Violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel—Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger—have surged nearly sevenfold since 2017. With more than 1,000 violent episodes reported in the past year, the Sahel experienced the largest increase in violent extremist activity of any region in Africa during this period. With nearly 8,000 fatalities, millions of people displaced, government officials and traditional leaders targeted, thousands of schools closed, and economic activity severely curtailed, the Sahel is staggering from the surge of attacks.
Stretching from northern Mali to southeastern Burkina Faso, violent events attributed to Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) comprise more than 64 percent of all episodes linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel since 2017. The Macina Liberation Front (FLM) has been by far the most active of JNIM’s component groups, operating from its stronghold in central Mali and expanding into northern and other parts of Burkina Faso.
JNIM’s structure functions as a business association on behalf of its membership, giving the impression that it is omnipresent and inexorably expanding its reach. The characterization of JNIM as a single operational entity, however, feeds the inaccurate perception of a unified command and control structure. It also obscures the local realities that have fueled militant Islamist activity in the Sahel. Treating JNIM as a unitary organization plays into the hands of the insurgents by muddying their motivations and activities, and concealing their vulnerabilities. JNIM does not necessarily have a single headquarters, operational hierarchy, or group of fighters that can be directly targeted by government security forces. Yet, with nearly two-thirds of the violence in the Sahel attributed to it, targeting JNIM is the equivalent of shadow boxing.