On September 15, 2019, a truck bomb exploded outside of the Al-Rai Hospital in Syria’s Aleppo Governorate, killing 12 civilians and injuring many more. There were no immediate claims of responsibility.
This report focuses on operations throughout the Sahel in July 2023 claimed by the propaganda outlets of al-Qaeda and ISIS. In total, 45 different operations were claimed by these groups.
Noteworthy are two separate clashes on the Burkina Faso-Togo border, resulting in the first claimed attack by Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM) in Togo since reporting began in December 2022. In July, all high-impact attacks with a significant number of casualties were claimed by this al-Qaeda affiliate, including attacks on the Wagner Group and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Although the number of claimed attacks decreased during July 2023, the number of casualties rose significantly, with around 185 killed in Burkina Faso alone.
Interestingly for about one week in July, the propaganda outlets of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS) and the Islamic State in Western Africa Province (ISWAP) as well as JNIM fell silent. The 398th edition of the ISIS online propaganda outlet an-Naba’, published on July 6, did not mention a single attack by ISWAP or ISGS. JNIM-linked online propaganda outlets also reported no activities for a period of about 10 days in July.
The most significant event in July by far, however, was the coup in Niger. Democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum was sequestered by his own presidential guard, after which the military claimed control over the country, closed the airspace and borders, and ordered all foreign forces to leave—meaning a significant number of Westerners will have to evacuate the country sooner or later. Although Niger does not have a close bilateral relationship with Russia, there is concern the Wagner Group or other Russian paramilitary units may fill the security gap created by the potential withdrawal of Western forces from the country.
Map 1: Jihadist Activity in the Sahel (January 2023 – July 2023)
Although an increase in terrorist attacks in the region seemed likely, the total number of claimed attacks in July decreased. This is partially due to the peculiar silence of the regional ISIS- and al-Qaeda-linked propaganda outlets. In addition, ISWAP, ISGS, and JNIM online outlets encountered technical issues with their online presence in July. On Telegram, several channels linked to ISIS as well as az-Zallaqa Media, an important online propaganda outlet linked to JNIM, were suspended. The pause in reporting in combination with these technical issues very likely caused under reporting of these groups’ operations in the region.
Furthermore, recently leaked internal ISIS documents demonstrate disagreements within the group concerning its propaganda strategy and prove that ISIS’s central media apparatus sometimes does not publish claims of attacks prepared by its local media branches. This underreporting was always suspected but unproven until now. Although the leaked documents concern ISIS’s propaganda output in Syria, it is very likely that ISIS’s regional affiliates in West Africa and the Sahel region face the same challenges. As stated by Dr. Haid Haid of Chatham House who analyzed the leaked documents:
“It … shows that analysts solely relying on the number of claimed attacks will not get an accurate measure of a militant group’s strength. Therefore, policymakers should exercise caution and take a comprehensive approach when assessing the group’s capabilities and the threat it poses.”
However, despite this likely systematic underreporting of ISIS operations, it is still possible to discern the overall trend of the group’s activities in the region from its official propaganda outlets, even if these do not cover the full extent of its operations in West Africa and the Sahel.
In July 2023, several high-profile attacks occurred. Nineteen attacks were claimed by az-Zallaqa Media on behalf of JNIM, some of them with extremely high impact and number of casualties. For example, on July 2, JNIM claimed to have killed around 100 servicemen during an attack on the Burkinabe army. In addition, JNIM linked propaganda outlets also reported on the first ever attack of the group in northern Togo, on the border with Burkina Faso. Az-Zallaqa Media claimed that this attack resulted in seven casualties.
Seven claims were posted in the name of ISGS, a slight rise compared to June. But, as noted above, there is strong reason to believe that ISGS, just like ISIS in Syria, is underreporting attacks. ISWAP claimed a total of 19 attacks, all of these had a low-impact rate with few casualties. Most of these attacks targeted the Nigerian army but also executions of so-called magicians occurred as well as an attack on a Christian village.
The most impactful event of the month, however, was the coup in Niger. Given the current situation in the country, there is a risk that Western forces may have to leave the country, and the repatriation of Western civilians from the country has already begun. Niger was a target for both regional ISIS affiliates as well as JNIM. The destabilization and increasing chaos caused by the military coup will most likely result in increasing infiltrations of the Nigerien borders by terrorist cells coming from neighboring countries. Furthermore, the Wagner Group might profit heavily from the withdrawal of Western and U.N. military personnel and peacekeepers from the region as MINUSMA is drawing down its operations the neighboring Mali, following the decision of the U.N. Security Council not to extend its mandate in June.
Table 1: Claimed Attacks (December 2022 – July 2023)
Table 2: Claimed Attacks per Group (December 2022 – July 2023)
Table 3: Claimed Attacks per Country (December 2022 – July 2023)
Map 2: Spread of JNIM and ISGS in the Sahel (First Half of 2023)
The operations of JNIM in Mali are on a different level. JNIM took down a Russian helicopter of the Wagner Group, attacked one of the Wagner bases, claimed an attack in Timbuktu, and attacked MINUSMA forces. During an attack on an army base in Mali, JNIM once again used a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED), demonstrating a growing sophistication of its terrorist operations.
During July, the overall impact of JNIM’s operations in Mali was clearly significantly larger than the operations claimed by ISGIS in the country. JNIM attacks resulted in about 20 casualties, and the group was able to loot a significant amount of equipment during its attacks.
In the coming days it will become clear to what extent Mali is supporting the recent coup in Niger. The Economic Community of Western-African States (ECOWAS) is threatening to intervene militarily in Niger, while both Mali and Burkina Faso have sided with the Nigerien putschists.
Map 3: Mali Supports the Nigerien Coup Together with Burkina Faso Opposing ECOWAS
Table 4: Total Number of Claims
As in the past, online propaganda outlets linked to ISGS shared only a few details of the group’s operations. However, given the opaqueness of ISIS overall propaganda reporting outlined above, it is very likely that more attacks were conducted by the group in July but not reported by ISIS’s central media apparatus. In July, ISGS claimed just seven operations—four in Mali, two in Burkina Faso, and one in Niger. All attacks were relatively low impact, with the largest attack only resulting in four casualties. Two ISGS operations targeted JNIM forces, and one attack involved forces of the Wagner Group. The most remarkable operation occurred in Seytenga, Burkina Faso, where four soldiers guarding a goldmine were killed.
Table 5: Number of Attacks by ISGS
In northern Nigeria, ISWAP continued to focus its operations on the provinces of Borno and Yobe. Most attacks were directed at the Nigerian army or supporting militia. One attack was claimed in Niger. ISWAP also attempted to demonstrate its continuous efforts to implement its extremist version of Sharia law in territories under its control and in an apparent attempt to terrorize any potential local opposition, ISWAP propaganda also highlighted the execution of two so-called magicians and an attack on a Christian village. All attacks were of low impact, with the largest resulting in seven casualties.
Map 4: Yobe and Borno Provinces – Northern Nigeria
Table 6: Number of Attacks by ISWAP
Nineteen operations were claimed by JNIM in July. Although this is a decrease in the number of attacks claimed compared to June, the number of casualties rose dramatically. In total, the nine operations in Burkina Faso, eight operations in Mali, one in Niger, and one in Togo caused at least 215 casualties. Therefore, JNIM is developing into a highly impactful terror group in the region. Not only does the group maintain a steady number of attacks month by month, but the number of casualties caused by its operations has increased significantly.
Table 7: Number of Attacks by JNIM
Even though the number of attacks claimed by JNIM-, ISGS-, and ISWAP-linked propaganda outlets dropped in July, a significant increase in high-impact operations occurred. In July, JNIM was responsible for the highest number of casualties in the region by a significant margin. Overall, the security situation in the Sahel is reaching a tipping point. After the French and MINUSMA forces were driven out of Mali and Burkina Faso, the coup in Niger and the potential withdrawal of Western forces from the country has the potential to further destabilize the region.
The situation in Niger is highly precarious. The recent coup and the ensuing chaos and violence in the country has been strongly condemned by France, the United States, and the United Nations, as well as by the European Union. Furthermore, since the coup, rumors have spread about increasing Russian influence in Niger, and clearly the coup leaders seem to favor Russia and the Wagner Group as a new partner.
Tension is rising as ECOWAS has threatened to intervene in Niger if the former regime is not reinstated by August 6. Mali and Burkina Faso back the coup leaders in Niger, and both are supported by the Wagner Group. All indications are that the region will likely descent further into chaos and instability, giving significantly more breathing room for JNIM, ISGS, and ISWAP to expand their operations and territorial reach.
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