Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
In 2017, a new jihadist group emerged in the Sahel, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims or JNIM). Initially, one could have expected the group to disappear or be absorbed by others. However, the group has not only survived but grown, becoming more notorious than groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and others, prompting French troops in the region to turn their attention to it.
The growing importance of JNIM can be attributed to its founder and leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, a career jihadist who typifies the persona of the “Big Man”, that is individuals who exert authority over autonomous sub-leaders through material support and affirmation. Ghaly, formerly involved with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinters and dependencies like Ansar al-Dine and Katiba Macina, is not just a mujahid, but a businessman who worked in the Malian consulate in Saudi Arabia for three years before authorities deported him for cultivating relations with extremists. These experiences outline Ghaly’s naked ambition that eventually led him to found JNIM.
Ghaly excels at exploiting local and regional power vacuums and tribal and family links, making personal gain alongside ideological advances. One of his cousins, for example, Malik Abou Abdelkarim, was a senior AQIM operative responsible for many of AQIM’s kidnapping. Unsurprisingly, Ghaly operated as a hostage negotiator. He also has a shrewd political mind capable of grasping the realities and nuances of the region. He absorbed lessons from the failures of other groups, such as the Islamic State of Azawad, which only lasted a few months because of its strict imposition of Islamic laws like amputating of the hands of thieves and banning of alcohol, cigarettes, and music.
What has worked for Ghaly is his adoption of “pastoral populism”, which draws from the al-Qaeda playbook of forming alliances with local groups by recognizing their local grievances. This policy, coupled with growing fractionalization across the Sahel, has helped JNIM attain and retain local dominance. While the group certainly uses violence to achieve supremacy, it tones this down once it has the upper hand. This tactic has proven effective — and not just for JNIM — as it terrorizes the population into submission, and then shifts the onus onto government authorities that are already are unpopular with people, who see them as corrupt, slow, and ineffective. This unstable environment gives the group an edge when it comes to negotiations with the government.
Additionally, JNIM has established a presence on social media. By merging with Katiba Macina — a social media savvy group with a substantial online presence — it has been successful in shaping the narrative of the conflict. Amadou Koufa, the leader of Katiba Macina is known for using WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram recruit members from the Fulani. Ansar al-Dine, the group that Ghaly established, is using Telegram to portray itself as the main challenger to the oppressive military government of Mali.
Beyond the practical challenges of unifying the various factions to resist the “Crusaders”, JNIM is exhibiting a stricter adherence to the Salafist-jihadist theological agenda. In two important pamphlets issued in 2020, Mauritanian religious scholar Qutaybah Abu Numan al-Shinqiti highlights how emerging terrorist groups such as JNIM are drawing influence from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Shinqiti highlights the contrast between al-Qaeda’s slow and steady approach, which calls for local recruitment and engagement to win over the population and recruits, and the Islamic State model, which tries to empower the mujahideen into action. What also features in Shinqiti’s documents is an emphasis on the need to liberate Palestine and support the Palestinian cause — unsurprising, considering the January 2019 JNIM attack in Aguelhok, which killed ten Chadian peacekeepers and wounded a further twenty-five. In its claim of responsibility, JNIM alleged that it was in response to the normalization of relations between Israel and Chad and included a reference to a call for action by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
JNIM primarily operates in Mali and has recently expressed a willingness to engage in peace talks with the government on the condition that French and United Nations forces leave the country — a precondition that Ghaly surely knew would be a non-starter. However, it is viewed as an indication of the group’s growing savviness, lethality, and ability to extend its presence across the Sahel.
A Balancing Act
JNIM is one of many groups engaged in a clear campaign of destabilization aimed at highlighting systemic government failures, but not allowing a complete state collapse, which would create a power vacuum they could not control. Overall, these groups are focused on accumulating recruits, territory, and wealth — while leaving the governments of the region to attend to services and other population needs that they are not yet capable of supplying.
This change of tactics draws on something that Osama bin Laden had warned Algerian Al-Qaeda leader Abdelmalek Droukdel about back in 2010. Droukdel’s leadership prompted massive population displacement as people fled from conflict zones, prompting the U.N. and European Union to intervene and mobilize international action to prevent mass starvation, robbing the jihadists of grievances they could feed on.
The Sahelian states have responded to the persistent terrorism threat by turning to hard counterterrorism measures. Firstly, they have doubled their defense expenditures. Since 2013, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have doubled their defense spending from 5.4 percent of government spending to over 10 percent in 2019 — a $600 million increase in military expenditure. Secondly, working with the French, the African Union, and others, they have supported the presence of foreign troops such as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization in Mali or the French-led (though drawing down) Operation Barkhane to aid them to counter the groups. This collaboration has achieved some measure of success. The French, for example, killed AQIM leader Droukdel in June 2020. However, allegations of gross human rights abuses continue to plague the indigenous security services, encouraging locals to sign up with the jihadist groups either for security purposes or for revenge.
The Sahel region is becoming the most dangerous region in the world, as terrorist groups increase their presence and the lethality of their attacks. Stronger French involvement has weakened JNIM’s presence in the tri-border area, leading it to encroach on Islamic State territory. This has brought about a moratorium to the Sahel exception requiring the international community to pay attention to what is happening in the Sahel and the possible spread of violence to Benin and Togo.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.