Hunted in the Sahel desert and countryside, Mali and Nigerian jihadists turn fury on urban areas

A member of the security forces stands near a nightclub in Bamako where five people, three

CONCERNS are rising that a deadly jihadist attack on a popular nightclub in Mali’s capital may foreshadow moves by extremist groups that have been routed in the desert to sneak operatives into towns to mount strikes.

It mirrors the same trend in Nigeria where, put on the back foot by a regional multinational force and losing its countryside strongholds, the Boko Haram jihadi group has increased deadly attacks in the urban areas.

Responsibility for the March 7 nightclub attack in Bamako by a heavily-armed gunmen that left three Malians, one French national and a Belgian dead was claimed by al-Murabitoun, a jihadist group run by Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose fighters were pushed from northern Mali into the barren Sahel by the French-led military intervention launched in 2013.

But while that campaign was credited with decimating jihadist militias and driving them far from populated regions they formerly controlled, the Bamako strike has some experts worried the extremists are now changing tactics.

Rather than relying in their numbers to impose blanket brutality on areas they hold, far-flung extremist leaders may be preparing to dispatch attackers into urban zones to stage surprise strikes.

A Mauritanian expert on regional militias, Isselmou Ould Salihi, says the nightclub attack is a clear signal that jihadist leaders want to export their violent campaign into city centres.

“With this attack in the heart of Bamako, al-Murabitoun has marked the urbanisation of its jihadist action, after having been beaten in the desert,” he said, warning if authorities cannot find a way to prevent such strikes, they “could have very grave consequences for the future of tourism and of peace in Mali.”

Belmokhtar is thought to have sought refuge in Libya after losing his former stronghold in northern Mali—the area where his local lieutenant, Ahmed al-Tilemsi, was killed by French forces in 2014.

Al-Murabitoun said the Bamako nightclub assault was staged to avenge al-Tilemsi’s death.

On Friday, one of the suspects in that attack was killed as Malian special forces stormed the building he had lived in for several weeks—he was identified as the flatmate of the gunman who attacked the nightclub.

Taking action anywhere

According to French Sahel-Sahara specialist Andre Bourgeot, the urban strikes—and especially the attack in Bamako—“demonstrate that armed jihadist groups, in particular al-Murabitoun, can take action anywhere.”

The risk of deployment of small teams or individuals to urban centres is all the more worrying following assaults in Paris and Copenhagen intent on striking a blow for Al-Qaeda affiliates or Islamic State radicals.

Nigerian setbacks

And with Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram having recently allied itself to IS after Libyan radicals took that step earlier, the spectre of myriad jihadist groups in the Sahel replicating the move looms ever larger.

However, that allegiance to IS has widely been viewed as weakness, a desperate move to seize on a more interesting story as it suffers losses.

March has seen Boko Haram suffer its worst losses – and respond with attacks mostly in urban areas.

At the start of month Boko Haram killed more than 100 people in northeast Nigeria along the Cameroon border after the Chadian government raided the radical Islamic group’s hideouts.   

“I think it’s safe to say that as multi-national counter-insurgency operations continue in the northeast, Boko Haram will intensify its urban terror campaign,” said Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst. 

“Boko Haram will know that it lacks the resources or capacity to engage the Nigerian Army and its allies in conventional warfare, so its retributive attacks will increasingly focus on asymmetric warfare, which is resource-light

On Saturday, in an telling case, Niger government minister Saturday said Boko Haram are no longer in a position to seize a single town in the neighbouring country that had endured deadly cross-border attacks from the Nigerian group following a regional effort to boost the fight against the Islamist group.

Major offensive

Thousands of troops from Niger and Chad, which had gathered in southeastern Niger, launched a major ground and air offensive against the Islamist group last Sunday and succeeded in retaking the northeastern Nigerian town of Damasak.

“The situation is totally under control. There is no longer any chance that Boko Haram will take a city… The risks of attacks occurring are very much reduced by the elimination of all the potential actors,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s Minister of State at the Presidency, said during a visit to Ivory Coast.

He said the situation was a far cry from the “real, totally irrational panic” that had gripped Niger after the first attack by the Nigeria-based Boko Haram on its neighbour in early February.

More than 13,000 people have been killed and some 1.5 million made homeless in the Boko Haram conflict since 2009, while recent cross-border attacks launched from Boko Haram strongholds in Nigeria on neighbouring countries have increased security fears.

A regional coalition has claimed a series of other successes in rebel-held territory in recent weeks, as part of an operation to clear and control northeast Nigeria in time for Nigeria’s general elections set for March 28.

There has not been a Boko Haram attack reported in Niger for nearly two weeks.

Regional forces have been particularly active in the Gamboru area of Nigeria on the border with Cameroon. The borders of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon converge in the region around Lake Chad.

On March 6, the African Union endorsed the creation of an additional regional force of up to 10,000 men to join the fight against Boko Haram.

The regional coalition already operating  has given renewed vigour to the previously lacklustre counter-insurgency.

Furthermore, analysts fear bomb attacks in Nigerian towns and cities look likely to increase in the run-up to forthcoming March 28 elections.

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