This third monthly analytical report on open source observations of Jihadi activities throughout the Sahel will focus on the most significant events that occurred in February 2023.
The month of February 2023 saw an increase in attack claims from all Jihadist factions active throughout the Sahel. When compared with the number of attacks of the previous months, a slight increase of claimed attacks in different countries throughout the region is discernible. Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM) seems to have significantly increased its media output and claimed some of the most impactful attacks. ISGS (The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) or ISSP (The Islamic State in Sahel Province) made a notable appearance claiming attacks on JNIM and on government forces in both Burkina Faso and Niger.
One of the most remarkable stories to emerge early February was the arrest in Benin and extradition to Belgium of Jean-Louis Denis (a.k.a. Jean-Louis “Le Soumis”). The Belgian citizen was arrested in 2014 and sentenced in 2016 to 10 years of imprisonment; his sentence was reduced upon appeal to five years in prison for recruitment of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) to the war in Syria and Iraq. Denis was named as the likely successor of Fouad Belkacem, former leader of Sharia4Belgium and one of the top recruiters in Belgium. Denis initiated a project he called “Resto du Tawheed” near one of the main railway stations in Brussels. He and his wife distributed free meals to the needy. At the same time, however, he was building a network of recruits. Following his release from prison in 2018, Denis stated to the press that he was more radical than ever. In early January 2023, there was speculation Denis would reengage in Molenbeek, Brussels; instead, he opted for Benin. On his own account he was engaging there in agricultural projects funded by donations. Most remarkably, Denis was using the PayPal account of his attorney to collect these donations—a detail uncovered during our own investigations of his social media accounts. Since his extradition from Benin, he returned to Belgium and is actively engaged via social media. He is actively proselytizing on both Twitter and YouTube.
For Benin, this could be an early example of a potential new trend of convicted Jihadi recruiters returning to their previous activities in countries that are vulnerable to Jihadi recruitment. Therefore, this emerging trend of European extremists relocating to the region and thereby exacerbating an already fragile situation should be monitored.
Attacks in the Sahel – General Trends
As noted in previous reports, it is not only the Jihadist threat posing grave issues for the international community. A worrying development is that, following the example of Mali, more countries throughout the region are cutting ties with European forces and instead are relying on the Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group.
As the Soufan Center noted mid-February: “Russia is actively seeking political influence in the Sahel through ostensible support for counter-insurgency efforts amid the drawdown of the longstanding French counterterrorism forces in that region […] but this has not led to counter-insurgency success and, in contrast, has often exacerbated insecurity.”
After Mali severed ties with France and other European peacekeepers, Burkina Faso also decided to halt cooperation with European peacekeeping initiatives. VOA News reported on the Burkinabe demarche: “France and Burkina Faso have officially marked the end of French military operations in the West African nation, the Burkinabe armed forces said Sunday, after a flag-lowering ceremony at the French special forces' camp a day earlier.”
According to U.S. security officials, the Wagner Group is also actively engaged in Chad, where the group is posing a significant threat to the country’s stability. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the Wagner Group is cooperating with Chadian rebels to destabilize the government and potentially kill the president.” Therefore, Russian influence may also increase in Chad, another former French colony. This demonstrates a continuing trend throughout the Sahel. The Financial Times also reported on the Wagner Group and published a most insightful map, documenting casualties of the Wagner Group’s activities throughout Northern and Central Africa between January 2019 and January 2023. Most interesting is the data visualization of Russian propaganda distributed via Twitter (2021). Currently, the Wagner Group is involved in nearly every conflict zone throughout the African continent. Therefore, it can be expected that this highly problematic Russian private military company will be able to further increase its role in the region.
As far as attacks within the region under observation are concerned, at least 42 have been claimed during February 2023. The majority of the Islamic State claims again comes from the Islamic State – West Africa Province (ISWAP). In total, 18 attacks were claimed by ISWAP.
Similar to January 2023, all attacks claimed by ISWAP are small scale, inflicting damage but not causing a significant number of casualties. A continuous trend are attacks focused on locations in the province of Borno, located on the border of Nigeria, Niger, and Chad.
More striking are the most recent claims by the Islamic State’s Greater Sahel or Sahel Province (ISGS or ISSP). In the last few months ISSP has hardly been active in publishing any claims. Now, however, high casualty attacks on al-Qaeda forces and the armed forces of both Niger and Burkina Faso were reported. It is notable that at least two of these events date back to late 2022.
In Niger, ISGS claims to have killed at least 35 soldiers and two al-Qaeda members, another attack in Niger likely resulted in multiple casualties. In Burkina Faso, the army and al-Qaeda members were the main target as well, with a total of around 100 confirmed killed.
The February 20 attack has been confirmed by the Burkinabe army in the following statement:
The attack was reported by The Defense Post, “At least 51 soldiers were killed in an ambush by suspected jihadists in northern Burkina Faso, the army said on Monday, adding that 160 of the assailants died during counter-attacks. The ambush took place on Friday in Oudalan province near the restive frontier with Mali and Burkina Faso.”
Nearly all images published by Nashir News on these attacks were extremely graphic in content. All of these events occurred on the north-eastern border area between Burkina Faso and Niger.
JNIM’s attacks were relatively low in casualty count. Some of the targets, however, are particularly noteworthy. JNIM carried out at least two attacks against the Wagner Group in Mopti province, Mali. The second high-value target were forces of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the U.N. peace force in the region. Reuters reported that at least three U.N. soldiers had been killed and five wounded, these numbers were confirmed by the Islamic State’s media output. The number of casualties from the Wagner Group are not documented. No specific region was targeted, the attacks occurred throughout the entire country.
Az-Zallaqa Media – Infographic on the operations in Rajab 1444 AH:
In February 2023, a slight increase of claimed attacks occurred. In January, we witnessed a total of 34 attacks, 13 attacks by JNIM in Mali and 21 attacks by ISWAP throughout Nigeria. This month we registered at least 41 attack claims, most of them by ISWAP (18) and JNIM (18).
The most impactful events were those claimed by ISGS and JNIM, with several high-casualty attacks by the Islamic State as seen in Niger and Burkina-Faso and JNIM’s operations on the Wagner Group and MINUSMA forces.
It is to be expected that events like these will increase in the near future. Not only is the impact of Jihadi groups in the region growing, but the Wagner Group is continuously building its impact area and therefore significantly exacerbating an already destabilized situation in the region. Furthermore, the month of Ramadan is approaching (March 22 to April 21, 2023). During this time, an increase in attacks occurs as Ramadan is seen as a month of battle in Jihadi ideology. One might expect a noticeable increase in incidents in the coming weeks.