The war against jihadism in the Sahel continues. It is not a war that usually appears on television, nor are its leaders known in Europe, but the war continues twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and no vacation nor sick leave. A lethal and self-serving war that in the first week of the year has claimed bombings, explosions, ambushes and lives, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Al Qaeda’s largest affiliate in the region, known as JNIM, bombed Timbuktu airport using a Grad Partizan rocket launcher system, as shown by the images released by the terrorist group. It occurred on the first day of the year, although no deaths or injuries were reported after the attack. The bombing of the airport continues the strategy carried out by the jihadists over the last few months, since the summer of 2023, when the blockade began of the historic city. There have already been at least four occasions in which the airport has been bombed, which has forced in the past to cancel the few flights that connect Timbuktu with the rest of the country.
It should be remembered that the situation in Mali north of the Niger River is confusing. Colonel Assimi Goita, Malian head of state, this summer began an offensive against Azawad secessionism that led him to recover the city of Kidal from the hands of the independentists, not without little effort and in return leaving large areas of the south of the country unprotected. . The JNIM took advantage of the situation at first to focus its attacks on areas far from Azawad, where the military presence is weaker, although One of the novelties of 2024 would be that the attacks have resumed in the north of the countryin Timbuktu, but also in the city of Gao (where the JNIM exploded an IED against a vehicle manned by Malian and Russian troops on January 2) and in the surroundings of Kidal.
In an attempt to control the situation in the area and reaffirm its position in Kidal, the Malian Army carried out a series of “surgical attacks” on the outskirts of the city on January 4, according to the Alliance of Sahel States, where “ “They neutralized around twenty terrorists and destroyed a large amount of military equipment and rolling stock.” On January 4, an attack was also recorded against Russian and Malian troops on the road that connects the towns of Tonka and Goundam, very close to the banks of the Niger, and a second attack on the 5th was directed against two military vehicles between Tonka and Niafunki. Both actions were claimed by the JNIM.
A third attack that occurred on January 6 near the town of Menaka, next to the Niger border, was recognized by the Islamic State in a video broadcast on networks and where images of the fighting could be seen. The Islamic State also attacked a road checkpoint on the Kobe route, very close to Gao, on January 6, killing seven members of the local Singawa self-defense group. The Islamic State, which relaxed its actions in the months before December, has redoubled its attacks in northeastern Mali during the last weeks of 2023 and seems willing to maintain the pace so far in January.
That jihadism redoubles its efforts in the north of the country hinders the objectives of Goita, who in his end-of-year speech appealed to the Malian population to carry out a dialogue “for peace and reconciliation” that pursues national cohesion. In said speech, he announced that the dialogue would not include conversations about “the unity of the state, secularism or territorial integrity”, in clear reference to Azawad’s secessionist objectives. The colonel has chosen to confront secessionism in the first instance, in a risky strategy which will not allow it to dedicate all of its efforts to the fight against terrorism until the situation in the north of the country is under control. But the continued attacks by the JNIM make it difficult to stabilize the area and thus hinder Bamako’s efforts to end secessionism.
However, it is worth mentioning a reason for celebration among the Malian Armed Forces that accompanies the new year: they have concluded 2023 in position number 100 according to the annual ranking of Global Firepower (which analyzes armies around the world from best to worst), rising ten positions compared to last year and placing itself as one of the three best armies in West Africa along with Ghana and Nigeria. This rise would be due, among other factors, to the military equipment sold/ceded by Russia, Turkey and China and the training of African soldiers at the hands of the Wagner Group, when previously French and European troops were in charge of their training. The news reaffirms those Malians who consider that France and its military presence prevented the Malian Armed Forces from obtaining adequate means to combat jihadism in recent years, eroding the already worn diplomacy of Paris just entering January. This new position in the ranking also benefits the Kremlin’s tenant, Mali’s largest military partner, which was already able to score an important goal with the capture of Kidal and which, from what it seems, is meeting (halfway) expectations that Goita deposited with him.
In Burkina Faso, a nation submerged in an “open war” against jihadism, it could also be said that the year has begun with good news. Because their current leader, the artillery captain Ibrahim Traoré was able to score his first victory of 2024 on January 4after a successful operation in the department of Nassoumbou eliminated a column of jihadists traveling by motorcycle who entered Burkina Faso from Mali with the intention of harassing the area.
The following day, January 5, another joint operation between air (drones) and ground forces ended with “hundreds” of terrorists neutralized in the Boucle du Mouhoun region, in the northwest of the country. It should be noted that for months now the official Burkinabe narrative has been showing a looseness with the numbers that is not observed in other countries in the area. There was talk of nearly 400 deaths in Djibo in the month of November and since then they have killed columns, “hundreds” of insurgents in a few hours, where in Mali there is talk of a cautious “twenty”, despite the fact that Burkina Faso is below the neighboring nation in the ranking of Global Firepower. The rate of eliminated targets in Burkina Faso, if true and not an exaggeration for propaganda purposes (something feasible, considering the scarcity of graphic evidence of those “hundreds” of deaths, even in Djibo’s images, or the lack of direct testimonies to prove what happened)… brings hope of a 2024 where jihadism recedes for the first time in the country since 2016.
Added to the victories of the Burkinabe forces and the Malian “surgical strikes” around Kidal is another New Year celebration in Nigeria: an airstrike in Borno State On January 2, he eliminated the Nigerian Ba’a Shuwa, leader of the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP). Ba’a Shuwa and his henchmen, spread across the towns of Chiralia, Kauwa, Abulam, Gorgore and other territories in southern Borno, are primarily responsible for numerous attacks, kidnappings, ambushes and improvised explosive devices targeting troops and civilians. in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. His death, which comes after leading this ISWAP faction for just two years (Ba’a Shuwa rose to the top ranks after the suicide of his predecessor in 2021), has been a serious blow to the Islamic State in the region, which also makes weeks that is facing factions of Boko Haram for control of the territories that connect the Sambisa forest with the southern shores of Lake Chad.
This does not mean that the jihadists continue to shake lives and sow pain: a leader of an anti-terrorist militia confirmed to the EFE agency on January 6 the death of six people, including an evangelist pastor, for an attack that occurred the previous day in Borno State. It is still unknown whether the attackers belonged to Boko Haram or the Islamic State.
The year begins strong and with a balance inclined towards the positive for those who face jihadism in West Africa, despite the fact that other difficulties persist. As Ibrahim Traoré promised in his last speech during the anniversary of Burkina Faso’s independence, the war against terrorism has intensified and offers hopeful results; Mali is still seeking to balance its efforts between its war against Azawad and the fight against terrorism, but can be glad to have started the year with Kidal under the power of Bamako and having improved its position in the ranking of Global Firepower; and the clashes between factions of Boko Haram and the Islamic State in northern Nigeria, combined with the death of Ba’a Shuwa, offer a golden opportunity for Bola Tinubu to seriously damage jihadist objectives in the country.