The threat of Islamist militancy in the southern Sahel is here to stay, writes Gabrielle Reid.
The recent attack on the French embassy and military headquarters in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, is the latest evidence that the threat of Islamist militancy in the southern Sahel is here to stay. Jamaat Nusrat Al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), an Al Qaeda-linked coalition of Mali-based groups, has claimed responsibility for the attack, citing that it was in retaliation for recent military raids on JNIM positions in Mali. While JNIM and its predecessors, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s southern battalion, Al Mourabitoun and Ansar Eddine, have been linked to several attacks against ‘soft targets’ such as hotels and tourist sites in recent years, the latest attack demonstrated an increased level of sophistication, including possible collusion of Burkinabe security forces. Yet, while further attacks in capital cities in the Sahel, such as Ouagadougou and Bamako, remain likely, do these Islamist militants pose a threat to the region’s mining industry?
The In Amenas attack, January 2013
On 16 January 2013, an estimated 32 Al Qaeda-linked militants affiliated with Al Mourabitoun attacked the Tigantourine gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria. The militants attacked transport buses, the site’s accommodation blocks, and the central processing facility.
The militants held 132 expatriates and over 500 Algerian workers hostage for four days. During the assault, at least 39 foreign nationals were killed. The siege ended following an intervention by Algerian special forces.
Mines under fire
These groups have previously demonstrated the capacity to target foreign-owned commercial interests in the Sahel. Al Mourabitoun was behind the January 2013 assault on the Tigantourine gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria, and the May 2013 attack against a French-owned uranium mine in Arlit, Niger. More recently, in May 2016, AQIM again claimed to have attacked the French mine in Arlit in an assault orchestrated by the group’s southern outfit, Al Nasser. While the Nigerien government denied that the attack had taken place and the French company declined to comment on the incident, the account served to demonstrate a renewed intent to target higher profile commercial operations in the region, having come several weeks after a rocket attack on an oil facility in Krechba, Algeria.
Although lessons have been learnt since In Amenas and foreign companies are more aware of the requisite risk management needs of these operating environments, there remains cause for concern. Since 2016, there has been a clear southward migration of the Islamist militant threat into central and southern Mali as well as into Burkina Faso — regions outside of these groups’ traditional areas of operation. Of the 250 Islamist militant attacks recorded in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso in 2016, for example, about 20% of the attacks occurred in Mali’s central and southern Mopti, Sikasso, and Segou regions. The following year, this percentage increased, as by the end of 2017, of the 276 attacks recorded in Mali and the West African region, more than 30% took place in central and southern Mali. More recently, between October 2017 and February 2018, JNIM claimed responsibility for an average of 12 attacks per month, having maintained a clear focus on Mali’s Mopti region since March 2017.
Easier access to the south
The inclusion of Katiba Macina in the JNIM alliance has seemingly increased the group’s access to the southern regions of Segou and Mopti due to the group’s ties with Fulani communities based there. Given JNIM leader and former Ansar Eddine head, Iyad Ag Ghaly’s own communal ties to the Ifoghas Tuareg communities in the north and Katiba Macina’s ties to Fulani communities, JNIM has benefitted from local community support through intelligence gathering and the use of networks for logistical support. Recent links to the Fulani in particular, which do not maintain the same Arab lineage of the Tuareg tribes, has allowed militants to easily infiltrate central and southern Mali. The mining areas in southern and western Mali, northern Burkina Faso, and elsewhere, are thus no longer isolated from Mali’s militant threat.
At present, most of the attacks have targeted Malian security forces, seconded by UN peacekeepers and followed by French forces. These have taken the form of improvised explosive device, mortar, and rocket attacks, kidnappings, at least two suicide bombings, and 168 attacks involving assaults, ambushes, or assassinations. While these attacks serve JNIM and others’ agenda in fighting against Malian and foreign military operations, an attack on a commercial mining facility would too prove useful. With their militant campaign becoming more strongly rooted in central and southern Mali, these groups could be in a position to strike.
Exploration project could be vulnerable
However, mining camps do not represent the only opportunity for attack. The absence of security escorts for exploration operations increases the likelihood and vulnerability of an attack with those travelling to and from mining sites serving as prime targets in militant kidnappings. Militant kidnap-for-ransom operations in the Sahel, including Mali, are often outsourced to criminal elements seeking monetary gain. While carrying out a kidnapping in southern or western Mali is likely to prove challenging, especially given the need to transport the victim to strongholds in the north, there is an increased likelihood of these attacks as JNIM continues to entrench its presence in the south through ties with local armed groups and criminal networks. Indicative of these networks and the reach of JNIM, there has been an increase in kidnapping incidents in the wider Sahel, with six incidents involving foreign nationals since 2015. These were all linked to AQIM and affiliated groups.
Among those targeted was Romanian national Lulian Ghergut, who was employed as a security guard at a foreign-owned manganese mining operation in northern Burkina Faso. He was kidnapped in April 2015 when five gunmen ambushed a security patrol vehicle outside the mining complex in Tambao. The local driver and a gendarme were injured in the attack. In May 2016, Al Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and called on the Romanian government to enter into negotiations of an undisclosed ransom to secure his release. However, Ghergut remains captive.
Soft targets the focus
In the interim, Islamist militants are likely to continue armed assaults against hotels and other soft targets in Bamako, Ouagadougou, and elsewhere, as they are easy to plan and execute. By their nature, these targets are more easily penetrable by attackers than an isolated and closed-off mining site, for example. Such attacks are also cost-effective, as they do not require many resources other than firearms and willing operatives. Armed assaults also do not require significant specialised training. Most militant recruits are trained to use small arms and grenades, and as such, they are well prepared to conduct such attacks. However, Sahel-based militants appear to be increasing their tactical abilities. In the 18 June 2017 attack against Le Campement Kangaba resort, located outside central Bamako, for example, JNIM-aligned militants were able to infiltrate the resort despite it being an approved location for rest and recuperation for the EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM). The gunmen opened fire on guests and five people, including a Portuguese soldier, Chinese and French-Gabonese civilians, were killed. The gunmen held 36 guests hostage for several hours, while Malian and French troops attempted to repel the attack. Furthermore, in the latest Ouagadougou attack, eight gunmen targeted the French embassy, as well as the Burkinabe army headquarters, where attackers detonated a suicide car bomb before engaging with Burkinabe Special Forces. At least eight people were killed, while more than 80 people were injured.
Beyond these attacks, there is growing commentary over an impending strategy shift on the part of JNIM, reverting to an In Amenas-style attack. While we have yet to see such an attack in the Sahel, operational vulnerabilities and an intent among Islamist militant groups to orchestrate such attacks still very much exist. Under a more aggressive Al Qaeda leadership, with leader Ayman Al Zawahiri already calling for continued jihad in the Maghreb in the wake of the 2 March attack on the French embassy and military headquarters, an expanded following may be capable of carrying out more sophisticated assaults on infrastructure and extractive facilities in the medium to long term. Indeed, unless the group’s southern advance is curtailed, JNIM and its affiliates could soon be in a strong enough position to attempt such an attack.
About the author
Gabrielle Reid is an associate within S-RM’s Risk Analysis and Security team, specialising in sub-Saharan Africa. She has over six years’ experience assessing political and security dynamics across the continent and has worked on numerous projects, assisting clients from a diverse spectrum of industries to navigate the political, commercial, and security challenges of complex operating environments. Her recent areas of focus include Mali, South Sudan, Somalia, Angola, and Kenya. Gabrielle holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences in Politics and Psychology, a Bachelor of Social Sciences (Honours) in Justice and Transformation (Conflict Studies), and a master’s de
in International Relations, focusing on terrorism in East Africa, from the University of Cape Town. Should you have any queries regarding this article or wider security developments in Africa, please contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org
S-RM is a risk consulting firm that works with leading businesses, governments, and private clients worldwide. S-RM assists clients in managing a range of operational, regulatory, and reputational risks, from money laundering and bribery to security, political instability, and cybercrime. S-RM’s African office is located in Cape Town, South Africa. All contact information is available at https://www.s-rminform.com/