Al Qaeda’s JNIM pushes closer to Malian capital

Over the last few weeks, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), al Qaeda’s branch for the Sahel and much of West Africa, has perpetrated a series of attacks that have inched closer and closer to the Malian capital of Bamako. The strikes have left at least 27 people dead and many others wounded. 

Starting earlier this month, JNIM’s assaults have taken place in the central Malian regions of Mopti and Segou, while it also targeted military personnel and installations in the southern regions of Kayes and Koulikoro. In the middle of these attacks, however, sits Bamako. 

The raids are meant to help cut off Bamako from other regions of Mali as part of JNIM’s strategy to encircle the capital in violence. 

On Jan. 2, the jihadist group struck twice, targeting both a defense post in the southern locale of Marka-coungo and a local toll station in the town of Kassela. The raids left at least 7 people dead. Both towns are located in Mali’s southern Koulikoro region, just outside of Bamako. JNIM later took credit for the twin attacks, but did not release any photographic evidence. 

A few days later on Jan. 8, JNIM again struck twice on the same day, hitting a gendarmerie post in the town of Sebekoro in Mali’s Kayes region and a custom post in Didieni, just noth of Bamako in the Koulikoro region. Just one gendarme was killed in the Sebekoro assault. In a later communique claiming the raids, JNIM also provided photos showing captured weapons, vehicles, and ammunition from the raids.

Two days later on Jan. 10, the al Qaeda branch again perpetrated another double assault. This time, it targeted Malian troops twice between Dia and Diafarabe in Mali’s central Mopti region, before again targeting Malian troops between Macina and Kumara in the neighboring Segou region. At least 14 Malian soldiers lost their lives during the twin ambushes. 

Photos released by JNIM from the attacks detail copious amounts of weapons and ammunition, as well as two Malian military vehicles, that were captured during the twin ambushes. 

Over the next four days, JNIM targeted Malian gendarmerie stations in both Segou and Koulikoro, though no gendarmes were killed. At least three gendarmerie stations, however, sit close to Bamako. Only one of these raids, the aforementioned attack on a station in Segou, was officially claimed by JNIM. Additionally, the jihadist group also assassinated one police officer in the southern Malian city of Nara during this time. 

And on Jan. 15, at least four Malian soldiers were killed in an ambush between Gomitra and Kwala just north of Bamako in the Kayes region. In its claim of the ambush, JNIM again showed that its men captured large amounts of weapons and equipment, in addition to two Malian military vehicles

JNIM, as well as its predecessor groups, have struck in or near Bamako in the past. In November, jihadists kidnapped a German priest from the capital, marking the first time al Qaeda has been able to successfully conduct a kidnapping operation in Bamako. Last July, it also conducted an assault with two suicide car bombs on Mali’s main military base in Kati, just 15km outside of Bamako. And that same month, it killed six people in an assault some 80km from Bamako. And more historically, jihadist attacks inside or very near to Bamako were reported in 2015, 2016, and 2017

However, the jihadist entity has made a more concerted effort to push further southward in Mali towards Bamako in recent weeks. The encirclement of Bamako with this violence, in the eyes of JNIM, puts additional pressure on the ruling junta to either capitulate to the group’s demands of governing the Malian state by Shari’a law or collapse entirely. 

Though this violence is not just contained to the south. JNIM has also been battling its rival in the Islamic State’s Sahel Province (more colloquially known as the Islamic State Greater Sahara) in the northern Gao and Menaka regions, causing thousands of people to be displaced according to the United Nations. And more nationalistic militias in the north have also recently pulled out of a 2015 agreement with the government in Bamako, causing increased security anxieties for the region. 

Mali’s military junta, led by Col. Assimi Goita, has been in power since May 2021 after overthrowing the transitional government put in place after the country’s initial coup in August 2020. Goita’s government has since taken a harsh anti-French stance, demanding the long-time French military presence inside Mali to end in early 2022.

France’s military operation in Mali thus officially ended in Aug. 2022, with many other European partners also leaving Mali following the French lead. Taking their place, however, is Russia’s nefarious Wagner Group. Since joining the fight inside Mali last year, jihadist violence has only skyrocketed while violence against civilians committed by the state and Wagner’s men has also steadily risen. 

Seeing an opening, al Qaeda’s men in West Africa are utilizing the current weakness of the Malian state to now seemingly march on the capital.

Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at 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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