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Security to continue deteriorating as jihadist groups expand geographically, intensify attacks, increase regional threat – Burkina Faso Special Analysis

Written by Ishita Singh – MAX Security’s Senior Analyst for West & Central Africa

Edited by Rachel Jacob – MAX Security’s Regional Director of Intelligence, Sub-Saharan Africa

Executive Summary

Since September 2018, there has been a dramatic increase in militant attacks in Burkina Faso, now affecting 11 of the 13 regions. The majority of this activity targets security forces, local authorities, and schools.

Militant groups have increasingly targeted the mining sector through theft, extortion, and active control over mines. However, security operations that close mines even temporarily are liable to create resentment and encourage militant recruitment.

Jihadists exploit intercommunal tensions to drive recruitment, especially among the Fulani, instigating retaliatory cycles of violence that can create large death tolls and alienate the population from the government.

As attacks continue to spread throughout the country, there is a growing threat to Burkina Faso’s southern neighbors, which will have to bolster their defensive efforts despite their own political challenges to prevent a spillover of violence.

Avoid nonessential travel to outlying areas of Burkina Faso given the ongoing threat of militancy and violent crime, while avoiding all travel to Sahel, Est, Nord, and Boucle du Mouhoun regions due to the risk of attacks.

Key Points & Forecast

Where previously there were about seven attacks per month in Burkina Faso, between September 2018 and February 2019, militants conducted an average of 34 attacks per month. Most were in Sahel, Est, Nord, and Boucle du Mouhoun regions, but these trends continue to spread toward the west and south, particularly in Centre-Nord, Hauts Bassins, and Cascades regions.

The vast majority of jihadist activity targets security forces, local government authorities, and Western-style schools. This will remain the broad focus of militant groups as they solidify their areas of control in the north and continue to expand their geographical presence.

Jihadist groups increasingly target the mining sector, with theft and extortion expected to remain significant especially in Sahel and Est regions given how profitable these attacks can be. At the same time, military escorts for mining companies have also given militants new opportunities to attack security forces and thus increases risks to civilian travelers.

Foreign nationals have come under attack repeatedly over the past six months, with at least five incidents since September 2018 in which foreigners were abducted or killed. This threat will remain high in all remote areas of Burkina Faso, particularly in the northern and eastern regions, and along the borders of Mali and Niger.

The dual role of “Koglweogo” self-defense militias, with some factions supporting the government while others cooperate with militants, creates another layer of insecurity in outlying regions and will continue to exacerbate the situation.

Security forces have been shown to use violence against civilians both to deter them from collaborating with jihadist groups as well as punish them for doing so. Their heavy-handed measures will alienate the local population and hamper security efforts, as well as further drive jihadist recruitment.

Militancy is expected to continue spreading throughout the rural areas of the country as jihadists grow entrenched in the north and east and mobilize toward the west and south. Moreover, there remains the possibility of a high-profile attack in Ouagadougou, as has been seen periodically.

The spread of militancy has already reached Burkina Faso’s southern borders and has the potential to affect its neighbors Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Benin, and these countries may not be able to bolster their security sufficiently to prevent the spillover of violence.

Current Situation

In December 2018, the government of Burkina Faso declared a state of emergency in 14 provinces across seven regions, including the Hauts-Bassins, Boucle du Mouhoun, Cascades, Centre-Est, Est, Nord, and Sahel regions.

Over the past year, from February 2018 to February 2019, approximately 270 militant attacks were reported across Burkina Faso.

Between February and August 2018, militants conducted around seven attacks per month. Between September 2018 and February 2019, militants conducted an average of 35 attacks per month.

The Governor of Est Region ordered the temporary closure of mining sites in all provinces on March 20 and called upon stakeholders to clear all mining sites. An official communique stated that this was “in the pursuit of the securitization of the administrative district.”

Militant Groups in Burkina Faso

Ansarul Islam – The first jihadist group to be established in Burkina Faso, it was founded in November 2016 by the now-deceased Ibrahim Malam Dicko. Ansarul Islam remains largely based in the Djibo, Soum Province area, though the group has conducted attacks throughout Sahel and Nord Regions and remains highly active in these areas. Dicko was an ethnic Fulani but Ansarul Islam is not a solely ethnicity-based group, with Dicko using Islam to challenge local dynamics and hierarchies to bring different ethnicities and classes together. Ansarul Islam engages not only in militant attacks against the state and ideological targets but also common banditry. At the same time, it also functions as a self-defense group in certain areas to protect its supporters from banditry and intercommunal violence perpetrated by others.

Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam waal Muslimeen (JNIM) – The al-Qaeda coalition formed in Mali in March 2017 including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Sahara branch, Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun, and Macina Liberation Front under the leadership of Iyad Ag Ghaly. JNIM serves as a united front for its strategic and militant operations based in Mali, where it controls territory and conducts hundreds of attacks each year in the northern and central regions. Additionally, the group has carried out large-scale attacks in the capital cities of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ivory Coast. Over the past year, JNIM has increasingly expanded its area of operations into Burkina Faso, at least into Sahel, Est, Centre-Est, Centre-Nord, Nord, and Boucle du Mouhoun regions.

Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on behalf of al-Mourabitoun in May 2015, though was subsequently ousted by rival leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Al-Sahraoui and ISGS later claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger and was acknowledged by the Islamic State central organization in October 2016. ISGS has since expanded its area of operations, focusing on the border of Mali and Niger, particularly in the Ansongo Menaka Partial Wildlife Reserve, as well as along the Niger-Burkina Faso border. However, the group has retained a much smaller profile in terms of propaganda. Their most notable attack was the October 2017 ambush of a US special operations team near Tongo Tongo, Niger.

Assessments & Forecasts

Growth of militancy a result of weakened security apparatus, as similar patterns of jihadist activity spread from northern, eastern regions into central, western regions

Over the past six months, Burkina Faso has seen a dramatic shift in its security as the intensity as well as geographical scale of militant attacks has rapidly expanded. Where there was once several attacks per month, largely concentrated in Sahel and Nord regions, this has grown to an average of 34 security incidents per month being reported in at least 11 of the 13 regions. This threat was long present due to Burkina Faso’s proximity to Mali, in the midst of a civil war and prolonged jihadist insurgency. Former Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore was believed to have forged deals with Malian armed groups to prevent their entering Burkina Faso, though this would have ended with his ouster in 2014. Compaore’s resignation after a popular uprising was followed by a failed coup by the Presidential Security Regiment (RPS) in 2015. This period of political instability, as well as the disbanding of the RPS with other reforms, weakened the security apparatus to the point where criminality and militancy could grow.

Ansarul Islam emerged as Burkina Faso’s first jihadist group when it conducted its earliest known attack against a military outpost in Sahel Region in December 2016. The insurgency continued to grow over the following year, mostly concentrated in Soum and Oudalan provinces. This came alongside a relationship with the Mali-based Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam waal Muslimeen (JNIM) al-Qaeda coalition, with the two groups likely working in tandem for some attacks both in Burkina Faso as well as in Mali. It is probable that this cooperation led to the evolution of Ansarul Islam’s tactics from small arms to the use of IEDs, which began in late 2017 and continued since. With these connections, Burkina Faso’s Sahel and Nord regions could function as an area for Malian jihadists to escape the pressure of local and international military operations inside of Mali while continuing to launch attacks targeting Mali. At the same time, the persistent but less frequent attacks on Burkinabe security forces in late 2017 and early 2018 helped to destabilize the border region, expanding the militants’ influence and allowing greater cross-border movement for jihadists that would come to facilitate JNIM’s movement southward into Burkina Faso by late 2018.

While Ansarul Islam’s earliest attacks solely targeted security forces, this evolved into attacks against government officials, village leaders, religious clerics, and teachers who all represented the Burkinabe state and opposed jihadist ideology. Militants subsequently burned down schools for teaching French or Western-style education and forcibly gathered residents to preach more radical forms of Islam. In some areas, militants have also banned alcohol, prostitution, and smoking. In that sense, Ansarul Islam was able to establish a sufficient level of control over its area of operations to impose its ideology. Moreover, this pattern of influence and violence came to become a model for subsequent efforts in other parts of Burkina Faso, first in Est Region and beyond.

In Est Region, reports of jihadist cells and camps being dismantled in March and April 2018 were early indicators of an expansion of militant activity. Attacks against security forces in Est began in July 2018, which then led to the targeting of local government officials and schools, with at least ten arson incidents against schools being reported and most schools closing down. The number of attacks in Est and as a whole dramatically increased in September 2018, likely due to a concentrated effort by militants when it became clear that Burkinabe security forces were more vulnerable than they first appeared. This can also be seen as militants began this pattern anew in Boucle du Mouhoun Region only one month later, when the number of incidents jumped from five incidents along the border between January and September 2018 to 14 attacks between October and December 2018. In that sense, this strategy has been highly effective in destabilizing fairly large areas of rural Burkina Faso and imposing jihadist ideology.

FORECAST: Using the precedent set first in Sahel and Nord, and then in Est and Boucle du Mouhoun, these patterns are expected to continue farther to the south and west. This has already begun in Centre-Nord, with early attacks against security forces in January, with the number of attacks increase to 12 reported in February and March, including those targeting village leaders and schools. Centre-Nord is thus expected to see an intensified level of jihadist activity in the coming months. At the same time, the early warning signs are likewise being seen in Hauts-Bassins and Cascades regions, which lie on Burkina Faso’s southernmost borders with Mali and Ivory Coast, and further attacks are expected in those regions as well.

Mining industry assets targeted as sources of revenue as jihadists grow further entrenched in local economies

Over the past six months, militant activity has increasingly targeted the mining sector. This is especially important in the north and east where economic activity is mostly tied to mining or pastoralism. With mines in these areas being highly productive, militant groups have not only attacked assets for direct theft but also use violence to extort “protection” payments from facilities. Moreover, there are increasing indications that jihadists have taken control of mining sites. When several miners died in a landslide in Kompienga Province, Est Region in October 2018, the government was unable to access the affected area because the mine was under militant control. With mines creating employment and revenue, militant control over sites also provides them with the opportunity to establish themselves as the local authority, further embedding themselves into local communities and economies.
FORECAST: It is likely that direct control over mines will remain fairly limited given that it would require more resources from the militants and is more likely to attract larger security responses. However, with overall activity targeting mines being highly lucrative for militants, extortion and theft is expected to continue, especially in the Sahel and Est regions.

To some extent, this can also be viewed as an attack on the government, given that about 75 percent of Burkina Faso’s export revenue comes solely from gold mining. The theft of revenue, as well as the effect of the violence on mining companies’ decisions to invest in the country, could be substantially detrimental to the economy. Because of this, the government began providing military escorts for mining convoys. However, this also gave the militants new opportunities to attack security forces, with a number of convoys being targeted with IEDs and ambushes. Although mining employees have reportedly not been harmed in these incidents, this underscores the way in which the militants’ interest in attacking security forces can cause collateral damage to civilians.

Foreign nationals have been specifically targeted in the context of attacks on mining facilities over the past six months. In September 2018, two foreign nationals were abducted after leaving a Ghanaian-owned gold mine in Soum Province, suspected to have been taken into Mali. Separately, in January, a foreign national with a Canadian-owned gold mining company was abducted and killed while visiting a mining site in Yagha Province. It is likely that both abductions were intended for ransom purposes with the latter incident being botched in some way. This is suggestive of the militants’ understanding that foreign-owned mining facilities are likely to have foreign nationals traveling to and from the site who can be kidnapped.
FORECAST: Although both incidents took place in the Sahel Region, which remains the most volatile and least secure region of the country, this is reflective of an increasingly widespread instability that can affect travelers in many remote areas.

Foreign nationals increasingly targeted for ransoms, jihadist violence in remote regions

Beyond the association with the mining industry, foreign nationals have come under attack repeatedly in rural areas of Burkina Faso over the past six months. This has included a Canadian and Italian disappearing in Hauts Bassins Region in December 2018, a Czech national killed in Centre-Est Region’s Koulpelogo Province on January 23, and a Spanish priest being killed by JNIM in Centre-Est’s Boulgou Province on February 15. Moreover, an Italian priest was abducted by ISGS in Niger’s Tillaberi Region only 15 km from the border in September 2018, after which he was taken back into Burkina Faso’s Est Region. Given the lack of uniformity, this has also made it clear that foreign nationals may be targeted with violence for their identity without the involvement of kidnapping. As abductions also serve a financial purpose, this is illustrative of the way in which militants use criminality to support their operations.
FORECAST: It is increasingly clear that militants deliberately target foreign nationals when they become aware of their presence for the purposes of ransoms as well as international attention and propaganda, and these attacks are expected to continue in rural areas in the foreseeable future.

Local self-defense militias complicate security dynamics, while jihadists exploit intercommunal tensions for recruitment, regional goals

Another symptom of the poor presence of the state in many rural areas has been the development of “Koglweogo” self-defense militias, which operate as localized security organizations across the country. At times, they are supported by local authorities, either openly or tacitly, though there are areas in which they operate fully independently from the government. The latter dynamic could be seen during the February 15 JNIM attack on a customs post in Boulgou Province during which Koglweogo militia arrived but were asked to leave by militants and evidently did so because the target of the attack was security personnel and not civilians. That the militants did not engage with the Koglweogo and let them go safely illustrates the clarity of the jihadists’ objectives in attacking security forces, but also suggests that self-defense militias in parts of the country are willing to cooperate with or allow militant operations so long as it targets the government rather than civilians.

As Koglweogo militias operate independently of one another rather than as a unified network, there are other instances of the self-defense groups confronting militants. On January 1, militants assassinated the village chief of Yirgou in Centre-Nord Region’s Sanmatenga Province, a common type of attack against local authorities. In retaliation, the local Koglweogo militia killed at least 47 ethnic Fulanis in Yirgou and its environs. In that sense, the dual role played by self-defense militias adds another layer of instability as additional active armed groups in outlying regions of the country, and ones that not only retaliate against jihadists but can perpetrate abuses against civilians that further drive jihadist recruitment.

That the Koglweogo militia retaliated against the ethnic Fulani population, in that case, is illustrative of another social and ethnic dynamic in the region, one that mirrors the situation in the neighboring Mali’s Mopti Region. Fulani pastoralist communities often conflict with farming communities, with Fulanis viewing themselves as marginalized by the government while other ethnic groups perceive Fulanis to be in collaboration with jihadists as both JNIM and Ansarul Islam have heavily Fulani factions. This intercommunal violence has made Fulanis further susceptible to recruitment by militant groups. In this context, jihadist groups have deliberately instigated attacks against other communities in anticipation of retaliatory attacks against Fulanis, which would then drive Fulanis closer to the militants. As seen by the incident in Yirgou, this can create high death tolls even within a single day.

JNIM’s use of ethnic violence as part of its strategy for recruitment and mobilization has been highlighted in its propaganda as well. In November 2018, JNIM released a video featuring Macina Brigade leader Amadou Kouffa, who was preaching in Pulaar, the language of the Fulani people. This was meant to appeal to the broad Fulani audience across the region, which he made clear by calling upon Fulanis to mobilize for the jihadist cause, not only in Mali but also in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon. To this point, JNIM has sought to capitalize on their successes in recruiting Fulanis amid these intercommunal conflicts. This not only aims to mobilize Fulanis for jihadist effots but speaks to JNIM’s wider regional goals in terms of expanding its influence throughout West Africa.

Increased security response, escalating reports of human rights abuses risks alienating local population from government, while role of international forces likely to grow

As attacks have multiplied across the country, security forces have consequently launched a number of campaigns targeting militants in Sahel, Est, Centre-Est, Nord, and Boucle du Mouhoun regions, with at least 17 operations reported since September 2018. While these may have been effective to some degree, the intensified response has also exposed Burkinabe security forces’ indiscipline and overall lack of capabilities. This was exemplified by the military’s claim to have killed 146 militants in a security operation in Loroum Province, Nord Region and Kossi Province, Boucle du Mouhoun Region on February 4. Human rights organizations later documented evidence that the victims were largely civilians who had been killed while asleep, with no indication that they were linked to militants. This aligns with repeated reports of security forces carrying out extrajudicial killings and arbitrarily detaining locals.

The claim to have killed such a large number of militants was likely meant simply for government propaganda to portray the military as successful. However, reports have shown security forces to use violence against civilians for the purpose of deterring them from collaborating with militants as well as to punish them for supporting any militant groups. Such behavior has the dual effect of alienating local populations, which then hampers security forces’ efforts to collect intelligence or otherwise utilize the cooperation of local residents, as well as further driving jihadist recruitment. This additionally overlaps with existing ethnic dynamics, with security operations in heavily Fulani areas particularly causing resentment and motivating local collaboration with jihadist groups, which portray themselves as defenders of the Fulani. FORECAST: In the absence of accountability for security forces, as well as the continued proliferation of militant attacks like to create similar security responses, this cycle is expected to continue, with further abuses against civilians pushing further cooperation between locals and militants.

Other government efforts also risk alienating the population in separate ways. In recognition of the role that mining facilities can play for jihadists, new measures were launched to conduct security operations in and around these sites. The Governor of Est Region’s March 20 announcement that all mining sites in the entire region would be shut down, followed by the High Commissioner of Yagha Province in Sahel Region announcing the same on March 22, suggests a deliberate effort to clear these crucial economic sites of militants.
FORECAST: However, the full closure of these mines will likely impact the local economy, as they provide a significant amount of employment for thousands of local residents. Removing their source of employment is liable to create resentment toward the government as well as increase the susceptibility of locals to joining jihadist groups over discontent as well as a financial incentive.

In addition, there has been increased French involvement in Burkina Faso in recent months. France has periodically supported Burkinabe security forces in recent years, with the bulk of Operation “Barkhane” focused on combating militancy and crime in Mali but operating throughout the region, including in Niger and Chad. This growing French involvement has largely taken the form of air operations, with French aircraft supporting Burkinabe forces in Est Region in October 2018 and in Sahel Region in January, though there have also been sporadic reports of French ground forces in Burkina Faso close to the border of Mali.
FORECAST: French air support is likely to increase in the coming months, particularly in light of Burkina Faso’s air force having few aircraft and generally inexperienced pilots and crew. More broadly, as militancy continues to spread throughout much of Burkina Faso, including incidents along the borders of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Benin, France will likely be additionally motivated to assist in a large-scale effort to prevent the destabilization of the wider region.

Militants to reinforce gains, continue expanding in central, western provinces, while pursuing wider regional vision

As has been seen with JNIM’s activity in Mali, it is likely that militant groups will seek to cement their gains in Burkina Faso while also keeping an eye toward steady expansion. FORECAST: This will mean that the bulk of JNIM and Ansarul Islam’s attacks will remain in Sahel, Nord, and Est regions to solidify their grip on those regions, with individuals or facilities linked to security forces and the government being the primary target. At the same time, the pace of attacks in other areas will likely be continuous if somewhat less frequent, with Boucle du Mouhoun, Centre-Nord, and Centre-Est the most prominent areas of targeted expansion over the coming weeks and months, with Hauts Bassins and Cascades likely to be a longer-term goal. This large geographical focus is somewhat ambitious but is likely to be effective given that Burkinabe security forces lack a comprehensive strategy or the capabilities necessary to secure much of these regions. Even if international forces increase their intervention, it is likely that Burkina Faso will increasingly see a scenario similar to Mali’s, in which some regions of the country are within jihadist areas of control while the government is only able to secure a wider zone in the vicinity of Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso.

FORECAST: This will necessarily increase the threat against Ouagadougou as well. The capital city has periodically been the target of large-scale militant attacks, with JNIM and its constituent groups conducting attacks against government targets, hotels, and restaurants in Ouagadougou in March 2018, August 2017, and January 2016. Moreover, there have been other intermittent reports of security forces foiling attacks in Ouagadougou, such as in December 2018 and May 2018, suggesting that this aim remains a priority for militants in the region even as the insurgency intensifies in the rural areas of Burkina Faso. There is continued evidence of some militant presence operating in Ouagadougou and an attack against a Western or high-profile target remains possible, even as Burkinabe and French intelligence mobilize particularly to prevent it.

As militant groups strengthen their grip on the outlying regions of Burkina Faso, this will also increasingly affect the security posture of the countries on its borders. In addition to heavy activity by JNIM and ISGS along the border with Niger, JNIM attacks have already been reported along the borders of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Further movement into those countries would adhere to the wider vision of jihadist groups that seek to spread their influence throughout the region. FORECAST: Given the speed with which militancy has spread to the southern border, these neighboring countries are expected to bolster their security presence to the degree that they are able. While all four countries are generally stronger than Burkina Faso at this point, political instability or unrest in countries such as Togo and Ivory Coast may affect their ability to deploy enough forces to secure their northern borders. Accordingly, this heightens the potential for militancy to spill over into these countries, which would likely be in the form of small-scale attacks against security forces relatively close to Burkina Faso. With that said, this is likely to be a much more limited threat and part of a longer-term effort with the focus on Burkina Faso as conditions continue to deteriorate across the country.

Recommendations

Travel to Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso may continue while adhering to stringent security precautions regarding crime and potential militancy.

Avoid nonessential travel to outlying areas of Burkina Faso given the ongoing threat of militancy and violent crime, while avoiding all travel to Sahel, Est, Nord, and Boucle du Mouhoun regions due to the risk of attacks.

Avoid all travel to areas along the border with Mali and Niger given the threat of cross-border militancy and violent crime, including abductions.

Growing wedge between al-Qaeda affiliates in Maghreb and Sahel to have adverse impact on long-term capabilities – Algeria & Mali Analysis

Executive Summary

The mass surrendering of Mali-based Algerian fighters, as well as militants in southern Algeria, is increasingly driving a wedge between al-Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam waal Muslimeen (JNIM) in Mali, which may force the groups to shift from regional operations to a more local focus.

So far in 2018, 120 militants have surrendered to Algerian security forces compared to 28 in 2017, and most of them are likely a part of the AQIM contingent in southern Algeria and northern Mali.

Despite this trend, and the reduction in their propaganda, the Mali-based al-Qaeda coalition JNIM, were able to maintain, and in some cases improve, their scope and scale of operations in 2018.

While groups in Mali may seek to use Niger as an substitute option for logistical purposes, should these trends persist and no effective alternatives be utilized, it will inevitably have an adverse effect on AQIM and JNIM’s operational capabilities in the coming months and years.

Current Situation

According to reports from April 2018, “France, Algeria, and Mali are operating a secret agreement, signed in July 2017, to offer Sahel militants immunity in return for them laying down arms…this policy will give them immunity from prosecution.”

So far in 2018, 120 militants have surrendered in Algeria to the People’s National Army (ANP), compared to a total of 28 militants in 2017. Moreover, in 2018, 114 out of the 120 who surrendered did so in Adrar and Tamanrasset provinces, located just north of Algeria’s border with Mali and Niger, while in 2017, 21 out of the 28 militants who surrendered did so in Adrar and Tamanrasset provinces.

Additionally, according to reports from May, Algeria expelled 105 Malians on charges of links to Ansar Dine, a Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam waal Muslimeen (JNIM) constituent group. According to Algerian authorities, it was facing an influx of illegal migrants from Mali and Niger into its southern border provinces.

However, in Mali, JNIM has consistently carried out about 35 attacks per month in 2018 thus far, an increase from 2017, which saw approximately 25 attacks per month following the coalition’s founding in March. The primary exception was in July 2018, when JNIM increased its activity in efforts to undermine the presidential elections. As a whole, the majority of JNIM’s attacks are smaller-scale, though they have conducted at least 36 complex attacks in 2018.

Background

AQIM’s roots can be traced back to the Salafist Group for Preachment and Combatant (GSPC), an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which fought in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. In 2006-7, the GSPC distanced itself from the GIA, largely due to the fact that the GIA had lost much of its local support due to indiscriminate killings, and aligned itself with al-Qaeda.

As al-Qaeda’s strongest affiliate in Africa at the time, AQIM in Algeria supported jihadist efforts in other parts of the Maghreb, including in Mali. However, intensive counter-militancy campaigns by the ANP, which involved the use of airstrikes as well as ground raids, gradually reduced the power and influence of AQIM in Algeria, and drove some if its fighters and assets into northern Mali.

In March 2017 in Mali, AQIM’s Sahara branch, al-Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine, and Macina Liberation Front announced that they would be unifying under a single al-Qaeda coalition, JNIM. Although the individual groups have continued to act within their general spheres of influence in the northern and central regions, JNIM has presented a united front for its strategic and militant operations in Mali.

This completed a shifting of AQIM’s center of gravity from Algeria to Mali, with JNIM now the strongest and most potent al-Qaeda group in the region and Algeria serving mostly an auxiliary effort. However, this move was likely only reluctantly accepted by AQIM in Algeria, whose Emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud), an important figure within al-Qaeda’s hierarchy, seeks to restore the lost prestige of the organization.

Assessments & Forecast

Militant surrenders in southern Algeria likely to persist given militants’ apparent low morale

The ANP’s counter-militancy campaign has been largely successful in dislodging the threat of militancy in Algeria, as highlighted by the lack of a large-scale militant attack on Algerian soil in at least two years. The success of this campaign can be attributed to its focus on four key variables: the militant group’s ranks, support base, infrastructure, and supply lines. First, by targeting fighters, the ANP has significantly diminished the ranks of AQIM in both northern and southern Algeria. Second, at the same time, the security apparatus has attempted to dismantle the local support base of militants in these regions in order to deprive them of the ability to evade security operations. This is in light of the fact that a local support base, which is sustained due to a high rate of radicalization among youth residing in outlying areas of Algeria, provides militants with a pool of potential recruits as well as logistical support, likely in the form of safehouses, supplies, and information on security forces’ movements. Third, this counter-militancy campaign has resulted in the large-scale dismantling of militant infrastructure, which includes hideouts and weapons caches located in the mountainous parts of northern Algeria. Finally, Algeria has tightened its security along its porous borders with Mali, Niger, Tunisia, and Libya. This includes increased checkpoints as well as patrols along these borders in order to prevent the cross-border smuggling of fighters, weapons, and supplies into the country.

Over recent months, the majority of AQIM’s activity has become restricted to areas along the Tunisian border, such as Tebessa and Khenchela provinces, as this region allows the militant group to coordinate with its affiliate in western Tunisia. Therefore, in response, the Algerian security apparatus increased its intelligence sharing and cooperation with the Tunisian security apparatus in order to combat this threat of cross-border militancy. This strategy has been particularly successful for both sides, as demonstrated by several instances in which the ANP has successfully neutralized militants who escaped the jurisdiction of the Tunisian military by crossing the border into Algeria.

Aside from this, the ANP has been very successful in dismantling the senior local leadership of AQIM since the beginning of 2018. According to the Algerian Ministry of Defense, the ANP arrested two senior AQIM leaders in Skikda Province in July, and killed eight senior AQIM leaders in counter-militancy operations in Jijel Province in February. These factors have likely had a significant adverse impact on the Sunni jihadist groups’ prestige in Algeria. This, in turn, is liable to have impacted the morale of their fighters in the country, who have may have become disillusioned. Taking all these factors into consideration and combining them with reports of an “amnesty deal” put in place by Algeria, France, and Mali, may give a plausible explanation for the large-scale surrenders of militants to the authorities in Tamanrasset Province since the beginning of January 2018.

The timing of this amnesty agreement, when conjoined with the low morale of ground fighters, would provide for the required incentive needed for militants to voluntarily surrender to authorities. In light of southern Algeria’s porous borders with northern Mali, it is highly possible that militants who have managed to infiltrate from Mali into Algeria are capitalizing on Algerian authorities’ reintegration policies to leave AQIM. While several of these militants have been of Malian nationality, the majority of them are Algerians who were fighting for JNIM in Mali, indicating that the amnesty deal only applies for militants of Algerian nationality. This is further underscored by Algeria’s decision to extradite 105 Malian nationals suspected of belonging to JNIM’s Ansar Dine.
FORECAST: Therefore, this ongoing trend of Mali-based militants attempting to surrender to the ANP in southern Algeria will likely continue over the coming months. The majority of these militants will likely be of Algerian nationality as they attempt to return to the country to seek advantage of the reported “amnesty deal”.

FORECAST: However, AQIM leadership continues to be interested in maintaining an operational base in Algeria, likely due to the country’s historical and symbolic significance to the group. This has been demonstrated by an uptick in militant attacks conducted by the group in Algeria over recent months. As the group’s leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, is likely still alive, he will attempt to keep the group active for as long as possible. Therefore, the coming months may see an increase in militant attacks in Algeria. These will be focused in areas that have been considered relatively secure and witness lower security protocols. However, militant groups in the country likely do not possess the necessary capabilities to mount a large-scale attack at this time and such attacks will likely utilize low sophistication IEDs or ambushes.

JNIM continues to pose a significant threat to Mali’s security, further attacks are expected to occur in coming months

Since its founding, JNIM has exhibited a strong media strategy, frequently publishing claims of responsibility for attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso that detail the incidents and their locations as well as releasing sophisticated video propaganda. However, a downtick in publications since mid-2018 has created the perception that JNIM’s activity itself may have also declined. This perception was heightened as it came alongside reports of the amnesty deal in Algeria, as well as a series of French “decapitation” airstrikes that targeted JNIM leaders and positions in northern Mali’s Timbuktu and Mopti regions. However, despite these factors, as demonstrated, JNIM has remained as active as ever in its main theater of operations in northern and central Mali. In contrast, the group has conducted approximately ten more attacks per month in 2018 than they were able to do in 2017, suggesting that any loss of fighters has not been detrimental to their operations.

The numbers indicate that, since their emergence in March 2017, JNIM has conducted about 600 attacks in Mali, including at least 355 in 2018 alone. The vast majority of these attacks are small-scale, including tactics such as emplacing IEDs, shootings, and simple ambushes. These have enabled the militants to target and undermine security forces across a wide geographical area and reinforce their presence. At the same time, JNIM has also been able to carry out complex and large-scale attacks at least once a month, generally against high-profile targets such as airports or military camps. A multi-pronged attack against a French-UN base at the Timbuktu Airport in April 2018 highlights their offensive capabilities, as it involved at least three suicide vehicle-borne IEDs (SVBIEDs) disguised as UN and Malian army vehicles entering the base and detonating, as well as exchanges of rocket and small-arms fire. This exemplifies their persistent ability to exploit security forces’ vulnerabilities and marshal the necessary manpower and firepower to conduct sophisticated attacks against even fortified targets.

To this point, it appears that the surrender of Algerian militants has had little to no direct impact on JNIM or the overall security landscape in Mali. Although AQIM originated in Algeria, the base of the organization’s power has clearly shifted to Mali. With the exception of Yahya Abu Hammam, the emir of AQIM’s Sahara branch, JNIM’s top leadership is Malian, with the Tuareg Malian Iyad Ag Ghaly at the head of the group. It is possible that the departure of any Algerian jihadists has had little impact due to a successful transfer of knowledge in terms of weapons or capabilities to the Malian organizations over the years. Moreover, as al-Qaeda groups expanded into Mali from Algeria, they entrenched themselves in local communities and built recruitment networks that are based in local ethnic dynamics, with Tuaregs and Fulanis in particular representing a significant constituency for JNIM’s component groups. These populations would then mitigate the loss of any Algerian jihadists.

FORECAST: Given these trends and the difficulty that domestic and international armed forces have had in degrading JNIM, there is little to indicate that the pace and scale of attacks in northern and central Mali will be reduced in the immediate term. The group continues to retain the knowledge, resources, and capabilities to be a significant threat in their area of operations in Mali as well as the tri-border region with Burkina Faso and Niger. Their activity is likely to persist along the same lines, largely as small-scale, low-capability attacks against security forces, while larger, more complex assaults against high-profile targets will occur intermittently.

Changing dynamics to disrupt cooperation between AQIM in Algeria, JNIM in Mali, potentially to force shift from regional to local operations, hinder operational capabilities

As noted, the unprecedented uptick in Algerian militants crossing the border from Mali in order to surrender to the ANP appears to confirm the reports of an amnesty deal. Moreover, the effect is almost exclusively restricted to southern Algeria, with only 6 of the 120 militants who surrendered having done so in northern Algeria, indicating that most of the militants who turned themselves in were part of AQIM’s contingents in southern Algeria and northern Mali. While the impetus is clearly the low morale of the fighters, the reason why this is only affecting Algerian fighters in southern Algeria and northern Mali and not the ones in northern Algeria remains unclear. Reasons can range from a rift between the Algerian “foreigners” and the local fighters in Mali over prestige to objectives of the militancy campaign to Algerian fighters simply becoming disillusioned and exhausted after many years of fighting abroad.
FORECAST: While the reasons remain speculative, the ramifications are clear, namely the deteriorating ability of AQIM in Algeria and JNIM in Mali to cooperate, which may in turn lead to an effective split between the groups.

This process is driven by the changing dynamic on the ground rather than a shift in strategy by al-Qaeda. Depleting number of Algerians in Mali means that there are fewer people who can serve as liaisons between AQIM and JNIM, and fewer people who can exploit their naturally better knowledge of Algeria to physically assist in cross-border activities. This is aggravated by the dwindling number of AQIM militants operating in southern Algeria due to the surrenders, which adds a geographical dimension to the distancing of the groups.
FORECAST: This would lead to more difficulties in the physical transfer of weapons, recruits, and supplies, as well as the exchange of knowledge and information.

Some of these losses can be compensated for by al-Qaeda. For example, AQIM in Algeria has increased its interaction and cooperation with its affiliate in Tunisia, Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade (OIB), and a persistent presence of al-Qaeda elements in southern Libya can also serve as a mitigating factor to the reduced interaction between Algeria and Mali. Nonetheless, they cannot fully replace the critical Algeria-Mali link, simply because of the distance, which would overstretch some elements of al-Qaeda’s supply lines from the Mediterranean coast into the Sahel. These can therefore not fully compensate for the wedge being driven between AQIM in Algeria and JNIM in Mali.

FORECAST: Overall, this means that the prospects for cross-border militant activity in cooperation between AQIM and JNIM has likely significantly dwindled and will continue along those lines in the coming months, forcing both groups to assume a much more local approach instead of being a part of a regional effort. Those in Mali may attempt to replace the use of southern Algeria with an alternative, such as using Mauritania and Niger for the movement of weapons, supplies, and manpower. In this regard, northern Niger is a more likely option for logistical purposes, as it would provide Mali-based groups with potential direct routes to Libya, whereas Mauritania would be a more roundabout and difficult approach. However, should the trends in Algeria persist, with no effective alternatives being utilized, it will inevitably have negative implications for both groups’ operational capabilities.

Recommendations

Algeria

Travel to Algiers and Oran may continue while adhering to all security precautions regarding militancy and civil unrest. Consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations.

Avoid nonessential travel to Kabylie, due to the heightened threat of militant attacks and general unrest in the region. Those conducting business essential travel to the region are advised to avoid the mountains between Tizi Ouzou, Bouira and Saharidj due to the heightened militant presence and activities in this area.

We advise against all nonessential travel to Algeria’s outlying areas. For business-essential visits, consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations and ground support options.

In Algiers and other major cities, remain vigilant in the vicinities of public squares, government buildings, and police stations, as these serve as focal points for protests and militant attacks.

Mali

Travel to Bamako may continue time while adhering to stringent security precautions regarding criminal activity and potential militancy.

We advise against all travel to northern and central Mali, as well as its border regions with Niger and Burkina Faso, given the threat from militant and rebel groups operating in the area, as well as ongoing ethnic tensions.