Brief: JNIM Pursuing Localized Agenda in Mali
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 11
In recent months, the northwestern Syria-based militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which operates under the leadership of Abu Muhammed al-Julani, has reasserted that its operational and geographical agenda is limited to only a local scope. The group, furthermore, has lived up to these claims by no longer publicly calling for or conducting any attacks outside of Syria. Likewise, HTS has made clear that its main enemies are Bashar’ al-Assad’s government (and his Russian backers) as well as the Islamic State (IS) (almonitor.com, December 11, 2022). HTS has, therefore, effectively ended its own formal affiliation with al-Qaeda.
In the Sahel, Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) is, like HTS, pursuing a path of localization, albeit while retaining their loyalty to al-Qaeda. In March, for example, Abu Ubaydah Yusuf an-Nabi, the leader of JNIM’s “parent group,” al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), conducted an interview in which he pledged not to attack French territory, but acknowledged that the group had “issues” with France “locally” if they were present in Africa (france24.com, June 3). An-Nabi went so far as to criticize Western leaders for failing to recognize that AQIM had no interests beyond Africa. This represented a departure from AQIM’s predecessors, such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted attacks in France in the 1990s, and al-Qaeda more generally, which in the previous decade hailed attacks by its trainees in Europe and the US.
Nevertheless, an-Nabi praised the French withdrawal from Mali as if it represented a jihadist success after two decades of warfare (aljazeera.com, August 16, 2022). While JNIM and its rival Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) put pressure on French counter-insurgency forces in the region (who were operating under the auspices of Operation Barkhane), it was the Malian government that demanded France’s withdrawal. This came in the broader context of French and Western criticism of the military leaders who orchestrated a coup in Mali, who appear unlikely to cede power or allow a democratic transition to civilian rule (france24.com, June 7, 2022).
More recently, AQIM—or, more specifically, JNIM—also released an 88-year old Australian hostage who had been abducted in 2016 (BBC, May 19). According to Australian authorities, no ransom was paid. If true, this suggests JNIM’s leniency was a demonstration of its intent to win goodwill on the international stage. There may have been some recognition on JNIM’s part that due to the hostage’s age, he might otherwise have died in custody. The region’s instability, which has led to a decrease in international tourism, business, and even diplomacy also suggests there will be fewer foreigners in the Sahel in the coming years. This means AQIM and JNIM’s primary tactic of abducting foreigners will decline, and the two groups may stay further off of the threat radar of Western countries.
If JNIM is to follow the model of the HTS and the Taliban and shift their focus locally, it is possible that Western powers will not intervene if JNIM achieves some form of autonomy through its military victories in the Sahel. This, in fact, appears to be a template for JNIM success in the near future, just as it was for the Taliban in Afghanistan.