On March 17, around one hundred assailants, traveling on motorcycles and pickup trucks, killed thirty-three soldiers and wounded an additional fourteen in an attack near Tessit in central Mali. Peacekeepers operating under the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) assisted the evacuation of the dead and wounded; the French-led counterinsurgency force stationed in West Africa, Operation Barkhane, helped the Malian military secure the area after the attack. About four days later, perpetrators killed 137 in coordinated attacks in the Tahoua region of southwest Niger. The attacks took place near the border with Mali and also not far from Tillabéri, another Nigerien border region, where at least fifty-eight people were killed recently by gunmen on motorcycles.
The Islamic State’s “West Africa affiliate” has apparently claimed responsibility for the Tessit attack. This likely refers primarily to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which is known to operate in the tri-border region where the frontiers of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet; reporting on the attacks at Tillabéri and Tahoua suggests ISGS involvement. If so, there are additional reports that militants from the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA)—a splinter group of Boko Haram—provided reinforcements to ISGS in the Tahoua attack. That would indicate a new expansion of ISWA’s geographic scope: the hotbed of ISGS activity is located well over one thousand kilometers from Boko Haram and ISWA’s main area of operations in northeastern Nigeria.
Much closer to the tri-border area, however, is northwestern Nigeria, where criminal and jihadi activities are converging as the Nigerian region becomes more insecure. Banditry, particularly kidnapping for ransom, is prevalent; Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for a mass kidnapping in Nigeria’s Katsina State in December last year, though his claim is unverified. With regard to the latest atrocities in Mali and Niger, it remains possible that some level of coordination took place between jihadi groups and groups regarded as primarily criminal in nature. But, if so, why? Victims were killed, not kidnapped, and looting does not seem to have been the goal. However, outside observers lack the granular knowledge of the region to divine the motivation for the attacks. Revenge or rivalry over control of smuggling routes are plausible explanations, as is jihadi militancy. Or, perhaps, elements of all three are present.
With regard to the counterinsurgency effort against the jihadis, Barkhane is considered the most effective fighting force in West Africa. But the French deployment is not popular in France; public opinion perhaps fears Barkhane could become bogged down in West Africa like the United States in Afghanistan. Looking to the 2022 presidential elections, President Emmanuel Marcon raised the possibility of a whole or partial military withdrawal, but he has of late backed away from his earlier comments. MINUSMA was established in 2013 after the French Operation Serval and the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) failed to stabilize Mali in the face of Islamist rebellion. The deployment under MINUSMA is large, with more than 16,000 total personnel as of January 2021. So, too, have been its fatalities: some 235 since it was established. Its mandate is “stabilization,” not peacekeeping per se, as there is no peace to keep. The recent string of violent episodes, along with rumored cooperation between jihadi cells, shows that stability and security in the Sahel are far from achieved, and that a significant French withdrawal or a winding down of MINUSMA could lead to jihadi and criminal forces severely threatening the survival of Mali's military-led government.