Al-Qaeda’s Malian Affiliate Targets Russia’s Wagner Group
On April 25, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Mali, Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), claimed that it kidnapped Russian Wagner Group “soldiers” in Segou (Twitter/@Lesoirdebamako, April 26). This occurred despite the fact that the Malian government has denied even the existence of the Wagner Group in its territory. Rather, the Malian military rulers, who came to power through a coup in 2021, only acknowledge “Russian trainers” being in the country (lemonde.fr, April 25).
Although JNIM’s claim appears credible, the group’s lack of any publicized video showing Wagner Group soldiers in the group’s custody lowers the authenticity of the claim. Such a JNIM video would not only embarrass Mali government by showing their claims about the Wagner Group to be false, but would also exacerbate Mali’s relations with France, which, among other European countries, has withdrawn its counter-terrorism forces from Mali and oppose the deployment of Wagner Group in the country. The Malian government accuses France of “subversion” for criticizing the lack of democratic transition in Mali, which, in turn, has led Mali to court closer ties with Russia (Senenews.com, April 27).
The Wagner Group has also been accused of partaking in massacres of Malian, and specifically Fulani, civilians suspected of collaborating with JNIM. Whether or not the Malian government’s denials of those accusations are credible, JNIM retaliated for these deaths of civilians by killing six Malian soldiers with suicide car bombs on April 6 in Segou (dakaractu.com, April 25). At the same time these attacks took place, elsewhere in northern Benin JNIM launched attacks and extended its reach further westward in the Sahel (Senenews.com, April 27).
North of Segou, JNIM attempts to enter Sevare in the Mopti region have been thwarted. The fact that JNIM fighters have been seen walking in villages on the outskirts of Sevare and have been killed while conducting raids into the city itself indicates that the city could be captured in the future (Twitter/@511ZGS, April 27). JNIM is not currently able to control territory in Mali and neighboring Sahelian countries like its predecessors did in 2012-2013. However, the continued political turmoil in the country, combined with the questionable support from Russia and decreasing counter-terrorism support from the West, does bode well for JNIM’s future prospects.
JNIM’s ideology, meanwhile, remains consistent with broader al-Qaeda ideology. Its deputy leader, Abu Yahya, appeared in a video on April 26 calling on the “mujahideen” to continue waging jihad and promised that Allah would grant them victory (Twitter/@ocisse691, April 26). Any such victory for JNIM no longer has France standing in the way, at least in Mali, but rather the Malian army and, despite its refutations, also Russia’s Wagner Group.
Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) Expands Into Central Nigeria, as Boko Haram Revives Around Lake Chad
On May 12, Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) claimed an attack in Kabba, Kogi State in which it detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) at a bar (Twitter/@IsraelAwolowo, May 12). Three bar patrons were killed and others were injured. The Kogi Commissioner of Police asserted that the explosion was not a bomb blast, but was caused by a gas leak (globalupfront.com, May 12). Given the ISWAP claim and Nigerian officials’ longtime record of incorrectly denying that ISWAP or the rival Shekau faction attacks occurred, it is quite likely that ISWAP did, in fact, conduct the attack in Kabba.
The attack, moreover, comes after a series of ISWAP attacks that for the first time occurred outside of its main area of operations in northeastern Nigeria. Coinciding with the Islamic State’s global campaign to seek “revenge” for the deaths of its previous two caliphs, ISWAP has claimed attacks in Taraba and “central Nigeria,” as well as others in Kogi (Terrorism Monitor, May 6). These attacks in the historically volatile Middle Belt region of Nigeria, which comprises a roughly equal number of Muslims and Christians, risk escalating religious tensions in the country. This would not be the first time such an attack triggered religious sectarianism, as the Shekau faction conducted bombings in the region in 2012 (nigerianeye.com, January 11, 2012).
The psychological effect of ISWAP’s attacks is also starting to take control. Northern Nigeria’s largest city, Kano, which has almost completely been spared from attacks by ISWAP and the Shekau faction since 2015, has suddenly reported attacks. On May 17, there was a reported “gas cylinder explosion” in Kano at a popular market, making it the second marketplace targeted by ISWAP in recent months (aljazeera.com, May 18). Although ISWAP did not claim the explosion in Kano that killed nine people, suspicions about ISWAP’s possible role in the explosion are elevated, given trends elsewhere in the country.
While ISWAP expands its influence in central Nigeria, the Shekau faction is reviving around Lake Chad, despite the death of the faction’s longtime leader, the ruthless Abubakar Shekau. He was killed in an ISWAP military offensive against the faction in May 2021 (vanguardngr.com, June 18, 2021). In a video n May 2, the Shekau faction reiterated that its formal name was still Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (Sunni Muslim Group for Preaching and Jihad) and that the group’s new leader was Abu Umaimata (Telegram, May 2). The group’s continued operations in Niger Republic, Lake Chad, and the Mandara Mountains along the Nigerian border with Cameroon indicate that the ISWAP raids caused the group to lose most of its fighters in and around Shekau’s former base of Sambisa – through defections to ISWAP no less. However, the former Lake Chad-based Shekau faction, led by top commander Bakura “Doron” (crisisgroup.org, April 6, 2020), still remain in and around Lake Chad.
Another Shekau faction video surfaced on May 12 and confirmed that the faction would continue to reject ISWAP for its failure to declare takfir (excommunication) on Muslims who do not fight jihad. Further, the video affirmed that Abu Umaimata was the faction’s leader (Telegram, May 12). Any expectations for Nigeria that Shekau’s death would lead to the elimination of his faction can now be rejected, while similar hopes that ISWAP could remain “only” a northeastern Nigerian problem can also be withdrawn.