While the exploits of ISIS may have splashed across more headlines in recent years, there is growing concern among U.S. officials that Al Qaeda (AQ) is the much more dangerous force in the Sahel region of Africa, where the group threatens American and other allied forces.
AQ in September declared it had formed a “new cell” in Burkina Faso, according to intelligence sources from the region, after splitting from an AQ-affiliated group in Mali, the JNIM. "Now they are distinguishing themselves as separate,” noted one source. “From an organizational point, that is significant when it comes to Al Qaeda.”
Several dozen cell members were said to have come into the region unarmed, the first few arriving several months ago to scope out hiding areas and attack plans. “They form the cell, then once they have a series of attacks and ‘wins,’ they make formal declarations so as to appear stronger,” the source said.
Experts cautioned Burkina Faso is the “next foothold” for the group to plot and spearhead attacks on civilians, military and Western troops operating in an around a porous border region.
Many of the weapons being used, intelligence sources say, was pillaged from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2012.
“They aren’t sophisticated, but there is funding and strong instruction,” said one insider with direct knowledge of the latest dismantled cell. “And they operate on this whole other level of cruelty.”
Raphael Gluck, founding partner of The JOS Project – a jihadist monitoring service online – highlighted that Burkina Faso’s participation in the UN’s peacekeeping initiative in Mali has, in particular, angered Al Qaeda members in the region. Last month a video surfaced showing militants in Burkina Faso formally announcing its own affiliate in the country.
Indeed, the fear is that the movement of a permanent cell inside Burkina Faso signals a deeper strategic buttress of the Al Qaeda presence.
“Burkinabe security forces conduct ongoing operations to counter al Qaeda-aligned networks primarily active in northern Burkina Faso,” Samantha Reho, a spokesperson for the Pentagon’s U.S Africa Command (AFRICOM) told Fox News. “These networks leverage local ethnic grievances and poor economic conditions to recruit while also using violence to subdue the local populace.”
While intelligence insiders have pointed to a new and so far unreported cell in Burkina Faso, according to Reho, the Al Qaeda brand is looking to expand its influence primarily through the JNIM Mali chapter, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin.
“JNIM presents a significant terrorism threat across the Sahel because it unites disparate extremist groups under one umbrella and actively targets regional governments and Western interests. Al-Qaeda activities in Africa contribute to regional instability and threaten our regional partners,” Reho said. “We will continue to support the international effort, to include the G-5 Sahel Task Force and the French, to degrade the capabilities of these violent militants to execute attacks and to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat their networks.”
The G-5 entails the cooperation of the five Sahel nations: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.
The leader of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) is Iyad Ghaly, a Malian Tuareg jihadist who is publicly dutiful to al Qaeda and the Taliban. The outfit was formed in March 2017, unifying several already existing Al Qaeda groups under one umbrella, with the intention of “standing united against the occupier Crusader enemy.”
JNIM is believed to be comprised of around 800 fighters, while the al Qaeda affiliate in nearby Somalia – al Shabaab – has up to 6,000 fighters. US Navy SEALS assist and advise local Somali soldiers fighting the al Qaeda group, and the Trump administration has continued to carry out surgical strikes against them.
But even the ancillary role comes with inherent risks. For the last five years, elite U.S. military units have been involved in reconnaissance and direct action raids in African countries, including Mali, Libya, Cameroon, Niger and Tunisia – with at least 10 unreported attacks between 2015 and 2017. A year ago, four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush while advising Nigerien trips near the Niger-Mali border.
Al Qaeda primarily obtains its fund through human trafficking, drug and weapons black market smuggling, ransom for hostages, taxing areas they have access to, as well as international channels and overseas donations.
“Al Qaeda is still alive and kicking. Somehow obscured by the rise of ISIS, al Qaeda is still present in many parts of the globe, including Africa, which could become the next jihadist hotspot,” noted Michele Groppi, Teaching Fellow at Defense Academy of the United Kingdom and researcher for the European project on extremism and radicalization. “Jihadists spilling over from larger Mali and Niger into a traditionally tolerant Burkina Faso is indubitably a source of concern.”
France first intervened in Mali in 2013, months after al Qaeda connected group stunningly took control of large swaths of Mali. Subsequently, the longstanding terrorist outfit has carved an even deeper foothold and expanded their recruitment and operational efforts – using Mali as a base to wreak havoc inside Burkina Faso, Niger and other neighboring African nations.
Burkina Faso and French embassies, as well as the French Ministry of Defense, did not respond to requests for comment.
Over the past three years, armed rebel groups in the Sahel – the terrain spanning Central and West Africa – have carried out an array of devastating attacks in Burkina Faso.
Last June, the group was held responsible for an onslaught in a resort near Mali’s capital, Bamako, frequented by Western expatriates, killing at least five. In March, the Mali-based Al Qaeda arm JNIM claimed responsibility for attacks over the border in Burkina Faso that left 16 people dead, including eight gunmen, at the French embassy and army headquarters in the capital Ouagadougou.
On Sept. 5, two Burkinabe soldiers were killed and another six wounded after striking a well-planted IED – marking the third attack in eastern Burkina Faso in just a few weeks. Three days later, at least eight civilians were slain in twin attacks in two nearby villages in the eastern region.
Once considered a relatively secure, analysts say the country has increasingly unraveled into ripe jihadist ground - most notably since the October 2014 fall of President Blaise Compaore’s iron-fisted governance.
Yet the apparent democracy now remains fragile.
“The Sahel is tough to govern and control. Burkina Faso’s borders are porous, and the country does not have the resources to secure its borders,” explained Royce de Melo, a Middle East and Africa security and defense consultant and analyst for Tactical Intelligence International. “Burkina Faso began to have jihadist attacks only after the fall of the Blaise Compaore regime in 2014, his elite Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP) was disbanded after he fled the country, and reports indicate that former members are now working with Jihadists on both sides of the Mali and Burkina Faso borders. This is another factor in the increase in Jihadi influence and attacks.
Moreover, spurts of terrorist attacks have spiked throughout Burkina Faso, and the larger Sahel region, particularly in recent weeks.
The same week as the cell was unearthed, more than 20 terrorists – suspected to be al Qaeda-linked – were shot dead by security forces operating in the area, with nine others reportedly killed amid the intense fighting. Government forces also killed a young person while raiding an imam’s house, and unknown gunmen later abducted and executed a deputy imam in the same village. That prompted opposition leaders and activists to hold a rally in the capital a few days later, condemning President Roch Marc Christian Kabore’s “inability” to provide adequate stability to locals.
According to retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rudolph Atallah, now chief executive officer of White Mountain Research, and former Africa Counterterrorism in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, much of the problem is currently centered in Mali. The issue there dates back decades, to the government stirring unrest with the minority Tuareg population following the first rebellion a few years after independence.
Malian Arabs like the Berabiche “make a lot of money and use it to buy positions in parliament in the Mali government,” Atallah explained. “These are the same ones that fund and support the Islamists in the northern part of the country to do their bidding and dirty work for people that get in the way of business.”
Even after a 2015 peace agreement with the Tuareg, Atallah said, the government still continued to target them - and sent surrogates to attack tribal leaders - in some cases slitting their throats.
“Some of these are associated with radical elements that have popped up again today, all the same ilk. The radical factions from when the Islamists had control of Mali in 2012 continue to have access and free reign .”
But that’s not the only means of Al Qaeda recruitment.
Since the fall of ISIS territorially in Iraq and Syria in 2017, thousands of fighters have relocated to the continent. While many have maintained their allegiance to the Abu al-Baghdadi brand, scores have “switched sides” to the older and seemingly more resilient Al Qaeda wings.
“More than 6,000 trained foreign fighters have escaped back to Africa and are taking advantage of the porous borders to link up with existing networks in the Sahel and North Africa, said David Otto, director and counterterrorism program coordinator at Global Risk International. “These jihadist groups have realized that their continuous survival ratio depends on how they succeed to sustain their influence within the most vulnerable states in Africa and still achieve their goal of attacking Western influence.”
And in his words, AQ is indeed the most “longstanding real threat to the US and other western powers present in the region.”
“AQ has established a network in Africa and beyond that cannot be contested by ISIS factions for now. AQ is not only increasing its capacity to bring together jihadist networks but is in it for the long-term influence,” Otto added. “In comparison to ISIS in the Sahel, AQ affiliates continue to show more resilience, coordination and presence in the region as the credible threat to the U.S. and its interests in Africa.”