US designates al Qaeda’s branch in Mali as terror organization

Iyad Ghali, center, announced the formation of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in Mar. 2017.

The State Department announced today that it has added Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), al Qaeda’s branch in Mali and West Africa, to the US government’s terrorist designation lists. JNIM was established in Mar. 2017, bringing together several preexisting al Qaeda groups under a common banner.

The leader of JNIM is Iyad Ghaly, a Malian Tuareg jihadist. Ghaly is openly loyal to al Qaeda, as well as the emir of the Taliban.

“On this blessed occasion, we renew our pledge of allegiance [bayat] to our honorable emirs and sheikhs: Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, our beloved and wise sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri and…the emir of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, Mullah Haibatullah, may Allah protect them and support them,” Ghaly said when he announced the formation of JNIM.

Wadoud (who is also known as Abdulmalek Droukdel) is the head of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an al Qaeda branch in North and West Africa. Wadoud has sworn his fealty to Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda. Zawahiri has, in turn, sworn his own allegiance to Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada — the Taliban’s emir.

JNIM’s constituent groups are Ghaly’s Ansar Dine, Al Murabitoon, AQIM’s branch in the Sahara, and the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), also known as Katibat Macina.

In his Mar. 2, 2017 announcement, Ghaly explained that these al Qaeda organizations had united “into one group” operating under “one emir,” so they could “stand united against the occupier Crusader enemy.” The main “Crusader” enemy he had in mind was France, which intervened in Mali in early 2013, after AQIM and Ansar Dine took over large swathes of the country the previous year. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Al Qaeda groups reorganize in West Africa.]

Ghaly’s Ansar Dine was key to AQIM’s plans in Mali. Although some portrayed his group as an independent entity, it was always tied to AQIM. Letters written by Wadoud show that AQIM considered Ansar Dine to be its local face, and AQIM’s leadership weighed a plan to stand up Ansar Dine as the governing entity of the jihadists’ proto-emirate. But after initially capturing ground throughout Mali in 2012, AQIM, Ansar Dine and their allies were ejected from much of their territory. They have been waging an insurgency and conducting terrorist attacks throughout the region ever since.

Ghaly was designated as a terrorist in Feb. 2013, with State noting at the time that he “cooperates closely” with AQIM. Ansar Dine was then designated as a terrorist organization the following month, with State again noting its close relationship with AQIM.

Ghaly weighs in on jihadi controversy in Syria

Although Ghaly’s focus is mainly within West Africa, he has weighed in on international matters.

During his Mar. 2017 announcement, Ghaly praised the formation of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) earlier that same year. HTS was formed by the group formerly known as Al Nusrah Front, which was an official branch of al Qaeda, but announced its rebranding as Jabhat Fath al Sham in July 2016. Addressing “our mujahideen brothers in Syria,” Ghaly said: “You represent a good example of unity, merging, and relinquishing personal interests for the sake of the ummah’s interests.” Ghaly added that the “ummah…rejoices at your efforts toward merging” and the Syrian mujahideen’s “unity” has gained “the ummah’s supplications on your behalf.”

However, within months, it became clear that HTS was not a force for unity. Instead, some al Qaeda figures objected to its formation, claiming that Al Nusrah Front had broken its sacred oath of allegiance to Zawahiri in the process. HTS cracked down on dissenters, leading to infighting and splinter factions being formed.

In Oct. 2017, various al Qaeda-linked scholars and figures set up a reconciliation initiative that was intended to bring an end to the strife. Ghaly issued a statement in support of the mediation, encouraging his “brothers in the blessed Sham [Syria], leaders, sheikhs and soldiers to comply with the call of the scholars” and rely on “their guidance” to “resolve” the matter. AQIM endorsed the mediation as well. But the disagreements continued into early 2018, when a new al Qaeda group broke off from HTS and others defected as well.

JNIM’s prolific network

A UN report issued in July noted that Ghaly “promotes combat action against security forces, rather than attacks on the population.” This is consistent with al Qaeda’s modus operandi elsewhere, as the group is concerned that
local, civilian casualties may hurt its branding and appeal. However, this general policy does have exceptions.

The UN pointed to Al Murabitoon, one of JNIM’s constituent groups, as a key executor of its operations. Al Murabitoon has been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an al Qaeda veteran who had a falling out with AQIM’s leadership and formed his own splinter faction. Al Murabitoon reunited with AQIM in late 2015, and was then folded in JNIM in early 2017. Belmokhtar’s fate is uncertain, as he has been reported dead several times.

According to the UN, Al Murabitoon “bring[s] enhanced operational capabilities for complex attacks on symbolic targets.” The report pointed to the Mar. 2, 2018 “attacks on the French Embassy and the armed forces headquarters in Ouagadougou,” which “were claimed by JNIM as revenge, after several Al Murabitoon commanders were killed” weeks earlier. The UN also noted that an Apr. 15, 2018 operation by JNIM “combined mortar and rocket strikes with breaches by suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, coupled with the use of small arms fire, on the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and French military bases in Timbuktu, Mali.”

In its announcement today, State said that JNIM “has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks and kidnappings.” The designation lists the June 2017 attack in Bamako, Mali, and the aforementioned large-scale, Mar. 2018 assault in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Indeed, according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal, JNIM has conducted at least 113 attacks on Malian forces since its founding.

JNIM has also been behind several suicide bombings on French and UN troops since last year. At least 105 JNIM attacks have targeted French and UN troops.

The group also currently holds several foreign hostages, including Ken Elliot, Iulian Ghergut, Beatrice Stockly, Gloria Narvaez, and Sophie Petronin.

While this detail is not mentioned in State’s designation, JNIM is also heavily tied to a jihadist group operating in northern Burkina Faso. The US-designated group, Ansaroul Islam, has been responsible for dozens of attacks on Burkinabe security forces, as well as local civilians. JNIM trained Ansaroul Islam members and given the group weapons, including IEDs.

According to the UN, Ansaroul Islam “is divided in two factions,” one of which is tied to JNIM, while the other is connected to the Islamic State’s branch in the region. “Member States assess that JNIM might look towards Ansarul Islam…as part of its strategy to expand the network further abroad,” the UN’s report reads.

Since its founding in Mar. 2017, JNIM has proven that it commands a deep, regional network. And it continues to wage jihad on behalf of al Qaeda.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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