Pathways out of the Quagmire? Perspectives for al-Qaeda in the Sahel

Sergei Boeke 24 Aug 2021
 
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This article focuses on counter-terrorism efforts against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), its main confederation of combat units. Using literature on how terrorist groups end, the article analyses perspectives for AQIM and JNIM. It describes the conceptual distinction between insurgency and terrorism, and structures insights along six pathways of decline, namely reorientation, repression, decapitation, negotiation, failure or success.

JNIM is currently fighting a large-scale insurgency in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, while policy responses remain grounded in the paradigm of counter-terrorism, not counter- insurgency. The search and destroy missions of recently terminated Operation Barkhane did not manage to secure areas, and tactical successes were offset by targeting errors and exactions, fuelling jihadist recruitment. Leadership decapitation – also a focus of future French counter- terrorist efforts – has proved ineffective. The option of negotiations merits further exploration, but France and the Sahelian countries diverge in their approaches. Bottom-up ceasefires have improved local security in some areas, but risk benefiting AQIM in the long term. Finally, violent conflict between AQIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has hurt both groups, and their vulnerabilities to internal strife and the loss of public support could be leveraged more in counter-terrorism efforts.

Keywords: Sahel, al-Qaeda, Operation Barkhane, Mali, counter-terrorism, six pathways, Cronin


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