Explosives expertise reshaping Sahel security landscape - Researcher

APA - Dakar (Senegal)

Jihadist groups in the Sahel no longer constantly engage their men on the front lines to attack enemies but prefer employing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to carry out their campaign of terror at a lower cost, observes Solene Jomier, a researcher at the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP).

 By Ibrahima Dione

Question: There have been a series of IED attacks in the central Sahel (Mali, Burkina and Niger) in recent years. What do you make of this?

Jomier:These weapons are relatively easy to manufacture because the components are available on the regular market (often called “dual-use” goods). They are cheap, with an advantageous quality/price ratio, financially affordable for the terrorist groups likely to fabricate them.

However, making these weapons requires the necessary technical expertise at one’s disposal. A decade ago, terrorist groups active in the Sahel had only marginal access to this type of knowledge. It was with the emergence of the Libyan conflict and the fall of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (which caused an exodus of fighters to the African continent) that this expertise spread to the Sahel.

From a strategic perspective, what jihadist groups think of IEDs?

Jomier: IEDs are a very simple and affordable way for terrorist groups to cause casualties to their enemies without risking the lives of their own men. This is clearly a pattern of asymmetrical conflict. The stealthy and relatively unpredictable nature of these devices contributes to the fear strategy of these groups, which seek to instill a deep sense of insecurity among civilian populations and state security forces.

Where do IEDs fit in the jihadist arsenal?

Jomier: The introduction of IED expertise in the Sahel has clearly changed the security landscape. A decade ago, groups such as al-Mourabitoun primarily carry out armed attacks with their men on the frontlines. Examples include the hostage-taking at the Radisson Blu in Bamako, Mali in 2015 or the In Amenas incident in southeast Algeria in 2013.

Today, IEDs have become the preferred modus operandi of jihadist groups in the Sahel. Less costly in terms of men and materials than coordinated armed attacks, IEDs allow these groups to pursue their strategy of terror at a lower cost. This method is not exclusive to jihadist groups in the Sahel; it is also found among armed Islamist groups in the Middle East, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It also reflects the change in objective of terrorist groups in the region. Their ambition is no longer to control territories (as was the case with the control of Timbuktu in 2012 for example), but to destabilize them. This is a more realistic goal in terms of their capabilities, but just as worrisome for the future of the region.

However, the massacres of civilians also committed by terrorist groups, particularly in central Mali and the tri-border area (Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger), should not be overlooked. This is an increasingly common modus operandi over the past three years, and is particularly worrying.

What has been the impact of IEDs in the war against jihadists?

Jomier: Improvised explosive devices have put the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in a bind. Since its creation in 2013, at least 177 peacekeepers (UN figure July 2022) have died in malicious acts (i.e., excluding deaths by accident or illness). This makes it the deadliest peacekeeping mission for its soldiers since the creation of the United Nations.

Of these 177 deaths, at least 93 were caused by improvised explosive devices (as of June 2022). These explosive attacks have also wounded at least 698 civilians and 596 peacekeepers since 2013.

Violence peaked in 2021 with 28 peacekeepers killed in IED explosions and other armed attacks. As a result, the mission is paying a heavy price on the ground, which it is working to reduce through significant demining and counter-IED efforts.

In 2022, the Mission reported multiple incidents - fatal or otherwise- every week. This is a high frequency. To give a scale of magnitude, from July 2021 to June 2022 (one year of the UN mission’s mandate), MINUSMA recorded 213 IED attacks, compared to 149 for the previous period (July 2020 to June 2021).

What capabilities do Sahelian countries and foreign forces have to tackle this growing threat?

Jomier: The capabilities of Sahelian countries to detect and deactivate IEDs en masse remain limited given the growing needs of the region. Sharing expertise will be a crucial thing in order to facilitate the necessary catching up in this regard.

Faced with increasing incidents, MINUSMA has put in place a series of actions to minimize risks and limit the number of casualties. In particular, it has equipped itself with teams specializing in the detection of improvised explosive devices. These include the Cambodian contingents currently deployed in the mission, who are internationally renowned specialists in this field.

The introduction of specialists in mine clearance and IED detection teams has improved the detection and disposal of IEDs. In 2014, on the cusp of the emergence of IED use, the mission detected an average of only 11 percent of devices before they exploded. That number rose to 50 percent by 2020, even as attacks of this type became much more frequent.

However, this very tedious and difficult task complicates the mission’s day-to-day activities, particularly its patrols, and the regular frequency of which helps prevent attacks on civilians.


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