In March 2017, the four most powerful Jihadi organizations in the Sahel, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Din, Al-Mourabitoun and Katibat Macina, merged together and formed the Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM), also known as Group in Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), under the leadership of Iyad Ag Ghali. This unification means an end of their division into multiple factions, which has long characterized the Jihadi organizations in this region, and a birth of what can be considered a terrorist super-group and one of the most powerful Al-Qaeda affiliates so far.
The creation of the GSIM is especially dangerous, since the Sahelian region consists of weak states that are unable to suppress the Jihadi threat. Libya, which still is a collapsed state, is considered a safe haven for Jihadi organizations, in spite of the presence of the international forces. Even more dangerous is the presence of an affiliate of the Islamic State, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) led by Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, an organization which, although on the surface appearing to be the main rival of the GSIM, has been following a strategy of rapprochement with Iyad Ag Ghali.
France and its regional allies in the Sahel, namely Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, have responded to this mounting threat by creating the so-called G5 Sahel whose main purpose is to install a better cooperation between its members in order to counter this rise of the Jihadi threat. However, after one year of existence, G5 Sahel has proved largely ineffective, while at the same time the Jihadi organizations have multiplied their attacks all over the region and strengthened their presence.
The G5 Sahel is a relatively new organization based on negotiations between the European Union states, mainly France, with its members focusing on fighting terrorism and illegal immigration. According to several observers, the organization currently suffers from a lack of funding. The financial needs of this group are quite demanding, especially when we factor in the poverty and weakness of its states. The international community is simply tired of financing an additional initiative after years, which yielded very few results at a very high cost.
Another problem is the refusal of the major regional powers, especially Algeria, to join the organization or to intervene militarily in the region. Algiers simply does not believe that this initiative will solve the problems. Instead, it calls for dialogues with non-Jihadi organizations of the region to satisfy the legitimate demands from the local populations as well as the strengthening of state capacities, namely control of the borders, security services, economic development etc. With regards to any possible military intervention in the Sahel, Algiers has repeatedly made it very clear that, due to constitutional, historical and doctrinal reasons, the Algerian army will not conduct any operation outside of its borders. This means that Algeria is ready to collaborate as long as it doesn’t have to commit to any military action.
Ever since the end of 2017 or early 2018, the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East has led to a shift in power in the Sahel region. Indeed, many point to the risk posed by the return of the North African fighters from the Middle East, warning that some of these individuals may join the GSIM or ISGS in Libya and train the jihadi organizations there.
In fact, there have been rumors lately of a rapprochement between the GSIM and the ISGS and also that a meeting has already taken place between Sahrawi and Iyad Ag Ghali. While a unification of these two organizations – GSIM or ISGS – seems highly unlikely, mainly due to their ideological differences, a possible collaboration is not really off the cards. Despite the efforts of the G5 to strengthen its hand, the results on the ground remain extremely poor and the states of the region are still unable to counter the Jihadi threat.
‘The Transmutation of Jihadi Organizations in the Sahel and the Regional Security Architecture’ – Research Paper by Djallil Lounnas – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.