Burkina Faso Military Coup 2022: A Deja-Vu?

Burkina Faso coup
Burkina Faso Armed Forces Lt. Sunemane Zango. Photo via Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.


Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in West Africa, bordering Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, and Togo. Once known as Upper Volta, it was a French colony between 1896 and 1960. In the years after the independence, Burkina Faso faced severe political instability marked by military coups, as the timeline below shows. 

1966 – On January 3rd, the Chief of Staff Aboubakar Sangoulé Lamizana seized power replacing President Yaméogo. 

1980 – On November 25th, President Lamizana was overthrown by the Military Committee for Recovery for National Progress (CMRPN). Previously, Lamizana has been accused of having a lavish lifestyle at the country’s expense.  

1982 – On November 7th, the Council for the Salvation of the People (CSP) conducted a military coup, appointing Captain Thomas Sankara as Prime Minister. Consequently, Sankara later became President of Burkina Faso in 1983.

1987 – On October 15th, President Sankara was assassinated in a military coup led by Blaise Compaoré. Sankara was accused of betraying the democratic and popular values of the revolution in a radio program. Afterwards, Compaoré became the new president. 

2014 – After 27 years of presidency, Compaoré was removed in a popular uprising. Widespread protests sparked due to unsolved socioeconomic problems and fake promises of change. As a result, President Kaboré was elected in 2015. 

2022 Military Coup

2022 – On January 24th, President Kaboré was overthrown by lieutenant-colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba. For instance, the main driver of the military coup was President Kaboré’s inability to fight terrorist militias and provide security to Burkina Faso’s population. As a result, on January 25th, the coup leader, lieutenant-colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, announced that the state is under a military government, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR). 

In Burkina Faso, popular discontent and pressures for change are the drivers of military coups. Therefore, Burkinabé disaffection is related to the undemocratic rule of law, economic instability and the failure to assess the jihadist insurgency in the nation. 

Key Judgements

KJ-1 It is unlikely that ECOWAS and the international community will change its mind on the political situation in Burkina Faso. 

KJ- 2 It is unlikely that the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR) will solve the nation’s instability in the next 12 months. 

KJ-3 Jihadists will highly likely continue to carry out attacks in Burkina Faso. 

International Community Reactions 

The international community rejects the concept of coup d’état as a general norm. Indeed, public rejection is linked to achieving power through undemocratic and violent means. For instance, two weeks after the coup, the UN defined the act as an “unconstitutional change of government”. Therefore, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration does not meet the criteria as a legitimate government by the international community. 

Nonetheless, the unacceptance of the new government in Burkina Faso does not imply practical intervention in the nation. Like the reactions to the military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso’s received soft acceptance. 

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is an agglomerate of 15 African countries, including Burkina Faso. The main aim of the Economic Community is to promote economic development across West Africa. 

After the military coup on January 24th, 2022, ECOWAS has condemned Damiba’s actions, accusing the MPSR of forcing President Kaboré to resign. As a result, on January 28th, the ECOWAS suspended Burkina Faso for the unconstitutional military actions carried out four days before. In addition, the Economic Community called for the release of Kaboré from the army camp in Ouagadougou 

Burkina faso coup
The flags of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Photo by US Army via Flickr.

The Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR) 

Alongside the army, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR) is the party responsible for the removal of President Kaboré. In the aftermath of the coup, MPSR is the new ruling military junta of Burkina Faso, led by lieutenant-colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba. 

Lieutenant-colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba is the new president of Burkina Faso. Mr Damiba studied at a military academy in Paris and gained extensive knowledge in counter-terrorism. Indeed, in 2015, he became the leader of the 30th RCAS, a military apparatus aimed at supporting counter-terrorism measures in Burkina Faso.

While Burkinabé supported the new military junta, the forced deposition of Kaboré endangered operations of military support in Burkina Faso. France has always provided budget assistance, military aid, and training to Burkina Faso as an ex-French colony. However, Macron found himself in a soft spot in supporting a regime undemocratically established and under ECOWAS sanctions. 

The Spread of Terrorism in Burkina Faso 

Burkina Faso is a victim of violent extremism. Since 2015, terrorist attacks have risen and hence increasing instability and violence. For instance, between 2015 and 2019, Burkina Faso had witnessed the most significant annual increase (+590%) worldwide terrorism casualties. The latest attack on November 14th, 2021, in the military base of Inata, marked the rupture between President Kaboré and the public.

Three terrorist groups are active in Burkina Faso. Ansarul Islam, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM), an Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Indeed, these Insurgent groups are exploiting the political and security instability to increase their efficacy and presence in the nation. Indeed, the recent coup d’état represents a chance for further terrorism increase. In addition, Burkina Faso’s destiny can exacerbate if France, the EU, and the US suspend their cooperation. As in August 2020, the US suspended its cooperation with Mali, Burkina Faso risks losing American military support in its counter-terrorism campaign. 


Russian Influence in Burkina Faso: Mining and Meddling

Russian Influence in Burkina Faso


The recent military coup in Burkina Faso was the result of the elected government’s inability to suppress insurgent violence. Due to Russia’s strategy to bolster its military, economic and political influence in Africa, it is almost certain that they will conduct influence operations to prompt the contracting of Wagner Group mercenaries to support counter-insurgency efforts. If Russian mercenaries effectively demonstrate their effectiveness in Mali, it is highly likely that the Wagner Group will be contracted. In return, it is almost certain that Russia will ask for mining concessions in the territory currently controlled by militants, due to a close Putin ally owning the second largest gold mining operation in the country.

Key Judgement 1

It is almost certain that Russia will conduct influence operations to prompt the new military junta in Burkina Faso to request Wagner Group counter-insurgency support over the next 12 months

  • Russia has demonstrated a new strategic focus on developing its political, economic, and military influence in Africa since the 2014 Annexation of Crimea.

  • One of the primary ways it has sought to develop its influence is through providing private military assistance to regimes throughout the continent, to support counter-insurgency efforts.

  • The primary motivation for the recent coup in Burkina Faso was the inability of the elected government to suppress militant violence. Within a day of the coup, countless Russian flags had inexplicably been provided to a pro-military demonstration in the capital.

Key Judgement 2

It is highly likely that the perceived success of Wagner Group mercenaries in Mali will lead to their hiring in Burkina Faso over the next 12 months

  • Pro-Russian popular sentiment in Burkina Faso has been growing due to the Wagner Group assisting counter-insurgency efforts in Mali and Central African Republic, filling the vacuum of withdrawn French forces.

  • It has been reported that the new leader of Burkina Faso, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, had unsuccessfully lobbied the deposed President to hire Russian private military contractors.

  • If Wagner Group mercenaries demonstrate any successes in countering extremist militants in neighbouring Mali, it can be extensively used for promoting Wagner Group assistance by Russian operatives in Burkina Faso.

Key Judgement 3

It is almost certain that Russia will request mining concessions in return for Wagner Group assistance

  • Russian private military support in Africa consistently comes at the price of mining concessions within resource rich countries.

  • Russia has a shortage of the mineral Manganese, of which Burkina Faso is estimated to have 19 million metric tonnes.

  • Currently, the second largest mining gold mining operation in Burkina Faso, BISSA Gold SA, is majority owned by Russian billionaire and staunch Putin ally Alexei Mordashov, who is known to personally fund Putin’s unofficial projects.

  • There is a significant number of artisanal gold mines in Solhan, north-eastern Burkina Faso, which is estimated to produce 10-30 tonnes of gold per annum. However, it is currently an ungovernable region due to the dominance of extremist militants.

  • If Wagner Group contractors are able to push back militants in Solhan, official mining operations will be able to operate, allowing for the potential expansion of Mordashov’s mining operation.

Conflict: Burkina Faso’s Bloodshed

Burkina Faso Conflict

The people of Burkina Faso struggle to find sanctuary as the conflict intensifies and the tactics of the militants evolve. The heart of the violence continues to be in the Sahel and all areas close to the Malian border. However, in recent months, the insecurity has spread geographically to the East, Centre-North and Southwestern regions. On the 16th May, the United Nations warned that “the Center-North region had become the new epicentre for attacks”. Militants now conceal explosives inside corpses to endanger first responders, assault teachers, burn schools, raid hospitals, and attack entire villages. Metsi Makhetha, the UN Resident Coordinator in Burkina Faso warned of an “unprecedented” rise in “sophisticated armed attacks in the Sahel”.

In recent weeks, they have now taken aim at the social and religious fabric. President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said that the “terrorists are changing their modus operandi, from stoking inter-communal conflict to trying to foment religious strife”.

  • Burkina Faso is roughly 60% Muslim and 25% Christian, but generally considered religiously tolerant and secular.

  • In response to the growing insurgency, last week the military launched operation Doofu (uproot) to cover the Sahel, Center-North and North regions.

  • In the last 12 months, over 130,000 have been internally displaced.

  • According to the UN, more than two thirds of the displaced are in 2019 alone, roughly 1,000 people every day.

  • A UN humanitarian response plan identified 1.2 million people in need of assistance and called for $100 million in donations; it only has 27% funded.
Burkina Faso Conflict

 “The city is filled with panic”

The escalating violence in Burkina Faso hit the headlines last week after a devastating attack on a Catholic church in Dablo, Centre-North conflict region. Six people, including a priest, were killed after gunmen opened fire outside a Catholic church in Burkina Faso on 12 May. Congregants were leaving church when about 20~30 men encircled them, according to a government statement and local sources. The attackers then burned the church and bars and looted a pharmacy and some others stores. This deadly attack follows the first known attack on a church that occurred in late April, when gunmen killed a Protestant pastor and five congregants in the town of Silgadji, located in Soum province in the Sahel.

The tragic irony of the attack in Dablo was that about 9,000 displaced people had taken refuge in the town according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The mayor of Dablo, Ousmane Zongo, told AFP that “the city is filled with panic,” and that “people are holed up in their homes, nothing is going on. The shops and stores are closed. It’s practically a ghost town.” The city of Kaya, approximately 90 kilometres south of Dablo, has become the new refuge for those displaced.

“With the macabre aim of dividing us”

A day following the attack in Dablo, four people were killed in Zimtenga of the Bam province in the Centre-North region. Paul Ouédraogo, president of the Episcopal Conference of Burkina Faso and Niger, told CNN unidentified armed men stopped a group of worshipers during a Catholic procession, set the children free, but killed four adults and burned a statue of the Virgin Mary. The same day, the Federation of Islamic Associations of Burkina (FAIB) condemned the attacks, calling on all citizens of Burkina Faso “without exception for religion or ethnicity … to unite against terrorism.”. In a statement, the government said, “these terrorist groups are now attacking religion with the macabre aim of dividing us.”

“The last obstacle to the coast”

On 19 May, in a statement posted on Facebook, former Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida called for “union to form a shield against the forces of evil following recent attacks on places of worship.” However, it quite certain that it will take more than union to prevent the onslaught of now almost daily attacks against the populace and security forces.The attack in Dablo was just two days after a French special forces mission rescued four international hostages in northern Burkina Faso, but two French soldiers were killed in the operation.

The country’s security forces are widely considered among the weakest in Western Africa and the remote and isolated terrain of the Sahel often leaves them vulnerable. To strengthen its efforts, the government announced in March to withdraw its forces currently deployed abroad as part of a peacekeeping mission in Mali, roughly 25% of its total.

Militant groups in conflict-ridden Burkina Faso, including those linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, were slow to gain traction in the country after first making their presence known in 2016. However, in the last six months, the conflict has expanded to new fronts in the country and is advancing steadily to the capital Ouagadougou. Bakary Sambe, the head of the Timbuktu Institute, recently told AFP that the upsurge in violence “seems to indicate that Burkina Faso is the last obstacle that these groups want to get over to reach the coast”. This would threaten Benin, Ghana and Togo that have so far been spared from the violence.

Image: SPC. Britany Slessman / Wikimedia Commons / U.S Army (link)


JNIM: Al Qaeda’s assault on Burkina Faso


Burkina Faso has experienced a wave of terrorist attacks since the coup in 2015. A number of groups with shifting and overlapping allegiances are involved in Burkina Faso and have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks. The most prominent are the Burkinabè armed Islamist group Ansarul Islam, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as well as its affiliates, notably Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin – “Group for Support of Islam and Muslims” – (JNIM). JNIM, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali and West Africa, has been responsible for numerous attacks against both Westerners and regional security forces since its formation in Mar 2017.

  • As of Sep 2018, it was estimated that JNIM had between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters.

  • The group is predominantly active in Mali, but also conducts operations in Niger and Burkina Faso.

  • JNIM supports Ansarul Islam activities with financing, training, and logistical support.

  • JNIM promotes “combat action against security forces, rather than attacks on the population”, but the group has inflicted hundreds of civilian casualties and rely on kidnapping of high value targets for ransom.

  • In Sep 2018, the U.S. State Department designated JNIM as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)

To remove oppression and expel occupiers

JNIM is comprised of formerly distinct jihadist groups including Ansar Eddine, al-Mourabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front. It is headed by Iyad ag Ghali, a longtime leader of Mali’s Tuareg uprising.  JNIM seeks to incite the West African Muslim community to “remove oppression” and expel non-Muslim “occupiers.” Specifically, the group opposes Barkhane in Mali since 2012, and its Western partners, including those involved in UN peacekeeping missions. Not dissimilar to other Islamic armed groups in Western Africa, JNIM’s ultimate goal is for the entire region to be ruled under shariah law.

On to ‘harder targets’

Over the last few years, JNIM has executed a series of complex attacks on ‘hard targets’ in Burkina Faso. The group announced its presence in Apr 2015, claiming responsibility for the kidnapping of a Romanian miner and the 2016 kidnapping of an Australian doctor. The most high-profile and daring were two simultaneous? assaults in the capital Ouagadougou. An attack by AQIM in Jan 2016, killed 30 and wounded over 50 during a drawn-out siege with hostages at a hotel. The city was still on edge when on 13 Aug 2017 JNIM shot up a Turkish restaurant in the capital killing 19 and wounding 25. This was followed by a major attack by JNIM on France’s embassy and the Burkinabé army headquarters on 3 Mar 2018. Five people were killed and 50 injured in the army headquarters attack while two gendarmes were killed outside the French Embassy. No French citizen was killed or injured.

The attacks appeared to be coordinated. Eyewitnesses claimed they saw five gunmen emerge from a pickup and started shooting in front of the embassy. Meanwhile, gunfire rang and an explosion at the military headquarters approximately 2 kms away. At the army headquarters, one set of men drove to the main entrance and launched a rocket-propelled grenade inside or at the front gate. Inside the complex, a second vehicle packed with explosives was detonated, causing damage to the building and surrounding infrastructure. The attackers then opened fire on military personnel near the main building’s courtyard.

“Until the last soldier”

The embassy and army headquarters incident was also the first high-profile attack in Burkina Faso that pointed to a significant involvement of Burkinabes. At least eight local individuals were arrested, including two active soldiers. The investigation indicated that JNIM had established a local support network that possibly includes members of Burkina’s armed forces. JNIM said the attack was in retaliation for a French airstrike on 14 Feb 2018, which killed several JNIM leaders. After each operation, JNIM releases public statements linking the attack back to its overarching strategy. For example, a common messageto France is “the war between us will not end until the last soldier from the soldiers of Crusader France evacuate the Muslim land of Mali, and until the Shariah of Allah governs this dear land”.


The new reality Burkinabe

The Islamic insurgency in Burkina Faso is growing in scale and momentum. In January, this year, JNIM claimed responsibility for at least four deadly attacks in Burkina Faso alone. ISIS also has its own “representatives” in the country, under the umbrella of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). ISGS recently claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of a Canadian geologist in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso. The presence of IS affiliated fighters will only embolden JNIM and Ansarul Islam. This year has seen the spread of the conflict with confirmed armed groups on the border with Cote d’Ivoire and Mali in the southwest regions. Also, a reported conflict between militias and communities in the Center-North region resulted in more than 200 casualties. Before long, the people of the capital Ouagadougou can only expect the conflict to become a daily reality.

Image: Ebru TV Kenya (link)


Burkina Faso: Falling into a swamp of blood

Burkina Faso Attacks

One of the poorest countries in the world, Burkina Faso is battling an escalating wave of attacks over the last three years. This began in the north, near the border with Mali, and has spread rapidly to the eastern regions. The five Sahel states of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger have been dealing with insurgent violence, lawlessness, and terror attacks since Libya’s political collapse in 2011 and an uprising in northern Mali in 2012. In Burkina Faso, most attacks are attributed to the local jihadist group Ansar ul Islam, which emerged near the Mali border in December 2016, and to the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which has sworn allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A new unknown group in the east is allegedly responsible for numerous attacks over the last year. The death toll is now more than 300 since 2015, targeting both security forces and civilians.

  • Burkina Faso shares a border of more than 1,000km with Mali

  • The capital Ouagadougou has been attacked three times, killing nearly 60 people. The latest attack in Mar 2018 targeted the army headquarters and the French Embassy

  • Over 115,000 people are internally displaced and more than 11,000 people have been forced to flee Burkina Faso to neighboring countries
Burkina Faso Attacks

A country out of control

The attacks in Burkina Faso have become more frequent and lethal despite the efforts of local and international security efforts. Overall, the number of attacks in late 2018 grew each month. In a January ICG report it says, “for the first time since independence, Burkinabé state authorities have lost control of parts of the country”. The diffuse border with Mali since 2012 has escalated the security threat as Jihadi groups are attempting to increase their influence across the Sahel region just south of the Sahara Desert. In Geneva, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Jens Laerke, described a rise in intercommunal clashes since the second half of 2018. These clashes involve communities facing off with armed groups and government forces attacking civilians.

Reasons for rapid deterioration insecurity have been attributed to the dismantling of the security and intelligence apparatus after the removal of President Blaise Compaoré in 2014. Compaoré’s regime also made deals with armed groups, allegedly providing them with logistical support in exchange for their neutrality. As more groups formed, Compaoré applied more military force. In a statement, JNIM referred to those past good relations. It said the previous Burkinabé government’s position of non-interference meant it avoided “falling into a swamp of blood”.

To little, too late?

Since 1 January, as a result of the escalating violence, a state of emergency has been declared in 14 out of 45 provinces, imposing curfews and giving additional powers to security forces, including the power to search homes at any time of the day or night. President Roch Marc Christian Kabore also replaced the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, and the Defence and Security Ministers.

Nevertheless, the Burkina Faso attacks in February continued to rise. In a single attack in the north on 3-4 Feb, JNIM killed 14 civilians. On 5 Feb, JNIM killed five army officers in the Sahel. Unidentified assailants killed a Spanish priest and four customs agents near the border with Togo on 15 Feb. The government responded with air raids on 4 Feb, killing 146 suspected militants in Louroum and Yatenga provinces, and 29 in the East region on 19-20 Feb. However, of the 146 alleged militants killed in the 4 Feb assault, at least 60 were allegedly civilians and victims of a “summary execution”, according to local witnesses and Human Rights Watch. OCHA says the number of displaced persons in the country reached 110,000 in Feb – nine times more than in Feb 2018 – and 1,025 schools were closed due to a jihadist intimidation campaign.


Burkina Faso Attacks

 “This threat is gaining ground”

The security situation is declining at such a rapid rate that some sources say by the end of the year as much as half of the country will be considered “red zones” and within two years the capital will be surrounded by militants. In February at the Munich Security Conference, Foreign Minister Alpha Barry said incidents of violence had now spread to the country’s southern border with the coastal West African countries of Togo, Benin, Ivory Coast, and Ghana. Barry said, “this threat is gaining ground,” and “it’s no longer just the Sahel, it’s coastal West Africa and the risk is spreading regionally.”

The attacks also represent an alarming escalation for Burkina Faso in terms of organisation and lethality of armaments. Attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) began in Aug 2018 and have claimed more than 60 lives, according to a count compiled by AFP. The government has accelerated coordination with their regional counterparts by forming the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Also, it has pursued bilateral cooperation with France on the Barkhane Operation and recently confirmed a partnership with the District of Columbia’s National Guard. But will this response be sufficient? Not enough seems to be known of the groups themselves, their objectives, and why now have they established roots and momentum in the country?

Image: ABC News / AP (link)


Islamic State Sahel: IS rebrands in Africa

Islamic State Sahel fighters.


Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has rebranded as Islamic State in the Sahel (ISSP). The change in the name represents a shift in focus from the Sahara to the area of land that connects the Sahara to the tropical subcontinent. It is one of Africa’s and the world’s most volatile regions, in terms of conflict and in terms of humanitarian crises. This region has become a battleground between terrorist groups like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda (AQ). The region has seen a dramatic increase in terror-related deaths between 2007 and 2021, up by 1000%. (Source)

Key Judgement 1.

IS-Sahel is highly likely to continue its attacks in the Sahel region in an attempt to consolidate its position in the unstable region bringing them into conflict with Al-Qaeda. (Source)

  • Islamic State is actively looking for a new region in which to create its caliphate. The unstable nature of the Sahel represents an opportunity for them to gain new ground and territory. (Source)

  • The conflict with AQ in the region will cause more pain for the tribes of the Sahel. (Source)

  • As a result, ISSP will continue to inflict terror in this region as it looks to cement its position once again as a global jihadi force.

Key Judgment 2.

The continued humanitarian crisis in the Sahel makes this an ideal ground for recruitment for ISSP.

  • The humanitarian crisis in the region continues to worsen. Those most affected will look for means by which they can be supported. As seen in Iraq and Syria in the 2010s. Those marginalised and seeking security by governments are highly likely to support such insurgent groups in an attempt to survive. (Source)

  • Infighting amongst local farmers and cattle herders will add to the ability of the ISSP to target marginalised tribes and gain new recruits as the need for any form of security in the border regions grows.

  • This is an ideal time for a recruitment drive for the newly named Islamic State in the Sahel. If they can provide people with food and means of survival their numbers are likely to grow.

Key Judgment 3.

It is highly likely the withdrawal of French forces in Mali will bolster the resolve of the IS-Sahel in the pursuit of their aims. (Source)

  • On February 17th 2022, France announced its withdrawal from Mali. As a result of a breakdown in relations with the ruling junta. France had been in command of the international community’s counterinsurgency operations in the region. Leaving a vacuum of military power. The talk of a new deployment of French forces has yet to yield a solid date for redeployment. (Source)

  • As a result withdrawal from terrorist activity in the region has increased with only local governments fighting these violent extremist groups. Especially given that Mali and Burkina Faso officials were excluded from the latest talks on re-deployment. This will lead to these countries being at greater risk from ISSP attacks.

  • Therefore, the likelihood of ISSP achieving its strategic aims is increased as they will not be battling western state powers in the Sahel.

France’s Military Withdrawal from Mali

France's Military Withdrawal from Mali
French Bharkane element repositioning to Niamey, Niger 19-19 March via Franch MOD


French and EU military forces will leave Mali in the next 6 months due to multiple obstructions’ by the current Malian regime. It is highly likely that the French military withdrawal will have two main consequences. First, mercenaries from the Wagner Group will increase their presence in the region. Second, that violence will spread even more in Sahel’s countries. 

KJ-1 It is almost certain that French troops will relocate in other Sahel’s countries in the next 6 months.

  • French forces have been active in Mali since 2013 where they intervened to fight against terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. [source]
  • France’s campaign has been going badly. In 2020 more than 6.000 people were killed in conflict in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Terrorists continue to recruit and grow and they are spreading in states such as Benin and Ivory Coast. [source]
  • On February 17th, France announced that ‘due to multiple obstructions’ by the current Malian regime it would withdraws its 2.400 troops from Mali. The main cause of the withdrawal is that the junta that removed the elected government in 2020, has led a second coup in 2021. Emmanuel Macron said that ‘victory against terror is not possible if it’s not supported by the state itself’. [source]
  • European leaders announced on the same week that troops from a EU-led military task force (Takuba) will withdraw from Mali. EU and France forces are expected to leave Mali in the next 6 months. [source]
  • Macron said that even though military forces are withdrawing from Mali, they are not abandoning the country. Military forces will restructure their presence in the Sahel region. EU and France forces are highly likely to relocate in Niger, especially in the region bordering Burkina Faso, where they will continue to counter actions from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. [source]

KJ-2 it is highly likely that Wagner Group’s presence will increase in the region in the upcoming 6 months.

  • The Wagner Group is a Russian private military company linked to the Kremlin. [source]
  •  The military group began the deployment of forces in Mali in December 2021. Senior U.S officials said that there are between 800 – 1.000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group that have moved to Mali in recent months. [source]
  • The number of Russian mercenaries is growing and it is highly likely to continue to increase as French troops leave the country. Moreover, with the increasing instability in the Sahel region, while Wagner mercenaries train local forces, they will also try to spread Russian influence in the continent and secure financial gains. [source]
Wagner mercenaries at an undisclosed location. Picture released by the Ukrainian security service (SBU)

KJ-3 It is highly likely that violence will increase in Mali due to France’s withdrawal from the country in the following 6 months. 

  • Experts worry that France’s withdrawal from Mali will leave a security vacuum that will enable insurgents to increase their power in the country. [source]
  • Even though 2.700 militants have been killed since January 2020, terrrorists continue to recruit and grow. [source]
  • France will continue to fight terrorist groups in the region, but its task will be more difficult now. This is because terrorist groups can establish more havens in Mali due to the vacuum left by France.

Task Force Takuba: European Special Forces in the Sahel

Importance of Task Force Takuba

Task Force Takuba (TFT) is an example of the new geopolitical scenario relevant to European states. Takuba increases the share of a military burden against insurgents in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

France continues to be the leading force in the Sahel. The drawdown of Barkhane and increasing participation of non-European states is likely not enough to compensate for a 9-year long mission.

The focus of TFT on Counter Insurgency (COIN) and Counter-Terrorism (CT) operations provides both advantages and disadvantages. A majority of SOF personnel increases the COIN capabilities of Task Force Takuba. On the other hand, the insurgent nature of the conflict means that limited success in targeting militants is likely expected unless non-military efforts are made effective.


  • In 2012, Tuareg militias entered Mali from Southern Algeria and triggered a coup d’état. By 2014, actors like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, Al-Mourabitoun and the Macina Liberation Front increased French contribution under Operation Barkhane.

  • By 2017, a combination of insurgent groups formed Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and established in Mali. Simultaneously, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) formed during 2016 from defected factions of JNIM. By 2018, the insurgent threat expanded into different ethnicities and countries.

  • Since 2020, 2 coup d’états have changed the government and head of state. Militants increased the degree of support amongst specific ethnic local populations. Losing 55 military personnel and reaching a 5,100 strong presence, France proposed the idea of Task Force Takuba. The group is focusing on a-solely SOF approach under Operation Barkhane to successfully target insurgents.

Task Force Takuba: The Sahel and Special Operations nature

Tri-Border Area

Similar to the doctrine of insurgents, the concept of borders is non-existent for Task Force Takuba. The conflict originating in the Sahel started with Mali in 2012, while it entered Burkina Faso in 2016 and Niger in 2017. The operators targeting insurgents should not be limited by geographical boundaries. The area on which Takuba is focusing crosses state and ethnic boundaries. Below, highlighted.


For operational purposes, dividing Task Force Takuba within three bases is necessary. The bases are an evolution of the structure of Barkhane, reducing bases to three locations in the epicentre of the conflict. Menaka acts as the headquarters, holding both liaison officers and operational personnel. Another section of personnel is stationing in Gao. Meanwhile, Ansongo acting as a middle-ground, hosts the third base.

Task Force Takuba: The Components

Taskforce Takuba Organogram, organization and size

Operations Bourrasque in November 2020 and Eclipse in January 2021 included the participation of Task Force Takuba.  Bourrasque included the participation of French-Estonian Special Forces, attached to a Malian intervention unit and Nigerien forces. In addition, targeting special forces operators is already underway. On the 21st of April, 3 Swedish SOG operators suffered an injury in Menaka due to an IED.

French SOF in Menaka and Gao:

As Task Force Takuba operates under Barkhane, French elite units present in Mali since 2012 likely reinforced the Menaka and Gao bases in 2020. The French are the largest contingent in the force and prove it with experienced SOF operators. Takuba is reportedly working to prevent scenarios of indiscipline and corruption seen in Barkhane.

Three SOF components

Given the presence in Barkhane, the French contribution includes three special forces components including one being aerial support. SOF operators are likely armed with FN SCARS and HK 416 assault rifles and number around 300 personnel. In other words, half of Task Force Takuba. Nevertheless, given the specialisation of each unit, long-range precision rifles like PGM may be used

Descendants of the SAS

The 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (1er RPIMA) is the direct descendant of the SAS, with the crest showing significant similarities. Within the 1er RPIMA, the 2nd Company is deploying in Takuba. The company is suited for extreme environments and operates normally in the Sahel. Technically, the unit specialises in extreme cold, mountain or jungle environments.

1er RPIMA during a demo

Reconnaissance Marine Commandos

The Penfentenyo Commando represents the Marine Commandos, the French Navy’s special forces. Within the 6 commandos in the Marine, the Penfentenyo is responsible for Surveillance and Objective Neutralisation Teams (ESNO). The Penfentenyo Commando serves as support to motorised or aerial routes, particularly with sharp-shooting. The ESNO team acts as the eyes of the task groups hunting insurgents in Menaka and Gao, training requires yearly procedures and examinations to determine the capability of operators.

“Nulle Part Sans Nous”

France supports its 1st RPIMA with the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment. The ‘4e RHFS’ offers unique and autonomous support to special force units, developing unconventional cooperation and strategies with operators. The material capability of the unit includes Gazelle, Caracar, Cougar and Tiger helicopters. Along with the UK and the US, only France is able to uniquely support SOF operators with a helicopter regiment specialised in unconventional scenarios. The unit allegedly joined Barkhane in 2014. Out of its 500 personnel and 6 divisions, the air combat division with most experienced units in Barkhane will likely be chosen to provide aerial support to Task Force Takuba.

4e RHFS member with a 1er RPIMA operator installing a .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle on a Gazelle helicopter

Malian SOF in Takuba

The Light and Rapid Intervention Units (ULRI) are the Malian representative in Task Force Takuba. ULRI’s emerged in 2020 as a response to a worsening insurgency and a domestic military incapable of reducing insurgent activity. The Malian units in Takuba are characterised by the need to have rapid reaction forces capable of operating outside conventional scenarios.

Member of ULRI in Takuba

The ULRI’s play a protagonist role in Takuba as the Malian units tasked with acquiring special capabilities. European units in Gao and Menaka train the Malian components in degrees of basic training (1 year) and advanced training (2 years) to achieve operational autonomy. As the long-term objective is to replace foreign operators with local counterparts, groups are specialised in rapid reaction, IED’s and insurgent environments.

Characteristics and Division

Motorcycles are the operational symbol of the ULRI’s in Task Force Takuba. The vehicle shows the significance of the importance of geographical mobility in environments with insurgents like Gao and Menaka. The relevance and need of ULRI’s is seen in the formation of units that continue to be created in order to expand the Malian footprint in the task force. Takuba continued inaugurating ULRI nº5 and nº6 in October and November of 2021, both intended to operate in Menaka.

ULRI nº4 operates along with Estonian and French units in Gao, with reportedly positive operational feedback as recent as the 15th of November against insurgents in In Delimane. Also in Gao, ULRI nº3 is undergoing a process of developing the necessary operational skills. In Menaka, ULRI nº2 is likely in phase 2, or advanced training level. Apart from understanding the vehicle and environment, training is focusing on geolocation capabilities and the use of communication devices.

Estonian SOF in Gao:

Estonian forces, including a mechanised infantry division and special operators, arrived in 2018 in Mali under a French invitation. The units included members of special operations already stationed in Gao along with French troops. The added experience during Barkhane, particularly with SOF forces in Gao, is a likely reason to continue cooperation and change the framework to Takuba.

ESTSOF Estonian special operations forces
Estonian operator on combined patrol with Malian ULRI operators

ESTSOF operators offer multiple operations of experience in collaboration with French forces. Estonia participated in the EUFOR CAR operation along with French units. ESTFOR, for example, offers experience in Helmand during ISAF along with NATO SOF.

Contributions to Task force Takuba

Estonia is reinforcing the mechanised infantry division stationed to Barkhane which numbered 45 military personnel. The additional Estonian units arrived in Gao in July 2020, including special operators from ESTFOR. Contributions include:

  • To contribute, Estonia is sending British-donated Supacat Jackal armoured vehicles.

  • The THEMIS unnamed ground combat system, after successfully operating in battle, is participating in Barkhane.

  • In July, the parliament approved an increase to 95 personnel in total, including special operators.

  • The parliament approved in July a €7 million budget to expand special operations within Niger and potentially a resource and personnel expansion.

Czech SOF in Menaka

The Czech presence in Task Force Takuba falls under one of the significant operational contributions to the task force. While compared to the French or Italian contribution the capacity is limited, the Czech SOF provided Takuba with Initial Operating Capabilities (IOC) by October 2020.

The chosen: Group General Moravec

The 601st Special Forces Group (601 SkSS) is the designated contribution to cooperate with allies in the Menaka base. Group 601, also known as ‘General Moravec’, is named after the WWII Czechoslovakian chief of intelligence. The unit was designated within the special forces of the Czech Republic in 2003. In 1948, the unit emerges as a paratrooper brigade.

Task Force Takuba
601st special operations group operator in Mali

The unit conducts rapid reaction and long-term operations hunting insurgent members in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. General Moravec is based in Menaka and forms part of Task Group 1 (TG1). As a curiosity, it is the first time the unit is deployed to the African continent. The 601 SkSS contingent includes 60 operators and is expected to stay in Menaka, at least, until December 2022.

Previous Cooperation

The group participated in Operations Enduring Freedom and KFOR. In Afghanistan, the 2nd Task Force saw its deployment to Bagram Airbase. Battles like Tora Bora or Helmand included the participation of the 601st SFG. Again, Task Force Takuba reinforces the similarities between the Afghan approach at building local capabilities using SOF with the previous history of cooperation. 601st Group in Logar Province, 2009

Swedish SOF in Menaka

The Swedish contribution is currently crucial to the Takuba mission, especially for operational capabilities. Sweden is taking the command role of Task Force Takuba from November 2021 to February 2022. The role of Sweden, additionally, provides the needed capabilities to conduct operations in difficult terrain like the Sahel.

The Aerial Component

Task Force Takuba is majorly dependent on Sweden for aerial transport as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF). Sweden is deploying black hawk helicopters in Menaka and a C-130 Hercules in Niamey to support the operations. Above all, the Swedish responsibility adds significant capabilities to the mission due to the geographic spread of Takuba, which includes regions of Northern Mali.

The Särskilda Operationsgruppen

Sweden is sending 150 operators from the SOG, or Särskilda Operationsgruppen (Special Operations Group). Additional to the operators are assistant and operational staff, with an optional 100 additional personnel to Task Force Takuba. The expertise of the unit in risk environments and unconventional scenarios match the necessary skills in an environment like the tri-border area in Mali.

History and experience

The group originates from SIG and SSG, special forces units dedicated to rescue, direct action and reconnaissance missions. SOG operators deployed with ISAF until 2014, although several operators participated in the Kabul evacuation in August 2021. In 2015, 30 SOG members advised, trained, instructed and cooperated with Peshmerga forces.

Italian SOF in Menaka

Together with Sweden, the Italian contribution provides significant capabilities to Task Force Takuba, only outmatched by the French due to Barkhane. The Italian contingent contributing units from 5 different special operation groups, additionally, provides operational material to the reinforcement.

Sea and Land

The Italian contribution reinforces the Swedish aerial support, as well as the French-established capabilities. The following additions provide capabilities to extend the geographic reach in simultaneous missions:

  • LMV Iveco or ‘Lynx’ armoured vehicles

  • 4×4 Flyer Light Strike Vehicle

  • UH-90 Helicopters

  • CH-47x Helicopters

  • Agusta A129 Helicopters

Contribution: Combining Elite Units

The base of Task Force Takuba is holding 5 different special forces groups, commonly armed with HK416/HK417 assault rifles. Additionally from the transport provided, 200 operators are joining the base in September 2021. Apart from cooperating with allied and Malian SOF, the role of the Italian contingent is reported of MEDEVAC duties.

Col Moschin Regiment

The Italian Army is contributing the 9th Assault Regiment ‘Col Moschin’ based in Livorno. The origin is the 9th assault regiment in WWI known as ‘arditi’, or ‘daring’. With a required 75 weeks in training and formation, 55 weeks are spent developing amphibious, direct-action and reconnaissance capabilities.

An operational detachment unit reportedly includes:

  • Medic
  • Breacher
  • Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (IEDD)
  • Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) controller
  • Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Operator
  • Sniper
Col Moschin Operators during and exercise with simunition

Gruppo Operativo Incursori (GOI)

COMBUSIN, the elite unit of the Italian Navy, is deploying the Gruppo Operativo Incursori (GOI) to Task Force Takuba. COMBUSIN divides itself into sub-aquatic and raid operations. The GOI is responsible for the latter. The ‘Incursori’ specialise in hostage environment, territory infiltration, and counter-terrorism operations.

Gruppo di Intervento Speciale (GIS)

Task Force Takuba hosts the special forces of the carabinieri, as the third unit of the Italian Forces. The group specialises in counter-terrorism, direct action, and reconnaissance, becoming a special force unit in 2004. Members of the GIS, likewise, originate from the 1st Paratrooper Tuscania regiment. The Tuscania regiment is considered an elite-like unit operating along with the GIS.

GIS & 1st Rgt. “Tuscania” during the exercise Ex Watan in Doha, in preparation of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022

17º Stormo Incursori

The youngest special forces within the Italian Forces likely represent a crucial component of the contribution to Takuba. The 17th Raiders Wing, created in 2008, operates as a Combat Search and Rescue (C-SAR) and Forward Air Controller (FAC). Dependent on the 1st Special Operations Air Brigade, for example, the unit provided aerial support to ISAF deployments in Afghanistan. Along with the following helicopter regiment, the 17th Wing will likely provide the aerial capabilities needed in the Sahel.

Aldebaran Helicopter Regiment

The 3rd Helicopter Regiment for Special Operations will be reportedly participating within Task Force Takuba. The department was specifically delegated to provide aerial capabilities and support to Italian Special Forces, particularly SAR and MEDEVAC operations.

Col Moschin Operators with Aldebaran crew

‘Monte Cervino’ Rangers

The 4th Parachute Alpine Regiment ‘Monte Cervino’ comes as likely support to the 9th Col Moschin regiment. The 4th regiment was created as a supporting unit of the Col Moschin. Due to this, all training occurs within the Col Moschin regiment in Livorno. In particular, the unit focuses on direct action and support to special operations in any environment.

Romanian SOF in Task Force Takuba

The Romanian contribution is arriving by the end of 2021, likely in December. While it is not specified what unit is being deployed, the location of the unit will likely be Ansongo or Gao. All other SOF forces are either in Gao and Menaka, in particular with the latter being more populated. The expansion of forward bases is crucial.

6th Special Operations Brigade ‘Mihai Viteazul’

It is almost certain that the Mihai Viteazul brigade is deploying within the Task Force Takuba framework. The government approved the contingent to number 45 special forces operators. The 610th “Vulturii” and the 620th ‘Bâneasa-Otopeni” Special Operations Battalions are the primary direct-action operating SOF force. Commonly using an M4 or HK-G36, the majority of members of the 610th Vulturii battalion trained in the US Army’s Special Warfare Centre School. While paratrooper and support battalions exist, either the 610th or 620th are candidates to join the other European special forces.

The Vultures 51st Battalion in Afghanistan

Demands and Secrecy

With an average entry failure rate of 95%, Romanian SOF including the Vulturii battalion are reportedly considered a Tier 1 unit. All applicants are highly likely to have served previously in extreme environments or high-risk operations, commonly Iraq or Afghanistan.

Until 2006, all information about the Vulturii unit was clandestine and not recognised. The secrecy reached a degree of secrecy, which significantly forced the Romanian Ministry of Defence to block and suspend any online user mentioning the existence of the unit.

Norwegian SOF in Menaka

The Norwegian parliament rejected a contribution to Task Force Takuba. It argued that the foreign presence of troops should be through an international body like MINUSMA or EUTM Mali. The Norwegian contribution to Takuba, allegedly, comes after an invitation by Sweden to contribute. Together with Denmark, there will be a Scandinavian contribution in Mali.

Forsvarets Spesialkommando

The Special Commando Forces (FSK) of Norway are the primary operating land-based unit of the Norwegian special operations command. Commonly armed with HK417M and C8-CQB rifles, operators from FSK are the likely choice to accompany the Swedish in Task Force Takuba.

Forsvarets Spesialkommando in Jordan

The commandos proved the capability to adapt to all scenarios. 78 FSK operators participated in Task Force K-BAR with coalition of special forces hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001. Originating as a response to terrorism and organised crime, the unit is specialised in the protection and combat in oil rig environments.

Inclusion within the Swedish contribution

Apart from declaring a political statement, the Norwegian SOF contribution will form part of the Swedish contingent in Takuba. It is described as a ‘small number of soldiers’ along with 2 officers, making the contribution less significant to capabilities than other contributors. The contribution is more symbolic to European cooperation and Scandinavian efforts than to a need to participate in Takuba.  


In 2020, a coup was led by the Malian Armed Forces, which successfully ousted the former Malian government. Just nine months later, a further coup undertaken, led by Vice President Assimi Goïta. Once again, this coup was successful. Since his acquisition of power, Goïta has been reluctant to hold elections, which has initially been agreed to be held in February 2022. The transitional government has indicated that it looks to delay elections by up to five years.

Following almost a full decade in of operations within the country, in February 2022, France announced the withdrawal of Task Force Takuba from Mali. Following the coups in 2020 and 2021, France has been unable to come to an agreement on democratic elections with the transitional military government, ultimately leading to the withdrawal order. As a result, Takuba will be stationed in Niger. In a joint statement with European Nations operating in Task Force Takuba, the force stated that “the political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue their current military engagement in the fight against terrorism in Mali”.

This article was first published in November 2021, but updated and republished due to recent developments by Abbi Clarck


Flintlock: Improving Sahel Security With Special Forces Training


Key Judgements 

KJ-1. Flintlock likely resulted in a stronger partnership and enhanced proficiency in tactical skills between the participating African nations and their Western counterparts. The very fact that the participating nations are willing to be part of the exercise demonstrates some sort of desire to improve the security forces that conduct counter-insurgency operations in their respective areas of operation.

KJ-2. In terms of Flintlock’s effectiveness on regional security, it is likely that there was limited success in nations utilizing learned skills in order to combat terrorism independently.

KJ-3. It is highly likely the complexity of African battlespaces married with the complexity of counter-insurgency operations presents a challenge for both the foreign trainers and domestic trainees.

KJ-4. It is likely that the scale of the exercise and lack of a uniformed training standard across all partnering nations makes it hard to accurately gauge Flintlocks effectiveness.  

Flintlock Background

According to the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), “Flintlock is a Special Operations Command Africa led an all-domain exercise in Senegal focused on the G5 Sahel Force and its interoperability with U.S. and NATO special operations forces to counter malign influence, aggression, and activity.”

Since 2005, Flintlock has been hosted annually in Mauritania and Senegal. Participating African partner nations are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo.

Western partners include Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States – “Approximately 1,600 service members from more than 30 African and partner nations”, as stated by AFRICOM.

The primary focus of the exercise is regional terrorism, with the Western partners pairing with African forces to train them in areas such as communications, small-unit tactics, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), mounted operations, patrolling techniques, and other tactics that would be beneficial in the regional fight against terrorism.

Regional Impact

It is likely that Flintlock resulted in a stronger partnership and enhanced proficiency in tactical skills between the participating African nations and their Western counterparts. The very fact that the participating nations are willing to be part of the exercise demonstrates some sort of desire to improve the security forces that conduct counter-insurgency operations in their respective areas of operation.

That along with the calibre of special operations trainers likely results in success at a base level. In a US Department of Defense article, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, R. Clarke Cooper, is quoted saying “The fact that 30 nations can work in partnership to address problems greater than any one nation can handle gives hope to the region and world for stability, security and lasting peace.”

In terms of Flintlock’s effectiveness on regional security, it is likely that there has been limited success in nations utilizing learned skills in order to combat terrorism independently. Recent trends in terrorist activity, particularly in West Africa and the Sahel, do not show successes in national defence. According to a recent briefing to the United Nations Security Council, Special Representative Mohamed Ibn Chambas stated “Since my last briefing at this forum in July (2020), the West Africa and Sahel region has experienced a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets. The humanitarian consequences are alarming.”

It is highly likely the complexity of African battlespaces married with the complexity of counter-insurgency operations presents a challenge for both the foreign trainers and domestic trainees.

According to a 2019 Audit of the Training of the Army’s Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF) in the U.S. Africa Command, “senior U.S. officials from country teams, individual RAF personnel, a USAFRICOM Branch Chief, and an Army Asymmetric Warfare Group observation reported the need for more robust preparation in several areas, including cultural awareness training, instructor training to enable the teaching and advising of skills and tactics to partner nations, and training on partner nation’ environments or militaries”.

This report was not unique to Flintlock but gives insight into some of the disparities RAF forces face when partnering with African nations. In regard to the African participants, a proper counter-insurgency operation requires a longer period of consistent training and support than what Flintlock offers. Being introduced to new skills at the exercise has limitations if those skills are not maintained when operating in respective home nations.  Furthermore, it is likely that the scale of the exercise and lack of a uniformed training standard across all partnering nations makes it hard to accurately gauge Flintlocks effectiveness.

Image: U.S AFRICOM (link)


JNIM & ISGS in West Africa

JNIM & ISGS in West Africa

Key Judgements 

KJ-1. JNIM and ISGS mainly operate in the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The groups comprise the leader militant Islamist groups in the Sahel adding to the sharp increase in violence in West Africa in 2020.

 KJ-2. It is almost certain that the groups continue to conduct operations to increase power over the tri-border area. Recent attacks by JNIM and ISGS indicate continued offensive capabilities despite the military pressure from foreign forces. 

KJ-3.  It is highly likely that the growing competition between the two groups escalates the tensions, therefore posing a major threat in the region. The latest incidents indicate breakdowns in relations of JNIM and ISGS and attempts of domination over the tri-border area, putting civilians at great risk.

KJ-4. It is highly likely that the growing competition between the two groups escalates the tensions, therefore posing a major threat in the region.

Conflicts between jihadi groups in the Sahel continue to pose a major threat to the stability in the region. Terrorist activity in West Africa was significantly increased in 2019 and 2020 as a result of the multiple terrorist incursions of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in Great Sahara (ISGS). The peaceful relationship between JNIM and ISGS during early 2020 is replaced with intense confrontations as a result of the status quo change in the region.

Size, Structure, Leadership

JNIM was created on the 2nd of March 2017. The group, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, operates in the tri-border area. JNIM has 1,000 to 2,000 fighters and, as a Sunni Islamist organization, it fights foreign and non-Muslim occupying powers to implement Islamic governance in the region, identifying France and its allies as its most major adversaries. Interestingly, JNIM is an amalgam of four Al-Qaeda-linked militant Islamist groups in the Sahel: Ansar Dine, Al Mourabitoun, Macina Liberation Front (FLM) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  

JNIM conducted more than 64% of all violent episodes linked to militant Islamic groups in the Sahel since 2017, with FLM being the most active of its affiliate groups. FLM uses increasingly violent tactics to make progress at “the more densely populated areas” of central Mali and north-central Burkina Faso embracing recruitment and revenue generation.

According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, some experts argue that JNIM-affiliated groups’ revenue amount to $18 – $35 Million annually, mainly earned by extortion of the groups’-controlled transit routes, artisanal mining, and kidnapping for ransom.

Although JNIM is considered to be a united group for all Salafist jihadist in the Sahel, there are four areas of operation driven by local dynamics shaping the actions of the component groups: Northern Mali, Central Mali and Northern Burkina Faso, Eastern Burkina Faso and Niger Borderlands, Southwest Burkina Faso.

JNIM’s peculiar structure makes it more complex to analyze the groups’ objectives and functions “within the larger coalition” leading to misperceptions about the groups’ strength, capacity, methods, and local support. However, the structural ambiguity weakens JNIM in terms of potential conflicts of interest and the growing competition between the groups.

ISGS emerged in May 2015 when its leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui split from Al-Mourabitoun and pledged alliance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The group is based in Mali and Niger, operating along the borders. In May 2018, the leader was designated by the US a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” In fact, the US offered a $5 million reward for any information regarding al-Sahraoui, making him West Africa’s most wanted jihadist.

Contrary to JNIM’s numerous groups, ISGS had an estimated 425 fighters as of July 2018 following the numbers of 40 and 60 fighters estimated on May 2015 and October 2017 respectively. Although ISGS has smaller cells in comparison to other ISIS affiliates in Africa, the group continues to pose a major threat to the tri-border. The group conducted some of the deadliest attacks in the region, using highly developed and state-of-the-art tactics proving its abilities and capabilities of operation despite its limited number of fighters. ISGS carried out a series of major strikes resulting in almost 300 deaths within only two months,

Recent Attacks Proving Further Capability

Following the military coup in August 2020 and the efforts to reshape Malian politics, the country hosts foreign forces and international troops to help stabilize the West African nation: UN peacekeeping missions, French counterterrorism, EU capacity building training regional security forces, G5 Sahel Force. In this context, JNIM and ISGS focus on fighting both regional and foreign forces to alienate them and gain control over the region.

JNIM conducts assassinations and complex IED attacks against French, Malian, and UN forces. On the 20th of January 2020, the group killed over 20 soldiers in an attack against a Malian military base in Bamba, Mali. On the 14th of January 2021, JNIM released a statement claiming responsibility for VBIED and rocket attacks that took place on the 8th of January 2021 against French and Malian troops at Serma as a response to French airstrikes carried out in a wedding ceremony.

Following the French government’s announcement that a senior commander of JNIM was killed during France’s Barkhane military operation in Mali against Islamic fighters, JNIM killed 2 French soldiers in Menaka in an IED attack in January 2021. Additionally, on the 21st of January 2020, JNIM attacked a UN outpost in Aguelhok, Mali killing 10 Chadian Peacekeepers while injuring 25 others. 

In May 2019, 28 Nigerian soldiers were killed in the village of Tongo Tongo near the border with Mali as a result of the ISGS ambush. On the 1st of November 2020 members of the group attacked a military base at Menaka region near the border with Niger and killed at least 54 soldiers. Later that month, on the 11th of November 2020, ISGS attacked a military convoy in Tin-Akoff, Burkina Faso killing 14 soldiers. Between 2019 and 2020 there was a 60% increase in militant Islamist violence in the Sahel with an overall estimate of 4,250 fatalities – half of which linked to ISGS – making 2020 the deadliest year of Islamist violence in the region. 

Jihadists versus Jihadists

While JNIM and ISGS tried to maintain a jihadi unity in the Sahel, the latest incidents indicate that there are growing competition and a breakdown in relations between the two groups. In an attempt to maintain peace with ISGS, JNIM published two treatises urging all jihadis in the Sahel to work based on common goals until the confrontation started to emerge. As ISGS increases its personnel, it approaches more of JNIM’s areas of operation leading to violent clashes and confrontation among the two camps. However, while clashes escalate and weaken both groups, they put civilians at great risk forcing them to live in a regime of extreme violence and fear.

There is an increase in attacks against schools across West Africa, which according to experts, are due to either ideological reasons against the education system as a whole or because they are attacks in the wider context of jihadi violence against civilians. Schools are part of the group’s strategy against Western civilization and at the same time can be centred on recruiting potential fighters.

On top of that, they seem to be ideal targets for the groups since they are crowded, relatively unguarded, and linked to extensive media coverage that can catch global attention in the group’s favour. On the 8th of January 2020 four students were injured due to a grenade explosion at Franco-Arab Darou Kour An Hadis School, while the next day presumed members of JNIM and/or ISGS burned offices and material and threatened teachers at the primary school of Nagare village. Moreover, on the 23rd of January 2020 two teachers were kidnapped presumedly by JNIM or ISGS in Donla village.

Image: Screen Capture of Islamics State Propaganda Video