The al-Qaeda affiliate presents a complex social, economic and security challenge for Sahel nations.
Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), or “the Group to Support Islam and Muslims”, is the primary armed group plaguing civilian and military targets throughout Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The group has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has approximately 2,000 fighters capable of exploiting illicit networks and extracting taxes from the areas in which they operate. Given the expansion of JNIM-affiliated attacks into Burkina Faso and Niger, the group presents considerable security challenges to regional and foreign powers in affected areas.
JNIM was formed on March 2, 2017, the product of a merger between AQIM’s Sahara branch, the Tuareg-led rebel group Ansar al-Din, and the Sahelian jihadist group al-Murabitoon. Katibat Macina, an affiliate of Ansar al-Din in central Mali, was the final founding faction, and its addition reinforced JNIM’s local endorsement and territorial authority. Iyad ag Ghali, a Tuareg leader and the former emir of Ansar al-Din, was appointed as, and remains, the head of the umbrella organisation. The merging of the region’s top leadership under the JNIM banner promoted cohesion across the diverse conglomerate of jihadist groups. Drawing together various tribal contexts into the organisation also encouraged the presence of a broad range of ethnicities in JNIM, such as Fulanis, Tuaregs, Bambaras, Sahelians and North African Arabs. AQIM had long-standing ambitions for a project across the Sahel prior to the creation of JNIM; AQ leadership recognised the advantages of the region’s large surface areas, porous borders, and the weaknesses of the Saharo–Sahelian belt.
MOTIVES AND ALLEGIANCES
Broadly speaking, JNIM’s primary directives are driving foreign forces out of the region and establishing an Islamic emirate. The group has expressly outlined its opposition to France, which has been present in Mali since Operation Serval commenced in 2013, as well as France’s Western partners, including UN peacekeeping forces. Earlier this year, JNIM released a two-page statement to the Malian government outlining its conditions for negotiations with the Malian government. Foremost was the ejection of French and other “occupation” authorities from the country.
Despite operating under a different name and emir, JNIM remains under the command of AQIM and al-Qaeda central. Consistent with al-Qaeda’s decentralised, global system of command and control, Iyad ag Ghali has sworn bayat (allegiance) to AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and leader of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada. Although the different factions within JNIM act relatively autonomously, they have consistently reiterated their commitment to the organisation. Thus, the creation of JNIM embodied a shift in relations between AQIM and local jihadist groups, from collaboration to a structured hierarchy with AQIM occupying the top position.
STRENGTH AND OPERATIONS
JNIM maintains a steady presence throughout Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, despite considerable military losses at the hands of French security forces. Estimates of the numbers of fighters available to JNIM range between 1,000–2,000. Complex attacks, assassinations, and improvised explosive device attacks are common tools used to terrorize UN, Malian and French forces. Information provider IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC) noted that attacks carried out by JNIM frequently followed smaller-scale attacks by AQIM — extrapolating, JTIC posited that the larger scale yet similar nature of such attacks suggested that AQIM was directing JNIM in these attacks.
JNIM’s role as a conduit between different ethnic groups grants AQIM considerable geographical and social influence across the Sahel. The expanded support networks provide AQIM with better access to recruitment pools, financial support and access to criminal networks. Illicit markets and activities are key to JNIM’s survival and growth. The sale of stolen livestock, as well as artisanal gold-mining and poaching, are common sources of revenue. Taxes imposed on trading and mining sites within their areas of control also allow jihadis to purchase weapons, motorcycles and communications equipment.
Given their generally limited access to computer-based resources, JNIM emphasises personal connections in targeted communities. Intimate familiarity with local communities is integral to recruitment, and JNIM often capitalises on ethnic conflict and local grievances towards government, particularly in Mali, as tools for recruitment. The Institute for Security Studies Africa (ISS) further expands on the motivations of jihadis in joining JNIM, and stresses the prominence of economics and environmental concerns over religious conviction among recruits.
Analysts note that JNIM plays varied roles in different communities depending on the social context and their strategic objectives. JNIM members can be party to, or mediators of, local conflicts — seemingly paradoxically, the organisation’s presence can sometimes lead to a remission of conflicts. In terms of broader jihadist terror networks throughout the Sahel, JNIM enjoys considerably more support than their Islamic State rivals. JNIM, and therefore AQIM and AQ writ large, reap these benefits due to the stronger network of local affiliates.
PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE
JNIM predominantly operates in Mali, where it has been able to thrive due to the absence of state control in the north following the 2012 Tuareg rebellion and a series of long-delayed peace accords intended to quell conflict between the government, ethnic factions and armed groups. In March, local leaders in the city of Gao were killed for cooperating with the UN and France in their mission to combat insurgents. Given that a UN Independent Expert on Mali recently declared the country’s security situation to have reached a “critical level”, Mali will likely remain JNIM’s organisational hub. JNIM represents a reasonably cohesive transnational organisation, and it will likely continue to focus its attacks on government, security and civilian targets throughout the Sahel.
In Burkina Faso, the northern regions bordering Mali were initial targets for al-Qaeda affiliated violence. However, in recent years, this violence has increased in the eastern and southeastern provinces, and even encroached on the capital Ouagadougou. This has displaced many rural inhabitants, leaving them outside the reach of aid groups. In an effort to combat insurgents, the government has proposed arming civilians to assist in the fighting, but this has raised concerns regarding exacerbating existing inter-communal tensions. Niger’s western regions have been similarly targeted by JNIM; in an effort to bolster the Nigerien military, a French Airbus earlier this year airdropped almost forty tonnes of supplies, including food, water, fuel and ammunition. Nonetheless, with analysts opining that the national armies of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are overstretched, JNIM appears set to continue its activities relatively unimpeded.
As the former colonial power of the Sahel, France maintains 4,500 troops throughout the region. These troops have been developed under the Operation Barkhane mandate to help combat insurgents in Niger, Chad, and Mali. Far surpassing military commitments from any other foreign partner, French forces regularly conduct counter-terrorism operations; the most recent iteration was Operation Bourgou IV, executed in November 2019. In an effort to delineate a clear political commitment from regional partners, French President Emmanuel Macron and leaders from the G-5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) agreed in January to combine their military forces under a single command structure. The newly-formed “Coalition for the Sahel” aims to achieve faster response-times and intelligence sharing between the countries, and Paris has committed an additional 220 troops to Barkhane to assist in the operation.
The US maintains some presence throughout the region, but recent deliberations for a significant drawdown of troops throughout the continent carry future security implications for West Africa. In terms of resources, the Trump administration is providing approximately $242 million in military aid to the G-5 Sahel countries. However, African commanders have noted that the equipment provided is not always effective in the fight against the al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents. The need for armoured vehicles to prevent IED attacks is one such complaint, and analysts have underscored the importance of African allies addressing endemic issues pertaining to poverty, government corruption and a lack of education — all factors that extremist groups seek to exploit. A G-5 Sahel Joint Force was created in 2014 in an effort to combat threats such as JNIM, but it has been encumbered by inadequate funding and coordination issues. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has lobbied for regular UN funding for G-5 in an effort to overcome such issues, but the US has regularly pushed back against such proposals, instead favouring bilateral security cooperation efforts.
JNIM is a relatively cohesive transnational threat endemic in West Africa. Thriving in the absence of state security and adopting myriad roles throughout affected communities, the organisation has been able to expand and strengthen. Despite renewed efforts from regional allies and foreign partners, JNIM is likely to persist for some time into the future.