Al-Qaeda’s Malian Affiliate Celebrates French Withdrawal
On February 17, France announced its withdrawal of troops from Mali (France24.com, February 17). President Emmanuel Macron noted that victory was “impossible” if the Malian junta, which came to power through a coup in 2021, continued to obstruct counter-terrorism operations. Although threats from the al-Qaeda affiliate Group for Muslims and Islam (JNIM) or Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) were not cited as the reason for the French withdrawal, JNIM itself perceives its expanding insurgency as the reason why France lost its will to remain in Mali (Twitter.com/@abdalatargui, February 23).
According to a JNIM internal statement delivered to fighters in Mali, the “defeated French President [Macron] announced the withdrawal from Mali after attacks killed them [French soliders] from the den of the Mujahideen in Kidal to Timbuktu, Gao, Macina, and Arbinda, thus congratulations to you for this victory (imangahdien.com, February 23).” In the statement, JNIM notably referenced the Malian towns of Kidal and Timbuktu, but also Arbinda in Burkina Faso, and Macina, which generally refers to the pre-colonial Sahel region. This reflected JNIM’s expanding operations beyond Mali.
The French withdrawal has also had a ripple effect on other European troop deployments in Mali. Macron’s announcement, for example, coincided with Estonia’s withdrawal announcement from Mali on grounds that the ruling junta had no plans to hold democratic elections, which was one of the conditions for Estonia’s continued deployment in the country (Leht.postimees.ee, February 14). The Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, like France and Estonia, also attributed their withdrawals to the ruling junta’s indifference towards holding democratic elections (err.ee, February 14).
In the backdrop of the European withdrawals from Mali, Russia is boosting its troop presence in the country through providing military instructors as well as the unofficial deployment of approximately 200 Wagner Group mercenaries (france24.com, November 1, 2021). Russia, in contrast to the European countries, does not show concern for Mali’s democratic backsliding and, therefore, is a more viable counter-terrorism ally for Mali at present. At the same time, the limited Russian presence in Mali is unlikely to influence in any significant way the counter-terrorism effort against JNIM and ISGS, given the larger 5,000 French troop deployment had not effectively thwarted their expansion in recent years.
Although JNIM’s statement did not mention Niger, the country is set to become a key battleground between JNIM and international forces. France is attempting to concentrate its forces in Niger instead of Mali, although France still faces some hostility from Niger’s citizens about its exploitation of resources in the country and colonial history. Moreover, there are risks of potential political turmoil in Niger. The African state has a history of military coups (france24.com, February 18). Nevertheless, with the U.S. also fielding a significant troop presence in Niger, the country is now arguably the counter-terrorism lynchpin of West Africa. A linchpin not only for dealing with JNIM and ISGS to the north, but also Boko Haram factions in northeastern Nigeria, and bandits in northwestern Nigeria, both of which traverse the borders between Nigeria and Niger (militarytimes.com, February 22).
Whatever the ultimate arrangement of counter-terrorism forces in West Africa will be, for the time being the momentum is with JNIM and, to a lesser extent, its own rival, ISGS. JNIM has likewise received a morale boost from the Taliban success in Afghanistan. The lack of political stability in the region will only further enable JNIM’s advances.
Norwegian’s Arrest Highlights Decreasing Terrorism Threat in Yemen
Ten years ago, in 2012, the Norwegian citizen Anders Cameroon Østensvig Dale joined al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen (nrk.no, March 7). At that time, AQAP was among the most significant threats to the West of all al-Qaeda affiliates. In 2009, for example, Carlos Bledsoe, who converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, trained with AQAP. He then returned to the U.S. and shot and killed a U.S. soldier at a military recruitment center in Arkansas (abcnews.com, June 2, 2009).
One year later, in 2010, AQAP claimed responsibility for the crash of a cargo plane in the United Arab Emirates, reportedly due to a parcel bomb left onboard (aljazeera.com, November 6, 2010). After several domestic attacks, in 2015, AQAP-trained brothers carried out the infamous Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris (aljazeera.com, January 14, 2015). Notwithstanding AQAP’s territorial acquisitions in Yemen, the group has struggled to launch any attacks or plots abroad and lost key leaders to targeted killings, such as Qassim al-Raymi in February 2020 (aljazeera.com, February 6, 2020).
With the arrest of Dale in early March, the group’s ability to threaten foreign countries or recruit foreigners who could return to their countries to conduct attacks is further diminished. Dale himself converted to Islam in 2008 in Norway, traveled to Yemen several times over the next three years, and joined AQAP in 2011. Although the Norwegian authorities sought to arrest him as early as 2014, it was not until he was recently captured by Houthi forces in the capital, Sanaa, that they became aware of where he was. However, it will be difficult to have him extradited to Norway, given the lack of diplomatic relations between the Norwegian government and the Houthi rebels (nrk.no, March 7)
The main threat from AQAP in the foreseeable future is to foreign nationals operating within AQAP territory in Yemen itself. For example, in February, five UN staff workers traveling through Abyan province were captured by AQAP and remain in an unknown location. Likewise, any AQAP demands for releasing these captives still remain undisclosed for security reasons (aljazeera.com, February 13).
Although AQAP has not claimed responsibility, two Doctors Without Borders (MSF) workers from Mexico and Germany were also reportedly kidnapped on March 6 in Hadramawt, Yemen (france24.com, March 6). This area is controlled by the internationally recognized government, but is a historic hub for AQAP leaders to hideout. Saeed al-Shihri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, for example, were killed there in 2012 and 2015, respectively (aljazeera.com, September 11, 2012; BBC, June 16, 2015). While AQAP’s global influence and prestige in the al-Qaeda affiliate network may be waning, it must not be discounted as a factor in Yemen’s domestic security struggles and as a threat to foreigners in the country.