Last month, Mali-based al-Qaeda affiliate group Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 16 people in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The assault showed that despite the fact that the Islamic State has lost much of its territory, it has proliferated in the form of numerous branches throughout West Africa and Maghreb.
The threat of global jihadism more broadly is far from over and in particular, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – JNIM’s sister organization – is currently reforming itself and undertaking organizational changes aimed at improving centralized decision-making. As such, it is very likely to re-emerge as a major security threat in the region. Until now, AQIM was mostly operating as a syndicate organization, uniting different autonomously working cells under one ‘master brand’. AQIM’s members cooperate on a range of topics, such as recruitment, terrorism, drug smuggling and arms trafficking.
Throughout the years, AQIM has been remarkably adaptable. It was keeping a low profile in Algeria and withdrew to the mountainous Kabyle region but at the same time it was staging attacks in Libya and building networks in Egypt. The organization also cooperates with local tribes to gain broader support. AQIM reportedly raises funds through robbery, arms trafficking, money laundering and reportedly also drug trafficking from South Africa to Europe. Analysts, however, generally agree that al-Qaeda’s engagement in drug smuggling has been overstated. While it is clear that the group benefits from such trade, it is mostly the corrupt Malian government that is sustaining the business.
Egypt has increasingly become a target of local jihadists who have been perpetrating attacks against civilians, targeting mostly Christians and Sufi Muslims. This trend is likely to continue due to inadequate efforts to protect vulnerable groups and ineffective counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency policies. Egyptian authorities attribute the increased terror activity to the return of Egyptian foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria.
There is a room for the EU to help address some of these issues with its closest partners in the region and Egypt would certainly be high on the priority list. The EU should improve cooperation with Egyptian intelligence and law enforcement agencies and make the European External Action Service (EEAS) pursue strategies to place a counter-terrorism expert at its Cairo delegation. Pushing for more access for independent journalists, development and aid organizations, and civil society groups as well as foreign partners to the Sinai and other areas of terrorist activity could benefit both the threat and the government response.