Terrorist Groups Wreak Havoc in Sahel despite Presence of Counter-terrorism Forces

Weak states, porous borders and trafficking activities turned the Sahel into a safe heaven for terrorist groups. The terrorist attack on April 14 in Timbuktu by an Al Qaeda offshoot, the Group for the Defense of Islam and the Muslims, came to represent the capacity of the terrorist group to generate and carry out bloody attacks against heavily fortified facilities.

The attack targeted MINUSMA and Operation Barkhane, leaving a peacekeeper from Burkina Faso dead and several others wounded, including seven French soldiers and two Malian civilians.

“This attack was prepared long ago by the terrorists. Its timing shows that it was perpetrated in retaliation for the actions led by Barkhane in northern Mali and the operations completed recently north of Timbuktu ” said three-star general Bruno Guilbert who commands Barkhane since July 2017 in an interview with French Magazine l’Express.

Barkhane, France’s counter-terrorism force in Africa, has been deployed to fight terrorists in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

The Group for the Defense of Islam and the Muslims, led by Touareg Iyad Ag Ghali, (said to have close ties in Algeria) “has been restructured and renewed following our strikes in mid-February,” he said, adding that the terrorist group “was looking for a key event to reboot its operational capacity and demonstrate it through attacking international forces.”

Barkhane commander explained that the scale of April 14 attacks showed new tactics, notably the use of suicide car bombing perpetrated by women.

“It was a complicated attack combining direct shooting, RPGs, suicide attacks using multiple vehicles and deployment of fighters equipped with explosive belts who tried to push on through the inside of the headquarters,” he said, noting that the terrorist however suffered a resounding defeat and had to flee.

The attack however shows an improvement in terrorist tactics particularly due to the connivance between the different terrorist groups in the Sahel, he explained.

He mentioned that Barkhane continues its crackdown on terrorists, citing February 14 operation against a high-level meeting of the Group commanded by Iyad Ag Ghali which killed his closest advisers.

But, he noted that despite the elimination of senior leaders, the terrorist group regenerates and attracts new recruits who join terrorist ranks “out of opportunism rather than ideological adherence.”

Four terrorist groups operating in the Sahel announced their merger into one group “Jamaât Nasr Al islam wa Al mouminin” (Group for the Defense of Islam and the Muslims) and pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and its Jordanian leader Azarkawi in March 2017.

The four terrorist groups were brought together under the command of Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Eddine terrorist group based in Mali.

The merging groups are: Ansar Eddine, Al Mourabitoune- led by Algerian notorious terrorist Moukhtar BelMokhtar-, the Macina brigade, and AlQaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) led by another Algerian Abdelmalek Droudkel.

Regional experts explained that the unification of the four groups under the banner of Al Qaeda was in response to the rise of Daech (IS) in Libya and a fear of being overshadowed by it, notably after leaders of the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (known as MUJAO) broke away with AL Qaeda to join IS in 2015.

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