Al Qaeda’s Mali branch is preparing to conduct attacks in Senegal and other coastal West African countries. An al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) affiliate has established a base in Mali that allows it to project influence into neighboring countries, most notably Burkina Faso but also Côte d’Ivoire and now Senegal. The expansion of Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) into littoral West Africa will increase its ability to target US and European interests in this region and possibly beyond.
JNIM activity has increased in eastern Senegal and the Senegal-Mali border area in 2020–21 as part of its larger expansion into coastal West Africa. Senegalese security forces dismantled a JNIM cell in Kidira in eastern Senegal between January 20 and 23. Security forces arrested four men affiliated with JNIM’s Macina Liberation Front faction, including one shopkeeper whose phone contained al Qaeda propaganda. These arrests paired with several JNIM attacks on Senegalese and Malian security forces in the border region in 2020 indicate that JNIM is working to develop its ability to attack inside Senegal, which has until now seen little Salafi-jihadi violence. The Senegalese government has expressed growing concern with the JNIM threat and has begun building a military camp near the Malian border in response.
Al Qaeda and JNIM leaders and media have stated their intent to expand into West African coastal states. AQIM leaders met in February 2020 to discuss the expansion of al Qaeda’s operations beyond Mali to establish a greater foothold in West Africa. Pro-al Qaeda media has begun to emphasize the group’s expansion, releasing a map in December 2020 that indicated the group’s presence in Côte d’Ivoire compared to a prior map displaying the group only in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger months before.
JNIM targets peripheral countries to raise political costs for their participation in counterterrorism efforts. JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghaly identified Senegal as a target in April 2017 because of Senegal’s participation in the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali. JNIM has previously targeted troop-contributing countries, including Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, to degrade domestic support for the UN’s peacekeeping mission. JNIM militants attacked Burkinabe security forces in June 2019 and threatened more attacks if Burkina Faso continued supporting the UN and French counterterrorism efforts in Mali, for example. The group will likely conduct similar attacks targeting security forces in eastern Senegal.
JNIM’s expansion in West Africa is also intended to advance its objective of removing Western presence from West Africa. Attacks by JNIM and its predecessors have undermined tourism and international business in several West African countries. JNIM is likely capable of conducting high-profile attacks on targets frequented by Westerners in the West African littorals. JNIM has deprioritized these attacks, likely as part of a larger strategic shift intended to prioritize local objectives and thwart retaliation. A robust network in Senegal will allow JNIM to begin high-profile attacks in the country if it chooses.
Access to West Africa’s Atlantic coast also creates opportunities for JNIM to pursue less likely outcomes that directly threaten US and European interests. JNIM may use its growing presence in Senegal to attack Western targets in the coastal areas, including at Atlantic ports. The group may also use access to overseas routes to facilitate attacks in Europe. JNIM has not previously conducted external attacks, but the group’s expansion into coastal regions may give it access to transportation and communication lines that will aid the group’s participation in international terrorism.
JNIM will also draw economic and strategic benefits from a foothold in Senegal. JNIM is active near Senegal’s gold mines and may seek access to this resource, mirroring Salafi-jihadi activity in Burkina Faso. Operating in the Mali-Senegal border region also allows JNIM to exploit the seams in the state’s security apparatuses and create a support zone where it can shift across borders to evade pressure, as JNIM and other groups have previously done in the Mali-Burkina Faso border region. Senegal is not part of the G5-Sahel joint force, whose members have been working to address cross-border coordination challenges, including the ability to pursue militants across national boundaries.