While other Al Qaeda’s branches around the world receive the most attention, like in Syria or Yemen, the global jihadist group has been continuously active throughout West Africa as well. Since the beginning of the year, at least 101 attacks throughout the region have been attributed to al Qaeda, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal.
Most of these attacks have occurred in Mali, where al Qaeda has waged a low-level insurgency since 2013 after a French intervention began to oust the jihadists from the north. Of the assaults in Mali, the overwhelming majority have occurred in the north, with at least 36 occurring in the Kidal Region. Ansar Dine, a Tuareg front for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is the main jihadist force operating in Kidal. In its most recent attack, Ansar Dine claimed credit IED and mortar attacks on French forces near Abeibara last week.
Most attacks in Mali continue come in the form of IEDs or landmines, with the majority of those occurring in Kidal.
In other regions of northern Mali, both AQIM and AQIM’s Katibat al Murabitoon, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, have claimed several strikes in Gao and Timbuktu Regions. In Gao, at least 19 attacks have occurred with another 18 in Timbuktu. Al Murabitoon’s most recent was a coordinated suicide assault on the UN’s base in Gao. The assault began with a suicide bombing by a local Malian fighter, while three others, identified by AQIM as two locals and one foreigner, then breached the perimeter killing three people. A Chinese peacekeeper was also killed in the initial suicide bombing.
AQIM’s Sahara Emirate is the main jihadist group that operates in the Timbuktu region. Since February, at least three ambushes have occurred between Timbuktu and Goundam. Two targeted Malian troops, which left at least four dead. The third targeted an Orange mobile network truck and left the civilian driver dead. Further south in the region, a suspected AQIM IED blast left two soldiers, including a Malian colonel, dead near Gossi. AQIM was also responsible for an attack near the Mauritanian border, leaving three soldiers dead in late February.
The southern half of Mali, which is generally considered to be the safer part of the country, has also seen its fair share of jihadist assaults so far this year. At least 19 have occurred in the southern half with most being concentrated in the Mopti and Segou Regions, however the capital of Bamako and the Sikasso Region have each seen one attack. In March, several AQIM gunmen attempted unsuccessfully to storm the hotel Nord Sud in Bamako, the headquarters of the European Union training mission in Mali.
Ansar Dine’s southern branch, Katibat Macina – which is a largely ethnic Fulani group – is the force behind most strikes in southern Mali. Ansar Dine has claimed several attacks near the Mauritanian border since January. Additionally, the group claimed an assault on a police station in the southern town of Ke Macina in March. Last month, the katibat released its first video in which it highlighted one of its most major incursions since its inception last year. The low quality video shows the Macina fighters celebrating after last June’s attack in the southern city of Nara near the Mauritanian border. [See LWJ report, Ansar Dine’s branch in southern Mali releases first video.]
Outside of Mali, five assaults have been perpetrated in Burkina Faso to the south. This includes the Splendid Hotel raid in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou in January. AQIM’s Al Murabitoon claimed the assault that killed nearly 30 people before a joint Burkinabe-French special forces raid ended the siege. Almost simultaneously, AQIM kidnapped an Australian couple near the Burkinabe town of Baraboule and targeted a police station near Tin Akoff. The jihadist group would later release the woman hostage. Three Burkinabe policemen were killed in an assault on a police station near Oudalan on May 31.
In Niger, a police station and a gendarmerie post have been targeted since March. Three gendarmes were killed on March 17 near Dolbel, while a policeman was killed near Tahoua. On May 20, AQIM claimed firing Grad rockets on a French-owned mine near Arlit. However, Nigerien authorities have disputed this claim. Arlit was previously hit by a suicide assault in 2013 by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al Mua’qi’oon Biddam, or the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade, a precursor to Al Murabitoon.
One raid has occurred in the Ivory Coast. In March, Al Murabitoon targeted a popular beach resort in the southern Ivory Coast town of Grand Bassam, killing at least 14 civilians and two soldiers according to local media.
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 frequent attacks are expected to continue. Since the UN mandate began in 2013, at least 80 peacekeepers and six other employees have been killed in Mali, making it the deadliest UN peacekeeping force in the world.
With over 100 attacks recorded halfway through the year, Al Qaeda’s operational capacity in Mali and the wider West African region appears to have remained intact and is expanding. The rate in which these assaults have occurred is also unlikely to slow down, which may make 2016 one of the deadliest years for Mali since 2012.