In their unconventional war jihadist movements in the Sahel use explosive devices to devastating effect and relentlessly haunt regular armies fighting them.
By Ibrahima Dione
Not a month goes by without improvised explosive devices (IEDs) making the news in the central Sahel covering Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Convoys of state armies fighting jihadist groups there are at risk of running at any time into these mines boobytrapped on roads or tracks.
Prohibited internationally after the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention came into force on March 1, 1999, these weapons fall into three main categories: IEDs detonated by the victim using the mechanism of a landmine; time-set devices set to explode at a specific time and remotely controlled ones whose explosive charge is triggered by the deliberate or inadvertent pressing of a switch.
“The use of one type or another depends on the target. When it is, for example, to strike the Barkhane Force, whose patrols are more protected against this kind of threat with armored vehicles or electronic jamming, the jihadists use different techniques than those used against the Malian armed forces,” Wassim Nasr, a specialist in jihadist movements explains.
Since the start of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in 2013, IEDs have killed at least 93 peacekeepers (as of June 2022).
A MINUSMA report, as of August 31, counted 245 IED attacks in 2021 and 134 in 2022, with 103 deaths in 2021 and 72 in 2022.
“Almost three-quarters of the victims are among the ranks of the Malian army and international forces, and more than a quarter among civilians,” the document says.
“The use of improvised explosive devices is not a new phenomenon in the Sahel. This practice goes back a long way. There are more and more IEDs because they are now easy to fabricate,” Nasr, a journalist with France 24 points out.
In fact, the know-how for this type of weapon has spread like wildfire.
“A decade ago, terrorist groups active in the Sahel had only marginal technical expertise in the development of IEDs. 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 Africa) that this expertise spread to the Sahel,” observes Solene Jomier, a research fellow at the ‘Groupe de recherche et d’information sur la paix et la sécurite’ (GRIP).
“One day, we will also have to point out the responsibilities of certain large traders of all ethnicities and local deputies or elected officials in the creation of import channels for fertilizers and mining explosives, a large part of which was stolen and knowingly sold to armed terrorist groups. It is inconceivable that Sahelian countries are negligent in monitoring these materials while people are dying in their use," says a source at Amanar-Advisor.
The poor man’s weapon
Jihadist groups operating in the Sahel adapt to their logistical means to pursue their aims.
In this part of arid Africa, covering an area of 5.4 million square kilometers, there is “a relative ease of access to raw materials for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices, a transfer of skills via first forums and encrypted messaging and then thanks to the advent of messaging such as WhatsApp,” our interlocutor in this strategic intelligence consulting firm based in Strasbourg, France notes.
He says “the Group of Support for Islam and Muslims (Gsim or Jnim in Arabic) has democratized the practice by adapting it to the realities of the Sahel, showing a form of engineering on the subject thanks to the talent of artificial. The Gsim has imported the know-how of the Taliban (Afghanistan) to the Sahel.
The lower cost of the elements that go into the preparation of IEDs makes them “the poor man’s weapon” Wassim Nasr says, adding that jihadists also use the explosives of soldiers captured in combat.
This indeed makes “IEDs a simple and affordable way for terrorist groups to cause casualties to their enemies, without risking the lives of their own men. This is clearly an asymmetric conflict. These devices, by their discretion and relative unpredictability, contribute to the fear strategy of these groups, which seek to instill a deep sense of insecurity among the civilian population and state security forces,” the GRIP researcher explains.
IEDs thus produce a psychological effect in that they instil permanent fear in potential targets by keeping them under pressure.
“It is enough to have an IED on a road to block it for a while. Suspicion alone slows the enemy's progress. If there is a jihadist attack in a place, the evolution of the military convoy will be much slower with the risk of running into IEDs taken into account,” Wassim Nasr adds.
What means of fighting?
By force of circumstance, “IEDs have become the preferred modus operandi of jihadist groups in the Sahel. Less costly in terms of men and equipment than coordinated armed attacks, IEDs allow these groups to pursue their strategy of terror at a lower cost,” Solene Jomier goes on to say.
Faced with the recurrence of IED-related incidents, she adds, MINUSMA is implementing “a series of actions to minimize the risks and limit the number of victims. In particular, it has equipped itself with specialized IED detection teams...In particular, the Cambodian contingents within the Mission have an international reputation in this area.”
For the GRIP researcher, “the introduction of trained teams has improved the detection and neutralization of this type of device. In 2014, on the cusp of the emergence of IED, the mission found an average of only 11 percent of devices before they exploded. That number rose to 50 percent by 2020, even as IED attacks became much more common.”
However, she says “this very tedious and difficult work complicates the mission’s day-to-day work, especially its patrols, whose regular frequency helps prevent attacks on civilians.”
Clearly, the Sahelian countries plagued by jihadism all have limited capacity to mitigate the IED threat.
However, the area cannot yet be described as a minefield because to say that, ''you have to have a completely inaccessible territory, this is not currently the case in the Sahel...You also need to have devices that stand the test of time,” says Nasr, who also authored the book entitled ‘Islamic State, The Fait Accompli.’