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From the Sahel to Gulf of Guinea: the communalisation of jihad requires a paradigm shift

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From the structure of AQIM through different original groups that came together in 2017 to the recurrent attacks that spill over to the Gulf of Guinea, there has been a great evolution that West African states and their partners are slow to take into account.

Both in the case of Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar’s al-Mourabitoune, replaced since his death by a Mauritanian Qadi (Islamic judge) named Abu Yahya Shinqiti, and Ansardine, originally founded by Iyad Ag-Aly at the beginning of the Malian crisis, the mutations of Jihadism mean that the classic fight against terrorism still does not take into account the changes taking place.

Now the vast area between Gao and Timbuktu and a good part of the Mauritanian border is controlled by Abû Talha Al-Lîbî. Meanwhile, the Macina Katiba founded in 2012 in Konna (central Mali) by the Malian preacher Muhammadun Saada Bari, alias Muhammadun Koufa, has taken on unprecedented proportions as part of the regionalisation of jihadist strategy in the Sahel. Despite the appearance of autonomy, the Katiba is under the effective command of Iyad Ag Ghali, the head of the JNIM. Certainly, since March 2015, this Katiba has been conducting operations in central Mali against symbols of the state, deployed foreign forces and civilian populations.

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The community card versus alert states

Even with the announcement of the death of Muhammadun Koufa in November 2018, the Katiba not only includes a community dimension but is becoming the most structured of terrorist groups with targeted attacks. In the new division of jihadist labor, the Macina Katiba takes over the area from central Mali to the borders of Mauritania and the roads leading to the Senegalese border. In recent years, the MUJAO (Movement of Unity for Jihad in West Africa), a former splinter group of Al-Mourabitoune, has become the EIGS, which has long been very active in the so-called tri-border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Terrorist groups that were thought to be weakened and decapitated of their leaders are regenerating and adapting to strategies of struggle that have had their day. Thus the Serma Katiba, commonly known as “AQIM South”, founded in 2012 by AQIM and whose first commander was a Malian by the name of Souleymane Keita alias Al-Bambary (the Bambara), is advancing along the Sikasso (Mali) axis towards Côte d’Ivoire. It threatened Guinea around the Yanfolia forest and the Haut-Niger Park.

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The massive influx of thousands of refugees from Burkina Faso into northern Côte d’Ivoire is only the visible part of a much more worrying phenomenon, which demonstrates the unsuspected possibilities for terrorist groups to move towards the countries of the Gulf of Guinea. In these border areas, they are already finding a favorable breeding ground among communities already indexed as potentially terrorist, with the added stigma of a worrying situation. The communalisation of violence is taking its course and terrorist groups are seizing upon it in their reorganisation and their strategy of penetration and, above all, of anchoring themselves in the coastal countries.

AQIM reorganises and divides jihadist work

There is today a vast recomposition within the terrorist groups in the region with, in particular, defections to the Islamic State from elements of the Serma katiba. It is in this context that we should understand the structuring of AQIM, the evolution of katibas engaged in territorial expansion towards southern Mali and Burkina Faso

These katibas, which are difficult to identify, have a certain degree of management autonomy but receive strict operational instructions on targets from the central command of the JNIM. Today, they operate by harassing security forces in Burkina Faso, northern Togo and Benin with highly mobile elements. They have autonomy in their relations with traditional authorities, in the management of booty, and in the inclusion of influential religious leaders of the communities in the framework of the establishment of local Shûrâ

This structuring, which would give the impression of dispersion, is rather a division of labor between the sub-groups affiliated with the JNIM. Jafar Dicko’s Ansarul Islam, which returned to the central fold of the JNIM after intense activity in Burkina Faso, is actively seeking to establish itself in northern Benin. It is supported by the Katiba of Serma, which targets the area around Bobo Dioulasso, and the Katiba Macina, which operates in the Oudalan and the Sahel region in general, in addition to support operations.

In this AQIM strategy of a multiplication of local ‘jihads’, the traditional wing of Ansarul Islam is prioritising further expansion into Burkina Faso, while elements under the Macina Katiba and to a lesser extent the Serma Katiba are strategically fixated on the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Cascades region of Côte d’Ivoire.

Moreover, since 2018/2019, a new group affiliated with the JNIM (and close to the Macina katiba) has formed in this Cascades region and calls itself “Katiba Alidougou”, named after the village where it is created. Most of the attacks that have occurred on Ivorian territory have been planned and launched from this area, which is currently under high security pressure.

Multiplication of breaches and areas of instability

As part of the extension and descent towards the countries of the Gulf of Guinea, the so-called “Gourma” Katiba, led by a Mauritanian by the name of Abu Hamza, already controls the three border areas of Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger. Some claim that this leader is a Malian Arab from the Gao region (Gourma zone). It is even very active in the forest that stretches from Niger in the Tamou area to northern Benin via eastern Burkina Faso.

It is this junction that facilitates zones of passage and sporadic attacks in northern Benin, Togo and even Ghana. Some of the precursors of the Macina Katiba were given the task by the central command of AQIM of opening up gaps in order to prepare the logistics, by setting up several Markaz which multiplied in the north of Benin; base-vies, to regroup the fighters, ensure supplies to the zones and strategic withdrawal routes while waiting for a more important anchoring in the region.

This strategy would also explain the specificity of operations in eastern Burkina and northern Benin, where elements of the Macina Katiba and the Islamic State in the Sahel cohabit. The new name of the Islamic State in the Great Sahara group has been established as an independent province of the EI or ISIS since March 2022. This same type of cohabitation is noted in the Komandjari, the border region between Benin and Burkina. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that there will be future competition for a sustainable settlement and recruitment of the largest number of fighters in northern Benin.

A bright future for community-based recruitment

In fact, AQIM’s strategy in the region today seems to revolve around the creation of zones of instability and the instrumentalisation of inter-community conflicts, such as those linked to pastoralism, by taking advantage of the frustration of communities due to the problems of the fight against terrorism and the blunders of national armies. Political instability allows AQIM to thrive by seeking out areas where it can make alliances with “persecuted” communities where there may be local incubators. The terrorists have succeeded in presenting themselves as protectors of local populations in the grip of insecurity.

Despite the announced readjustment of security cooperation by countries like France, the states of the region and their international partners are mired in excessive militarisation, a false solution that is itself part of the problem. The harsh reality is that, according to the current form of military cooperation, our armies are training with a lot of energy and resources for forms of battle that they have little chance of fighting. This strategy, in which we are stubbornly neglecting the part of dialogue with the communities, has already largely shown its inadequacies in the face of the asymmetric threat.

States in the region seem to want to compensate for the failures of their defense and security forces by a strategy that pits self-defense militias and volunteers against ostracised communities while creating the conditions for massive recruitment from these same communities. The fact is that every time these armies triumphantly declare that they have raided such areas and neutralised terrorists, they are, at the same time, sowing the seeds of future inter-communal conflicts that will further inflame the region.

@Timbuktu Institute, March 2023

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