Mali's Dark Shadow: Inside JNIM
Mali is seeing its worst period of unrest in decades. Since 2012, the once poster child of democracy in Africa has been contending with criminal cells, human trafficking, ethnic tensions, military takeovers, and jihadist groups. Mali was rocked by military coups in both 2020 and 2021, however the reporting on these events largely focuses on the minutiae of events, rather than analysing the underlying issues. As such, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) has been able to fly under the radar, battling vacillating French militants and their allies, endangering the work of the UN mission (MINUSMA), and damaging ongoing British reconnaissance efforts. The weakness of the Malian government combined with a failure by international parties to properly understand the structure of JNIM has paved the path for this extremist organisation to thrive. JNIM’s shadow over Mali is growing, but who and what is really behind it?
The intersection of geography, history and artificial borders in the Sahel has made the region a vexing issue for its constituent states and international actors. Mali’s primary challenge has been uniting its northern and southern populations. Divided by the Niger river, these two halves of the country have disparate histories and cultural identities, with the south more closely identifying with West African cultures, and the north being aligned to North Africa. With the south of the country being more lush, arable, and home to both the capital and Mali’s key resources, it has been the focus of development and investment. Conversely, the dry, extremely hot north has suffered from underfunding and a lack of attention from Bamako. This imbalance has precipitated various movements over the decades, but only in 2012 did a real attempt at independence break out. Insurgent groups collectively called the CWA (Coordination of Azawad Movements) seized territory in the north and proclaimed statehood. While international pressure resulted in the unenthusiastic signing of a peace agreement after three years of fighting, to date little of this agreement has been implemented, and few concessions satisfied. The base motivations behind CWA's insurrection remain unaddressed, and two years later they reared their head again, this time in the form of an alliance of militant groups known as JNIM.
The complex, ever shifting nature of JNIM makes it difficult to track who is in charge, what groups comprise the coalition, and who bears responsibility for an offensive or attack.
In 2017, four militant organisations created the coalition called JNIM, seeking to represent Arab, Fulani and Tuareg ethnicities respectively. Subsequent years have seen various other groups join focused on different issues, such as improving conditions for particular towns, or enacting aspects of Sharia law. Understanding this organisation’s coalition structure is key to analysing its actions and goals, as each group has unique structures, targets, and territorial focuses. The complex, ever shifting nature of JNIM makes it difficult in the best of circumstances to track who is in charge, what groups comprise the coalition, and who bears responsibility for an offensive or attack. Mali is not the best of circumstances however. The media landscape in Mali is fraught, and with journalists banned from the front lines most are only able to report from Bamako, the nation’s capital. This centralisation in combination with the kidnapping of journalists has damaged the quality of investigative journalism in the region. Much of the reporting is sanitised and unable to reflect the complexities of the situation on the ground in Mali, focusing on the coups themselves rather than tackling the fundamental issues that fuelled them. This has played into the under-reporting of JNIM’s rise and the associated rise of militarism throughout the Sahel.
Multiple foreign powers have established themselves in the Sahel over the past decade, including UN peacekeepers under the MINUSMA mandate, a Security Council-backed stabilisation mission sent after the 2012 uprising, UK reconnaissance and surveillance units, and US and French counter-terrorism forces. Primary among these today is the French-led Takuba Task Force, which has worked closely with Mali's armed forces. JNIM has sought to drive France and its allies out of Mali by coordinating attacks on French and MINUSMA camps, a strategy that has seen some success and ineffective retaliation. The limited response to these attacks can be partially explained by the challenges of organising counter-insurgency (COIN) alongside an unstable state, however more impactful is the failure of foreign forces to adapt their tactics to the unique challenge of JNIM’s coalition structure. Treating JNIM as a single force rather than a coalition has resulted in the mistake of using traditional COIN tactics, underestimating the complexity and capability of JNIM to coordinate multiple operations simultaneously. This mistake is a key part of why the Takuba Task Force has been repeatedly stymied and unable to progress their mission.
The Algerian Secret Service played a role in creating extremist forces that captured Goa in 2012, and who would later go on to merge into JNIM.
JNIM’s coalition structure is not solely a source of strength however, it has also limited their ability to establish support among the Malian populace, which has in turn forced the organisation to turn to organised crime to support itself. Mali’s lack of strong central control and porous borders mean that these criminal enterprises have far reaching consequences,
particularly at the intersection between Mali, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso which has become a hotspot for trafficking, arms sales, and smuggling. One particularly successful endeavour undertaken by JNIM is the targeting of European Union citizens for kidnapping and ransom, which has included the rumoured exchange of five journalists for €100 million euros. The wider regional consequences of growing organised crime is also reflected in Algeria’s growing role, as it seeks to stabilise tensions within its own Tuareg population, and prevent extremist groups setting up operations within their borders. Algeria has long been in the shadows of the conflict in Mali, with the Algerian Secret Service playing a role in creating the extremist forces that captured Goa in 2012, who would later go on to merge into JNIM. The current leader of JNIM Iyad ag Ghali has been widely linked to the Algerian intelligence services, and it is suspected that they have received support from Algeria in exchange for not operating in Algerian territory.
Another factor aiding JNIM’s growth is the growing impact of climate change. The country’s rapid population growth is contending with the increasing length of droughts and growing desertification in the north. With the majority of the population being reliant on agriculture and livestock, the poor performance of these industries has made some JNIM a viable political alternative for people in strife. In addition to this, as is the case throughout Africa, Mali’s borders are a source of ethnic and tribal tensions for the country, which has made maintaining order a struggle. It is notable however, that many constituent JNIM groups have struggled to find a strong foothold. Establishing support among the populous is key for the survival of any insurgency movement, and the difficulty many have had in convincing people of their extremist message has led to group infighting and dissolutions.
The combination of Mali’s weak central authority and the inability of western forces to effectively alter their tactics has enabled JNIM’s growth thus far, and they show no signs of slowing down. Their criminal enterprises have granted them resources and a strong foothold in the region, despite a lack of public support, and so they have become a continually larger threat to the wider Sahel region. There are no easy answers. Engaging in dialogue may demonstrate that violence is rewarded with recognition, and the ongoing lack of central control from governments in the Sahel gives JNIM ample room to operate. Failing to address this issue could result in region-wide destabilisation, the empowering of extremist militant groups, and a worsening refugee crisis, all critical concerns for Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.
Written by Perri Grace
Edited by Owen Swift