With Africa becoming the epicenter of jihadist activity globally, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Sahel affiliate, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), has continued to evolve into a political and military force in the region. The most active branches of both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are in Africa — the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa for al-Qaeda, and the Lake Chad region and Central Africa for Islamic State. Until now, every al-Qaeda “governance” experience has resulted in failure, primarily due to military pressure by Western powers, quixotic objectives, internal rivalries, and a lack of political experience or maneuverability in addressing both the needs and grievances of local populations.
Such was the case during the short-lived governance project in northern Mali in 2012. Al-Qaeda militants and local commanders implemented harsh interpretations of Sharia law, employed violence to enforce their authority, and destroyed cultural artifcats like the historic Timbuktu mausoleums. However, this contradicted the will of AQIM leader Abu Moussaab Abdel Wadud. To win hearts and minds, he ordered the militants under his command to follow a “soft gradual approach,” which received criticism from al-Qaeda central. To al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, Abu Moussaab was seen as too conciliatory and overly political.