Mali is still crippled by corruption and the resulting misrule. The most vocal critics are a handful of popular Islamic clerics. These men do not back Islamic terrorism but they do constantly call for change and reform in the government. In a way, this helps Islamic terror groups because one of the claims these Islamic radicals make is that they are fighting for a more just government. This is done on purpose to encourage angry young men to choose Islamic terrorism as a means to reform the government. Al Qaeda has long taken advantage of this. That led to more violent and ambitious Islamic terror groups in Africa. In 2013 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) showed up in Syria and Iraq and that hyper-violent Islamic terrorist movement soon became an international attraction for Islamic radicals who thought their current Islamic terror group was not sufficiently extreme. ISIL trained new members from all over the world and many of these hyper-fanatics returned home to organize a local “province” of ISIL. By 2018 that resulted in two “provinces” in central Africa. The smaller one was ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara), showed up in 2018. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). ISWAP was actually a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists who had been around since 2004. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. ISGS and ISWAP do not appear to work together except when it comes to Internet media activities, where ISWAP will mention ISGS accomplishments. Lately ISWAP announcements rarely mention ISGS and attributes attacks in ISGS territory as the work of ISWAP. It is unclear what this means because there has been no announcement of any merger. The operating areas of ISGS and ISWAP are about 2,000 kilometers from each other. Another factor is the frequent cooperation between al Qaeda and ISIL groups in Mali and surrounding countries.
ISIL does not have effective central authority at the moment with the senior leadership still dispersed and on the run from recent defeats in eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is often difficult, at first, to determine which faction of Boko Haram made an attack. Ultimately one of the factions will take credit. ISWAP is usually quicker to do so and has a much more efficient media operation than most Africa based Islamic terror groups. ISWAP is also finding that there is a downside to using ISIL techniques. More Western nations are willing to help, or at least coordinate existing counter-terrorism in the region (from Somalia to Mali and the Atlantic coast). There are smaller ISIL factions in northern Somalia, southern Libya and eastern Algeria. These groups were once larger but have suffered heavy losses from local and/or international counter-terrorism efforts. In late 2019 ISGS and ISWAP are the two most active ISIL factions in Africa.
JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) is an al Qaeda coalition formed in early 2017 to consolidate the many separate Islamic terror groups in Mali. In part this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL, which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members like AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine, FLM and several other smaller groups. Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources, especially information and practical advice, and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the region. This reduces friction and destructive feuding. Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences. The FLM is Fulani (the largest local tribal contribution) while the other groups are largely Tuareg, Arab and some have a lot of foreigners. Note that JNIM did not absorb all of AQIM groups in the area, just local groups that had long been identified with al Qaeda. The income from the drug trade keeps a lot of these factions in business and the Islamic terrorists know that business and religious fanaticism do not mix and keep it that way. Those groups that did not went broke and withered to nothing.
Recently ISIL groups have been the most active in carrying out major attacks. JNIM is still around and mainly taking care of business.
November 5, 2019: France revealed that Ali Maychou, the second ranking commander of JNIM, had been killed during a French led operation in Central Mail on October 8th. It took weeks to confirm the identity of the dead. American air and intel forces had assisted in locating the JNIM group attacked and confirming the ID of Ali Maychou, a Moroccan who was in charge of media and recruiting operations. This could turn out to be a serious loss as Maychou was active in gaining foreign recruits and all manner of support from outside Mali. JNIM has lost several senior leaders to operations like this in the past year.
November 2, 2019: In the north (near Gao) a roadside bomb killed a French soldier. ISWAP took credit.
November 1, 2019: In the northeast (Menaka) near the Niger border a large force of Islamic terrorists attacked an army outpost at night, killing 49 soldiers and wounding three. The outpost was looted and the attackers left. Twenty soldiers had retreated and survived. ISWAP took credit for the attack.
October 23, 2019: In Central Mali, near the Burkina Faso border, a French led counter-terrorist operation located and destroyed an eight man ISIL group believed to be based in this area. Along with helicopters, warplanes and Mali soldiers the task force spent eight days tracking the ISIL group through a series of its temporary camps. This operation also sought to obtain more information on what was going on inside local ISIL groups. This area was usually where ISGS operated but several recent ISIL operations in central Mali were claimed, via Internet announcements, as the work of ISWAP, which normally operates in northeast Mali, near the Niger border.
October 11, 2019: In central Mali, across the border in Burkina Faso, gunmen attacked the main mosque during prayer services. Sixteen worshippers were killed and the gunmen escaped. No one took credit for the attack but Islamic terrorists are the most likely suspects. Mosques that do not support Islamic terrorism or a particular Islamic terror group are often declared run by “heretics” and attacked until the mosque changes its beliefs. Al Qaeda and ISIL groups operate in this area. To further complicate matters some mosque attacks are the result of tribal or other local disputes having little to do with religion.