Over the past three months, jihadist groups in the Sahel, especially those belonging to the JNIM network, linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara group, have carried out a dozen improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, injuring and killing at least twenty soldiers belonging to international missions and security forces of the states in the region. These attacks include that of January 28, which left three MINUSMA soldiers seriously wounded; that of January 15 in the Kidal region of northern Mali, which killed a blue helmet; that of January 8, in which a vehicle full of explosives was detonated near the border with Burkina Faso, leaving six French soldiers seriously wounded; and that of January 2, in which two French soldiers were seriously wounded; On January 2, two more soldiers were killed by another IED in northern Menaka, and a few days earlier, on December 28, three more French soldiers were killed by another IED in the centre of the country. The following article analyses the use of these explosives by armed groups in Mali and, to a lesser extent, in Burkina Faso, thanks to expert sources on the ground to whom we are grateful for the information shared.
IEDs used in the Sahel region are composed of a military explosive charge, an electrical source with a detonator, a container and an activation/initiation system. In Mali, most of the explosive and detonator charges come from mining activities, although about 25 per cent come from military charges, especially in the north of Malian territory. With regard to the main source of energy, motorbike batteries are the most commonly used. As for the container of the explosive charge, 20-litre jerry cans of oil are often used in suicide vehicles. Landmines are still the most commonly used by terrorist groups. When cars drive over the mine, the mine explodes automatically. Finally, the mine is usually activated by a system of plates, which the victims of the attack pass in front of and activate. In central Mali, however, we find that several of the attacks have been carried out with a radio activation system, which is much more sophisticated. Suicide attacks, involving a vehicle with an explosive charge or a bomber with a waistcoat full of explosives, tend to be used mainly at military bases and camps. In 2020, such episodes have been virtually non-existent. Projected explosives are also used against military camps and bases; however, they are not sufficiently precise, so they are not used as frequently as landmine explosives where the victims set them off as they pass by, ensuring that there are no casualties among the terrorists.
While the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is not new, recent months have seen a surge in their use as a preferred method of attacking Mali's security forces. Until 2018, the number of IED attacks in Mali had been increasing. These attacks were not exclusively aimed at targeting security forces, but also involved civilian casualties, not as collateral damage, but intentionally to terrorise the population. 2018, 2019 and 2020 have seen a general decline in the use of these explosives; until October 2020, when there was again a significant increase that persists to this day. In the last two years, due to training by international missions, the Malian armed forces have been trained to find and deactivate this type of explosive. In terms of the regions most affected, attacks targeting the army and civilians tend to occur mainly in the centre of Mali, although they tend to occur wherever they are stationed, usually along the main logistical routes. Attacks targeting Operation Barkhane tend to occur in the tri-border area (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso). Finally, attacks targeting MINUSMA tend to take place mostly in the north of Mali.
As mentioned above, last January saw the highest number of IED attacks against the Malian Armed Forces and international forces since 2018. Eight incidents against the Armed Forces, three against Operation Barkhane and six against MINUSMA took place in January. In the past year, there have been attacks that mix the use of an explosive, mostly detonated by radio frequency, in order to stop the vehicle and then ambush the victims. This type of hybrid mechanism allows terrorist groups to ensure that no civilian vehicle triggers it by mistake, but that it is detonated by security forces.
In Burkina Faso, 72 IED incidents have been officially recorded in 2020. Burkina Faso differs in some respects from neighbouring Mali. In Burkina Faso, a distinction must be made between Unidentified Armed Men (HANI) and Armed Terrorist Groups (ATG). The former's main objective is to terrorise the population of Burkina Faso, mainly in the east and north of the country, and they are considered "bandits". Most of their actions with IEDs are carried out against civilians. In the north of the country, especially in the Mentao region, HANI also pay locals to place explosives on the roads most frequented by state security forces. There is a link between some armed terrorist groups, such as Ansaroul Islam and some unidentified armed men, but sometimes the actions of these bandits are more related to criminal activity (cattle rustling, property theft) and inter-community conflicts.
Burkina Faso's armed forces, like those of Mali, are trained before being deployed on the ground. The soldiers undergo a short training, lasting at least a few days, which enables them to identify where the explosives are hidden. Once the devices have been identified, they are disposed of by specialised personnel who follow the Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (IEDD) protocol.
In both countries, these explosives pose a real security problem for national and international law enforcement agencies, but also for civilians. Proper training is essential to reduce the threat, especially of those devices that are planted and activated by victims, making it very difficult to anticipate and identify both the enemy and the threat.