Mali: Complex attack against French forces in Menaka

ISGS militants aboard motorbikes in the Mali-Niger borderlands

Around 1300 local time on Sunday afternoon, an attempted complex attack targeted French forces in the area of Akabar, Menaka Region, not far from the border with Niger. French forces reportedly spotted and opened fire against a Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) (Ouest-France), triggering a premature detonation, local sources testified about the sound of a heavy explosion echoing across the plains of rural Menaka. Enfilading small arms fire by a group of an estimated fifteen presumed Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants aboard motorbikes followed the detonation. Around fifteen French soldiers were wounded, mostly minor injuries, however, two were severely wounded, necessitating a strategic medical evacuation to France. The attack came as the French forces set up a security post in the area. Mirage 2000 fighter jets and a quick reaction force (QRF) deployed didn’t manage to intercept the bikers (RFI).

Yesterday’s attack constitutes the second SVBIED attack carried out by presumed ISGS militants targeting French forces. On January 11, 2018, an explosives-laden pickup truck struck a Barkhane patrol between Menaka and In-Delimane, wounding three military medics. Furthermore, it’s the fourth complex attack involving the use of SVBIEDs in the past seven weeks, the three preceding were all claimed by Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). Thus, the deployment of suicide tactics is occurring at a pace not witnessed since in the wake of the French intervention
back in 2013 with Operation Serval.

During the first fortnight of February, ISGS and JNIM conducted what strongly appeared to be a coordinated campaign against the local militias of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA), armed groups known to cooperate with the French forces. Attacks and clashes took place in Tidimbawen, Inahar, Taringuite, In-Agar, and Talataye, the coalition lost around forty men with others injured, a considerable toll within such a short time frame. Moreover, JNIM announced for the first time in public to be at war with MSA and GATIA by officially claiming responsibility for two attacks targeting the two movements which the group described as “agents of the crusaders”, as well as previous attacks in the area, without providing further details.

While militant groups recently have suffered multiple tactical defeats and lost senior commanders (MENASTREAM), militancy is expanding in the subregion (The Conversation), notably in Burkina Faso where new fronts have opened up in the eastern and southwestern parts of the country since the beginning of last year (ACLED). A more recent development is that militants are gaining ground in the Centre-Nord Region.

In the context of militant expansion and adaptation, there are several discernible trends. The proliferation and spread of IED and landmine usage as seen in previously untouched areas such as Torodi and Ayorou in Niger’s Tillabery Region, and across several provinces in Burkina’s Est Region. Another tendency is the increasingly frequent use of explosives to destroy public infrastructure including administrative buildings, schools, and security facilities. An additional aspect is innovation, reflected by the modus operandi of booby-trapping corpses as seen on two occasions near Diankabou, Mali, and near Djibo, Burkina Faso. Part of the adaptation process is that JNIM and ISGS are increasingly melting together in order to consolidate ranks, sharing objectives and adversaries.

Mali: French forces killed ISGS commander involved in Tongo Tongo ambush

Early on the morning of August 26, French forces of operation Barkhane conducted a combined air-ground operation between Infoukaretane and Labouta, about 30km south of Ménaka. Two Mirage 2000 fighter jets carried out an air raid followed by action on the ground by commandos. The operation resulted in the death of a senior commander of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), namely Mohamed “Atinka” Ag Almouner and one of his guard corps. In addition to the nickname “Atinka”, Ag Almouner was referred to as “Le Réseau”, a French word meaning the network.  The member of the guard corps killed has been named as Mouta, the son of a prominent marabout in Infoukaretane. Two civilians including a woman and a child were also killed in the airstrike, the French General Staff of the Armies said that it had opened an investigation because of the civilian fatalities. Two more civilians and a militant were wounded amid the operation, subsequently provided medical care by Barkhane’s medical staff.

Ag Almouner from the Idoguiritane fraction of Dawsahak tribe was one of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi’s most senior lieutenants, identified as having played a leading role in the ambush on October 4, 2017, against a joint force of U.S. Green Berets and the Nigerien army in Tongo Tongo, Niger. An earlier article by the New York Times stated that Ag Almouner was killed in Tongo Tongo, citing American military officials. In the same way, another article by the New York Times stated that the Nigerien ISGS commander, Dando Cheffou “may be in custody”. Ultimately, none of the reports were proven to be correct. Local sources further confirmed that Al Mahmoud “Ikaray” Ag Baye who was a superior commander of Ag Almouner is still alive, in contrast to the U.S. assessment that he also had been killed in the Tongo Tongo ambush.

In late March this year, Nigerien gendarmes on a routine patrol in the small village of Wedi Bangou, Tillabery, arrested a group of men, some of them were armed, the gendarmes blindfolded and lined them up on the ground in the vicinity of the gendarmerie. During the interrogations, a young man caught the attention of the interrogators who suspected it was Ibrahim Ousmane, more commonly known as Dando Cheffou, prompting the Nigeriens to alert the Americans, believing that they finally had got their hands on the American hostage Jeffrey Woodke’s suspected caretaker. However, at the time was Cheffou traveling in a convoy with his senior commander Illiassou Djibo, also known as Petit Chafori, spotted while passing through a hamlet in a valley not far from the Malian border, an area which serves as a base for the ISGS militants.

Between February and early April 2018, ISGS was the target of intense counter-militancy operations spearheaded by Barkhane, aided by a coalition of local militias including the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA). However, these operations were followed by a series of mass atrocities in the Mali-Niger borderlands, the violence soon spread to rural Gao, and later to Gourma and Arabanda.

The losses suffered by ISGS have caused a quasi-breakdown in its ranks. On August 11, the Algerian Ministry of National Defense (MDN) announced that Sultan Ould Badi, the commander of ISGS constituent Katiba Salaheddine, had surrendered to the military authorities in Tamanrasset, Algeria. A report by France 24 suggested that Ould Badi had been captured in late June amidst an operation by the Algerian army, although Ould Badi turned himself in within the frame of a negotiated settlement with the Algerian authorities together with three of his associates. Ould Badi and his companions were spotted near Aguelhok in early August while traveling from the Tilemsi Valley toward the Algerian border.