Mauritania’s private news agency ANI announced on 2 March that three jihadist groups which operate in the African Sahel region, have merged to form one single organization. The private news agency cited a video that was distributed by the Islamists.
The new group will operate under the name the Group to Support Islam and Muslims. The group is composed of Mali’s al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun, which is led by Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and the Macina Brigades group, which is active in central Mali. It will be led by Ansar Dine’s Iyad Ag Ghaly. The three groups already have ties to al-Qaeda.
ANI distributed a screenshot of the video, which it said it received on 1 March. The screenshot depicts five jihadist leaders seated together, with Iyad Ag Ghaly in the centre. The four others are identified as the “emirs” of the new movement. In an audio excerpt, Iyad Ag Ghaly can be heard swearing allegiance to slain Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zaraqi, whose al-Qaeda in Iraq group later evolved in to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is al-Qaeda’s current leader. He is also heard praising al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan in may 2011. It is not clear when the video was recorded, although ANI notes that it was “recent.”
The announcement of the merger comes at a time when jihadist groups in northern Mali are increasingly threatening the greater West African region, as they move southwards towards the border with Burkina Faso and Niger. It also comes with the development of a new militant group in northern Burkina Faso, which in recent weeks, has launched attacks and threatened teachers in the northern region of the country. An emerging extremist group in Burkina Faso, Ansaroul Islam (Ansar al-Islam lil-ichad wal jihad, or IRSAD), is believed to be the franchise of the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) in Burkina Faso. The group is thought to be operating in the border regions of Mali and Burkina Faso, particularly in the province of Soum (Burkina Faso). The group claimed responsibility for the 16 December 2016 attack on a Burkinabe military position in Nassoumbou (province of Soum) and attacking to “hypocrite collaborators” in Djibo and Sibe, all of which are located in northern Burkina Faso. The group at the time warned of further attacks. In late January 2017, reports emerged of armed men arriving on motorcycles in villages in northern Burkina Faso before entering packed classrooms and demanding that the teachers review their curriculum. It is believed that this new jihadist group was behind this. Ibrahim “Malam” Dicko is believed to be the leader of this new group. He is a close associate of Amadou Koufa, leader of the MLF. In 2012, Dicko began preaching on local radio in Djibo, the Soum Province capital, 125 miles north of Ouagadougou, near the border with Mali. His family is from a village in the Togol department, in the Soum province.
Militant group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, one of the most prominent leaders of the Tuareg rebellion. Formed in 2012, they are based in northern Mali and their primary operations are against the Malian military and opposing rebel groups. The group’s objective is to impose Islamic law across Mali.
Also known as: Al-Mulathamun Brigade; Al-Mulathamun Masked Ones Brigade; Al-Murabitoon-al-Qaeda in West Africa; Al-Muwaqqi’un bil-Dimal Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade; Masked Men Brigade; Signatories in Blood; Signed-in-Blood Battalion; The Sentinels; Those Signed in Blood Battalion; Those who Sign in Blood; Witnesses in Blood
The group is based in the Sahara desert in northern Mali and contains fighters who are loyal to veteran Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar. It was formed in 2013 from a merger between al-Mulathamun (“The Masked Men”) Battalion (AMB) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Both groups were offshoots of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Al-Mourabitoun aims to implement sharia law. The US State Department has reported that the group is likely funding its operations through kidnapping ransoms and criminal groups. It is also likely that it receives funding through its connections to other terrorist organizations.
Macina Brigades Group
Also known as Macina Liberation Movement / La Force de Libération du Macina, ML Movement, Massina Liberation Movement, Ansar al-Din Macina brigade, Katibat Macina.
It is an extremist organisation based largely around the town of Macina in southern Mali. It is an arm for Ansar Dine to coordinate actions and operations in central and southern Mali. The group has risen in prominence, carrying out a number of attacks since January 2015. The MLF is believed to have around 4,000 members, recruiting largely from the Fulani (also called Peul or Fulbe) ethnic group, which has scattered populations across West Africa. It is thought that MLF is Ansar Dine’s official branch in southern Mali.
MLF exploits grievances from ethnic Fulani, which are spread across the Sahel Region of Africa. The Fulani have traditionally been cattle herders, and have been engaged in a struggle with farmers across the Sahel as pasture-land and resources in the region have diminished. The violence between the groups can easily be moulded into a religious dimension; the majority of Fulani are Muslim, while their farming rivals are commonly Christian.
West African states have a long history of sending their military forces to intervene in neighbouring countries, under the umbrella of a regional cooperation bloc.
Created in 1975, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) focuses mainly on resolving regional conflicts. The group has fifteen members, of which eight are francophone (Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo); five are Anglophone (The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone); and two are Portuguese speaking (Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau). The organization is dominated politically and economically by regional powerhouse Nigeria.
In the case of The Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh has refused to stand down after losing the 1 December 2016 presidential election, the bloc has thrown its support behind the new President Adama Barrow.
Here is a look at the five main foreign interventions that have been carried out since 1990:
On 11 January 2013, following a United Nations Security Council resolution, the bloc authorises the immediate deployment of an intervention force that aims to help Mali retake its Islamist-controlled north. On the same day, the French military launched Operation Serval to back the Malian army and drive back the Islamists, who are pushing south towards the capital, Bamako. The West African force comprises of 6,300 men, including 2,000 from Chad, which is not an ECOWAS member. The Chadian soldiers were on the frontline alongside French soldiers in fighting the insurgents. On 1 July 2013, the ECOWAS force is absorbed by the UN’s MINUSMA stabilization force in Mali, which is currently 13,000 strong.
West African troops deployed to Guinea-Bissau in May 2012 in order to help the political transition after one of the country’s many coups. They have since served with a mandate to protect public figures and institutions. The force consists of more than 600 police officers and paramilitary gendarmes from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal and Togo. Already in February 1999, a lightly armed ECOWAS force was deployed to the country in a bid to help resolve the crisis. The force however withdrew several months later after failing to prevent a resumption of fighting and the overthrow of the head of state.
In August 1990, ECOWAS deployed a force of several hundred men to Liberia to intervene in a civil war that had ignited eight months earlier. The ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) quickly grew to nearly 20,000 soldiers. Although it was generally described as a peacekeeping force, ECOMOG was soon called on to take more responsibilities for maintaining order. In early 1997, more than seven years after the war began, ECOMOG carried out a major disarmament operation, which effectively paved the way for multi-party elections that were held in July of that year. The last ECOMOG soldiers left Liberia in October 1999.
In August 2003, a new ECOWAS mission, known as ECOMIL, was deployed to the capital Monrovia, which had been under siege by rebels for three months. The force, which was restricted to some 3,500 soldiers, was unable to deploy across the whole of the country, resulting it in transferring its contingent to the United Nations.
ECOMOG’s Nigerian contingent drives a 1998 – 1998 military junta, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), from Freetown and reinstates President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. On 6 January 1999, the RUF invaded Freetown. IT was expelled two weeks later by ECOMOG troops. The West African intervention force, which has up to 11,000 men stationed in Sierra Leone, officially winds up its mission in May 2000 and is replace by the UN peacekeeping force, which was formed to guarantee the Lome peace accord of July 1999, which ended the civil war.
A 1,300-strong West African force is deployed in January 2003 after a military rebellion, which effectively cuts Ivory Coast in two. In 2004, the soldiers are integrated into the UN’s mission in the country.
In the wake of the 15 January attack on a hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, hotels across the West African region, from Dakar to N’Djamena, are strengthening security, adding armed guards and increasing cooperation with the local authorities as a pair of high-profile attacks have exposed the growing Islamist threat to foreign travellers.
On Friday 15 January, al-Qaeda fighters killed thirty people at a hotel and restaurant in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The assaults, which was the country’s first militant attack on such a scale, came just two months after Islamist militants killed twenty people at a Radisson Blu Hotel in neighbouring Bamako, the capital of Mali. Despite intelligence agencies and security experts warning that further such attacks may occur in West Africa, both incidents have demonstrated that militant groups operating in the region are expanding their areas of operations. Furthermore, both attacks likely mark a new strategy by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies, including al-Murabitoun.
In both instances, the attacks targeted establishments that were popular with Westerners, dozens of whom were taken hostage. Witnesses at the scene of the attack in Ouagadougou also reported that the gunmen singled out white foreigners for execution. In the wake of this growing threat, high-end hotels in major cities across the region have been quick to react. Analysts have warned that Abidjan and Dakar, the largest cities in Ivory Coast and Senegal, are viewed as particularly attractive to Islamist militants because of their large Western expatriate population coupled with a stead flow of tourists and business travellers. However analysts have noted that they have no information on specific threats in either city. This however has not prevented local officials from taking the necessary precautions. At the Sofitel Hotel Ivoire, which is one of Ivory Coast’s most luxurious hotels, uniformed police officers were posted around the grounds. Furthermore, the use of metal detectors and body searches have been increased while guard dogs have been used in order to help patrol the lobby. Meanwhile in Senegal, gendarmes have been deployed at roundabouts and on major streets in neighbourhoods that are popular with Westerners. Well before the attacks in Ouagadougou, Dakar’s Radisson Blu installed additional cameras both inside and outside, ordered vehicle barriers and increased security personnel. According to the hotel’s general manager, Jorgen Jorgensen, “of course, there is always a risk, but I can assure you that we have in place all the precautions to control the building in the most professional way.” In the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, which was hit by deadly attacks by Islamist militants in June and July, the government has called upon hotels to carry out car and body searches as well as increase their collaboration with local authorities.
On Tuesday, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that as long as there is one Ebola case in the West African region “all countries are at risk,” urging all nations to support the final battles aimed at wiping out the deadly disease in Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Speaking to a General Assembly meeting on efforts to end the Ebola epidemic, which has killed over 11,100 people mainly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the UN chief stated, “we are on the home stretch now and what happens now is critical.” While Liberia, which was once the worst affected country, has now been declared Ebola-free, Ban has warned that in Guinea and Sierra Leone, “the battle has not yet been won,” and “any lapse in vigilance could allow the virus to spread.” Dr David Nabarro, the UN Ebola chief, told the assembly that the priority is to ensure that the outbreak ends as soon as possible, “which will take several weeks and may take a number of months… But everybody should be ready in case the disease recurs and needs to be controlled, especially in the coming 12 months.” Ban also disclosed that UN agencies who will be taking over responsibility for tackling the outbreak as the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Repose (UNMEER) scales down “will need considerable resources to go the distance and support recovery” in the three hardest-hit countries. UNMEER’s acting chief Peter Jan Graaff has indicated that UNMEER’s office in Mali closed on 31 March while its office in Liberia has handed over its operations to the UN country team. The Sierra Leone office is expected to end operations by the end of June, with Graaff indicating, “UNMEER could complete its transition by July 31 and be closed by the end of August,” noting however that if the situation deteriorates, the timeline could be changed “to ensure that the UN’s political leverage and convening power is maintained.” The UN Secretary General has indicated that he will convene an International Ebola Recovery Conference in New York on 10 July, which will aim to mobilize resources to start early recovery in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its latest figures on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. As of 31 May, there have been a total of 27,145 reported confirmed, probable and suspected cases of EVD in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with 11,147 reported deaths. In the seven days leading up to 31 May, a total of 25 confirmed cases of EVD were reported from 4 prefectures in Guinea and 3 districts of Sierra Leone,
According to the WHO, “since the week ending 10 May, when a 10-month low of 9 cases of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) were reported from 2 prefectures of Guinea and 1 district of Sierra Leone, both the intensity and geographical area of EVD transmission have increased.” In the 7 days leading up to 31 May, a total of 13 new confirmed cases were reported in Guinea and 12 in Sierra Leone, with officials indicating that several cases in both countries arose from unknown sources of infection in areas that have not reported confirmed EVD cases for several weeks. This effectively indicates that chains of transmission continue to go undetected. Officials have noted that “rigours contact tracing, active case finding, and infection prevention and control must be maintained at current intensive levels in order to uncover and break every chain of transmission,” and have warned that the onset of the rainy season will make field operations more difficult from now onwards.
Two response teams from Guinea-Bissau have been deployed to the border with Guinea to assess several points of entry and sensitive communities. This is due to the proximity to Guinea-Bissau of the recent cluster of cases that have been reported in the northwestern Guinean prefecture of Boke. So far, the investigation team has not been able to locate the contact who had attended the funeral of a case in Boke and who is believed to have returned to a fishing community in Guinea-Bissau.
In the week leading up to 31 May, a total of 13 cases were reported in 4 western prefectures of Guinea.
Seven of these cases were reported from the prefecture of Forecariah, which borders Sierra Leone. Multiple chains of transmission gave rise to cases in 4 of Forcariah’s 10 sub-prefectures, however all cases were either registered contacts of a previous case or had an established epidemiological link to one. Five cases were concentrated in the central areas of the prefecture where the sub-prefectures of Farmoriah, Kaliah, and Moussayah intersect. The remaining cases were reported from the northwestern prefecture of Boke (1 case), which borders Guinea-Bissau; the west coast prefecture of Dubreka (4 cases), which borders the capital city Conakry; and the western inland prefecture of Fria (1 case). The cases in Boke and Dubreka were all registered contacts of cases linked to localized chains of transmission. The case that was reported in Fria however arose from an unknown source and is suspected to have originated from an as-yet unidentified chain of transmission in the neighbouring prefecture of Telimele. Officials have indicated that investigations into the origin of the case in Fria have been complicated by active and passive resistance from communities both in Fria and neighbouring Telimele.
On the ground sources in Guinea have reported that community engagement continues to prove challenging, particularly in all the 4 affected prefectures. There have been several reported incidents of violence that has been directed at field staff during the past week.
In the week leading up to 31 May, Sierra Leone reported a total of 12 cases in three districts.
Eight of these cases were reported from a densely populated area of the Kaffu Bullom chiefdom in the district of Port Loko, which is located just north of the capital, Freetown. All but one of these cases were registered contacts of previous cases within quarantined houses in the chiefdom. The additional case is from the same neighbourhood however it was not on a contact list and was living in a non-quarantined home at the time of symptom onset. The other cases were reported in the following districts: Kambia reported its first case for over 2 weeks on 31 May. The case was identified after a post-mortem test of a community death and was not a known contact of a previous case. The remaining three cases were reported from the capital city, Freetown. Officials in Freetown have indicated that at this time, none of those 3 cases can be linked to previous chains of transmission however investigations are at an early stage.
Liberia has released its last Ebola patient as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the West African country has gone a week without reporting any new Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) cases.
Beatrice Yardolo, 58, has been released from a Chinese-run treatment centre in the capital Monrovia’s Paynesville district after receiving two weeks of treatment. She was the last patient undergoing treatment for the disease in Liberia.
According to new figures released by the WHO this week, there were 132 new cases reported in Guinea and Sierra Leone in the week leading up to 1 March. For the first time since May 2014, Liberia reported no new cases of the deadly virus. While the West African country has now effectively begun its count towards being declared Ebola-free, WHO officials have warned that due to populations being mobile in the region, there could easily be a new outbreak in Liberia. According to WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl, “we look at the three countries as really a single country, so while its good news that Liberia itself has no new cases, the populations are so mobile in that region that there could easily be re-importations of cases… We have to get down to zero in all three countries before we can consider the thing beaten.”
In the week leading up to 1 March, Sierra Leone registered 81 new confirmed cases, up from the 65 that were reported the week before. According to the WHO, transmission in the country “remains widespread,” with officials highlighting that new cases emerged in eight different districts across the country, with rising numbers in the capital city Freetown, as well as in the Western Rural district and in the northern district of Bombali. WHO officials have indicated that the outbreak in Bombali is reportedly linked to a cluster of cases in the Aberdeen fishing community in Freetown. Efforts are currently underway in order to trace over 2,000 contacts associated with that cluster.
Last week, Guinea registered 51 new confirmed cases of EVD, marking a significant increase from the 35 new cases that had been reported during the previous seven-day period. The country, which in total has recorded 3,219 cases and 2,129 deaths, also saw an increase in the number of new cases recorded in the capital city Conakry and in the nearby district of Forecariah.
The WHO has reported that over the past week, both Guinea and Sierra Leone continued to see high numbers of people dying of Ebola in their communities, “suggesting that the need for early isolation and treatment is not yet understood, accepted or acted upon.” More than half of the 32 confirmed Ebola deaths recorded in Guinea over the last week occurred in the community rather than in treatment centres, while 16 percent did in Sierra Leone. WHO officials have also noted that unsafe burials continue to be a problem in the two West African countries, with 16 registered in the last week.
Since the outbreak began in December 2013, 23,969 people in nine countries have been infected with the virus, and 9,807 have died.