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Oct 18, 2017 | 18:34 GMT

7 mins read

The Surprising Suspects Behind an Islamist Ambush

Though branches of the Islamic State tend to garner the most publicity, the greater threat to military forces, aid workers, civilians and citizens of the Sahel comes from another military group: Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).
(ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights

  • Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin's armed assault in Niger brought the group limited Western attention, but it's the region's residents that will have to contend with the Islamist militant group going forward. 
  • The geography, both physical and human, of the Sahel region makes it uniquely susceptible to militant groups.
  • Despite the best efforts of Western countries, most notably France, the threat of violence from militants will continue, and it will fall to African forces to contain it.

Terrorist attacks in sub-Saharan Africa are relatively common but are rarely covered in Western media. The exception is, of course, when those attacks begin to affect Western countries such as an armed assault did Oct. 4 in Niger. Eight people, including four U.S. military personnel were killed in the incident. Though no group has claimed the attack, the U.S. Department of Defense said it was carried out by fighters from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS).

Yet though branches of the Islamic State, including ISGS, tend to garner the most publicity, the greater threat to military forces, aid workers, civilians and citizens of the Sahel comes from another military group: Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). The group's Arabic name translates to "The Group to Support Islam and Muslims," but for those in the region and their Western allies it means the threat from Islamist militancy will remain for a long time to come.

The Suspects

JNIM formed in March 2017 through a merger of multiple militant groups that formerly fell under the umbrella of an al-Qaeda branch known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Its initial aspirations were overthrowing the Algerian government and instituting an Islamist state. Since then, the conglomeration of militant groups has conducted at least 60 attacks and kidnappings throughout the Sahel in Algeria, Mali and Niger. It has also paired with another AQIM affiliate, Ansar ul Islam, to carry out attacks in Burkina Faso.

The expansive Sahara-Sahel zone provides refuge to numerous militant organizations that, like JNIM, are able to tap into the grievances of local ethnic groups and capitalize on the weaknesses of the region's various states. Perennial state fragility, endemic corruption, inter-ethnic tension, rough and isolated terrain, and a general lack of functional economic bases have made the zone an attractive area for radical militants. In 2011, the stark reality of the region's instability was aggravated when former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's government imploded, scattering arms and militants throughout the region.

Mali, in particular, has specific geographic and ethnic divisions that have made the country's north especially attractive for militant groups. Unlike its neighbor, Niger, Mali has struggled to manage its ethnic divides for decades, which have fueled rebellions by various ethnic Tuareg groups in the isolated north. Whereas Niger's geography permits relatively easy movement between its population centers, much of Mali's northern population (especially in Kidal) is cutoff from the country's south, including the capital. That physical divide has helped create cultural ones and has allowed separate identities and regional grievances to emerge over time.

The ability for these groups to move in and out of areas such as Liptako-Gourma — which encompasses the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — has made it difficult for the region's poorer countries to combat it. Without the hard work of dedicated, well-trained and well-armed security forces, JNIM poses a continuous threat to civilians, aid workers and foreigners operating in the Sahel.

The militant group's list of possible targets includes essentially anyone operating within its territory. The group hits both governments and civilians, hard and soft targets, and mobile and stationary positions. Potential targets include U.N. peacekeepers, Malian security forces, French soldiers, American Military personnel and even tourist resorts. The group has specifically targeted civilians in numerous attacks. JNIM conducts frequent kidnappings, using the ransom payments as a major source of revenue, and foreigners (especially Westerners) are high-value targets. Continued attacks from the group targeting Westerners have deterred tourists, aid workers and foreign investment into the area.

Eradicating militant threats in the area has proved exceedingly difficult, even with the presence of French forces there since 2013. But despite the difficulty, the West has a continued interest in bringing greater security to the Sahel, both to make it safe for its citizens to visit and do business in the region and to prevent refugees from fleeing to Europe.  

The New Sheriff

Because of the West's continued interest in the Sahel's stability, Stratfor is following the development of the Group of 5 (G5) Sahel force as a key trend in the 2017 Fourth-Quarter and into 2018. The standing force will reportedly be comprised of 5,000 men across multiple battalions and three command zones in the Sahel. Soldiers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger will make up the full-time force tasked with counterterrorism operations, as well as countering the traffic of arms, drugs and people. France, the region's security guarantor, is treating the force as part of its long-term exit strategy as it attempts to reduce its heavy involvement in stabilizing the persistently chaotic region.

The G5 Sahel will have a sizable deployment to the Liptako-Gourma region encompassing the borders between Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria. The area will be a part of the force's central node and will likely include the location where U.S. military personnel were killed in an ambush Oct. 5. So far, the G5 Sahel Force has strong backing from France but lacks the financing necessary for a stable budget going forward. The force is preparing to begin initial operations within the next month, although not all the battalions will be fully trained until well into 2018.

Meanwhile, JNIM will utilize numerous advantages to ensure the group continues to pose a persistent threat and will perhaps even expand the scope and pace of its operations. Currently, the group utilizes insurgent and terrorist tactics in its routine attacks against a broad array of targets. JNIM often places mines and other roadside bombs to intercept isolated military vehicles and convoys and conducts suicide operations utilizing explosive vests and explosive-laden vehicles. The group also frequently conducts armed assaults — using small arms, rockets and mortars — against security forces, checkpoints, traveling workers and armed convoys. In short, the G5 Sahel force in the central node will have its work cut out for it to keep not only civilians, but also itself safe.

While the G5 struggles to secure funding, JNIM has access to resources to swell its coffers and arm its fighters.

While the G5 struggles to secure funding, JNIM has access to resources to swell its coffers and arm its fighters. The group has established an effective propaganda outlet to claim attacks, propagate its jihadist message, and attract new recruits. It has also established itself as operationally effective in both military and terrorist tradecraft, as evidenced by its persistent activity throughout the Sahel. JNIM has proved adept at integrating into local populations, and it has deep connections to local tribes — such as the Fulani and Tuareg — which will give it staying power.

The continued success of JNIM will attract foreign fighters (increasingly abundant as the Islamic State continues to lose fighters and territory), who can receive training and further radicalization before being returned to the field to carry out attacks. The activity provides propaganda fodder for al-Qaeda in jihadist circles, allowing it to claim that, although the Islamic State may grab headlines, al-Qaeda remains an active and vibrant militant organization with a reach extending from the Sahel to Kashmir.

Although the G5 force may be a necessary to ensure African nations each take a fair share of the burden borne by France, JNIM and militant groups like it will not be driven out any time soon. The names and headlines on Islamist militancy will change, but the fight to eradicate militancy in the Sahel region will continue for a long time to come.

Editor's Note

This report was produced in collaboration with Threat Lens, Stratfor's unique protective intelligence product. Designed with corporate security leaders in mind, Threat Lens enables industry professionals to anticipate, identify, measure and mitigate emerging threats to people and assets around the world.

Update

This assessment has been updated to reflect the correct date of the ambush in Niger that killed eight people, including four U.S. military members. 

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