In recent years, the region has become a base for violent extremists. Several extremist groups make their home in the Sahel. Many of those have morphed and merged with others, aligning themselves with larger, global terrorist groups. The most prominent — past and present — are listed below.
Jama’at Nusrat Al-Islam Wal-Muslimin (JNIM) – Formed in March 2017, JNIM is a coalition of several militant groups: Ansar al-Dine, Macina Liberation Front, Katiba Serma, AQIM Sahara and Al Mourabitoun. Ansar al-Dine’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, assumed leadership of the coalition. The group, whose name means “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims,” intends to expel non-Muslim “occupiers” from West Africa, particularly French forces and participants in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali.
JNIM adheres to Salafist Islamic teachings and wants to bring the region under Shariah. The group is part of al-Qaida’s network and had between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters as of September 2018, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The group is most active in Mali, waging attacks from Bamako to as far north as Taoudenni. It also has attacked in Burkina Faso and Niger.
Ansar Al-Dine – Iyad Ag Ghaly founded the group in November 2011 after he failed to become leader of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which pushed for secession from Mali in 2012. The Islamic militant Tuareg group operates in the region around Kidal. The Salafist group, whose name means “Defenders of the Faith,” was among the affiliated organizations that took over northern Mali in March 2012 after a military coup, according to Stanford University’s Centre for International Security and Cooperation.
In July 2012, Ansar al-Dine made headlines when it destroyed seven mausoleums honouring Sufi saints in Timbuktu, claiming that the shrines were idolatrous.When operating, the group was thought to have between 100 and 1,000 members.
Macina Liberation Front (FLM) – Amadou Koufa founded the group, which operates in the Mopti region, in 2015. FLM, also known as Katiba Macina, claimed it would try to “reinstall the Islamic Macina Republic,” a reference to the Macina Empire, a theocratic society that lasted from 1818 to 1863 in Mali’s Mopti, Ségou and Timbuktu regions, according to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS). The empire primarily was composed of ethnic Fulanis, and it applied Islamic rule. The FLM uses this historical narrative in hopes of gaining popular support to take over central Mali. Some believe the group includes former members of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – Ahmed el-Tilemsi and Hamad el-Khairy formed MUJAO in 2011, splitting it off from AQIM. MUJAO announced itself by kidnapping three European aid workers in Tindoug, Algeria, in October 2011, according to Stanford. MUJAO, composed mostly of Tuaregs, wanted to establish Shariah in the region. During the 2012 Malian crisis, MUJAO occupied the area around Gao. About a year later, the group merged with the Al Mulathamun Battalion and formed Al Mourabitoun. It is possible that a few MUJAO fighters still operate under that name.
Katiba Serma – The group is a semi-autonomous arm of the FLM and is led by Abu Jalil al Fulani, according to ACSS. It operates in the Serma region between Gao and Mopti.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – This group has its roots in the Algerian Civil War. It sprang from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which participated in the war, in 1998. When it emerged from the GIA, it was called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The name changed to AQIM in 2006 when it formally aligned itself with the global terrorist organization. AQIM is active in the trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans, and it often has kidnapped Westerners for ransom. In 2017, the group’s Sahara branch merged with Al Mourabitoun, Ansar al-Dine, the Macina Liberation Front and Katiba Serma to form JNIM.
Aqim Sahara – This is al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s branch in Mali and the southwest corner of Niger. It once was led by Djamel Okacha (also known as Yahya Abu al Hammam), who is now dead.
Al Mourabitoun – The name means “The Sentinels.” The group formed in August 2013 after the merger of MUJAO and the Al Mulathamun Battalion. It operates in Mali, primarily around Gao, and pledged its allegiance to al-Qaida in mid-2015. Its aim is to establish Shariah, unite Muslims and attack Westerners in North Africa, according to Stanford. Despite flirtations with the Islamic State, the group stayed allied with al-Qaida, although operating with autonomy. In early 2017, Al Mourabitoun merged to form JNIM. One estimate, from 2014, put the number of fighters at 100.
Ansaroul Islam – Malaam Ibrahim Dicko, now deceased, founded the group in 2016. It is based in Burkina Faso’s Soum province, which borders southern Mali. The jihadi group is the first such organization to arise in Burkina Faso, which before had seen no significant militant jihadi violence. Ansaroul Islam announced its formation after attacking a Burkinabé-French military camp in December 2016, according to Stanford. The group, which operates mostly in Burkina Faso and Mali, seeks to rebuild Djeelgodji, an ancient Fulani empire that ended after French colonization in the 1800s. Its targets include civilians, French counterterrorism forces and Burkinabé security personnel. It is thought to have no more than a few hundred active fighters now.
Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – The group operates in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. It broke off from Al Mourabitoun in May 2015 when Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi swore allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died during a United States assault in October 2019. Although ISGS is recognized as an affiliate, the breadth of its support is not clear, according to Stanford. Among the group’s Sahel attacks was the ambush that killed four U.S. Green Berets and several Nigerien Soldiers in October 2017. For about two years now, the group has clashed repeatedly with French forces and its allies under Operation Barkhane. ISGS was estimated to have 60 core members in 2018.
Katiba Salaheddine – Sultan Ould Badi, a former member of AQIM and co-founder of MUJAO, founded the group in 2011. In 2016, Badi allied himself with ISGS’ al-Sahrawi, a colleague from his days with MUJAO.
Unaffiliated – Some militant groups either could not or have chosen not to claim responsibility for attacks. (Africa Defence Forum)