On December 10, 2019, the southwestern region of Tillabéri, in Niger, was shocked by an act of armed violence against Nigerien military forces. Around 500 heavily-armed men stormed a military camp in In-Atès, about 180 km from the capital Niamey and 20 km from the border with Mali. More than 70 soldiers were killed, dozens injured and many weapons and pieces of equipment stolen. The assault followed a similar attack in July against the same garrison, which caused the death of 18 soldiers: its tragic toll proves that the security situation in the Liptako-Gourma region is currently out of the state actors’ and international security forces’ control.
Since 2018, the increasing level of political violence in the border region between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso has shown the inability of the Sahelian states to confront the violent extremism of non-state armed actors. Just few weeks before, In-Atès, during an attack against the military camp of In-Delimane, in the eastern Malian region of Ménaka, 49 members of the national armed forces lost their lives. Similarly, nearly the entire territory of Burkina Faso has been hit by a series of large-scale attacks: the killing of 37 workers of the Canadian mining company Semafo, in November, made headlines, while numerous attacks on churches, public institutions, and traditional authorities have occurred in the last few months, with frightening regularity. The French military contingents, deployed in the framework of Opération Barkhane – a 4.500-troop regional counterterrorism operation, launched in 2014 – seem in turn to suffer from severe difficulties in the field, forced to tackle a fluid and changing threat, more and more difficult to eradicate. On November 25, the collision between two helicopters supporting ground operations killed 13 troops and provoked a strategic reflection in Paris about the constraints of a mission exposing France to the risks of a long-term stalemate. Furthermore, the G5 Sahel Joint Force, linchpin of the security cooperation strategies in the region, is only partially operational, due to logistic hurdles, mismanagements and budget restrictions, slowing down its mobilization and limiting its capacity to act against violent armed groups.
The context of insecurity in the Sahel is mostly defined by the activism of several Salafi-jihadist organizations, linked to al-Qa’ida or the Islamic State (IS). Their ability to leverage deep social cleavages, exploiting community conflicts between semi-nomadic herders and resident farmers over access to natural resources, or exacerbating earlier inter-ethnic tensions among the Fulani, Dogon, Tuareg or Bambara communities, contributes to strengthening their social entrenchment and further feeds regional instability.
The In-Atès attack
On December 12, through a communication appearing on Amaq, the Islamic State’s media outlet, the West African Province of the self-styled Caliphate (al-Dawla al-Islamiyya - Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiya, ISWAP), mainly based and operating in the Lake Chad basin, claimed responsibility for the In-Atès attack. A careful analysis of the circumstances of the event, however, makes clear that the actual authors of the attack were militants hailing from and operating in the area, rather than coming from ISWAP’s core zone.
The deadly assault on the military camp seems to be related to other violent events that occurred in 2018. In May, Tuareg gunmen purportedly killed 17 Fulani inside a mosque in Tindibawen, along the Mali-Niger border. This pushed a number of Fulani youths to mobilize against the Tuareg-led and state-sponsored Groupe autodéfense touareg Imghad et alliés (GATIA), and many of them joined the ranks of the two major jihadist groups operating in the wider area. The first is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), whose attacks and operations have been commonly claimed under ISWAP’s banner since the group had pledged allegiance (bay‘a) to IS’s then caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2015. The ISGS was originally formed by Adnan Abu Walid al-Saharawi as a result of a split from his former group, al-Murabitun, an al-Qa’ida’s franchise established by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The other is Jamaʿat Nuṣrat al-Islam wa’l Muslimin (JNIM), a jihadist network made up of many armed groups linked to al-Qa’ida (Katiba Macina, al-Murabitun, Ansar Dine and the Saharan branch of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb), led by former Tuareg nationalist turned Salafi-jihadist champion, Iyad ag Ghali.
Despite the different allegiances (one to IS, the other to al-Qa’ida), the relationship between the two Salafi-jihadist organizations seems not to be contentious in the wider Sahel. On the contrary, observers and analysts state that, rather than clashing, in the Sahel JNIM and ISGS seem to cooperate on the ground, although they do not conduct joint operations. Their coordination is not only due to their common roots within the wider AQIM network in the Sahara - which trained leaders in the same repertoire of techniques and warfare operations - but also to their customary relationships with the Fulani and Dawsahak communities, scattered between Mali’s Gao Region and Niger’s Tillabéry Department. This allows both groups to be involved in communal issues and enjoy some form of legitimization vis-à-vis state authorities, often perceived as corrupt or openly inimical to local interests.
ISWAP, between strategic shifts and ideological rifts
ISWAP has recently undergone a dramatic leadership change. In August 2018, the group’s main strategist, Mamman Nur, was executed, ostensibly because the group’s shura – the governing council of the organization – did not approve of the negotiations Nur was conducting with Nigerian state representatives for the liberation of a hundred female students, who were abducted by ISWAP earlier that year in Yobe State. His murder seemed also to be related to the group’s concern that, due to his network and abilities, he could have possibly set up a competing organization. Furthermore, in March 2019 Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi, ISWAP’s emir, was removed from office and replaced by an unrelated Abu Abdullah al-Barnawi; some time between March and May 2019 he probably fled ISWAP’s core area (Lake Chad), and according to key informants some of his followers participated in cattle-raids organized by criminal cartels in Zamfara (Nigeria).
The recent intra-ISWAP shake-up could also be linked to important doctrinal issues. An existing scholarly dispute within the wider jihadist movement, in fact, points to a rift between ‘fusionists’ (mulaffiqa), interested in attempting to combine Salafi-jihadist doctrine with mainstream political Islamism, and ‘extremists’ (ghulat), engaging in the serial excommunication (takfir musalsal) of fellow Sunnis, including political Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This rift has left little room for manoeuvre for those who follow a relatively more ‘moderate’ path, such as the former IS’ director of the Maktab al-Buhuth wa’l-Dirasat (Office of Research and Studies), the Bahraini Turki al-Bin’ali, killed in 2017 by US drones. These debates, raging in the global Salafi-jihadist constituencies, seem to have directly affected the West African and, particularly, Nigerian arena. ISWAP, in fact, had officially emerged in response to the extremism of Abu Bakr Shekau’s Jama'at Ahl as-Sunna li’l Da'wa wa’l Jihad (JAS, commonly known as Boko Haram), adopting a strategy aimed at sparing civilians from direct attacks and targeting mainly military, police and state-controlled outposts. In the framework of this ideological rift, Nur’s execution, at the order of fellow ISWAP shura members may hint at the fact that his willingness to negotiate with Nigerian state authorities deemed as apostate by the Salafi-jihadist canon, was thus showing a sign of weakness after the wave of successful attacks that emboldened the group in 2018.
Until Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi’s removal, the military tactics employed by ISWAP had mirrored those of IS: well-equipped, highly-mobile small armed units able to roam and disperse, displaying a strong focus on targets like furnished military barracks, often protected by young recruits with little experience. The main tactical innovations emulated from IS seem to be the organization of a ‘vanguard élite force’, the ingimasi – to be employed as shock troops in combat but also as infiltration elements behind enemy lines – and the technical novelty of the SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) protection cages, warfare techniques taken directly from the Syrian scenario. Interestingly enough, both attacks conducted against the In-Atès base bear similarities to ISWAP’s modus operandi, with the employment of ingimasi-like mobile units, responsible for cutting communications and using caged SVBIED as ‘battering rams’.
The In-Atès attack therefore can be framed within two over-arching trends. First, on a regional level, considering the strategic mutations taking place in the Sahel, and involving the coordination and competition between ISWAP, ISGS and JNIM in light of the tactical and technical similarities shared by the groups. Second, on a global level, considering the doctrinal disputes within the global jihadist movement, aimed at identifying a suitable pattern and at defining notions of ‘moderation’ and ‘extremism’ according to the Salafi canon.