The End of an Era: Has JNIM Finally Superseded AQIM?
On December 23, the Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) released a video showing speeches about jihad by Abu Iyad al-Tunisi and Yahya Abu al-Humam when they were together in a hideout (Twitter /@SimNasr, December 23). This was before they both were killed in February and November 2019, respectively (20minutes.fr, November 5, 2019). It is not atypical for AQIM, or al-Qaeda affiliates more generally, to release footage of former leaders several years after their deaths. However, in this case JNIM’s praise of these former AQIM leaders indicates how AQIM is becoming subsumed by JNIM, rather than the other way around.
When JNIM emerged on the scene in 2017 as a conglomeration of Malian Tuareg and Fulani jihadist brigades and AQIM’s Sahelian brigades, JNIM was seen as being the “sub-affiliate” of AQIM, which itself was considered the “true” affiliate of al-Qaeda amongst the groups (issafrica.org, April 3, 2017). Eventually, JNIM began carrying out significantly more attacks than AQIM and operating not only in Mali, but also in Niger and Burkina Faso as well as the borderlands of the littoral West African states. Conversely, AQIM has become operationally irrelevant in Algeria (northafricapost.com, December 30, 2022). AQIM videos, such as those exhorting Algerians to protest against the Algerian government and support AQIM, have gone largely unnoticed except for the relatively closed arena of jihadist online platforms and fleeting media and analytical reports (Terrorism Monitor, March 25, 2022).
JNIM’s latest video shows how the group is now not only more powerful than AQIM, but is also using its own media wing, al-Zallaqa, to eulogize AQIM leaders. In other words, JNIM has now taken the mantle as the prime al-Qaeda jihadist representative in northwest Africa, with AQIM playing “second fiddle.” While AQIM was largely neutralized by the Algerian security forces or, more broadly, by the Algerian government’s maintenance of stability through economic challenges and the Arab Spring, JNIM’s main risk of being neutralized comes from its rival, Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS).
The Sahelian governments and militaries are too embroiled in managing coups, counter-coups, struggling economies, and deteriorating relations with the ancien guarantor of regional security, France, to focus on counter-terrorism (politico.eu, October 2, 2022). However, ISGS has seen a resurgence, launching attacks that they claim have killed up to 80 JNIM fighters (Twitter/@p_vanostaeyen, November 20). Photographs released by ISGS of its attacks against JNIM also attest to significant loads of weapons being acquired, which tends to support ISGS’s others claims (Twitter/@calibreobscura, November 3).
Nonetheless, JNIM has responded since November with increasingly strong counter-attacks against ISGS, as evidenced by the showing of weapons and 30 motorcycles pilfered from the rival group (Twitter/@Menastream, December 13). Beyond that, JNIM appears to operate in a more sophisticated way than ISGS by, for example, integrating drone surveillance with ambushes on ISGS positions (Twitter/@Hkamaan, December 30). JNIM further listed eight operations against ISGS between November 28 and December 23, which strongly indicate that JNIM is turning the tide against ISGS (Twitter/@Menastream, December 30).
This is not the first time that ISGS has come from behind to fight JNIM and to arrive at the brink of success. However, in the previous attempt, in early 2020, JNIM managed to rebuff ISGS (thenewhumanitarian.org, August 17, 2020). If the evidence JNIM has put forth about its counter-attacks against ISGS are to be believed, then it appears JNIM will once again emerge on top, at least in this round of combat.
More importantly, with a diminished AQIM in North Africa and a growing Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, JNIM appears to be surpassing AQIM as the main al-Qaeda force in West Africa.
Malay Militants Adopt New Tactics Targeting Railroad Lines
Militancy in southern Thailand by ethnic Malay Muslims saw an uptick in the period before the new year. Tactics in this latest phase of militancy, however, appear to be different than in previous years. For example, bombs were detonated for the first time on railroad tracks in Songkhla province, southern Thailand. This derailed a freight train and then killed three railroad workers when a second bomb detonated during their repair operation (bangkokpost.com, December 6, 2022). The targeting of the repair crew through the use of double-bombing resembles the tactics of more experienced militants, such as Hamas or the Taliban, which frequently attacked emergency rescue squads in second bombings after an initial bombing targeted public or civilian premises (hindustantimes.com, January 27, 2018). Moreover, most attacks in southern Thailand have targeted Thai soldiers, Buddhist monks, or sometimes civilians at large, but this attack’s targeting of a freight train could indicate a newfound interest in undermining the Thai economy.
Another recent attack that demonstrated the increased power of the militants occurred in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat, where a car bomb exploded at a police compound on November 21 (aljazeera.com, November 22, 2022). The death toll of one person and the 30 injured was typical of attacks in southern Thailand, which usually do not see mass casualties. However, a new feature of this attack was that a driver first rammed his car into the police compound, which caused the officers to inspect the car. Only then did the vehicle, which was now abandoned, explode. It may only have been the lack of materials for a large-scale explosion that limited the death toll. Although there was no claim for this attack, like the attack on the freight train, that is not atypical for any of the major southern Thai ethnic Malay Muslim militant groups.
One of the motivations for the current spate of attacks relates to ongoing negotiations between representatives of the militants and the Thai government mediated by Malaysia. Malaysia’s new Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, has already met with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who together agreed to continue holding discussions on the insurgency in southern Thailand. However, they have not set a date for the next meeting and it remains unclear whether the Malaysian lead negotiator, former national police chief Abdul Rahim Noor, will continue in his role (benarnews.org, December 15, 2022).
Indeed, according to the latest reports from Malaysia, Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, who is a retired army general, will replace Abdul Rahim Noor as the lead Malaysian negotiator (benarnews.org, January 4). The most obvious reason why Anwar Ibrahim would replace Noor with Abidin is that Noor is a political opponent of Ibrahim and once even punched Ibrahim—giving him a black eye—while Ibrahim was in a prison cell in 1998. This led to Rahim being imprisoned himself for two months and later apologizing to Ibrahim for his actions several years later (straitstimes.com, September 2, 2018).
No indication exists, however, that Abidin will change any of Malaysia’s positions on being an ostensibly neutral arbiter while maintaining the trust of fellow ethnic Malay Muslims across the border in Thailand. Anwar Ibrahim historically has been keenly interested in resolving the issues surrounding the violence in southern Thailand and likely will resume Malaysia’s mediation efforts with more intensity than his predecessors (bangkokpost.com, November 27, 2018). The new tactics employed by the ethnic Malay Muslim militants in southern Thailand may represent an attempt to attract attention during the transition in Malaysia’s mediation team and to force Malaysia to become more involved in the negotiations. The militants maintain their demand for autonomy (at a minimum) for the three provinces in southern Thailand which they claim to be their homeland, which were only ceded to Thailand in 1909 by British colonial administrators.