Lines Between al-Qaeda and JNIM Blur in Burkina Faso
Brian M. Perkins
Militant violence continues to increase in Burkina Faso as both local and regional militant organizations have spread within the country. Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) has long been the primary al-Qaeda-linked group in Burkina Faso and has claimed responsibility for countless attacks, including twin bombings in March 2018 that targeted the Burkinabe Army headquarters and French Embassy in Ouagadougou (Al Akhbar, March 3). Al-Qaeda, however, formally announced its presence in Burkina Faso on September 18 sparking confusion as to the group’s relationship with JNIM and raising the specter of further violence in the coming months.
Al-Qaeda’s announcement of their presence in Burkina Faso was made via a video posted on their Telegram channel on September 18 that depicted a group of fighters, who are possibly from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansaroul Islam. The speaker of the group vowed to respond to tyrants within the country (Jihadology, September 18). The announcement came as somewhat of a surprise as many analysts have considered JNIM to be al-Qaeda’s wing in Burkina Faso, but the purported al-Qaeda fighters made no mention of the group. JNIM, meanwhile, released its own video just weeks later echoing a similar narrative but focusing specifically on French involvement in the country (Malijet, October 10). The video placed the group within the context of the broader al-Qaeda organization. The disparities between the two releases seemingly indicate that the two groups are not as closely coordinated or linked as many believe and that al-Qaeda’s cell in Burkina Faso will be a sperate entity from JNIM.
It is unclear what the relationship between the al-Qaeda cell and JNIM will look like moving forward, but an official al-Qaeda presence in Burkina Faso is likely to alter the strategic calculus of the forces currently involved in the fight against terrorism within the country. The two video releases came amid an increase in attacks by militant groups and French operations within the country, including the first French air operations against militants in Burkina Faso (Africa News, October 8). These operations took place in the eastern Pama region of the country as militancy has spread from embattled northern regions to the forested areas near the border with Ghana, Togo and Benin. French Minister of Armed Forces, Florence Parly, confirmed on October 8 that three more significant operations were to take place in the coming weeks (Le Telegramme, October 8).
Earlier in the year, reports emerged that the United States planned to reduce its Special Operations troop presence in the region (New York Times, September 2). On October 8, however, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis announced that the United States would not reduce its support to the French-led mission in the region (Reuters, October 2). He did not mention earlier plans to reduce the U.S. troop presence, but it is likely that recent developments will weigh on this decision as further details emerge regarding the alleged al-Qaeda cell in Burkina Faso.
Southern Yemen on the Brink of Further Violence
The ongoing conflict between the Southern Transitional Council, a UAE-backed secessionist political body established in 2017, and President Hadi has long been overshadowed by the fight against the Houthis. Recent developments in Aden and the reshuffling of positions within the Hadi government have underscored the potential for a broader, more violent conflict to open in southern Yemen in the coming months. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are increasingly at odds due to the divergent positions of the local forces they have backed in southern Yemen.
After days of tense protests, the Southern Transitional Council called for a popular uprising against the Hadi government in an official press release on October 3 (STC, October 3). The press release cited the deteriorating economic and living conditions in southern Yemen and the alleged corruption of government officials. The release coincided with protests in several southern towns and cities. The government quickly denounced the calls for an uprising, noting that government security forces would not allow unrest and subversion. In an apparent attempt to appease the Southern Transitional Council, Hadi sacked Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Daghr and appointed Maeen Abdul Malek Saeed (Gulf News, October 18). The Southern Transitional Council has already rejected the move, noting that it does not go high enough to address the problems (Middle East Eye, October 3). The Southern Transitional Council will likely continue their calls for an uprising as Hadi’s legitimacy continues to wane and their popular support grows in the South.
The latest tensions between the Southern Transitional Council and Hadi came against a backdrop of dozens of assassinations of pro-Hadi members of Islah—which the UAE considers to be Yemen’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood— and revelations that UAE-hired private military contractors (PMC) were behind the killings (Buzzfeed, October 16). The UAE has long been implicated in the mysterious assassinations of Islah politicians, imams, and teachers as locals and pundits suggested Emirati troops or UAE-backed southern forces were responsible. Despite the implications, the UAE had managed to maintain a degree of separation from the incidents until a contractor from the US-based PMC Spear Operations Group revealed he had helped carryout a campaign of targeted assassinations on behalf of the Emirati government.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have publicly claimed to be aligned in their priority to support Hadi and restore his government, but the UAE has vehemently supported the Southern Transitional Council and pro-secession forces while Saudi Arabia has provided its support to pro-Hadi forces and Islah. Tensions between the two countries over their proxies in Yemen have undoubtedly been simmering beneath the surface but the revelation that the UAE is behind a targeted campaign against Saudi-backed, pro-Hadi Islah fighters could bring these tensions to the fore. While diplomatic tensions between the two nations are possible, the conflict will likely manifest on the ground in Yemen between pro-Hadi forces and UAE-backed security forces. Violence between Islah and southern forces are likely to escalate considerably in the coming weeks, particularly if assassinations continue and the Southern Transitional Council builds momentum with its call to topple the Hadi government.