In the Sahel, who is fighting against whom?

The French commitment in Mali ended after nine years of effort. On Monday, the last soldiers engaged in the Barkhane force withdrew from the country and crossed the border with Niger. Because the anti-jihadist fight is far from over and France wants to “continue the fight against terrorism in the Sahel”, specifies General Staff of the Armies in its communicated.

If the Bamako junta has pushed Paris towards the exit, in particular by signing agreements with jihadist leaders, other countries still need support to fight against the groups present there, which sow terror. Among them, Burkina Faso and Niger, while Benin, Côte d’Ivoire or Togo also risk facing the threat, mainly led by two infamous groups: the Sahelian branch of Al-Qaeda and the Sahelian branch of the Islamic State (IS). “These are the two predominant groups, even if there are small groups that belong to them”, specifies to 20 minutes Wassim Nasr, specialist in jihadist movements and author of the Islamic State, the accomplished fact (Plon).

Al-Qaeda vs. Islamic State

The two jihadist groups have been established for years in sub-Saharan Africa. Aqmi operates there under the banner of JNIM (Support Group for Islam and Muslims), the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali. And Daesh (the acronym for IS in Arabic), fights under the name of EIGS (the Islamic State in the greater Sahara). Fighting regularly opposes the two groups, on the border areas, in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. The Malian Association for the Survival of the Sahel (AMSS) thus reports “deadly fighting” between the two groups which took place last February in the circle of Ansongo which is at the crossroads of the two neighboring countries of Mali, namely Niger and Burkina Faso. “The JNIM fighters after the fighting against those of the EIGS accused the local populations of being collaborators of the EIGS and of having provided fighters to this group. In retaliation, they carried out targeted assassinations against certain community leaders (about 60 people)”, says the report.

And the group that dominates the most territories is the JNIM, especially after signing local agreements in several localities. “He is more embedded in the population and plays politics, he seduces the inhabitants, sometimes forced to choose between him and IS”, according to Wassim Nasr. But in recent days, precisely, the branch of the EI has widened its range of action in Mali to the gates of the city of Ménaka, a base left last June by the French army. Tuareg factions have tried to repel the EIGS, but have not succeeded. “They even had to make tacit agreements with the JNIM, they are the ones who hold the front to hold the commune of Telataï in Mali”, explains Wassim Nasr. And today, “IS does not have more influence but greater freedom of action since the lifting of French military pressure”, he continues.

With regard to the border with Niger, but also in the north-east of Burkina Faso, if there are areas acquired by the JNIM, for EI Sahel the combatants are more itinerant, even if their families are settled in certain localities or camps.

The Malian army supported by Wagner against jihadist groups

The Malian armed forces, called the FAMa, are trying somehow to fight, but the results are not there. “Even with France she couldn’t do it, so there she succeeds even less, even with the help of Wagner, because they are unprofessional mercenaries and without professional equipment and means”, reports Wassim Nasr. Wagner, it is these Russian mercenaries also deployed in Syria or more recently in eastern Ukraine.

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The results obtained are close to zero, or even worse. The strategy employed swells the ranks of jihadist groups, as happened with the massacre of more than 300 people in Moura in March. If jihadists were indeed present in the city, these 300 people are not 300 fighters. Human Rights Watch describes a massacre perpetrated over several days between March 27 and 31 and “the worst episode of atrocities” committed since the unleashing of violence in Mali in 2012. Moreover, it served jihadist propaganda since “we saw a peak in recruitment “after the massacre, assures Wassim Nasr.

The French army in support of Burkina and Niger

On the other side of the borders, the French army is still present but in a more discreet way than it has been in Mali for nearly a decade. In Niger, for example, “it does not wave the tricolor, unlike in Mali”, emphasizes Wassim Nasr. It is present, but does not particularly mention it. Moreover, this collaboration with Niamey is going rather well and is “quite effective”, specifies the specialist, with “a good level of mutual trust”.

In Burkina Faso, the relationship is a little less fluid, especially since the military junta took power at the start of the year. “If the junta continues to want to work with France, the results are less”, notes Wassim Nasr, in particular by less good cooperation such as calls for help which often arrive too late, or even an unrealistic expectation compared to the French aid, but also the reluctance of some soldiers to work with the French army.

Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast prepare

Will the fight against these jihadist groups now extend to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa? Benin, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire are not immune to seeing a surge in JNIM activity in their territories. The group recruited in these countries, trained these recruits in Mali and sent them home. Wassim Nasr therefore sees in it a potential internal threat, a maneuver for local anchoring and seduction of the population. And the group “has a significant potential for setting up in northern Togo and northern Benin”, he specifies. Northern Benin has also been the scene of around twenty attacks targeting its security forces since the end of 2021. Last week, a video of two jihadists speaking Bariba, the language of northern Benin, inciting populations to joining them and threatening them in the event of collaboration with the State, has circulated widely on social networks.

Against this technique of conquest of the populations, the coastal countries began to act. Measures to prevent extremism have been put in place since 2019. In Benin, the government has launched development projects in these regions neglected by the State: police stations, schools and hospitals have been built there. Ditto in Côte d’Ivoire, where several million euros have been invested.

But for the Policy Center for the New South, border militarization must be abandoned. It accentuates, according to this “think tank”, the suffering of populations already very poor and dependent on cross-border trade to survive. “Without a drastic change in approach, Benin and other countries will see their citizens make the same decisions as their Sahelian neighbors: they will collaborate with extremists in order to stay alive”.

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