Héni Nsaibia is an associate analysis coordinator for West Africa at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the director of the research consultancy Menastream, and the co-author of The Islamic State in Africa: The Emergence, Evolution and Future of the Next Jihadist Battlefront (Hurst Publishers).
Dr Eleanor Beevor is a senior analyst with the Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC). She specializes in non-state armed groups, violent extremist groups, transnational organized crime, and climate and environmental security.
Flore Berger is the Sahel senior analyst with the Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa at the GI-TOC, focusing on the involvement of armed groups in illicit economies and the links between organized crime and instability.
Date of publication/ Date de publication: October, 2023
ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF JNIM:
From AQIM to JNIM
Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian branch, JNIM, was formed in Mali in early March 2017 by merging several preexisting militant groups, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Sahara Region, al-Murabitun, and Katiba Macina. Militant commanders known for their leading role in the jihadist militant groups in the Sahel represented each of these groups at the merger announcement. JNIM’s history has led many to view it as an amalgamation of disparate armed groups consisting of several “cells,” or individual units acting according to different interests. In fact, JNIM would evolve from a patchwork of several jihadist units and its respective leaderships into a versatile and complex armed group vying for supremacy in the central Sahel.
The formalization of JNIM united the aforementioned groups under the slogan “one banner, one group, one emir.” Iyad Ag Ghaly, a longtime Tuareg rebel, nobleman, and politician, who founded the largely Tuareg jihadist group Ansar Dine in November 2011, was installed as supreme leader of JNIM. Ag Ghaly’s appointment as emir (or commander) of the alliance underscored a desire to give al-Qaeda’s Sahel franchise a more local profile. Appointing leaders with roots in their areas of operation has been critical to the course of JNIM’s insurgency project. By strategically “localizing” the struggle (previously spearheaded by the Algeria-based AQIM) through local and ethnically diverse representatives from the Tuareg, Fulani, and Arab communities, JNIM has been able to cultivate influence across a swathe of ethnically diverse territories.
Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian branch, JNIM, was formed in Mali in early March 2017 by merging several preexisting militant groups, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Sahara Region, al-Murabitun, and Katiba Macina. Militant commanders known for their leading role in the jihadist militant groups in the Sahel represented each of these groups at the merger announcement
This “strategic localization” of JNIM’s multi-ethnic political messaging is evident in each phase of the group’s expansion. Members of Ag Ghaly’s Ifoghas tribe, including his close relatives, played a significant role in AQIM’s earlier implantation in the Adrar Mountains, in Mali’s Kidal region, as part of the Tuareg-dominated Katibat al-Ansar (also known as Saryat al-Ansar) in early 2007. The extensive family connections of Ag Ghaly and his kin were instrumental in Islamizing Tuareg separatism to ensure a steady stream of recruits and facilitate AQIM’s expansion in northern Mali. Bringing al-Murabitun, Ansar Dine, and AQIM into the JNIM fold also ensured the retention of experienced jihadist fighters (particularly from AQIM’s Algerian parent group), key religious authorities, and representatives from other key ethnic constituencies in northern Mali.
Illicit economies played a key role in the development of northern Malian politics, and equally, were a critical influence in shaping JNIM’s forerunner groups. Among the ethnic constituencies brought into the fold by JNIM were the Tilemsi Arabs, who are known to have had long-standing involvement in both licit and illicit trade, and who helped JNIM’s forerunner groups to ingratiate themselves into northern Mali’s illicit economies. For instance, in Gao, there was a complex relationship between the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (commonly known by its French acronym, MUJAO) and the Tilemsi Arabs, especially the Lemhar tribe, who are key actors in drug trafficking operations, alongside other licit and illicit trades. Certain Tilemsi businessmen, involved in both drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom, were reportedly significant financial backers of MUJAO. This collaboration, however, did not necessarily mean direct involvement in drug trafficking with the Lemhar tribe by the ideological leaders of the jihadist movement.
While some Arabs joined MUJAO driven by ideological motives, most Lemhar operators supported the movement primarily through contributions of vehicles and fuel. Some sources suggest these in-kind contributions were in fact the fruits of an “investment” paid by MUJAO to traffickers, who would then buy arms, fuel, or vehicles on their behalf. Lemhar operators aimed to maintain their commercial endeavors and defend themselves against the rebels affiliated with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which was a rival group in trafficking activities and with whom they had a persistent conflict until the jihadi takeover of Gao in June 2012.
Both MUJAO and al-Murabitun had ties to drug trafficking, with the leadership historically involved in smuggling. These groups’ leaders, including Abderrahmane Ould El Amar, Mohamed Ould Nouini Lahbous, and Himama Ould Lekhweir who were also cousins were all involved in drug trafficking prior to assuming their militant roles, highlighting the intersection of criminal activity and militancy in the region.
Illicit economies played a key role in the development of northern Malian politics, and equally, were a critical influence in shaping JNIM’s forerunner groups. Among the ethnic constituencies brought into the fold by JNIM were the Tilemsi Arabs, who are known to have had long-standing involvement in both licit and illicit trade, and who helped JNIM’s forerunner groups to ingratiate themselves into northern Mali’s illicit economies
From a big tent to a cohesive group
For many years, JNIM sought to portray itself as a “big tent” alli- ance, striving to attract a wide range of local community and ethnic groups.Through its media operations it repeatedly appealed to multiple ethnic constituencies, including Tuareg, Arab, Fulani, Songhai, and Bambara communities. Through its growing influence, it also extended its appeal to include other ethnic groups such as the Dogon in “Dogon Country” and Seno-Gondo plain, the Minyanka in Sikasso region, and Moore and Bissa languages in different parts of Burkina Faso.
This is partially reflected in JNIM including the languages of these ethnic groups in its media products to reinforce its image as an inclusive armed group that advocates for wide- spread communal support. JNIM has now evolved from a network of local jihadist militant groups, into a more integrated and powerful armed group surpassing the sum of its individual components. JNIM’s formation in March 2017 marked the emergence of a highly effective armed actor in the Sahel.
Today, operating in a competitive conflict environment alongside other insurgent actors, JNIM seeks to achieve hegemony as a non-state armed actor, and to challenge the authority of regional governments. The group aspires to establish an alternative jihadist social and political order across the central Sahel. Whilst JNIM undoubtedly faces challenges from military actors and its rival Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel), its military record indicates success in advancing its objectives.
It did so by enhancing coordination and deepening cooperation among its constituent groups. Several reliable sources sug- gest that JNIM began undergoing structural reforms in late 2017 and early 2018. These initial changes were aimed at streamlining the armed group and enhancing its operational effectiveness. Understanding the inner makings of JNIM presents a substantial challenge, given the group’s opaque structure and the clandestine nature of its operations.
Current knowledge only allows hypothesizing the degree to which standardized operational protocols and strategic guidelines have been enacted within the organization. Since then, JNIM has developed a system that maintains inter- nal cohesion by striking a more effective balance between autonomy and interdependence among its various factions. This new structure allows individual factions to maintain a degree of independence while still collaborating and coor- dinating their efforts with other factions within the organization.
Understanding JNIM’s advance in the Sahel
JNIM’s influence and reach have grown from its traditional strongholds in northern and central Mali to encompass the western and southern parts of the country, most of Burkina Faso, parts of Niger, and the northernmost areas of West African littoral states, including Benin, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo. JNIM has also devised an array of tactics to sustain a high operational tempo, outpacing its adversaries and competitors. Across the central Sahel, JNIM employs the most diverse types of violence, including targeted assassinations, complex attacks, and large-scale military campaigns.
Today, operating in a competitive conflict environment alongside other insurgent actors, JNIM seeks to achieve hegemony as a non-state armed actor, and to challenge the authority of regional governments. The group aspires to establish an alternative jihadist social and political order across the central Sahel. Whilst JNIM undoubtedly faces challenges from military actors and its rival Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel), its military record indicates success in advancing its objectives
It stands out in both the sustained frequency and scope of its attacks, highlighting the group’s moderately advanced militant skills, which continue to develop and spread as it grows and expands geographically. The group’s engagement in illicit economies is a key aspect of JNIM’s successful expansion. It vitally enables JNIM to find local sources of revenue, which the group relies on more and more as it moves further away from its core in northern Mali.
Illicit supply chains are also crucial to resourcing the group, including networks smuggling motorbikes and fuel. Finally, illicit economies allow JNIM to position itself as a legitimate provider of governance. Illicit activities that do not cause direct harm to communities tend to be perceived by many Sahelians as a legitimate source of livelihood, particularly where formal opportunities are lacking and agricultural or pastoral livelihoods are challenged by shortages of land or other resources. “Criminal” behavior, in the eyes of many Sahelian residents, is rather that which causes direct harm to people, or involves violence, such as robbery, theft, or kidnap.
While JNIM also engages in behaviors that would be seen as illegitimate, they tend to do so strategically either by selectively focusing on communities framed as legitimate tar- gets due to their alignment with the state or pro-government militias, or employing criminal groups for resource extraction operations as intermediaries, for example, in kidnap for ransom and vehicle theft. However, JNIM is not able to recreate its more successful examples of establishment and governance everywhere. In the areas where it remains challenged by state, paramilitary forces, or rival non-state armed groups, JNIM exercises a greater degree of violence and repression against civilians.
The relative strength and influence of JNIM across various regions is multidimensional, with indicators like the number of initiated combat engagements and civilian-targeting incidents providing key insights. This, for example, is the case in regions such as Mopti, East, Sahel, Segou, and Centre-Nord; high counts of such incidents suggest a strong JNIM presence, but also high levels of contestation. However, it is important to consider the variations that exist. In some regions, despite high operational strength, JNIM opts for alliance-building or control consolidation rather than increased violent activities, while in others it seeks to assert its influence or cause destabilization.
INTERNAL SUPERVISION AND FUNCTIONAL SPECIALIZATION
JNIM’s chains of command are not limited to administra- tive boundaries but cut across the group’s administrative regions, countries, and borders. This has been key to both managing potential divisions, but also to the construction of an organization-wide strategy and religious outlook.
Illicit supply chains are also crucial to resourcing the group, including networks smuggling motorbikes and fuel. Finally, illicit economies allow JNIM to position itself as a legitimate provider of governance
A prime example of JNIM’s organizational flexibility is the continuous deployment of senior commanders to the border Gourma region in order to smooth over potential fractures in the group. Initially around 2014–15, the Mauritanian Abu Bakr al-Shinqiti from AQIM’s Sahara Emirate based in Timbuktu, was assigned there as a trainer, weapons expert, and coordinator. However, in 2016, he was killed in battle with Malian forces in Dinan Gourou. Following his death, senior Ansar Dine commander Almansour Ag Alkassoum assumed the role of coordinator between northern groups and those in the central region, including his own katiba (or brigade) in Gourma, Katiba Macina, Katiba Serma, and Ansarul Islam. Like Abu Bakr al-Shinqiti, Ag Alkassoum was killed in a French military operation. Subsequently, another Mauritanian, Hamza al-Shinqiti, took on the responsibility of coordinating operations in the area in 2019.
Hamza al-Shinqiti played a pivotal role when the conflict with IS Sahel transpired, as he took command of fighters in Douentza and Gourma to prevent defections of those dissatisfied with Macina leader Kouffa. As a result of his appointment, fighters from the group known as Katiba Serma (now part of the Aribanda region), along with some members who had previously exhibited pro-IS sentiments, became simultaneously more autonomous and closely aligned with the chain of command directly connected to the supreme leader Ag Ghaly.
This example shows that when senior commanders are killed in counter-terrorism operations or engaging in battle, they are successively replaced, ensuring continuity in leadership and guidance. By deploying experienced commanders, who contribute functional specialization skills to various regions, JNIM maintains stronger central control, which guarantees that local units stay aligned with the group’s overarching objectives while still enjoying a certain level of autonomy. AQIM has also dispatched senior religious cadres to the region, including Abd al-Hakim al-Muhajir. In June 2021, in the context of the conflict between JNIM and IS Sahel, Al-Muhajir heav- ily criticized IS Sahel’s judge Sadou Cissé for his “extremism and ignorance.” Al-Muhajir accused Cissé of conflating the ethnic Dogon community and the Dozo hunter military essentially denouncing Cissé for takfir (or excommunicating) the general Muslim population.
This intervention shows that JNIM has adopted a multi-level approach to counter internal dissent. In contrast, JNIM considers the Dogon community part of the general Muslim population, thus presenting itself as an inclusive group that seeks to mobilize broad popular support. In some areas, JNIM faces resistance from local populations, state forces, and other armed actors, challenging its ability to maintain control and influence while engaging on multiple fronts. These factors generate friction within the organization. The response to the June 2021 events in Solhan, in Burkina Faso’s Yagha province, is a striking illustration of this friction.
JNIM’s chains of command are not limited to administra- tive boundaries but cut across the group’s administrative regions, countries, and borders. This has been key to both managing potential divisions, but also to the construction of an organization-wide strategy and religious outlook
A massacre of unprecedented scale unfolded when JNIM affiliated fighters killed approximately 160 people. Despite an abundance of evidence pointing towards the culpability of a local JNIM group, the armed group not only dismissed responsibility but also condemned the massacre on two separate occasions. In response to JNIM’s denial, the Greater Sahara Faction of ISWAP openly ridiculed JNIM’s assertion, even insinuating that the incident triggered internecine fight- ing within JNIM in central Mali.
Meanwhile, in Gourma, JNIM fighters from central Mali and northern Burkina Faso are regularly deployed to keep IS Sahel fighters in check and prevent them from expanding into JNIM territory. JNIM’s self-styled Menaka and Gao regions in Mali struggle to confront IS Sahel effectively, becoming increasingly dependent on support from JNIM in Kidal. At the same time, the Timbuktu region’s contribution to JNIM’s larger effort remains relatively meager. This imbalance in contribution and inability to confront common adversaries effectively has the potential to create deeper divisions within the organization.
Current internal group structure and composition
JNIM’s strategic direction comes from the top down to the local level, with the leadership hierarchy broadly divided into three tiers: the central leadership group (majlis al-shura or shura council), regional commanders (manatiq emirs) over- seeing operations in their designated regions, and area com- manders (markaz emirs) at the most local level. The central leadership is responsible for determining the organization’s overall strategic direction, ensuring cohesion among the var- ious factions, and coordinating with parent and partner organizations, such as AQIM and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. While it is true that JNIM’s constituent groups maintain some of their characteristics and operational focus, it is far from being a loose coalition of disparate armed groups.
Throughout its six-year existence, JNIM has cultivated a robust brand and identity that fighters in sub-groups across its area of operations strongly associate with, whether referring to the group by its full name, “Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin,” or simply “al-Qaeda.” This unity is further reinforced by an often-overlooked aspect of JNIM’s organizational structure: the internal supervision and crosscutting chains of command facilitated by the ongoing deployment of senior military and religious cadres from the former AQIM, Ansar Dine, and Katiba Macina, to other JNIM subgroups and regions beyond these cadres’ original areas of operations.
This dynamic precedes JNIM’s establishment but has continued to be a central ele- ment of the group’s strategic operations. These commanders maintain oversight and coordinate actions among local groups in various areas, most notably in Haire in Mali, the Gourma borderlands of Burkina Faso and Mali, Torodi in Niger, and along the borders of littoral states. Numerous attacks showcase the synergies between JNIM’s regional commands, especially in relation to large-scale attacks. A series of successful overrun attacks in August and September 2019 against military camps such as Boulkessi, Mondoro, Nassoumbou, Baraboule, and Tongomayel in Mali and Burkina Faso was part of a larger coordinated militant offensive involving the former Katiba Serma (in Aribanda region) and Ansarul Islam (in Burkina region).
When an August 2019 peace agreement broke down in the Djenne cercle of Mali’s Mopti region in April 2021, several JNIM regions sent support units known as noussoura. JNIM subsequently imposed an embargo on the village of Marebougou, which also extended to surrounding villages. A coalition of Dozos from Djenne and Dan Na Ambassagou militiamen, deployed there to force the lifting of the embargo, were routed in one of the deadliest battles between JNIM militants and Dozo militias recorded by ACLED, leaving scores of militiamen killed and wounded.
The organizational structure of JNIM can be more effectively understood through a set of concepts rooted in Arabic ter- minology. A katiba (or brigade) serves as a subgroup, led by regional emirs. Administratively, the group is divided into manatiq, or regions, commonly referred to as mantiqa (region) in its singular form. The same term also applies to subareas.
FINANCING AND RESOURCING
In financing itself and its operations JNIM must constantly reckon with how some highly lucrative activities will also damage JNIM’s legitimacy in the eyes of civilian communities.
This is particularly so when the activities fall under the rubric of popular understandings of “criminal” activity, i.e. activity that is violent, or that directly harms the livelihoods of residents. However, these two frequently incompatible objectives – self-financing and governing – can sometimes be complementary. This section examines how JNIM navigates this dilemma both in the leveraging of zakat (or alms), and exploiting road infrastructure, and its engagement in three illicit economies central to JNIM’s strategy: artisanal gold mining, kidnapping, and livestock looting.
Artisanal gold mining
JNIM’s artisanal gold mining activity is one example where the group’s governance and financing objectives reinforce each other. While it is impossible to estimate the amount of money JNIM makes from artisanal mining through illicit gold dealers, gold is believed to be an important revenue stream for the group. In Burkina Faso alone, where JNIM and ISGS control growing swaths of territory, in 2018 it was estimated that artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) produced about 20 tonnes of gold per year. Control over artisanal gold mines has repeatedly been cited as a likely factor shaping JNIM’s geographic expansion. JNIM extracts revenue from the gold sector by exercising control over ASGM sites (directly or through its influence over local communities) or transportation routes to and from mine sites.
In financing itself and its operations JNIM must constantly reckon with how some highly lucrative activities will also damage JNIM’s legitimacy in the eyes of civilian communities
Payments in exchange for security or access are sometimes demanded as zakat. In some cases, resource flows are indirect; while the sites in Kidal region are directly controlled predominantly by the ex-rebel bloc Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the alliances between the CMA and JIM and in some cases blurred membership mean a proportion of mining resources is likely flow to JNIM. A member of the Tuareg community emphasized, however, that “on paper,” these sites are ostensibly managed by the CMA. The most important such sites in Kidal are located in Igouzar, another site between Tessalit and Aguelhok, along with several sites in the Tinzaouaten area. But JNIM is also known to fully control mine sites in both Mali and Burkina Faso.
For example, in the N’Abaw goldfield, southwest of Gao at the border with Burkina Faso, around 2,000 gold miners work in the JNIM-controlled site. A member of the Tuareg community indicated that many miners tend to prefer these sites controlled by JNIM over those controlled by signatory armed groups, including the CMA and the pro-government militia coalition Plateforme, citing the latter’s heavy taxation as a deterrent. The management of gold mines in the Sahel is often con- troversial at the local level.
Firstly, the majority of artisanal gold mining is informal, in areas that remain under control of the state, and are therefore subject to repeated state crack- downs. This creates grievances among communities reliant on mining in contexts where scarce alternatives exist. Secondly, certain parties tend to be excluded from mining opportunities. Artisanal sites are often guarded by vigilante groups affiliated with the landowner or with those pre-financing the mining operation, excluding residents who wish to prospect for themselves. Private security guards play the same role in industrial or privately run mines.
The kidnap-for-ransom economy has been a central element of jihadist militant groups’ resourcing since the first decade of the 2000s, but remained a central source of financing for armed groups into the mid-2010s. In 2017, the year of JNIM’s birth, the group’s annual revenue in the region was estimated to range between 18 and 35 million US dollars, with kidnap- ping for ransom estimated to represent up to 40% of the group’s funding.
Control over artisanal gold mines has repeatedly been cited as a likely factor shaping JNIM’s geographic expansion. JNIM extracts revenue from the gold sector by exercising control over ASGM sites (directly or through its influence over local communities) or transportation routes to and from mine sites
In Burkina Faso, kidnappings have increased substantially since 2017. ACLED records a rise from eight incidents in 2017, to 262 in 2021, and 222 in 2022, an increase that to some extent tracks the group’s expansion into the country.
However, while JNIM continues to be a central player in the Sahel’s kidnapping economy, the kidnapping of Sahelians is a fragmented criminal market, closely related to local realities. Like many fragmented markets, the kidnapping industry is characterized by a high degree of violence and unpredict- ability due to the numerous actors – jihadist militant groups, rebel groups, self-defense militias, criminal groups, and state actors and the distinct motivations involved. Crucially, while kidnappings remain an element of JNIM financing, incidents are not always designed to result in ransom. Paying a ransom has become equivalent to supporting jihad- ist militant groups in the Sahel. Thus, many victims remain silent as to the conditions of their detention and their release. However, GI-TOC data collected in 2022 in Burkina Faso found that ransoms paid by Sahelian targets varied based on perceived value; the ransom for important businessmen could be double or triple that of a small trader or shopkeeper. Price tags for cattle owners and owners of gold sites can be even higher, as much as 8 million FCFA (US$13,380). For Sahelians, the largest ransoms are paid for individuals linked with the state, such as health officials.
Livestock theft serves as another illicit economy central to JNIM’s financing, its mode of extracting revenue similarly changing in line with its territorial influence. In areas under early-stage infiltration, or where JNIM exerts limited influence, it draws revenue directly through livestock looting. By contrast, in areas where the group exerts significant influence, it instead largely demands livestock as a mode of zakat.
JNIM also occupies a role in regulation and dispute resolution in livestock theft, positioning itself as a key player in recovering stolen cattle and mediating disputes for communities, largely in areas it controls. By doing so, JNIM aims to solidify its presence and influence within the communities. In districts under JNIM’s influence within the Inner Niger Delta in the Mopti region of central Mali, for example, the group has imposed rules on land access, and acted on reports of livestock thefts, reducing corruption and nepotism that previously plagued local authorities. As a result, the number of stolen livestock in areas under JNIM control appears to drop.
In Youwarou district, where the group has consolidated influence, livestock theft since 2021 has been significantly lower than in contested Bandiagara or Bankass, which is also a hotspot of violence with the FAMa, the Wagner Group, and the allied ethnic Dogon-majority Dan Na Ambassagou self-defense militia. In 2021, Bandiagara experienced the highest rate of cattle theft, with over 65,000 cattle stolen. This figure is nearly 15 times greater than the number of cattle stolen in Youwarou district during the same period, which recorded 4,550 stolen cattle. However, livestock theft plays a substantial role in financing the group. In Youwarou district alone, the GI-TOC estimates that the group made 440 million FCFA (US$739,200) in revenue from livestock theft in 2021.
A significant amount of cattle is appropriated through zakat, a practice that becomes a major way in which JNIM takes resources from the livestock economy once it has established consolidated influence. Judging from estimates from Youwarou district, and considering that cattle looting is more prevalent in other districts, it can be presumed that the total profits from livestock theft run into the millions of dollars every year, although in contested areas not all of this will flow to JNIM. Internal sources within Ansarul Islam, a Burkinabe JNIM sub-group with strong historical links to Katiba Macina in central Mali – said in 2021 that they make from 25 to 30 mil- lion FCFA (US$42,063 to US$50,477) per month from cattle rustling in Sahel, Nord, and Centre-Nord regions where they operate, depending on the period.
JNIM also occupies a role in regulation and dispute resolution in livestock theft, positioning itself as a key player in recovering stolen cattle and mediating disputes for communities, largely in areas it controls
Moreover, the cattle rustling economy has proven resilient in the face of increased insecurity and violence, in contrast to other illicit revenue streams that have been to some extent displaced, such as kidnapping foreigners for ransom, or the cocaine trade. The livestock trade’s importance to the socio-economic fabric of the region – particularly in Mali, the second biggest exporter of cattle in West Africa means JNIM has no problem acquiring and selling the looted livestock. This ability to quickly monetize stolen assets, even in contexts of significant instability, makes livestock looting a cornerstone of the Sahelian war economy and a very attractive source of financing.
Communal fundraising and collection of zakat
Armed groups’ use of the religious tax known in Islam as zakat is a complex phenomenon, as its payment by civilians may mean the group has been conferred with the legitimacy of a religious authority. However, a coercive component cannot be ruled out. Zakat is a means through which armed groups might raise revenues to fund their activities.89 In the case of JNIM, zakat is often an illustration of the group’s priorities, and its capabilities, in a given area. For instance, in January 2023, residents of several villages in Diapaga, Est province in Burkina Faso, had their entire herds of livestock seized on the grounds of zakat by JNIM combat- ants – a coercive move that was economically devastating for residents.90 This indicates short-termism on the part of JNIM fighters in the area, seeking to prioritize immediate financial gain rather than relationship-building with residents.
However, it may also suggest a degree of local resistance to JNIM control, which is accordingly met with exploitative and coercive actions. In other areas, however, zakat serves a dual role as a means of income for JNIM, and a way to bolster their local credibility through service provision. For instance, in exchange for pro- tection, JNIM imposes zakat on livestock owners in central Mali, who must give away a one-year-old bull calf for every 30 heads of cattle and a heifer calf for every 40 heads of cattle. In the Kidal region of Mali, JNIM depends more on fundraising than zakat. In some communities, funding is voluntary, while in others, it is mandatory, particularly for those deemed “pro-Islamic State.”
Although zakat is often perceived to be a significant source of income for jihadist militant groups in the region, this notion may not hold true for JNIM in all areas that the group operates. A Fulani youth leader indicated that zakat constitutes only a minor portion of the group’s resources in central Mali. Notably, around two-thirds of the collected zakat is reportedly redistributed to the needy within the community. However, JNIM’s methods demonstrate significant regional variations. In JNIM-controlled areas in Niger, such as Gotheye and Torodi located in the southwestern part of Tillaberi region, zakat taxation practices are described as “messy and extortionist,” while around Midal, in the Tassara department of Tahoua region’s northern territory, locals perceive JNIM’s tactics as “soft” and non-violent, specifically noting that the activities are largely restricted to zakat collection.
JNIM’s collection of zakat serves multiple purposes that con- tribute to their pursuit of legitimacy. It symbolizes adherence to religious obligations, effectively integrating individuals and communities into their value system. Zakat collection delineates a geographical and social space under the group’s control, extending their influence even into areas they do not militarily control. Zakat serves a martial function by identifying tax evaders as legitimate targets of violence, thus enforcing compliance. It has both a social and financial purpose, provid- ing support to the poor and funding for the group’s warfare activities, respectively. In these ways, the strategic implementation of zakat taxation helps jihadist militant groups construct an image of legitimate authority and control.
Gouvernance, in this report refers to JNIM’s attempts to establish itself as a governing authority in local areas through the regulation of residents’ behavior, service provision, and the control of local finances and economies. This is particularly true for illicit economies, as they are easier for the group to exercise control over. Therefore, governance involves striking a delicate balance between resources and objectives. While local fundraising efforts, zakat, and taxation of goods can be a means of financing for JNIM (whether coercive or not), in many examples gaining legitimacy trumps financial motivations. For example, in Mopti, the majority of zakat revenues are reportedly redistributed to the community, indicating that zakat collection and redistribution appear to play a stronger role in governance than in financing JNIM itself. However, the balance may tip, in line with JNIM’s needs. While JNIM’s interaction with illicit economies may be in part to raise revenue, these economies are just as frequently a means of building relationships with communities in order to advance their governance objectives.
This is especially evident when JNIM supplants the state forces that are restricting residents’ access to an illicit market. Indeed, JNIM’s regulatory efforts exploit some peoples’ resentment toward state efforts to stop illicit activities. Thus, by removing state regulation, JNIM offers residents the freedom to engage in illicit livelihoods. In exchange, JNIM requires local populations to subordinate themselves to the group’s authority and social order.
Outside of the economic sphere, JNIM has been able to cultivate civil- ian relationships by offering protection and basic but essential services such as dispute resolution. This is particularly in the case of the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) Complex. However, these forms of outreach and service provision are far from ubiquitous in JNIM’s interactions with civilians. JNIM is only able to securely govern a limited number of communities and individuals, and must contend with pre-existing social fault lines and ongoing external threats.
Gouvernance, in this report refers to JNIM’s attempts to establish itself as a governing authority in local areas through the regulation of residents’ behavior, service provision, and the control of local finances and economies. This is particularly true for illicit economies, as they are easier for the group to exercise control over
JNIM cannot always depend on community engagement and offers of service pro- vision. When it cannot, JNIM also relies on forcibly displacing those it cannot control, or using violence and economic war- fare to restrict civilians’ ability to resist them. The pace and scale of internal displacement in the Sahel indicate that JNIM, in particular, uses forced displacement to create buffer zones in the areas it is entrenching itself in, and to limit the burden of governance and service provision that it has to take on.99 Where the group is weaker, it will seek to reduce threats and pressures on itself by reducing the number of civilians in the area and forcing them to leave.
The Madjoari department, located within the WAP Complex in Burkina Faso’s Kompienga province, likely serves as the largest buffer zone that JNIM has established after engaging in a year-long violent campaign. This campaign was directed against the military, VDP, and local residents of the department. The intensity of the conflict reached its peak with a major assault on the Madjoari military camp in May 2022. Following this offensive, authorities took action to evacuate the remaining VDP members and civilians from the department. While it can foster genuine support among at least some res- idents of some communities, JNIM is equally willing to use forced displacement and other coercive tactics to be able to control its surroundings. Nevertheless, the governance tac- tics that JNIM has effectively deployed to win support demonstrate an ideological consistency that spans the Sahel region, which speaks to JNIM’s growing cohesion.
Zakat as a tool of legitimacy
Unlike the Islamic State, which imposes a more rigid and harsh interpretation of Islamic law, JNIM reportedly grants local communities greater decision-making autonomy. This distinction is crucial to JNIM’s success and contributes to its entrenchment and influence in the regions it controls. Local adaptation is evidenced by the decentralized collection of zakat, as JNIM often allows villages to handle it themselves and retrieves the funds later. By giving local populations more control over certain aspects of administration, JNIM fosters goodwill and strengthens its relationships with these communities. In other cases, JNIM fighters collect zakat themselves, creating a source of internal tension within JNIM.
These tensions are particularly high when fighters from one ethnic group collect zakat from villages inhabited by other ethnic groups. These issues arose in Mema, Gathi-Loumo, and Lere areas of Mopti and Timbuktu, which are co-inhabited by Fulani, Tuareg, and Arab communities, although the markaz units are communal in nature along ethnic lines. In order to mitigate these ten- sions, JNIM ultimately decided that fighters from respective ethnic groups would collect zakat from their own communi- ties, which has helped to reduce friction within the group. However, such compromises are not always reached. JNIM has also been known to elevate zakat to levels that residents have deemed unacceptable, to the extent that almost all ani- mals in certain villages are seized, leaving residents extremely economically vulnerable.
JNIM’s self-styled justice system also shows local adaptation by incorporating both internal and community-appointed cadis (or judges). JNIM has likewise undertaken initiatives to generate support among local communities, including anti-banditry operations and the arrest of individuals involved in robberies, gang activity, and other crimes. The group also intervenes to arbitrate cases of livestock theft and high- way robberies and the return of stolen items to local com- munities, such as in the case of the recovery and return of stolen telecommunications antenna batteries in Madiakoye, Mali.
In another notable case, JNIM also punished two of its local commanders in Gourma area of Mali for the ill-treatment of members from the Tuareg Imghad community. Another example involves JNIM militants being reprimanded by their local commanders after closing down schools in the villages of Intechaq, Telabit, and Aoukenek, in Tessalit cercle of Kidal region in November 2022. The local commander subsequently ordered the schools to be reopened. In meting out sanctions to wrongdoers within and outside its ranks, the group aims to foster positive relationships with the communities under its control.
JNIM’s relationship management with NGOs
One form of JNIM’s regulatory functions involves negotiating access to communities with NGOs, kidnapping for intelligence, and counter-banditry efforts. Since the group operates in areas where the state has historically struggled to provide basic services – which have in some contexts long been pro- vided by NGOs – aid groups continue to help fill the gap by supplying these services. In comparison to the more restrictive IS Sahel, JNIM is more permissive of certain NGO activities in areas under its control. However, this is in part because it relieves pressure to provide essential goods and services to vulnerable communities. The group also sometimes leverages humanitarian access and supplies to advance its own agenda. JNIM has diverted aid trucks and distributed food and medicine to select communities in the areas it controls on multiple occasions.
JNIM has systematically hijacked transport trucks and vehicles carrying a variety of goods and supplies along major roadways. This was particularly prevalent during 2019 and 2020 in the Sahel region, with notable hotspots including Gaskinde, Gaik-Goita, and Mentao, which are located not far from Soum’s provincial capital, Djibo in Burkina Faso. It is believed that some of the confiscated goods were redistributed among communi- ties and villages supportive of JNIM.
Similar events have frequently taken place in East region. A noteworthy incident occurred in April 2020, when JNIM militants intercepted an NGO truck carrying supplies intended for internally displaced persons on the Fada N’Gourma–Pama road. The seized goods were subsequently handed out to villagers residing in the Kabonga area. Its broader relationship with NGOs is a mix of permissiveness and predation. Only once has JNIM publicized its own provision of aid in its media and propaganda efforts.
JNIM’s targeted theft of cars also illustrates their financing- governance dilemma, particularly as it applies to the group’s relationships with NGOs. The group has engaged in the wide- spread theft of not only NGO vehicles but also of ambulances owned by district health centers. In May 2022, an NGO security adviser who had been monitoring incidents of vehicle theft said that eight district ambulances had been stolen in Est, Nord-Est, Nord, and Sahel provinces of Burkina Faso since the start of the year. These ambulances were used by the state’s district health centers but were vulnerable to theft by JNIM since they were adapted four-wheel-drive Land Cruisers, the type of vehicle that was useful to their operations. Stealing these ambulances meant JNIM not only acquired new vehicles, but also it inhibited the state from providing healthcare.