago/Pool/AFP)

 

When Paris made the move for a hard power intervention in central and northern Mali, it easily siphoned off men and resources from its existing Operation Épervier to begin Operation Serval in January 2013. This mission was a casus belli for the then triumvirate of Salafi-jihadi groups al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Ansar Eddine; and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, commonly known by its French acronym MUJAO, which ruled for the better part of a year roaming freely in Mali’s Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao regions as well as parts of the Mopti region, implementing their interpretation of Sharia. The scope of the French mission in Mali quickly escalated and morphed into a vast international project bringing in multiple supranational bodies—including the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union, and the African Union—in addition to American military partners who have maintained a presence in the region since the launch of the Pan-Sahel Initiative in 2002 and currently maintain two known drone bases in Niger.

 

The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013

 

Though Operation Serval was initially quite effective in dislodging Salafi-jihadi fighting groups from the capitals of Mali’s restive regions, the intervention ultimately had the effect of dispersing the then ensconced militants, making them more fluid across regional nation-state borders, even while they are not yet considered a threat to the global order like their equivalents in Yemen. Militant violence quickly seeped into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, which, like Mali in 2012, have sparsely populated, under-governed spaces that had been neglected for decades by their respective central governments. The militant movements are now more difficult to pursue, as their action space has greatly metastasized since 2013. Though the French-led intervention restored the territorial integrity of Mali, it can be argued that the wider Sahel has become less stable in the ensuing years.

 

Operation Barkhane
A soldier bearing the insignia of Operation Barkhane on patrol in Mali on November 1, 2017. (Daphné Benoit/AFP)

 

The French troop presence in the Sahel fluctuates between 4,500 and 5,000, under the rubric of Operation Barkhane, established in August 2014. Barkhane is the current counter-terror initiative that succeeded Operation Serval and inherited the infrastructure of Operation Épervier, and is chiefly staged out of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital.

Concomitantly, in 2014, the G5 Sahel was formed in the Mauritanian capital during a summit of five Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The goal was to enhance cross-border security cooperation among these countries, all grappling with the threat posed by transnational terrorism as well as deeply entrenched criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking. The G5 Sahel Joint Force, launched in 2017, is meant to include about 5,000 soldiers, cooperating with both Operation Barkhane and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali—known in security parlance by its French acronym MINUSMA—to secure the Sahel.

 

Salafi Schisms

The contested realm of jihad in North and West Africa is a densely convoluted one. Fighters defect from one outfit to another, leaders shame each other for being too extreme or insufficiently hardline in the face of the enemy, and oaths are pledged to faraway central leaderships in the Levant or South Asia. JNIM, the al-Qaeda wing of the region’s Salafi-jihadi fighters, has effectively capitalized on historical discontent dating to well before independence, as it has made dislodging the “crusader” French presence its most vociferous goal. While a French departure on JNIM’s terms may seem preposterous, it demonstrates that the al-Qaeda-aligned fighters are being pragmatic in their approach, at least in terms of their statements, though its attacks have not abated. The fact that JNIM is demanding the French leave Mali specifically seems to indicate that its leadership recognizes the undeniable reality of modern Mali as a nation-state. In stark contrast, IS holds the worldview that erasing borders drawn in the colonial era is one of its core tenets in order to “remain and expand.” Therefore, it views JNIM’s position as an unacceptable capitulation that deviates from Salafi ideology to the detriment of the ummah, the global Muslim community it claims to represent, while seeking to purify the faith by violent means.

The presence of foreign armies, including the regional contingents of the G5 militaries that operate in tandem with the French and MINUSMA, acts as a magnet for militant attacks. These vulnerable bases populate a more target-rich environment for marauding groups. Despite backing by Paris, its partners in Berlin, and the EU more broadly, the G5 is woefully underfunded to combat the numerous militant groups in theater. State fragility is on the rise in many rural regions where JNIM and IS currently compete.

 

That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become

 

The recent clashes between JNIM and IS groups there emphasize this point. The internecine violence between competing Salafi-jihadis is a symptom of this increased destabilization. That they can attack local and foreign militaries while mustering the manpower to simultaneously fight one another shows how permissive the war fighting environment has become. The core focus of France, its G5 partners, and the United States in the jihadi cauldron the Sahel has become has been primarily manifested through a hard security paradigm. What this counter-terror model lacks is an equally robust component for bolstering local governance and addressing serious humanitarian concerns like food security for populations affected by the spread of violence, not to mention the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While not often making front-page headlines in the Western Anglophone press, Mali is now home to the fifth-deadliest military intervention in the history of UN peacekeeping efforts since the first mission in 1948. MINUSMA has lost some 209 Blue Helmets to insurgent violence out of a force ranging between 11,000 and 12,000 members. The regional militaries comprising the G5 coalition have also sustained heavy losses from both local al-Qaeda and IS groups successfully staging mass casualty attacks on their bases and remote outposts.

 

Al-Qaeda-aligned and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits 

 

While these intensely violent hardline groups were ostensibly established to dismantle the secular post-colonial order that exists between the Sahara and Equatorial Africa, it has become evident that they have turned their Soviet-engineered weaponry on one another in a clash over legitimacy as viewed through the Salafi prism. Both groups see this kind of legitimacy as crucial to achieving primacy on the ideological battlefield. Al-Qaeda-aligned militants and IS fighters are competing over interpretations of radical Sunni jurisprudence and territory as well as recruits. Salafism at the point of a gun has made deep inroads in Mali and its neighbors by exploiting local grievances regarding the endemic corruption of the post-colonial state’s power structure and its ties to Françafrique legacy policies.

 

Ag Ghaly
A still image made on June 25, 2016, from a video released by Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Islamist group Ansar Eddine, showing him making threats against France and the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Mali. (AFP)

 

JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former ethnic-Tuareg secessionist leader and one-time Malian diplomat in Riyadh turned violent Islamist. The formation of JNIM was declared in March 2017 by four al-Qaeda-aligned constituent groups: the Saharan branch of AQIM; Ansar Eddine, of which Ag Ghaly is the chief; al-Mourabitoun; and the lesser-known Katibat Macina, led by Amadou Kouffa, a staunch ally of Ag Ghaly.

JNIM portrays itself as a primarily indigenous movement with more localized aims, such as evicting French troops from Mali and the wider region, while it is theoretically willing to negotiate with the secular government in Bamako. The regional IS affiliate abhors this stance as betraying more globalized Salafi-jihadi principles, and would rather destroy state institutions than cooperate with them under any circumstances. JNIM draws ideologically from a more timeworn jihadi narrative of ending military occupation by non-Muslim military forces or secular state militaries such as those taking part in Operation Barkhane and the G5 Joint Force. JNIM is Salafi-jihadi with very a localized agenda and characteristics. 

 

Jihadi Geography

In the wider Sahel, IS has two groups operating, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). It remains not entirely clear whether ISWAP and ISGS are operationally distinct outfits, have an occasional degree of overlap, or are in fact one and the same by mid-2020. ISGS stems from Saharan radical roots more broadly and Algerian militancy more specifically, whereas ISWAP has Nigerian origins with a Sahelian focus in terms of its area of operations. ISGS’s primary focus has been the tri-border area where Niger’s Tillaberi region, Mali’s Menaka region (formerly part of Gao region), and Burkina Faso’s Sahel region roughly intersect.

ISWAP is an outgrowth of the fissured Nigerian movement Jamaat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Dawah wa’l Jihad, almost always referred to by the informal name Boko Haram, a Hausa and Arabic term meaning “Western education is impermissible.” ISWAP, the IS-ordained faction of Boko Haram reportedly led by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi, is most active in the greater Lake Chad Basin area. This is where Nigeria’s Borno state, Cameroon’s Extreme North region, Niger’s Diffa region, and Chad’s Lac and Hadjer-Lamis regions intersect to form a zone of deadly militancy irrespective of nation-state boundaries. It may be that ISWAP, as a dedicated wilaya (province) ordained by IS’s central command in the Levant, has absorbed ISGS at least in terms of branding, which, while being an affiliated group, is or was not a designated wilaya likely owing to its past lesser importance in the global IS hierarchy. 

 

Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm

 

The opaque relationship between ISWAP and ISGS remains open to analytic interpretation for the time being. ISGS is led by Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui. Sahraoui’s militant origins, like his Tuareg rival Ag Ghaly’s, lay not in a doctrinal Salafi movement but in a secular ethno-nationalist one. Though he began with the POLISARIO Front, an avowedly secular Algerian-supported national liberation movement in Western Sahara, Sahraoui fell into Islamism and quickly rose up through various al-Qaeda-aligned groups in Mali before defecting and swearing allegiance to IS in 2015. With the infighting among Salafi-jihadis in the Sahel, it must be remembered that among the leadership, these men were each other’s confidants not long ago. Though the schism between al-Qaeda and IS fighters is rooted in ideology informed by their own official narratives, clashes among egos carved out this violent chasm.

Since the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria’s Idlib governorate in October 2019, IS’s central command seems to be in a succession crisis, at least in terms of its public face as to who the purported caliph is or shall be. This may indicate that the geographically non-contiguous wilayas are more independent without a unifying figure like al-Baghdadi—whom ISGS’s Sahraoui pledged an oath to—to act as a centripetal force among adherents. Therefore, while ISWAP will still appear properly branded via IS’s highly centralized al-Naba publication and Aimaq News Agency, its local attack tempo and current feud with JNIM seem to be occupying its energy. By contrast, JNIM has its own regional media outlet, al-Zallaqa, which details its local agenda as tending to be far more decentralized in nature, with its far-flung regional groups operating with a much higher degree of autonomy than its IS competitors.

 

Droukdel
An undated photo of Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed on June 3, 2020, in Mali. (Al-Andalus/AFP)

 

Meanwhile, on June 5, 2020, the French Minister of Defense Florence Parly announced that French special forces assassinated Abdelmalek Droukdel, the elusive Algerian-born leader of AQIM, in the hamlet of Talhandak in northern Mali’s Kidal region on June 3. At the time of this writing, JNIM’s al-Zallaqa has yet to confirm or deny Droukdel’s death.

A veteran of the Algerian Civil War, the AQIM commander was considered to be an al-Qaeda purist in ideological terms while also playing a key role in the southerly expansion of Salafi-jihad from Algeria into Mali and other parts of the Sahel. His death, if indeed a reality, may call into question JNIM’s current feud with ISGS and its position on negotiating with the Malian government. The reported killing of Droukdel may send shockwaves through the landscape of jihad from North to West Africa. Although Iyad Ag Ghaly is the public face of JNIM’s leadership, Droukdel was still considered a crucial link to al-Qaeda’s inner circle despite maintaining a more behind-the-scenes role after the declaration of JNIM. Now it would appear that Ag Ghaly, notably a non-Arab, is al-Qaeda’s premier representative in the region. The sudden elimination of Droukdel further emphasizes France’s prioritization of hard security measures in the Sahel rather than a sustainable hearts-and-minds strategy. Droukdel’s demise after decades of jihad may also signify that militancy in West Africa may be coming more indigenous in nature rather than an import from northern Algeria. 

 

Conclusion

In this benighted environment of shifting militant alliances, it can be challenging to keep track of the outright hostility between militant groups and the alleged cooperation between them. What is certain is that the fighting between JNIM and IS is sure to further destabilize this already troubled region, which is bursting with potential and hampered by a cross-border cat-and-mouse counter-terror campaign that has achieved mixed results at best. Beyond the French-assisted restoration of central authority over Mali’s northern regions in 2013, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad are arguably worse off in terms of security than when the French military descended on Timbuktu more than seven years ago. As the world witnessed in the Grand Bassam resort attack in Côte d’Ivoire four years ago, extraordinarily violent Salafism has already well migrated from the shores of the southern Mediterranean to the West African littoral. 

 

Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood

 

moto
French soldiers confiscate a motorcycle found in a forest in northern Burkina Faso where jihadists have established themselves on November 9, 2019, during Operation Bourgou IV. The soldiers are deployed to Operation Barkhane in support of the G5 Sahel countries’ fight against armed jihadist groups. (AFP)

Last month, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire jointly conducted Operation Comoé along their borders. They captured thirty-eight suspected terrorists, killed eight, and dismantled training camps. The operation reflects growing concern in these and other West African coastal states about a spillover of violent extremism and the need to prevent attacks from being staged in their territories.

But the spread of attacks isn’t the only problem terrorism brings, and these operations shouldn’t be the only way countries address it. They need to also focus on the factors that allow these groups to function. Extremists are increasingly tapping into a terrorist economy, using Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo as sources or transit zones of funding and logistics.

 

Motorcycles are valuable to extremists because of their robustness and mobility through difficult terrain

 

Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research shows that livestock stolen in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger is sold in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana at below-market prices. The profits are ploughed back through the networks of accomplice dealers. Various accounts point to terrorists being among the armed groups funded by this illicit trade. They use the income to buy arms, fuel, motorcycles, and food.

Motorcycles are valuable to extremists because of their robustness and mobility through difficult terrain. They are also easy to maintain, light on fuel, and can carry more than one person for combat and combat support operations.

 

Sahel Terrorists Draw Supplies from across West Africa
The terrorist economy affects West Africa’s coastal states.

 

Many motorcycles found in Niger’s Tillabéry region are trafficked from Nigeria through the Togolese border town of Cinkassé and Burkina Faso’s Boucle du Mouhoun Region. Some are also trafficked from Togo to Burkina Faso, and a few are trafficked further to Niger.

Both Tillabéry and Boucle du Mouhoun are hot spots for violent extremism. Although groups may not be directly involved in trafficking, they gain access to goods through vendors or criminal entrepreneurs who organize their procurement.

Evidence is also emerging of extremists sourcing materials to make explosives from Ghana. Ghanaian officials say fertilizer, a key ingredient for improvised explosive devices, is smuggled in sizable quantities to Burkina Faso. Police frequently arrest smugglers and seize consignments in northern border towns such as Hamile, Kulungugu, and Namori.

In July 2019, Upper West Region minister Dr. Hafiz Bin Salih said Ghana had lost US$12 million to fertilizer smuggling from Ghana to neighboring countries the previous year. Although terrorist groups may not be directly involved in the smuggling, an apparent rise in availability of the material in Burkina Faso means increased access and affordability.

Also, a 2018 counter-terrorism operation in Ouagadougou’s Rayongo neighborhood led to the seizure of an electric cord for making improvised explosive devices which was traced to northern Ghana. This suggests the involvement of trafficking networks from Ghana’s north where artisanal and small-scale mining is a long-standing economic activity.

Interviewees told the ISS that the northern Ghanaian town of Dollar Power has many West African illegal miners, including Ivorian former rebels and Burkinabe nationals, and is known for armed robbery. In eastern Burkina Faso, gold from some mining sites controlled by violent extremist groups is purchased by buyers from Benin and Togo. This may be providing valuable funding to terror groups, although the scale is unclear.

Leaders of coastal states are preoccupied with preventing a southward spread of attacks. This informed the February 2017 meeting of the presidents of Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo in Accra. They had called for an extraordinary Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit on terrorism, and launched the Accra Initiative in September that year.

Attacks in southern Burkina Faso, close to the borders with Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo, have deepened concerns among counter-terrorism officials. At an ECOWAS extraordinary session held on September 14, 2019, in Ouagadougou, leaders also decried the spread of terrorism in the region, although there was no specific reference to coastal states.

 

Extremists use Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo as sources or transit zones for funding and logistics

 

Burkinabe officials have often alerted their coastal counterparts to suspected extremists crossing into their northern territories to avoid arrest. Such alerts followed the March 2019 Otapuana operation in southern Burkina Faso. In Ghana, extremists hide or rest in the north, counter-terrorism officials told the ISS, a situation that elicits complaints from Burkina Faso about the country’s commitment to countering terrorism.

Coastal states acknowledge the importance of addressing the root causes of violent extremism, including governance and developmental deficits. Extremists could exploit the lack of basic services, such as roads, health and education facilities, and socio-economic opportunities, to penetrate and implant themselves in communities. The 2020–2024 ECOWAS Priority Action Plan outlines steps to tackle these shortcomings.

But capacity to address the vulnerabilities that enable terror groups to source and move funds and logistics remains limited. These vulnerabilities include weak border surveillance and security; porous borders; and strong communal, family, and socio-economic ties. The content of cross-border trade transactions is largely untracked, as border officials do not have sufficient capacity and the necessary technology.

To prevent violent extremism, the various dimensions of the problem must be understood, particularly terrorists’ covert dealings. This will enable officials to strike a much-needed balance between counter-terrorism operations and breaking the funding and logistics supply chains used by violent extremists.

 

Border officials lack the capacity and technology to track cross-border trade transactions

 

West Africa’s coastal states must also address the weaknesses that allow these groups to operate. Capacity is needed to track trade consignments between countries, beef up border control and surveillance, enhance intelligence gathering and analysis, and garner the support of people living in border areas. This could help identify extremists who may be exploiting cross-border ties.

The disruption of supply chains could set the stage for more terrorist attacks. Violence could be used to protect hideouts, secure supply routes, or attack border posts that extremists believe are impediments to their supply of materials. This means that, to avoid generating community resentment, strategies aimed at disruption must be balanced with preserving the livelihoods of individuals and communities who rely on cross-border trade.

 

Sampson Kwarkye is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ regional office for West Africa, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin.

This article was originally published by ISS Today.

 

In this undated handout file photo released by Al-Andalus on May 23, 2012 shows Abdelmalek Droukdel, aka Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with his fighters in Azawad, an unrecognized state in northern Mali. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) chief Abdelmalek Droukdel was killed on June 5, 2020 in Mali. Al-Andalus / AFP
An undated photo of Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed on June 3, 2020, in Mali. (Al-Andalus/AFP).

French soldiers killed the leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, and several of his associates in northern Mali on Thursday, June 3, revealed French defense minister Florence Parly.

France has more than 5,000 troops in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgent mission that cooperates with local armies under the umbrella of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) provided intelligence about Droukdel’s location.

AQIM is a Salafi-jihadist organization active in North Africa and the Sahel. It was founded in 1998 as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (known by the French acronym GSCP), after it splintered from the Armed Islamic Group, a key participant in the Algerian Civil War. It was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January 2007 after it became an affiliate of Al-Qaida.

 

It is one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world

 

AQIM, and previously as GSPC, is notorious for kidnapping Westerners for ransom in North Africa. The American Center for International Security and Cooperation says it is one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world.

AQIM also leads Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), a militant alliance of various jihadist groups that has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Malian defense and security forces.

 

A Veteran of the Algerian Civil War

Droukdel, a.k.a. Abou Mossaab Abdelouadoud, was born in Blida, Algeria, in 1970. He was a postgraduate engineering student when the civil war broke out in 1992; he gave up his studies and became joined the Islamist insurgency against the Algerian government. In 2004, he succeeded Nabil Sharaioui as the leader, or emir, of GSCP/AQIM, and steered it to a closer alliance with al-Qaida.

 

 

 

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