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Al Qaeda maintains operational tempo in West Africa in 2017

According to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal, al Qaeda and its many allies and affiliates launched at least 276 attacks in Mali and the wider West Africa region in 2017. That means the al Qaeda has largely kept its operational tempo in West Africa consistent when compared to last year.

That 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 Ansar Dine’s Katibat Macina (also known as the Macina Liberation Front). Beginning in March, these groups merged together to form the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.  Aside from Mali, assaults claimed or attributed to Ansaroul Islam in Burkina Faso, as well as attacks attributed to jihadists in Niger, were also added.

Of the 276 attacks, 71 came as a result of improvised explosive devices. Another 24 were from mortar or rocket barrages aimed at French, Malian, or UN military bases in northern Mali. There were also 11 kidnappings, with several occurring in both Mali and Burkina Faso. Two were suicide bombings. The remaining 168 attacks were a variation of assaults, ambushes, or assassinations.

The central regions of Mali became the most volatile region of Mali compared to recent years with 90 attacks occurring within the Mopti, Segou, and Koulikoro regions. That marks a significant shift from recent years, as jihadist assaults move progressively south. The Kidal region accounted for 46 assaults in 2017, even though it was the most volatile region in 2016. In Gao there were 41 attacks, while Timbuktu was relatively less violent with just 30 attacks. The final 69 occurred in Burkina Faso and Niger.

Whether the intended target or collateral damage, civilians were targeted 68 times in Mali and Burkina Faso. Malian security forces (military, national guard, gendarmerie, and police) were the primary target for jihadists, with those security forces being the target in 98 instances. The UN’s forces were targeted 48 times. Another 16 were directed at French forces. The other 46 were directed towards Burkinabe or Nigerien security personnel.

Prior to the merger which formed JNIM, Ansar Dine claimed responsibility for two attacks while AQIM claimed four. After the merger, JNIM has only claimed direct responsibility for 73 instances. Many instances go unclaimed due to unwanted results, communication problems, operational security, or other issues deemed unwanted by the group. However, attacks were added to the data if local media reported that jihadists were suspected.

This also applies to the data gathered from northern Burkina Faso. The JNIM-linked Ansaroul Islam is thought to be responsible for the majority of the attacks in Burkina Faso’s Sahel region, but it has only formally claimed less than a handful of these instances. Local Burkinabe media and residents have provided invaluable reporting as this was used to determine if Ansaroul Islam is suspected, and therefore, should be added to the data.

Clashes between rival Tuareg groups or communal violence were not added to the data, unless the jihadists explicitly claimed involvement. This includes when JNIM involved itself in communal violence in central Mali in March. Instances where the primary motivation appears to have been robbery or other types of banditry were also not added.

Ansaroul Islam was founded by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a close ally of Amadou Kouffa, who is the leader of Ansar Dine’s Katibat Macina. In posts made on its (now deleted) Facebook page, Ansaroul Islam confirmed that Dicko had met with Kouffa in the pastJeune Afrique has reported that Dicko initially tried to link up with jihadist groups in northern Mali in 2013, but was arrested by French forces in Tessalit and then subsequently released in 2015.

Malam Dicko died earlier this year and was replaced by his brother Jafar, which was confirmed by Le Monde. In addition, the French newspaper has also reported that Ansaroul Islam has around 200 members and is largely based in Boulkessi, Burkina Faso. The group maintains a heavy degree of operational ties with JNIM, which involves taking part in many raids across the border in Mali. JNIM also claimed six attacks in Burkina Faso, giving more evidence to the relationship between it and Ansaroul Islam.

Violence in northern Burkina Faso saw a significant uptick in 2017, including the first ever use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the country. According to FDD’s Long War Journal’s data, there have been at least six instances of IEDs in Burkina Faso. Most of Ansaroul Islam’s attacks are focused on Burkinabe security forces, as well as civilian infrastructure, near the Malian border.

At least two separate attacks, one in Mali and one in Niger, have been attributed to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, but this number is likely higher. This includes the October 4 ambush in which four US Special Forces soldiers were killed in Niger near the Mali border. JNIM claimed one attack in Niger, an ambush on Nigerien troops in the Tahoua Region on July 5.

The large number of attacks represents a resurgent al Qaeda-led insurgency based in Mali, which continues to able to penetrate into the southern and central regions with great frequency and spread across the borders. However, while rate of attacks did go down in the northern Malian regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal compared to last year, al Qaeda continues to be a persistent threat in the north. That said, JNIM’s killing of prominent civilians in the north has also exacerbated tensions with some Tuaregs, especially some within the large Kel Ansar tribe, has hurt its public support. The extent of which remains to be seen, though.

Despite a French-led counterterrorism mission and a United Nations peacekeeping force, Al Qaeda still retains the ability to operate openly in Mali. And like last year, Al Qaeda has been able to strike throughout West Africa, though it did not conduct any large-scale terrorist attack like in 2016. The attack frequency and scale is expected to continue in 2018. Since the UN mandate began in 2013, more than 100 peacekeepers have been killed in Mali, making it the deadliest UN peacekeeping force in the world.

Caleb Weiss :Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.