The war on terror in the central Sahel has not yet reached a strategic breakthrough, as shown by the uninterrupted escalation of violence striking the region since 2015. A closer look at disaggregated data on armed conflicts, however, helps clarify how the main drivers of violence have changed over time. By looking at the interconnected dynamics of terrorism and counterterrorism, the article attempts to dissect the evolution of jihadists’ violent tactics in the Sahel.

JNIM’s southward projection

Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Wa al-Muslim (JNIM) remains the most violent jihadist group in Mali as well as in the central Sahel. According to the ACLED database, in 2021 the group conducted approximately 213 attacks causing 621 reportedly fatalities. In Burkina Faso, the group’s violence increased by over 200% compared to 2020. Exploiting Burkina Faso's instability, JNIM deep penetrated Burkinabé territories and was thus able to project its attacks toward West African coastal states in the Gulf of Guinea. As early as mid-2020, JNIM began to establish a foothold in the northern Ivory Coast. On 11 June 2020, JNIM militants attacked an Ivorian military and gendarmerie post in the border village of Kafolo, the first jihadi attack to strike the Ivory Coast since 2016. In 2019, JNIM was also able to penetrate northern Benin, however, it was in 2021 and 2022 that violence escalated. On February 8 and 10, 2022, at least nine people were killed in three IEDs in northern Benin. JNIM also tried to expand its operation to Togo. On November 9, 2021, Togo witnessed its first jihadi attack. Last 11 May, Togo suffered its first mortal terrorist attack in Kandjouaré on the border with Burkina Faso.

Islamic State stuck in communal clashes

While JNIM was the fastest-growing jihadi group globally in 2021, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) remained the most significant threat in Niger, accounting for nearly 80% of all civilian fatalities in the country. Broadening the analysis to the central Sahel, according to ACLED ISGS conducted approximately 87 attacks causing roughly 667 fatalities in 2021. After the death of ISGS founder and longstanding leader al-Saharawi on 17 August 2021, however, ISGS suffered a temporary setback characterized by a lack of cohesion among its subunits. Notwithstanding, the group renewed forthwith its violence campaign by putting younger and more violent commanders in charge. The reorganization indeed led to an upsurge in violence. In the last quarter of 2021, ISGS conducted 33 attacks causing approximately 233 reportedly fatalities. In early 2022, the group reached a significant turning point. On 21 March 2022, the Malian army was attacked in Téssit. According to Jihad Analytics, the assault was claimed by the Islamic State in the name of the "Islamic State Sahel Province” (IS Sahel), indicating that the former ISGS is detached from ISWAP and has become the seventh wilayat of the Islamic State in Africa. At the turn of 2021 and 2022, along the Mali-Niger border, IS Sahel has also intensified attacks against northern Mali Tuareg/Arab factions, merged into the Cadre Stratégique Permanent (CSP) since May 2021. In early March 2022, heavy clashes broke out between the IS Sahel and the CSP in the north of the Ménaka region. Within a month, Islamic State combatants murdered approximately 400 civilians in retaliation for the CSP attacks. In April, these attacks were followed by IS Sahel’s large offensive on the Mali-Niger border seizing control of the Malian cities of Tamalat, Ichinanae, Anderamboukane, Infoukaretane, and Inarabane. IS Sahel has clearly adopted an assailing strategy aiming to control the Mali-Niger border, as other attacks were recorded on 20-22 May in Emis-Emis, Inekar, Aghazraghen, and Igadou in the Ménaka region. At the time of writing, the locality of Anderamboukane remains contested between IS and CSP’s control.

JNIM and IS, from friends to foes, and back?

These dynamics are set against the backdrop of a growing struggle for supremacy over the local populations of central Sahel. JNIM and IS Sahel indeed implemented different forms of insurgencies, rebel governance and social ordering, aiming to establish an Islamic state in the region. As can be observed in other contexts where al-Qa‘ida and Islamic State-affiliated groups operate, this confrontation has led JNIM and the former ISGS into open conflict since late 2019. This notwithstanding, the two groups had established a peaceful relationship for nearly 5 years, from 2015 to mid-2019. This peculiar coexistence, which developed in the Liptako-Gourma region – or tri-border region – shaped what experts defined as the “Sahelian Exception”.

JNIM and ISGS, however, never set off a full-fledged alliance. The two groups benefited from this coexistence due to their shared sociocultural backgrounds and personal relationships that transcend global jihadi rivalry. The common roots of the two jihadist groups played an important role in the development of peaceful relations. In 2015, al-Saharawi defected from AQIM affiliated group al-Murabitun to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and subsequently establish ISGS. After the 2017 creation of JNIM by Iyad ag Ghali, personal relationships between the two emirs fostered some degree of cooperation and support across the two jihadist formations. Moreover, experts identified several commanders with mediating roles at the tactical and logistic levels. In 2018, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Mali classified three individuals from al-Qa‘ida’s ranks who played the role of intermediaries. In addition, the two groups easily found common ground because of crossover personnel. Individuals without any defined allegiance, who acted as what could be denominated “armed nomad groups”, shifted from one faction to another following tribal dynamics or pragmatic considerations. JNIM and ISGS leaders' relationships also underpinned a few cases of coordinated actions and joint attacks. One of the first joint operations occurred in November 2017, involving a coordinated assault on a joint military grouping of MINUSMA and the Malian army in the I-n-Delimane area.

The “Sahelian Exception” eventually ended in the summer of 2019 when the first documented clash between JNIM and ISGS occurred in the burkinabé village of Ariel in the north of the Sahel region. In early 2020, the deep-seated ideological differentiation emerged abruptly giving rise to an intense media clash. The divergences displayed by the two groups reflected exactly the global rivalry between al-Qa‘ida and the Islamic State. The conclusion of the “Sahelian Exception” was also marked by the strong pressure exerted by the Islamic State central on al-Saharawi’s group. After the affiliation of ISGS as a subunit of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) in March 2019, the Islamic State pushed its wilayat towards greater confrontation with JNIM and encouraged al-Saharawi to take on a more aggressive military strategy. Furthermore, the different forms of governance, particularly the enforcement of Islamic law and the establishment of an Islamic state, implemented by the two groups became the main instrument of delegitimization in the intra-jihadist confrontation. JNIM’s application of the shari‘a and takfir doctrine was characterized by a relatively more flexible approach in contrast with ISGS’s radicalism and hardline. The two groups also adopted different approaches to land governance and the repartition of the spoils of war: JNIM employed a centralized, top-down mechanism of redistribution versus ISGS's more horizontal redistribution system. Fighters' defections from JNIM-affiliated groups to ISGS – which escalated in 2019-20 – are another key factor prompting the end of the “Sahelian Exception”.

Throughout 2020, the conflict between JNIM and ISGS showed a progressive decrease, although the two groups clashed at least 125 times, resulting in an estimated 731 fighters killed on both sides. The reduction in the intensity of the war was associated with an increase in French-led counterterrorism operations against ISGS since January 2020, which forced the jihadist group to conduct a costly war on two fronts. In 2020, during 70 military operations, France alongside local forces killed more than 430 ISGS fighters, as well as approximately 230 JNIM combatants. In mid-2020, JNIM largely pushed ISGS out of the Inner Niger Delta, shifting the epicentre of the conflict into the heart of the Liptako-Gourma.

In 2021, according to ACLED and the Crisis Watch of International Crisis Group databases, the intra-jihadist war showed a further downward trend, resulting approximately in 44 clashes and 217 reportedly fatalities. Clashes were concentrated in the Sahel region (Burkina Faso) and the Gao, Ménaka, and Timbuktu regions (Mali). In the first half of 2022, the conflict between JNIM and ISGS/IS Sahel continues the downward trajectory, with approximately 15 clashes and 36 reportedly fatalities observed. In the last 5 months, reported battles were localized in the burkinabé Sahel region and Malian regions of Gao and Timbuktu. Data collected in 2021 and 2022 show the intra-jihadist war frontline has now stabilized in the core of the tri-border region.

Reshuffling counterterrorism, threats or opportunities?

On 14 April 2022, the Malian army general staff announced the killing of a dozen Islamist militants in the Mopti region, including the Franco-Tunisian JNIM leader Al-Bourhan. This was one of the operations the Malian army has conducted since the deployment of the PMC Wagner Group in December 2021, underling the montée en puissance of the FAMa (Malian Armed Forces) in the south-central territories of Mali. Since the arrival of the Russian PMC, the FAMa have indeed intensified their counterterrorism operations supported by the increasing supply of weapons and operational doctrines from Moscow.

No more than a week later, on 22 April, the Nigerien parliament approved – not without controversies – the deployment of additional European troops in Niger, de facto making of the country the platform of the Western counterterrorist dispositif in the Sahel. And in late May, Niger received six drones made in Turkey to be used in the fight against the Islamic State.

It remains to be seen whether the scale-up of heavy-handed counterterrorist approaches will contribute to either disarticulating jihadist formations in the Sahel, or rather further fueling grievances against state abuses and unaccountable governance, which are among the main drivers of jihadists’ mobilization capacity.