The branch of al-Qaeda in the Sahel, the so-called Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), has claimed responsibility for the latest attack on the French forces of Operation Barkhane. Only six French soldiers were involved, thanks to the rapid action of one of the vehicles in the convoy attacked.
The suicide bomber, who was in a vehicle loaded with explosives, was forced to detonate them earlier than planned, causing much less impact on the convoy than it might have been had the French military not reacted so promptly. The six wounded were taken to the military hospital in Gao, from where three of them were later taken to the Malian capital.
The JNIM group, which belongs to al-Qaeda, is a platform resulting from the union of different local and regional groups, from what was al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to Ansar Dine, Al-Murabitum and the Katiba Macina. The group is currently led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg leader who headed the Azawad Liberation Movement during the 1990s and early 2000s, until he radicalised and created his own terrorist movement.
JNIM's claim comes as no surprise, as it also claims to have been responsible for the two previous attacks, one at the end of December and the other at the beginning of January, in which five French soldiers died as a result of two explosions of improvised devices (IEDs) in the path of their vehicles.
JNIM's structure has suffered several blows over the past year thanks to several operations conducted by the French forces. In June AQIM's leader, Adelmalek Droukdel, was killed and in November the head of the organisation's military wing, also a Tuareg, Bah ag Moussa, was killed. The death of JNIM's military leader led to several attacks on the bases where the French forces are stationed in Kidal, Ménaka and Gao in November without causing any damage. The success of his latest attacks could therefore have been sought to send a message of authority.
These surgical strikes of Operation Barkhane, although significant, have not prevented the violence from growing in recent months in the Liptako Gourma region, with a total of 90 attacks in November, according to the International Observatory for the Study of Terrorism (OIET), a growing trend that had been under way since August.
Following the death of these French soldiers, the French defence minister, Florence Parly, stressed the temporary nature of Mr Barkhane's extension, which was agreed at the Pau summit with the Sahel countries and involved sending a further 600 French soldiers to the region. This contingent could now be sent home again, while there are expectations of an increase in the presence of troops from other countries in the framework of the Takuba Task Force –Greek, Swedish, Czech and Italian– and in view of the request that the G5-Sahel Joint Force should also extend its presence.