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Insurgency in the Maghreb: Al Qaeda in Mali

On August 3, 2019, Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin' (JNIM) publicly claimed responsibility for a suicide assault at a French military base near Gao’s airport, Mali, that took place on July 22, 2019. Several French and Estonian troops were either killed or injured as a result. Since March 2017, JNIM has conducted numerous attacks on Malian or French troops, UN Peacekeepers and other security forces. In Mali, estimates show that there are currently 12,000 troops deployed by the UN MINUSMA Stabilization mission, 4,500 French troops as part of Operation Barkhane and 5,000 G5 Sahel deployed personnel, all of which are at high risk of victimization. Analyzing JNIM’s motives and past activity is important in detecting future targets. This report will analyze recent attacks by JNIM as well as produce predictive intelligence on some of the potential targets that JNIM will focus on in the future.

 

 

Figure 1: JNIM Source: Twitter


Originally four separate groups, JNIM was officially established in March 2017, after Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), merged with each other. The merging resulted in a unified group with enhanced territorial control, influence and operational resources. JNIM is officially Al Qaeda’s branch in Mali. Mostly operating in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, JNIM has also been active in north African countries such as Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. 

 

In terms of its ideology, JNIM shares Al Qaeda’s basic objectives. JNIM mainly wants to drive Western influence out of Muslim grounds as well as implement its interpretation of Sharia law. Iyad Ag Ghaly, JNIM’s reported leader, stated that France is one of the group’s primary enemies along with its Western allies such as those participating in UN Peacekeeping Missions. JNIM purportedly promotes attacks on security forces rather than on the civilian population. Even though targeting civilians is not explicitly part of JNIM’s agenda, the group has reportedly participated in civilian clashes, particularly alongside Fulani militias, who often engage in attacking Dogon villages as part of their ethnic violence.

 

From January 2019 until August 2019, JNIM has conducted 11 confirmed attacks. Even though the JNIM has been suspected as the perpetrator of several more incidents, this report only includes those who have been claimed by the group itself. However, source stated that many attacks are unclaimed by JNIM due to unwanted results, communication problems and other issues deemed unwanted by the group. This is possible and suggests that the number of strikes conducted by JNIM is potentially higher than the one reported. Ten attacks targeted security bases belonging to French, Malian or Burkina forces. One attack targeted UN Peacekeepers on foot. 

 

Most of the strikes occurred in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso as illustrated in Figure 2. Seven of the attacks occurred in Mali, predominantly in Gao region, followed by Mopti, Koulikoro and Kidal. Four attacks took place in Burkina Faso, two of which in Soum province, one in Kossi and one in Kompienga province. The Gao region has been consistently targeted by JNIM as it has suffered numerous attacks by the group.

 

 

Figure 2: JNIM Attacks Jan 2019 - Aug 2019 
Source: (made with) ArcGIS

 

Regarding the frequency of strikes, JNIM appears to act inconsistently. Six attacks took place in late January, two in late March, one in late April and two in late July. There was no reported activity in February, May and June. The information on January 2019, demonstrates that JNIM is able to strike multiple times during a short period of time, possibly to receive more exposure or to allow less time for security forces to recover. JNIM can also conduct separate coordinated attacks on the same day at one location. This is demonstrated by the two incidents on July 22 in Gao of Mali.

 

 

Figure 3: Dates of JNIM Attacks Jan 2019 - Aug 2019 
Source: (made with) ArcGIS


Six of the attacks by JNIM, were conducted by armed assault which included the use of rocket launchers, explosives and machine guns. All three attacks in Gao region were conducted via a suicide vehicle followed by armed assault. Also, those three strikes targeted military bases which indicates that this particular method is used by JNIM to penetrate targets with increased security and less accessibility. In one instance, the strike took place via a road IED and in another, the method was not stated. This information suggests that even though armed assault has been the most prevalent striking method of JNIM, the group also utilises suicide vehicles and road IEDs, which serve as means to attack either security bases or moving people/vehicles.

 

JNIM’s target selection from January 2019 until now, has been consistent with the group’s agenda. The group has targeted security forces or governments mainly by striking facilities. There are several targets that JNIM might focus on in the future. This report focuses on the following: the MINUSMA Operations Base in Bamako, the French Embassy in Bamako and the Ambodedjo Airport in Mopti. 

  
Figure 4: MINUSMA Operations Base & French Embassy in Bamako, Ambodedjo Airport in Mopti
Source: Google Maps

 

In order to assess the most attractive targets for JNIM, a CARVER Matrix will be utilized - which stands for Criticality, Accessibility, Recuperability, Vulnerability, Effect, and Recognisability. CARVER’s detailed criteria are illustrated in Figure 5. 

 

 
Figure 5: CARVER Matrix
Source: Zimmerer

 

As illustrated in Figure 6, Ambodedjo Airport appears to be the most attractive target for JNIM. The group is known to operate in Mopti region and it has previously targeted airports such as Timbuktu Airport and Gao Airport. The MINUSMA Operations Base was the second most attractive target. Despite being located in Bamako, where JNIM rarely strikes, the base is at a remote location and easily recognisable. The base appears to be surrounded by thick walls and its entries prevent a potential suicide vehicle from charging and striking. However, JNIM has been reported to disguise themselves as UN Staff as well as their vehicles, in order to be able to penetrate high-security facilities. The French Embassy was the least attractive target for JNIM, even though it highly met the group’s interests. Google Maps showed that the building is surrounded by walls and trees which prevents surveillance and ungranted access. However, this does not mean that attacking the embassy is not plausible by the group. In March 2018, JNIM attacked the French Embassy in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and killed 16 persons and injured eight. Even though the French Embassy of Bamako appears more secure than the one in Ouagadougou, this does not necessarily constitute a deterrent for JNIM.

Figure 6: Assessment of Potential Targets

 

The targets assessed above, should monitor any threats to their infrastructure and tailor their security measures based on the probability of them being targeted by JNIM. Facilities located near those targets should also be aware that they are at risk, as a result of a potential incident. JNIM has the means necessary to conduct high-casualty attacks such as arms, explosives or suicide vehicles. The group can be deceiving as its members can modify their clothing, equipment and vehicles to mimic security officials. JNIM might also conduct multiple attacks in a short period of time. This suggests that security forces and other potential targets of the group should be on alert, particularly after an incident has been reported or conducted. The inconsistency of attacks by JNIM, makes it difficult to predict when the group will strike again. This suggests that potential targets of the group should be alert and aware at all times.

 

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) AFRICOM Team is actively monitoring and tracking developments and attacks related to JNIM and other armed groups in the Sahel. AFRICOM Team coordinates its analysis efforts with CENTCOM Team in regards to Al Qaeda and its branches. CTG works with private and public partners in order to accomplish our mission to Detect, Deter, and Defeat terrorism. If you are interested in what CTG can offer you and your organization, please feel free to contact us

 

1. Denmark proposes deployment to France’s Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, The Defense Post, February 2019, https://thedefensepost.com/2019/02/28/denmark-sahel-deployment-operation-barkhane/

2. Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin / Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM / GSIM) -- AQIM, Ansar Dine, Macina Liberation Front & Mourabitounes Coalition, TRAC, January 2019, https://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/jamaa-nusrat-ul-islam-wa-al-muslimin-group-support-islam-and-muslims-gsim-aqim-ansar-dine-maci

3. Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 2018, https://www.csis.org/programs/transnational-threats-project/terrorism-backgrounders/jamaat-nasr-al-islam-wal-muslimin#_edn10

4. Ibid.

5. Ségou: Comment les djihadistes de Kouffa ont tué au moins 10 miliciens Dozo?, Nord Sud Journal, March 2017, https://www.nordsudjournal.com/segou-comment-les-djihadistes-de-kouffa-ont-tue-au-moins-10-miliciens-dozo/ ; What’s behind the escalating ethnic violence in Mali?, Washington Post, June 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/06/12/whats-behind-escalating-ethnic-violence-mali-heres-what-you-need-know/

6. Al Qaeda maintains operational tempo in West Africa in 2017, Long War Journal, January 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/01/al-qaeda-maintains-operational-tempo-in-west-africa-in-2017.php

7. JNIM hits French base with suicide assault, Threat Matrix, August 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/08/jnim-hits-french-base-with-suicide-assault.php

8. Al Qaeda’s JNIM claims suicide assault in Timbuktu, Long War Journal, April 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/04/al-qaedas-jnim-claims-suicide-assault-in-timbuktu.php

9. Mali: al-Qaeda issues a video showing Timbuktu airport assault, attackers disguised as peacekeepers, France24, October 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hR83GMRxVNs

10. Al Qaeda affiliate claims responsibility for Burkina Faso attacks, Reuters, March 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-burkina-security/al-qaeda-affiliate-claims-responsibility-for-burkina-faso-attacks-idUSKCN1GF0GS

 

 

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