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Examining Extremism: Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin

WRITER: JARED THOMPSON

Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims—JNIM) is a coalition of Salafi-jihadist insurgent groups operating in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. Formed in 2017, JNIM has expanded its operating territory across West Africa while waging a sustained campaign of violence against civilians, local security forces, international militaries, and UN peacekeepers. JNIM has successfully operationalized local grievances, while responses to the insurgency have not addressed the political drivers of conflict and have facilitated human rights abuses. Attacks on security forces and violence against civilians by JNIM are both likely to continue as insurgent violence inflames community tensions and political dynamics between Sahelian states and international partners impede a comprehensive pathway to peace.

History

JNIM formed in March 2017 through the merger of four Salafi-jihadist groups in the Sahel: Ansar Dine, Katibat Macina, al-Mourabitoun, and the Sahara branch of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In announcing the group’s creation, JNIM emir Iyad Ag Ghaly stated the group’s intention to “stand in front of the occupying Crusader enemy” and pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. JNIM’s creation ostensibly represented the transcendence of local ethno-social barriers in favor of transnational jihad, with multiple ethnic representatives present at the group’s founding uniting under a singular jihadist banner.

JNIM both collaborates and competes with other Salafi-jihadist groups, most notably the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). There are at least five examples of operational coordination between JNIM and ISGS, dating back to November 2017. For example, while ISGS claimed the May 2019 ambush in Tongo Tongo, Niger, that left multiple Nigerien and U.S. soldiers dead, a local JNIM commander reportedly supplied additional militants for the raid and collected a portion of the loot captured in the operation. This so-called “Sahelian exception” to conflict between al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates ended in summer 2019 when ideological differences and contentious defections sparked hostilities. In 2019 and 2020, an estimated 731 JNIM and ISGS fighters were killed across 125 engagements between the two groups, and more fighters were likely killed by counterterrorism operations as a result of increased exposure from these intra-jihadist clashes. The conflict between JNIM and ISGS is likely to continue, and while local deconfliction efforts between JNIM and ISGS may be possible, the extent of fighting between the groups signals that they are not likely to resume coordination in the manner seen prior to summer 2019. JNIM has also sought connections with the Burkina Faso-based Ansaroul Islam. It is unclear, however, whether their relationship is best characterized as “intermittent collaboration” or a broader merger, as JNIM has released claims of responsibility for Ansaroul Islam attacks.

While counterterrorism efforts, such as France’s Operation Barkhane, have successfully eliminated some senior JNIM commanders, victories at the tactical level have not significantly hampered the insurgency as a whole. In February 2019, French forces killed Yahya Abu al-Hammam, a JNIM commander considered to be the group’s second-most-senior leader after Iyad Ag Ghaly. In November 2020, France announced it had killed Bah Ag Moussa, a senior JNIM commander described as Ag Ghaly’s “right-hand man.” Despite targeted killings, arrests, and numerous local operations and international military initiatives, JNIM has significantly expanded its geographic zone of operations across the Sahel since its founding. Counterterrorism efforts have succeeded in killing some senior JNIM commanders, but these operations have eclipsed efforts to improve governance, reduce public sector corruption, and build trust between governments and local populations, thereby failing to address the underlying drivers of the insurgency and undermining broader counterinsurgency goals.

Ideology

JNIM is an al Qaeda-affiliated Salafi-jihadist insurgent organization that seeks to replace established state authority with a conservative interpretation of Islamic law. In some JNIM-controlled areas of central Mali, the organization has demanded that civilians accept jihadist governance, relocate to non-jihadist zones, or face violence. JNIM militants enforce conservative Islamic governance by forbidding the celebration of weddings and baptisms, outlawing some traditional local customs, taxing civilians, and forcing men to attend sermons in local mosques. While some areas are sporadically controlled by JNIM, certain areas of central Mali are under such consolidated jihadist control that one local analyst likened it to “a Caliphate.”

JNIM constituent groups have employed a strategy of “pastoralist populism” by operationalizing local conflicts, including ethnic divisions, to appeal to rural communities and further JNIM’s objectives. Katibat Macina’s name, for example, is a rhetorical callback to the Macina Empire, a historical Peul jihad state located in modern-day Mali. Headed by Amadou Kouffa, an ethnic Peul, Katibat Macina has successfully recruited young Peul civilians by animating broader concerns around land rights and Peul self-defense. Additionally, Kouffa has attempted to recruit broader swaths of the regional Peul community, including by speaking Fulfulde in one 2018 video to call for “Peul in every place, in Senegal, in Mali, in Niger . . . to jihad in the path of God.” While Katibat Macina is not exclusively a Peul entity, Kouffa has found success nesting a majority Peul group within the JNIM structure and weaponizing local grievances for broader Salafi-jihadist ends.

Organizational Structure

JNIM is not a single organization but a coalition of multiple independent Salafi-jihadist groups with their own histories and identities, including Ansar Dine, Katibat Macina, al-Mourabitoun, and the Sahara branch of AQIM. JNIM’s structure has been compared to a “business association,” offering the image of JNIM as unitary while masking the local dynamics that propel JNIM’s constituent groups. Iyad Ag Ghaly, himself the founder of Ansar Dine, serves as JNIM’s overall emir. Amadou Kouffa, emir of Katibat Macina, previously served as an Ansar Dine commander during the group’s 2013 operations in Mali before assuming leadership of Katibat Macina. The status of some JNIM constituents like al-Mourabitoun and AQIM’s Sahara branch is currently unclear, with senior leaders either having been killed or incarcerated. The operations of these groups have likely been incorporated into other JNIM constituents like Ansar Dine, consolidating the conglomerate into a smaller number of entities.

Katibat Macina demonstrates a hierarchical command structure within a devolved organizational arrangement. Katibat Macina divides its territory into administrative units, each called a markaz (center), with a military leader, a shura advisory council, and a sharia qadi (judge). The leader of each markaz serves on Katibat Macina’s central shura council, which is led by Amadou Kouffa, and senior commanders receive reports on the actions taken within each markaz. Defectors from Katibat Macina and former hostages of the group report that a markaz outside of Mali’s inner Niger Delta region will exert more autonomy than those near the group’s central leadership. While this leadership structure exists in principle, the cohesiveness of Katibat Macina’s hierarchy is likely dictated by factors like local conflict conditions and the bureaucratic choices of individual leaders.

Tactics and Targets

JNIM regularly attacks security forces and executes high-profile assaults on military and political targets. Notable recent examples include a 2018 suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attack on a base of the G5 Sahel, a regional counterterrorism force, in Sévaré, Mali. Additionally, JNIM orchestrated a twin assault in Nassoumbou and Baraboulé, Burkina Faso, against military positions in September 2019, claiming the attack was a message for heads of state who were gathered in Ouagadougou for an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit.

The pace of these attacks has since increased. The first four months of 2019 saw a monthly average of 32 violent events attributed to JNIM in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger compared with 41 average monthly events over the same period in 2020 and 59 in 2021—representing a 43 and 84 percent increase over 2019 levels, respectively. These figures likely underestimate the increases in violence linked to JNIM, due to the number of attacks that go unclaimed.

According to data compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), groups affiliated with JNIM regularly target civilian self-defense militias in both Burkina Faso and Mali, including targeted kidnappings of militia leaders. Civilian targeting by JNIM, however, is not unrestrained. In September 2019, after an improvised explosive device (IED) meant for French forces detonated when struck by a civilian transport, JNIM issued an apology and claimed that the incident would be handled according to sharia. JNIM generally quells local dissent discreetly, targeting specific individuals who denounce the group and those who collaborate with security services, as opposed to using performative and indiscriminate violence. Civilian targeting is also dependent on which component of JNIM is active in an area. One analysis found that Katibat Macina militants targeted civilians in approximately 33 percent of attacks. By contrast, in northern Mali—not a traditional Katibat Macina stronghold—civilians were targeted in two percent of attacks attributed to JNIM-affiliated groups.

JNIM also orchestrates high-profile kidnappings. Examples include the 2016 kidnapping of French humanitarian worker Sophie Pétronin and the 2020 abduction of Malian opposition politician Soumaïla Cissé, both of whom were released in October 2020. JNIM has also abducted journalists, such as French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was kidnapped in April 2021. These kidnappings are valuable opportunities for JNIM in terms of material resources and human capital. In exchange for releasing Pétronin and Cissé, JNIM reportedly received a 10 million euro ransom payment and secured the release of approximately 204 incarcerated fighters. This group reportedly included Mimi Ould Baba, who was charged by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for his role in orchestrating a 2016 attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, that killed 49 people, including one U.S. citizen. Kidnappings like these are likely to continue, as they provide JNIM with a lucrative avenue to obtain currency, bolster fighter numbers, and demonstrate its commitment to imprisoned members.

Threat Assessment

JNIM is likely to continue to pose an acute threat to civilians, local and international forces, as well as peacekeepers with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Military interventions and counterterrorism operations have been undermined by human rights abuses and have failed to translate tactical military victories into a viable path for peace and stability. Additionally, jihadist insurgency has prompted a wave of civilian displacement across the Sahel—the United Nations estimates that internal displacement in the region has quadrupled in the last two years—compounding the humanitarian toll of the violence.

Negotiations with JNIM could prove successful in reducing violence, yet significant obstacles to such progress remain. While JNIM expressed a willingness to negotiate with the Malian government in 2020, the group preconditioned talks on a withdrawal of French and MINUSMA forces. France is opposed to negotiations with JNIM, and President Emmanuel Macron declared in November 2020 that, “With terrorists, we do not discuss. We fight.” Because national-level negotiations would likely require a reduction in the pace of French counterterrorism operations in Mali, French opposition to negotiations constrains local political leaders and blocks potential avenues to a negotiated peace. In Burkina Faso, the government negotiated with JNIM despite a stated public opposition to such talks, securing a fragile ceasefire for the country’s November 2020 elections. Renewed fighting in 2021, however, suggests that this pause is not sustainable.

Ethnic stigmatization and extrajudicial violence against Peul communities risk increasing the JNIM threat by validating the self-defense arguments made by groups such as Katibat Macina and providing them with recruitment propaganda. Counterterrorism operations have been plagued by extrajudicial killings, particularly of Peul civilians due to their perceived association with jihadist groups. Examples include the 2020 discovery of mass graves in Burkina Faso, where many Peul civilians were blindfolded and executed after being detained by local security forces. In total, Human Rights Watch documented over 600 unlawful killings by security forces in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger from late 2019 to January 2021. Community-based armed groups have exacerbated this dynamic. For example, massacres of primarily Peul civilians by Dogon militiamen centered on Ogossagou village in central Mali left approximately 150 dead in 2018. JNIM responded by attacking a Malian military base, claiming to be “exacting revenge” for the killings. Community and Salafi-jihadist violence, which are interrelated and often occur in response to each other, are partially driven by their own self-sustaining energy, complicating efforts at de-escalation between local communities and their armed interlocutors.

Recent political and military developments in the region also risk undermining efforts to counter JNIM. In August 2020, members of the Malian military ousted then president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in a coup d’état, and the subsequent transitional government was overthrown by a second coup in May 2021. This coup resulted in Mali’s suspension from ECOWAS and prompted France to suspend joint operations with the Malian military. In June 2021, French president Emmanuel Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane, with France’s military presence in the Sahel being downsized and incorporated into a broader multilateral effort. While the ultimate composition of France’s presence in the Sahel will have a significant effect on conflict dynamics, an absence of French military operations could increase violence as local actors compete for power in the wake of a French drawdown. Additionally, while France has since resumed cooperation with the Malian military, prolonged political and military crisis in Mali could create local dynamics that are more favorable to JNIM and facilitate the spread of violence across international borders to countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Benin.

Jared Thompson is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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