Al Qaeda’s JNIM claims suicide assault in Timbuktu

Last Saturday, the Timbuktu airport – home base of several forces operating in Mali – was targeted in a complex jihadist assault. Al Qaeda’s branch in Mali, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), claimed credit for the attack earlier today.

According to the French military, three suicide car bombs disguised as UN and Malian army vehicles infiltrated the super base at the airport and two detonated. Following the explosions, jihadists disguised as UN peacekeepers then engaged in a gun battle with UN and French soldiers at the base. Rockets and mortars were also fired at the base.

One actual UN peacekeeper was killed, while at least 10 others were wounded during the assault. France confirmed seven of its soldiers were also wounded. Additionally, the French military reported at least 15 jihadists were killed.

In JNIM’s statement, the jihadist conglomerate said the brazen attack was in response to the deaths of several of its high-ranking commanders in recent French raids. On April 3, French forces announced a raid north of Timbuktu, which killed Haydara al Maghrebi, a Moroccan commander within JNIM. A few days later, France conducted another operation north of Timbuktu, which killed Ayman al Shinqiti, a Mauritanian leader, and four other jihadists.

The deaths of both jihadist leaders were given as reasons for the assault on the Timbuktu airport. JNIM deliberately left their causality claim ambiguous this time, seeing that the operation was a tactical failure. However, Saturday’s assault represented the latest ambitious attack in a renewing insurgency.

Despite a French counterterrorism operation, targeting from G5 Sahel troops, and a UN peacekeeping operation in Mali, al Qaeda’s forces have persisted in expanding its insurgency. Al Qaeda still retains the ability to operate openly in Mali and strike in various locations across West Africa, including a large-scale terrorist attack in Burkina Faso’s capital earlier this month. Its violence is also spreading further south in Mali and into other areas of the Sahel. Since the beginning of the year, there have been at least 82 al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso, according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal, while last year there were 276.

Saturday’s suicide bombings were not the first time jihadists in Mali used a vehicle disguised with UN labels. In Nov. 2016, a similar tactic was employed in an attack on the Gao airport. Al Qaeda’s forces have also conducted large-scale suicide bombings in Mali, as well. However, the scale of Saturday’s attack appeared to be one of the largest in recent years.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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