According to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal, al Qaeda and its many allies and affiliates launched at least 257 attacks in Mali and the wider West Africa region in 2016, nearly a staggering 150 percent uptick from the group’s 106 assaults in the 2015 calendar year.
The number is the combination of attacks claimed by, or attributed to, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), AQIM’s Katibat Murabitoon, Ansar Dine (a front group for AQIM), and two battalions of Ansar Dine, named Katibat Macina and Katibat Khalid bin Walid (also referred to as “Ansar Dine South of the River”). Aside from Mali, assaults in nearby Burkina Faso, Niger and the Ivory Coast were included in the Long War Journal‘s figures.
Of the 257 attacks, 93 came as a result of improvised explosive devices. Another 27 were from mortar or rocket barrages aimed at French, Malian, or UN military bases in northern Mali. There were 11 kidnappings, with nine occurring in Mali and one each in Burkina Faso and Niger. Six were suicide bombings. The remaining 120 attacks were a variation of assaults, ambushes, or assassinations.
The northern region of Kidal continued to be the most volatile region of Mali, with 88 attacks occurring with the region. Timbuktu reported at least 57 assaults, while Gao was relatively less volatile with just 41 attacks. In the southern half of the country, there were at least 51 attacks. The final 20 occurred in Burkina Faso, Niger, Ivory Coast, with just one in Algeria.
Surprisingly, only 14 percent of al Qaeda’s claimed attacks (37) were directed at civilians. Rather, Malian security forces (military, national guard, gendarmerie, and police) were the prime target for jihadists, with those security forces being the target in 84 instances. The UN’s forces were targeted 75 times, second-most frequently. Another 35 were directed at French forces. Tuareg forces were targeted at least six times. The last 20 was the aforementioned number in neighboring countries.
Ansar Dine claimed responsibility for 84 total attacks while AQIM claimed 21. Three separate attacks, two in Burkina Faso and one in Niger, have been claimed by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Additionally, a group calling itself Ansaroul Islam, claimed an assault on a Burkinabe military post in northern Burkina Faso on Dec. 16.
Ansaroul Islam is allegedly led by an ally of Amadou Kouffa, the leader of Ansar Dine’s Katibat Macina and is possibly a Burkinabe branch of the jihadist group, according to risk consultancy firm Menastream.
Every region of Mali saw an uptick in al Qaeda-linked violence, including the southern half of the country which is generally regarded as the “safer” side of Mali. The Malian military was also targeted more than any other faction, which is a significant increase from 2015. However, this is to be expected as the Malian security forces take more responsibility.
The large number of attacks also represents a resurgent al Qaeda-led insurgency in northern Mali, which has been able to penetrate into southern Mali with greater frequency than in previous years. Ansar Dine and its branches appear to have regrouped in the face of the French-led counterterrorism mission, while the reintegration of Al Murabitoon, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, into AQIM appears to have helped breathe new life into the regional al Qaeda branch.
Ansar Dine’s ethnic Fulani branch, Katibat Macina (also known as the Macina Liberation Front), has enabled the jihadist group to tap into local ties and connections in southern Mali which has made assaults easier there. Additionally, since the Fula ethnic group is one of the largest in West Africa, this could help in transnational recruitment of Fulani fighters. If it is confirmed that the Burkinabe group Ansaroul Islam, which is predominately Fulani, is connected to Ansar Dine this could be the culmination of that possibility.
Despite a French-led counterterrorism mission and a United Nations peacekeeping force, Al Qaeda still retains the ability to operate openly in Mali. And unlike previous years, Al Qaeda has been able to strike throughout West Africa. The attack frequency and scale is expected to continue in 2017. Since the UN mandate began in 2013, more than 80 peacekeepers and six other employees have been killed in Mali, making it the deadliest UN peacekeeping force in the world.