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Security Collapse in Mali and Burkina Faso: What Implications? - Anticipating the Crisis Through the Eyes of Jihadists

Security Collapse in Mali and Burkina Faso: What Implications? - Anticipating the Crisis Through the Eyes of Jihadists
 Jonathan Guiffard
Senior Fellow - Defense and Africa

This analysis is an exercise in prospective thinking on the possible evolution of the situation in the Sahel and its spillover into the rest of West Africa through the eyes of an imagined Al Qaeda jihadist in the Sahel. Its purpose is to allow the reader to consider the strategy and objectives of jihadist groups through their eyes. Jihadist groups are often mentioned or commented on, but their own assessment of the situation is rarely taken into account when analyzing, deciphering and describing the actions of the various actors involved in the region. It is part of our series Sahel: An Expanding Crisis.

Though threatened on several fronts, the jihadists are in a favorable position

Imagine a group of fighters from the Sahelian branch of Al Qaeda (Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin; JNIM), currently active in Mali. It does not matter whether the latter is made up of foreign actors, or whether these are Malian, Tuareg, Arab or Fulani; the group is a jihadist one with military responsibilities taking orders from a battalion chief (katibat). The katibat, in turn, coordinates with the great chiefs (emirs) of the JNIM (Iyad ag Ghali, the Tuareg revolutionary who joined Al Qaeda in 2010-2011; Hamadoun Kouffa, former leader of the Macina Liberation Front, now the Macina katibat), or other figures in the Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao, Mopti or Sikasso regions.

The most radical change that took place for this group was the departure of French military forces from Mali on August 15th, 2022.

The most radical change that took place for this group was the departure of French military forces from Mali on August 15th, 2022, after a presence of almost ten years that cost the lives of many jihadist fighters, forcing leaders to adapt their modes of operation. They needed to move discretely, avoid being spotted by drones and planes, avoid using telephones, stop meeting in large numbers or only at the time of attacks, operate with minimal coordination…

While this group does not know whether France, the United States or other nations will continue to strike in Mali occasionally, as is happening in other areas of the world, it must be said that it has regained some freedom for action.

It is January of 2023, this group operates in a movement that is hierarchical but decentralized, in which there necessarily is freedom to act. His actions are guided by simple and clear objectives.

1. Fight the Sahelian branch of the Islamic State (IS) which operates in the Liptako Gourma region (the tri-border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso). IS pursues a policy of violent conquest, emptying villages in the area by massacring populations for ethnic reasons or because they refuse to surrender. The objective of IS is to hold on to this territory for the long run in order to establish strong political and military control, always with the ultimate goal of founding an Islamic caliphate. Al Qaeda and IS differ in methods and religious doctrines; as a result, they fight each other in all the "jihad lands" of the world.

2. Do not attack the armed rebel movements of Northern Mali - members of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) or the Permanent Strategic Framework (PSF) - which have become allies in the fight against the Islamic State's advances. 

This alliance must be preserved for three more reasons: 

  • to avoid the creation of a new front against the JNIM;
  • to stimulate the recruitment of young rebels, disillusioned by the CMA's loss of legitimacy in its fight against the authorities in Bamako; and
  • to ensure the JNIM has a possible ally in case of attacks by the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and Wagner’s mercenaries in the north of the country.

This unwritten alliance is particularly useful for the JNIM because it goes against the rebels' cause in the country's north, where the jihadist group becomes the only de facto force to gain legitimacy by fighting on the ground.

3. While fighting IS, and with a strong focus on limiting human losses on the JNIM's side (records show recent heavy losses), this group pursues several tactical objectives, depending on its missions and geographical location. These include:

  • Organizing mortar attacks against MINUSMA bases in the north and center of the country, as well as IED attacks against MINUSMA convoys. The objective is to slowly wear down an international force that is not very active, not very threatening, but that represents a foreign presence and political/logistical support to the FAMa.

  • Conducting complex attacks on the FAMa military bases in the center of the country, at night or at dawn, with the objective of killing or driving away soldiers, seizing prisoners for future negotiations and/or seizing military equipment (vehicles, weapons).

  • Designing ambushes against FAMa and Wagner patrols with the objective of killing enemy soldiers, recovering equipment and attempting to capture Russian soldiers for negotiation and symbolic purposes.

  • Sparing civilians but also taking revenge on individuals identified as FAMa collaborators. The objective is to protect the JNIM against FAMa intelligence services, while still sowing fear among the population.

  • Identifying opportunities to kidnap foreign nationals, primarily Westerners, and entering into negotiations for ransom or the release of jihadist prisoners.

  • Identifying companies, Malian or foreign, to demand a tax in exchange for the company's ability to keep their economic activity going.

  • Going to other areas of the country, and even to Burkina Faso, to support other JNIM katibats in complex attacks, large-scale offensives or kidnappings.

  • Training new recruits in dedicated camps, particularly in the south of the country (the Sikasso region), and then deploying them to combat zones.

  • Organizing logistical flows with other groups and ensuring protection, such as by moving emirs between the different areas of operation.

  • Anticipating the major FAMa/Wagner operations in order to withdraw to safe areas, either in Mali (north of the Niger River in particular), or in Mauritania and Algeria, countries jihadists from JNIM can travel to unarmed.

  • Assassinating community or traditional leaders who oppose the jihadists too directly. This tactic is less frequently used today, as the JNIM emirs seek to antagonize traditional leaders as little as possible. Having already been shaken by ten years of war, the real or imagined strength of the jihadis is enough to ensure a form of cooperation.

Following these guidelines, the JNIM pursues a large-scale, unfettered campaign, with increasing attacks on security forces and institutions. The group hopes that this gradual wear and tear approach against key institutions will lead to the negotiation of truces and agreements that could bring about territorial concessions, decentralization and the Islamization of laws, as well as the closing of public institutions (especially schools).

The JNIM pursues a large-scale, unfettered campaign, with increasing attacks on security forces and institutions.

The nationalist over-reaction of the military junta in Bamako and the increasing massacres of civilians by the FAMa and Wagner in the center of the country lend substance to the propaganda and preaching of the jihadists in the villages. They call on civilians in these villages, but also in the Peul communities of neighboring countries, to join them in defense and to embark on a "liberating jihad".

In this vein, jihadist fighters are galvanized by the video of Hamadoun Kouffa's deputy from July 2022, in which he publicly threatens Bamako and asserts the JNIM's determination to continue its strategy of suffocation until the institutions no longer hold any territory in Mali and are forced to negotiate.

In this context, are Mali and Burkina Faso moving toward the progressive creation of an undeclared Islamic emirate?

It is important to remember the political and strategic goals of the jihadists. Following the precepts and orders of Al Qaeda’s emirs, the JNIM command has learned from mistakes made early on (the occupation of northern Mali in 2012 and experiences in other jihadi lands). Through a subtle mix of force, persuasion, negotiation and preaching, it seeks to impose Islamic precepts to govern Muslim citizens and their communities. In areas where Malian institutions no longer function, such as in the Kidal region, Islamic judges from the JNIM (cadi) already regulate the lives of the inhabitants, though in a less coercive manner than in 2012.

To ensure the viability of this approach, it is necessary to tear down the national institutions inherited from colonization or imposed by the adversary - the liberal, Christian, secular or “Freemason” West; the communist and atheist Soviet Union - as these have given shape to the “more or less” Muslim states under their control.

Once the institutions are down and the populations have been "prepared" through religious preaching, the jihadist "vanguard" can decree the creation of a religious emirate (as in Timbuktu and Gao in 2012) or even the reconstitution of a caliphate (as in Mosul in 2014), a political entity born in and out of Islam. 

The JNIM has decided to err on the side of patience by pursuing a long-term politico-military strategy.

However, after observing Western military responses to these political paradigm shifts, the JNIM has decided to err on the side of patience by pursuing a long-term politico-military strategy that no longer relies on the conquest and governance of cities or the planting of the black flag. Instead, they bank on the collapse, wear and tear and delegitimization of national political systems, which will lead to de facto socio-political domination by the jihadists.

To do this, the JNIM must ensure there is armed confrontation but also a progressive ignition of sparks in the surrounding countries. Both preaching to new populations and the delegitimization of all regional political systems must be kickstarted as quickly as possible:

  • By launching jihadist campaigns, forcing regional military apparatuses to react and over-react against populations that JNIM targets with its propaganda. This strategy started in Burkina Faso where it was successful and is now active in Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Senegal. For Niger, it is, for the time being, above all a question of ensuring fighters can transit to Nigeria, where groups affiliated with the JNIM operate;

  • By recruiting nationals from these countries, who may be trained in Burkina Faso or Mali before being sent back to fight in their own countries. The development of these recruitment channels is important to extend the jihad;

  • By looking for Westerners to kidnap. In this respect, the numerous French and foreign companies that are well-established in this part of the Gulf of Guinea represent key opportunities.

Can the jihadis hold on to this strategy for long?

For the jihadis, the first risk associated with excessive expansion may be the difficulty to ensure control over such large territories. However, having chosen to adopt an agile strategy without a strong focus on territorial control, it is possible for the JNIM to expand its area of activity simply to generate a sense of fear. As long as its freedom of movement is assured, the JNIM projects a level of strength that is greater than it actually is.

The second risk is that they surpass a symbolic threshold that would trigger a renewed, heavy military response. This would mean the return of Western military operations or the involvement of new countries in an alliance with the Malian or Burkinabe armed forces. This risk is weighed by military staff at the JNIM, who know what they are doing. They limit the overall fallout by making a clear distinction between the countries to be fought, those toward which to remain neutral, those with which to negotiate a truce and those for which it is time to recruit men but not yet to launch hostilities.

As long as its freedom of movement is assured, the JNIM projects a level of strength that is greater than it actually is.

Finally, in order to hold out over time while enjoying an advantageous position that helps to recruit new members, jihadists must undertake kidnappings (in exchange for ransom), loot equipment and levy taxes on populations and businesses. This is how the jihad can be financed.

The future fragmentation of Mali and Burkina Faso - the bases from which the fight in the Gulf of Guinea will be sustained - is likely to create structural problems for the JNIM, which will initially have a vested interest in negotiating truces to secure sanctuaries and enjoy respite. Running such a large jihadist movement is not without its challenges. The number of local enemies, some of whom will continue to be supported by France, the United States, the Europeans or regional powers, is taken into account by the JNIM emirs as they calibrate the intensity of their actions.

What can we expect from the future?

Based on the above and without changes to current policies, the following dynamics are likely to continue:

  • The increase in FAMa/Wagner operations in the center of the country will accelerate the recruitment of the local population, particularly the Peul, by the Macina katibat. The inaction of the CMA rebels and the unresolved Algiers Peace Agreement will stimulate JNIM recruitment of the Arab and Tuareg populations in the north of the country.

  • The increase in tensions between the CMA and the FAMa/Wagner will lead to the resumption of armed confrontations in the north. The JNIM, allied with the CMA, will support the latter in regaining total control of the region north of the Niger River, or even the entire northern half of the country. At the end of these clashes, the status quo will return in the north and the JNIM will attack the non-Islamist groups and gradually establish itself.

  • The de facto fragmentation of the center of the country will lead to regular fighting between the Macina katibat and the community-led self-defense militias. The latter is unlikely to succeed, and the whole of the center of the country will incrementally come under the effective control of the JNIM (without armed groups to challenge it).

  • The countryside around the Malian capital will be occupied, increasing the number of ambushes in the area. The JNIM katibats will be able to partially dry up the local economy. The capital will also be subject to occasional attacks. Unless the Malian army collapses completely - and contrary to the Taliban - it is unlikely that the city itself will be occupied. Indeed, the dynamics are not the same, because unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the JNIM has a much smaller number of fighters and has never ruled Mali. In addition, Mali's institutions are long-standing, relatively legitimate (though questionable), and have not been entirely designed by a foreign entity as we have seen in Afghanistan. The medium-sized towns will be subject to informal sieges, and the JNIM will lock down the surrounding transport axes to impose control over people and goods.

The tri-border area and eastern Mali ( Ménaka region) will remain contested for a long time, as the Sahelian branch of the Islamic State is at a geographical impasse but still has significant human and military resources. Without a political agreement between Niger and the Nigerien contingents of the Islamic State, the area will become the epicenter of a new local IS emirate. This alone could hypothetically lead Algeria to review its doctrine of military non-intervention outside its border, which is now permitted by Article 31 of the revised Algerian Constitution. Indeed, the presence of IS in the Sahel is considered to be a priority threat by Algeria.

This loss of control in Mali will lead to renewed political tensions, and ultimately to the launch of political dialogue with the JNIM to define the contours of a lasting truce. This will amputate a large part of Mali’s territory, or even lead to significant constitutional change. There will be heavy pressure from Mali’s religious institutions to bring the politicians to the negotiating table.

In Burkina Faso, the jihadists' objectives are of the same nature. They will be achieved even more quickly, because of the country’s smaller size and the already high tensions within an army that is even more decimated than Mali's. The Christian/Muslim religious split could also turn out to be the seed of even greater fragmentation and larger-scale inter-community violence. Unless the country accepts the loss of a northern/north-eastern/eastern part of its territory, a truce is unlikely.

The JNIM is in a favorable politico-military position in Mali and Burkina Faso, as the Taliban was in Afghanistan (and the Sahelian branch of IS is here to stay). However, unlike the Taliban, the JNIM is a movement with weaknesses: no structured state support, increased difficulty controlling its troops, a sprawl that makes it difficult to coordinate and achieve strategic objectives, and a growing number of enemies despite France's departure. The lasting destabilization of Malian and Burkinabe military institutions through multiple coups is a godsend for the JNIM, which, as pointed out in a recent publication, is patiently waiting for the political systems to lose their footing. For this reason, these divided countries must focus on reestablishing national cohesion.

If the scenarios above were to come to fruition, the international community might once again have to resort to military solutions to return to the previous status quo. Would that be the right approach? What other avenues could be explored to bring about a lasting end to the violence in the region? 



Copyright image: SOULEYMANE AG ANARA / AFP

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