After eight years of conflict in the Sahel, the international community remains primarily focused on the two main jihadi militant groups driving the sub-regional insurgency in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger: the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). The reality on the ground is far more complex. While jihadi groups are the main contributors to the violence, community-based militias and government forces often perpetrate equally deadly attacks (Bloomberg, 2019). ACLED data show that abuses by government forces are inherent to prevailing conflict dynamics in the central Sahel, and these actors routinely commit atrocities with impunity. Reports of such violence are now simultaneously emanating from all three G5-Sahel countries confronted by the sub-regional insurgency (Orient XXI, 2020), and it is increasingly clear they can no longer be ignored. If these dynamics are left to persist, the creeping militant expansion will certainly carry on with them (ACLED, 2019).
Ahead of the end of the rainy season in August 2019, ISGS and JNIM – in tandem – launched an offensive in the tri-state border area, also known as the Liptako-Gourma. It was a campaign in which military outposts were overrun like dominoes, forcing government troops to tactically withdraw from the border areas and leave previously contested territory under militant control. These developments underscored the lack of cooperation and coordination between the constituents of the struggling regional G5-Sahel force, for years promoted as an effective coalition to address the jihadi threat (Ouest-France, 2018). Amid mounting popular discontent in Mali over the presence of foreign forces as Malian soldiers were killed in scores (RFI, 2020), French president Emmanuel Macron summoned the leaders from the G5-Sahel countries to clarify their positions on France’s role in the Sahel. During the summit convened on 13 January 2020 in the French town of Pau, a roadmap was outlined to counter the jihadi onslaught (The Conversation, 2020). France decided to deploy 600 supplemental troops to its Barkhane mission (Le Monde, 2020), ensued by the official launch of ‘Takuba’, a task force gathering special forces from several European countries aimed at shoring up Barkhane and Malian forces in the fight against jihadi groups (Ouest-France, 2020). The primary focus of the counter-offensive was to be ISGS, now the ‘Greater Sahara’ faction of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Although the group carried out some of the deadliest attacks targeting security forces to date, this announcement largely neglected the comparable threat posed by its Al Qaeda counterpart, JNIM (Liberation, 2019; DW, 2020).