The fallout from the ambush of the US Special Forces in Niger continues to impact the policy towards West Africa. In recent days the Islamist Group that was responsible for the incident that led to the deaths of 4 Green Berets has been declared an FTO (Foreign Terrorist Organization) by the State Department.
The group Ansaroul Islam (AI) which earned this dubious designation has a unique record of chaos in the region. This group has launched numerous attacks in Burkina Faso especially near the Border with Mali according to the State Department. However there was one glaring omission by the Diplomats. This group is very closely tied with the Al-Qaeda cell that is currently active in Mali.
Compared to other Militant Groups active in the region AI is a relative newcomer. It was founded in 2016 in the forests in Mondoro Mali. by a radical Burkinabe Imam named Boureima Dicko with an alias of Ibrahim Dicko. After his death early in 2017 his brother Jafar assumed leadership of the group. Shortly before the group launched Jafar joined Katicat Macina which is also known as the Macina Liberation Front in Southern Mali. This is where the group began its efforts to create their vision of change.
AI splashed onto the scene in December 2016 with an attack at Nassoumbou. This attack resulted in the deaths of 12 Burkinabe Soldiers. This attack which is considered to be the largest operation on Burkinabe soil was a joint operation with not only Katicat Macina but also with another unit of Ansar Dine known as Katicat Serma.It has been noticed by the State Department that AI has assisted both of these components of Ansar Dine conduct operations in Central Mali as well.
Roughly a year ago (March 2017) Ansar Dine and its various units merged with two other regional jihadist groups AQIM in the Sahara and Al Murabitoon to form a new entity that is called Group for Support for Islam and Muslims which is better known by its French Acronym JNIM. It has been reported that AI has ideological, logistical and operational links with JNIM. Attacks by AI in Burkina Faso are promoted by the JNIM propaganda arm.
While this designation by the State Department is justified there are several glaring questions that need to be asked. Burkina Faso has been the recipient of various Military efforts by the United States. Why hasn’t Mali received the same consideration? Ansar Dine first appeared in Mali after the 2012 coup and the previous collapse in Libya. This is where the explosion of this ideology took place and the region is paying the price for the poorly coordinated response.
Niger is now a country in the crosshairs. Not only is it where the Green Berets were ambushed in October 2017 but the US is also using the country as a Base to launch UAVs ( Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to support the French led Mission in Mali but also has been used in the past over Nigerian skies to search for victims of Boko Haram. In the past there were concerns of links between the Nigerian Militants and other groups in the Sahel. Considering the links and the expansion of Ansar Dine this is a concern that cannot be easily dismissed.
There are several other countries that are in considerable risk of being attacked by this entity for various reasons. Chad comes to mind first as they provide the largest regional force currently conducting operations in support of the French and UN efforts to restore stability to Mali. The Country has been attacked more than once by Boko Haram and it is only a matter of time before an attack is launched.
In recent days there have been reports of Algerian Troops being targeted by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) in the Southern Part of the Country. Casualties have been reported to be light in these small scale attacks. Algeria is the birthplace of AQIM which came into light after the 1992 Election Crisis and subsequent Civil War. Could the threat return to one of its cradles?
Mauritania is one of the most tantalizing scenarios. A large territory with a small standing National Army presents an opportunity to recruit and even set up a base in the Country with very few analysts probably paying attention to it at first. However these issues could be defused by proper action by several actors including the United States.
However the main threats at this time have to be towards both Burkina Faso and Mali. Both of these countries are the targets of the Jihadists currently. US and French forces have assisted in Operations in both countries after JNIM operations. Although there have not been any successful reprisal attacks against either French and American interests in the region this designation of AI suggests that they are expecting another attack against another US Interest.
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