Recent media reports claim that a covert Kenyan paramilitary team is responsible for the unconstitutional killing of terror suspects in nighttime raids. The reports are based on interviews with US and Kenyan diplomatic and intelligence officials.
The team was trained, armed and supported by US and British intelligence officers.
This has drawn renewed attention to the reality of widespread foreign security operations in Africa.
Several African governments are hosting foreign military bases. This is despite the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council’s ongoing concerns about the proliferation of foreign military bases on the continent. The AU is also concerned about its inability to monitor the movement of weapons to and from these military bases. Regardless, a host of bilateral agreements between AU member states and foreign powers underlie the spread of foreign military forces across the continent.
At least 13 foreign powers have a substantial military presence on the continent. The US and France are at the forefront of conducting operations on African soil.
Moreover, private military groups are active in several conflict zones on African soil. Northern Mozambique is the most recent case.
These dynamics coincide with claims that Russian MiG-29 and Su-24 warplanes have now conducted missions in Libya in support of Kremlin-backed private military forces to extend Moscow’s influence in Africa.
Military base mapping
Currently, the US has 7,000 military personnel on rotational deployment in Africa. These troops carry out joint operations with African forces against extremists or jihadists. They are hosted in military outposts across the continent, including Uganda, South Sudan, Senegal, Niger, Gabon, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In addition, 2,000 American soldiers are involved in training missions in 40 African countries. American special forces operate across east Africa in so-called forward operation locations in Kenya and Somalia.
Like the US, France has either deployed military forces or established bases in a number of African countries. The country has more than 7,500 military personnel currently serving on the continent. Its largest presence is in the Sahel, especially in the border zone linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Since then China has maintained an anti-piracy naval presence in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden. Between 2008 and 2018, the Chinese Navy deployed 26,000 military personnel in a variety of maritime security operations.
Lemonnier was established alongside French, Italian, Spanish, German and Japanese bases. China has developed a 36-hectare military facility to host several thousand Chinese troops and provide facilities for ships, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
China’s military base in Djibouti was set up to support five mission areas. These are counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden; intelligence collection on other countries; noncombat evacuation of Chinese citizens in East Africa; international peacekeeping operations where Chinese soldiers are deployed; and counter-terrorism operations.
India is another Asian nation that has increased its naval presence in Africa. The country has established a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean to counter China’s rising military footprint in the region.
It also wants to protect its commercial sea lanes from piracy.
India has ongoing deployments that monitor developments in the Horn of Africa and Madagascar. The country also plans to establish 32 coastal radar surveillance stations with sites in the Seychelles, Mauritius, and other locations outside Africa.
When it comes to the Middle East, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are the two countries with a notable military presence in Africa.
Turkey joined the international counter-piracy task force off the Somali coast in 2009. In 2017, it opened a military base in Mogadishu, Somalia. The purpose is to train recruits for the Somali National Army. Turkey will also support the Somali navy and coastguard.
The UAE has had a military base in Eritrea since 2015. It comprises a military airfield with aircraft shelters and a deepwater naval port. The base has been used in operations against opposition forces in Yemen.
Foreign military motivations
It is clear that the Horn is the epicentre of foreign military activity in Africa. Foreign troops have been deployed there to counter threats to international peace, subdue terror groups and pirates, and support foreign security initiatives.
But there are other motivations to establish military bases in Africa. These include protection of commercial interests, aligning with friendly regimes, and expressing dominance on a continent that is the focus of rising global competition.
Of course, Africa is not the exception. The US, for example, also maintains a substantial military and security presence in the Gulf region. It has bases in countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and UAE.
For some observers it might seem like foreign governments are imposing their militaries on Africa, but, in fact, many African governments are keen to host them.
Bilateral agreements with major powers generate income for African states. The opening of China’s military base in Djibouti is a case in point. Most of Djibouti’s economy relies on Chinese credit.
The presence of foreign military forces has also played a significant role in fighting terror groups. These include groups like al-Shabaab in East Africa and jihadists in Mali. This explains why several African countries are willing to turn to foreign governments for advice, intelligence and support.
But there is a downside to the presence of foreign forces on the continent. For instance, the African security landscape has become overcrowded by a multiplicity of foreign security and military activities. These activities often function at cross purposes.
Finally, African countries are not agreed on how to regulate foreign security and military activities. The approach so far has been disjointed.
Though Africa’s peacekeeping capacity has increased significantly, the AU is still highly dependent on external funding and resources for its peacekeeping operations. It does not have the freedom to take independent strategic, operational and even tactical decisions in its operations.
As long as these shortcomings exist in Africa’s response to armed conflict, foreign militaries and intelligence services will continue to operate on the continent.
These are matters that have to be addressed before African states can heed the AU Peace and Security Council’s concerns about extensive foreign military involvement on the continent.
Theo Neethling is professor of political science at the department of political studies and governance at the University of the Free State in South Africa.
Mali’s fraught political environment continues to involve more international mediators, with Morocco the latest country to intercede between President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and the Mouvement du 5 Juin–Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5–RFP). King Mohammed VI sent Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita to Mali to mediate talks between Keïta and Imam Mahmoud Dicko, the de facto leader of the M5–RFP.
Arriving on July 11, a day after protests in Bamako escalated into deadly clashes with security forces, Bourita delegated Hassan Naciri, the Moroccan ambassador to Mali, to meet with Dicko at his home. Dicko listed his terms for resuming talks with the government, including the release of opposition leaders, and Naciri convinced him to make a public statement calling for calm and a cessation of protests while negotiations took place. Naciri then met with President Keïta to relay Dicko’s demands.
ECOWAS Proposals Rejected
This past weekend, a delegation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met with M5–RFP members to try to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but their proposals were dismissed.
A letter has been leaked that Malian prime minister Boubou Cissé’s office had sent to the minister of security and civil protection demanding an investigation into the deployment of the special counterterrorism force FORSAT during street protests on Friday, July 10. At least one person died—some say the death toll was four—and dozens were injured in the capital Bamako as the Mouvement du 5 Juin–Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5–RFP) kept up the pressure on President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to resign. FORSAT servicemen were also involved in the arrest of six opposition and protest leaders on Friday and Saturday.
Malians calling for Keïta’s resignation are unhappy about disputed election results, corruption, the weakening economy, and the government’s handling of the jihadist insurgency. The brutal crackdown on protestors is in sharp contrast to Keïta’s claim that wants a peaceful outcome to the political crisis.
A delegation from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, met with M5–RFP representatives this past week, but the talks yielded no solution to the present crisis.
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.
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.
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.
Troops, police, and civilians deployed under the auspices of United Nations peace operations routinely work under difficult circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional level of challenges for the 95,000peacekeepers deployed across the world as part of thirteen UN operations, many of them in Africa. They have to continue their vital work to protect civilians, support peace and political processes, and promote human rights, all while applying critical prevention and mitigation measures to contain and otherwise help countries respond to the disease.
Within this context, UN peacekeeping missions quickly moved to adapt their community outreach efforts—a critical tool to inform, foster dialogue, and seek support for its mandates—to continue connecting with and supporting communities and local organizations while limiting the risks associated with social contact. Missions have boosted their use of broadcast and online tools to continue communicating, including through radio, WhatsApp groups, social media, and other messaging platforms to reach audiences.
The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers
Broadcast is a staple in most of the environments where UN peacekeepers operate, and it has proven to be a crucial tool to support host governments and humanitarian partners to raise awareness on COVID-19 preparedness, prevention, and response, while also addressing issues such as sexual and gender-based violence.
Whether peace operations manage their own radio stations (in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and South Sudan), or produce multilingual content for partner networks, up to 80 percent of production has been shifted toward COVID-19 awareness. This is particularly critical in environments with low literacy rates, limited Internet reach, and multiple languages.
The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers and communities alike, creating what the UN secretary-general has called a global infodemic. Which is why public communication is central to helping dispel rumors, counter misinformation, and provide people with timely and accurate information.
Mikado FM, a radio station operated by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), broadcasts a myth-busting program where listeners can ask questions and receive accurate information about the virus. The station reaches a wider audience by providing sixty-three community radio stations with prerecorded prevention messages in five local languages, and special radio shows in partnership with the World Health Organization and the Malian health authorities.
Some missions are also now providing education over the airwaves while schools are closed. Radio Okapi, the flagship station with the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), produces fourteen weekly hours of homeschooling in partnership with the DRC Ministry of Education and UNICEF. Peacekeeping missions’ radio stations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan are also similarly employing their resources to educate children.
The Right Tools for the Right Audiences
Ensuring information reaches at-risk groups, including women, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and rural communities is critical as their already limited access to news and communication tools may further expose them to the virus.
Now, even more than ever, inclusive communications plans must consider varying digital literacy levels of women and men and within different social groups.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) distributes thousands of educational flashcards explaining the symptoms of COVID-19 and prevention measures. In Darfur (Sudan), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, missions use moto-taxis and promo-trucks to disseminate information through speakers in IDP camps, protection sites, and remote villages.
As the UN embraced virtual meetings and remote-access technology following stay-at-home orders, colleagues in the field found creative solutions to grant Wi-Fi and online platforms access to local counterparts, including women’s groups, or expand the use of WhatsApp for interaction.
The mission in Mali, for instance, recently launched MINUSMA Kounafoni Blon (MINUSMA Info Hut) whereby communities from different regions take turns each month to interact on specific themes through a dedicated WhatsApp group hosted in the region’s language. Similarly, in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA is distributing 50,000 rechargeable radio sets to facilitate women’s access to information.
Where technically viable, virtual platforms can keep community dialogue alive. In Kosovo, UNMIK hosts weekly virtual townhall debates on community and national issues; the debates are broadcast on national television. The mission also launched a digital trust-building platform focusing on multi-ethnic cooperation stories and champions, with multilingual messaging on COVID-19. In several countries, women have told us they felt more confident exchanging views and ideas on these more targeted online platforms as opposed to larger groups meeting in person.
Missions are aware of how COVID-19 impacts women and men differently, and how best to direct interventions. Many women continue to work out of necessity to support their families, and therefore face increased contamination risks. MINUSCA, for example, is targeting markets to reach women as a “captive audience” while setting-up handwashing spots and conducting disinfection runs in these locations. MONUSCO also sensitizes women vendors on COVID-19 at markets together with the Congolese Ministry of Gender and the National Police.
Empowering Through Partnerships
Strengthening partnerships with humanitarian actors and local organizations is another way to maintain community outreach and work together to respond to COVID-19.
Religious, traditional and local structures are trusted messengers to convey accurate information and dispel rumors. Arts, sports, socio-economic, and trade groups wield influence and operate within communities. Mikado FM in Mali has partnered with the musical duo Amadou and Mariam to disseminate COVID-19 awareness messages in local languages. In Cyprus, the UN Peacekeeping Force UNFICYP has partnered with Cypriot women’s organizations to boost information for women experiencing domestic violence during quarantine. And MINUSCA trains members of the National Youth Council with speaking and hearing impediments to conduct door-to-door awareness on the virus.
Engaging with the media is yet another way missions are mobilizing partnerships to fight the pandemic. UNMISS works with humanitarian agencies, local authorities, and Facebook to provide validated and timely information, counter hate speech, and remove incendiary posts as appropriate. Similarly, MINUSMA partners with the Union of Free Radios and Televisions of Mali and religious leaders to provide information on COVID-19. MINUSCA held media awareness-raising sessions to promote objective and professional reporting on the pandemic while helping journalists protect themselves against the virus in their daily tasks. As a result of these workshops—held in line with WHO and host governments’ protection and prevention guidelines—more than fifty journalists signed up to a Charter of Good Conduct on reporting on COVID-19 in the country.
Patrolling and Informing
Strategic communications are part of UN peacekeepers’ daily work on the ground, and everybody has a role to play. As most civilian personnel are working from home, military and community policing patrols by the mission become opportunities to relay life-saving information. A community violence-reduction program such as the one in the Central African Republic also involves at-risk populations in income-generating activities such as mask-sewing and soap-making to help combat COVID-19 while expanding their economic options.
It is in this challenging context, and through the examples of peacekeepers continuing their work outlined above, that the United Nations can leverage the power of information and its ability to build strong partnerships with local communities while saving lives. The crucial work of those continuing to undertake core activities, despite the current challenges, is a credit to the resilience of both peacekeepers and the communities they serve.
Charlotte Morgan is an intern at the Strategic Communications Section of the United Nations’ Department of Peace Operations
Sophie Boudre is a public information officer at the United Nations
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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