CEP – KAS - Sahel Monitoring May 2023

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This sixth monthly analytical report based on open source observations of Jihadi activities throughout the Sahel will focus on the most significant events that occurred in May 2023.

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After the relative calm during the previous months and the lack of a noticeable “Ramadan campaign” that characterized the previous reporting period, attacks seem to have returned to usual levels. In total, 59 different operations have been claimed by the groups under observation. Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM)’s propaganda also highlighted an attack by the Malian army and the Wagner Group on the villages of Nantaka and Biafil in the area of Mopti. Five villagers were reportedly killed. By reporting on this attack, JNIM seeks to claim that the group is helping and protecting the local population in their struggle against the military regime and Russian mercenaries. Reports of atrocities committed by regime-linked forces regularly emerge in Mali. However, this is the first time that such an attack was utilized in terrorist propaganda.

A noticeable trend during this period were reports on heavy fighting between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS) and JNIM in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. This demonstrates that the operational areas of both terror groups have expanded to such an extent that conflicts over resources and influence begin to emerge. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether this will lead to a sustained mutual weakening of the two groups over time.

JNIM also actively engaged in several severe clashes with the Wagner Group in Mali, while the Islamic State in Western Africa Province (ISWAP) launched a number of operations in Nigeria, focused on African Coalition Forces (i.e., the African Multinational Joined Task Force or MNJTF) deployed throughout the country. In total, ISWAP launched four suicide attacks with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) on targets of the Nigerian army and the MNJTF.

Attacks in the Sahel – General Trend

While there was a sharp increase in the number of operations claimed during April 2023 (68, an increase of almost a third compared to March), during May, the number of claimed operations dropped slightly to 59. This demonstrates the continuing high volatility in the region, as this number is relatively high compared to the beginning of the year. In addition, a significant proportion of attacks claimed in May were of relatively high impact.

Multiple operations of ISGS also targeted JNIM, reportedly causing dozens of casualties in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. JNIM focused its operations in Mali and Burkina Faso—mainly targeting the Malian army, supporting militia, and the Wagner Group.

ISWAP remains focused on operations throughout the area of Borno and Yobe. Heavy clashes with the Nigerian army and MNJTF forces were reported in the area of Lake Chad. ISWAP carried out four suicide attacks via VBIEDs on Nigerian and African Union forces.

Overall, there seems to have been a slight geographical shift in attacks. The number of claimed terror operations dropped in in Nigeria. On the other hand, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Cameroon saw a steady increase in claimed attacks since March 2023. There is nothing indicating a shift of priorities by ISWAP. Rather, the lower number of attacks in Nigeria seems to be merely coincidental.

Table 1: Claimed Attacks (December 2022 – May 2023)

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Table 2: Claimed Attacks per Group (December 2022 – May 2023)

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Table 3: Claimed Attacks per Country (December 2022 – May 2023)

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Source: https://twitter.com/J_LuengoCabrera/status/1653881764924760064?s=20

Attacks per Country

  • Despite the slight reduction in the number of attacks in May, Nigeria remains the country with the highest number of claimed attacks (22). Four of these attacks were targeting the African Union Forces MNJTF in the area of Borno. ISWAP claimed that dozens of soldiers were killed in three attacks between May 10 and May 14. These claims were refuted by MNJTF. MNJTF and the Nigerian army claimed that they killed over 55 fighters of ISWAP during these days.

    Furthermore, ISWAP claimed four different suicide attacks in the region of Lake Chad during the second week of May. In a statement by the ISIS-linked A’maq News Agency, the group said that the first two attacks killed 55 MNJTF soldiers.

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  • During May, terrorist propaganda in the region made 20 references to Mali. Six attacks were claimed by ISGS, targeting JNIM and local militia. In addition, ISGS also claimed that it had identified and killed a “spy.” JNIM focused its operations on the Malian army and the Wagner Group. However, none of these attacks were of any significant size.
  • In Burkina Faso, 16 attacks were claimed—six by ISGS, and the remainder by JNIM. Similar to the situation in Mali, ISGS primarily seems to have attacked its rival JNIM forces and local militia, whereas JNIM seems to have focused on military targets. Overall, the deterioration of the security situation in Burkina Faso continues as shown in the following infographic:

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Source: https://twitter.com/Wamaps_news/status/1652958176248053763?s=20

  • Niger witnessed two attacks claimed by ISGS and ISWAP. One attack was directed against the Nigerien army, and the other was against JNIM. In both attacks, a number of casualties were claimed. According to ISGS-linked propaganda statements, the attack against JNIM resulted in a significant number of casualties among the forces of this al-Qaeda affiliated coalition.
  • In Cameroon one attack was claimed by ISWAP. No casualties were reported.

Table 4: Total Number of Claims

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Attacks per Affiliate


Five of the claimed attacks took place during the month of Ramadan, targeting JNIM (at least 16 killed), militia-members affiliated with the Burkinabe army (at least 28 killed) and one alleged spy who was executed by the terror group. The more recently claimed operations focused on the area of Menaka, mainly targeting JNIM and local militia.

Table 2: Attacks Claimed by ISGS

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Almost all of the attacks claimed by ISWAP were in the area of Borno. This province, located in northeastern Nigeria, is close to Lake Chad, a region that has a long history of terrorist infiltration spanning all countries that border the lake.

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Most of the attacks claimed by ISWAP were of relatively low impact. However, there were some exceptions. Four different operations targeting African Union Forces (MNJTF) were claimed by ISWAP and were presented as major successes in the terror group’s efforts to hinder the advance of MNJTF and the Nigerian army towards its positions. This series of attacks took place between May 10 and May 14. On May 10, ISWAP carried out a suicide attack against a convoy of Nigerian and MNJTF soldiers using a VBIED. This tactic was common practice in both Syria and Iraq but is not typical in the Sahel. This could indicate a development in the methods used by ISIS-linked groups in the region.

Already a steady increase of this tactic can be observed. VBIED-specialist Hugo Kaaman argues: “ISWAP has claimed a total of 21 up-armoured SVBIED [suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] attacks against Nigerian & MNJTF forces in Northeastern Nigeria's Borno province since the start of 2021, one every 41 days. However, most attacks are clustered in annual spikes around March-May & are mostly used defensively.”

Vincent Foucher, an analyst on politics in western Africa, pointed out to the author that the advance of MNJTF forces into core ISWAP-controlled territory was likely to be one of the reasons that the group resorted to the new tactic of suicide attacks via VBIEDs. 

As usual, ISIS-linked propaganda outlets eulogized the suicide bombers by publishing their kunya [nom de guerre] and picture in A’maq News Agency and in the group’s weekly magazine an-Naba’.

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 Source: https://twitter.com/HKaaman/status/1659178478439202818?s=20

Table 3: Attacks Claimed by ISWAP

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JNIM, the al-Qaeda-affiliated coalition in the Sahel, concentrated most of its operations in Mali, primarily targeting the Malian armed forces. Three attacks were directed at Wagner Group mercenaries. Ten operations were claimed in Burkina Faso—all of which targeted the country’s army.

The group made a remarkable statement that was not about its own operations. Rather, JNIM directly accused the Wagner Group mercenaries of killing five villagers in the area of Mopti. With such claims, JNIM is seeking to convince its audience that they support the villagers, pursuing a “hearts and minds” strategy instead of enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam on the locals, as is being done by their adversary ISGS.

Table 4: Attacks Claimed by JNIM

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Overall, the high level of insecurity caused by an ever-growing terrorist threat within the region continues and has become somewhat of a new normal. Whereas in Syria and Iraq, the heartlands of ISIS, an all-time low in operations can be observed, attacks in the Sahel remain at a very high level. The most striking events last month were the heavy clashes with MNJTF forces, including four suicide attacks using VBIEDs. The continuous infighting between ISGS and JNIM will also likely continue in the next few months. Clashes with the Wagner Group are likely to increase as the Russian mercenaries keep on reinforcing their established presence throughout the region.

The question, as always, remains which party involved is closest to the truth: Jihadi-terrorists claiming they killed a significant number of MNJTF and Nigerian forces in the four claimed suicide attacks, or MNJTF claiming they repelled the attacks and gained significant progress in their battle against the terrorist insurgency throughout the region. However, given the resilience of terrorist operations in Nigeria over the past decades and the continuing deterioration of the overall security situation, reports about military successes in Nigeria should be taken with a grain of salt.

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