|The war in the desert Why the Sahara is terror's new front line|
|[BBC] It is just before 15:00 on Saturday in Timbuktu and the intense desert heat has reached its peak.|
Five years ago, Islamist occupiers were driven out of the historical town - but violent extremists have never been far away.
A few people are browsing through the silver jewellery and leatherwork at a small Tuareg curio market by the security checkpoint at the airport entrance.
It’s on the outskirts of town and both French troops and UN peacekeepers have set up what they call a "super-camp" there. At this sleepy time of day, people are working inside their air-conditioned containers and all that can be heard is the low hum of generators. Then, blaring sirens.
|France says 3 jihadists killed in Mali clash|
|[AlAhram] A clash between French soldiers and an armed jihadist group in northwest Mali left three "terrorists" dead, said Thursday, while local media reported injuries among French special forces. |
"We have no comment to make on any possible French casualties," he added.
French Gazelle helicopters were deployed to support troops.
Local media reported that French special forces operating in the Sahel in the clash.
Around 4,000 French troops are deployed under Operation Barkhane alongside the UN's 12,000-member MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.
The unrest in Mali, a former French colony, stems from a 2012 Tuareg separatist uprising against the state.
Islamist linked to al-Qaeda took control of the desert north, but were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
But remain active, linked to drug, arms and migrant trafficking in the vast
|French, Malian troops kill 30 insurgents in Mali gun battle|
|[AlAhram] French and Malian troops killed about 30 Islamist during a gunbattle in a region near the border with Niger, where (IS) are known to be active, the French army said on Thursday.|
West Africa's arid has seen a rise in violence by groups, some with links to al Qaeda and IS, that is drawing an increasingly aggressive response from countries including and the United States.
It was a Mali-based al Qaeda affiliate, Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al- in (JNIM), that for a March 2 assault on the French Embassy and army headquarters in 's capital that killed eight people.
Colonel Patrik Steiger said soldiers from 's Barkhane force and Malian troops were on a reconnaissance mission 90 km (56 miles) south of Menaka on Sunday when they encountered several dozen Islamist fighters, some on s.
A number of Malian soldiers died in the ensuing gunbattle, Steiger said, without giving more details. No French troops were hurt.
|JNIM confirms deaths of co-founder, senior leaders in French raids|
|[LongWarJournal] In its official claim of responsibility for Friday’s terrorist attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM>JNIM) also confirmed the deaths of several of its senior leaders.|
According to the jihadist group, the assault on the French embassy in Ouagadougou was in response to the French raids on Feb. 14 between Boughessa, Mali, and Tinzaouatene, Algeria. In that operation, French forces conducted three simultaneous raids, accompanied with airstrikes, which killed or captured over 20 jihadist fighters. JNIM confirmed the death of six of its leaders, including its co-founder, Hasan al Ansari.
Ansari, along with Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Ahmed el Tilemsi, was also a co-founder of Al Murabitoon. He would later become the second-in-command of the al Qaeda-loyal group, before becoming a co-founder and senior leader within JNIM>JNIM. In the photo above, Ansari can be seen sitting second from the right between Iyad Ag Ghaly and Abu Abdul Rahman al Sanhaji, another Murabitoon official.
JNIM also confirmed the death of two top Ansar Dine commanders, Malik Ag Wanesnet and Abdullah Ag Oufata. Wanesnet, also known as Abu al Tayyib, was a former colonel in the Malian army before defecting to the jihadist cause and becoming a top military commander for Ansar Dine. Oufata was the former mayor of Boughessa, Mali, before he joined the Tuareg jihadist group. Ansar Dine joined Murabitoon, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Sahara branch, and Ansar Dine’s Katibat Macina (also known as the Macina Liberation Front) to form JNIM last year.
|Al Qaeda affiliate claims responsibility for Burkina Faso attacks|
|[Ynet] A Mali-based affiliate of al Qaeda has for attacks in neighbouring 's capital Ouagadougou that killed eight people at the army headquarters and French embassy, according to the Mauritanian news agency Alakhbar.|
The attackers killed eight people and dozens more in a coordinated assault.
|Al Qaeda-linked group claims Mali attack that killed 2 French troops|
The soldiers were killed after their armoured vehicle was hit by an near Mali’s border with Niger and , an area that has become increasingly dangerous for international forces seeking to quell Islamic insurgencies in the remote In October, killed four U.S. troops just over the border in Niger, sparking a debate about America’s combat role in the vast and unpoliced scrubland just south of the Sahara.
JNIM, which has been responsible for other attacks in Mali and has been linked to the kidnapping of at least six western hostages in recent years, for Wednesday’s attack late on Friday on two Mauritanian websites, through which the group has previously communicated.
Islamist took over northern Mali in 2012 before French forces pushed them back in 2013. But since then the threat has crept back, and attacks have occurred further and further south, into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, and as far afield as Ivory Coast.
In a bid to counter the s, international donors on Friday pledged half a billion dollars towards the G5 Sahel, an international force made up of troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
|Islamic State, al-Qaeda Support Fuels Attacks in West Africa|
|[BLOOMBERG] Islamist groups in West Africa’s are using increased support from al-Qaeda and and enhanced cooperation among themselves to carry out more sophisticated and deadly attacks, according to the chief of mission in Mali.|
"When we examine the explosives, the types of mines, shells and weapons they use, our experts tell us that a fairly advanced level of expertise is required that they didn’t have before," the UN special representative in Mali, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, said Friday in an interview in the capital, Bamako.
The groups are operating across a semi-arid region stretching along the southern end of the Sahara from Mali to Nigeria. has almost 4,000 soldiers in the region, and the U.S. has troops in Niger and is building a drone and airbase in the northern city of Agadez. The UN has more than 13,000 members in its Mali mission, which suffered the greatest loss of life of any of its peacekeeping operations last year.
Despite the increased military involvement by foreign powers and West African armies, the violence shows no sign of abating. The ’s outside support is probably coming through Libya, Annadif said. They also have acquired funds from kidnappings and trafficking of drugs and seeking to reach Europe.
"What is happening in Libya, what is happening in the Middle East, Syria and Iraq, has an influence," he said. "There is a relationship between what is happening here and what is happening there, through Libya."
A group known as the for an attack in October on a joint patrol of U.S and Nigerien forces in which four U.S. soldiers were killed. It mostly operates near the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, Annadif said.
The Group for the Support of Islam and s, an affiliate of al-Qaeda formed last year by four local groups and known by the acronym JNIM, operates in northern and central Mali including in the towns of Kidal, Timbuktu and Mopti, Annadif said. The merger has "given an new impetus" to these groups and also explains the rising number of attacks, he said.
|Some blame an ISIS-linked group for Niger ambush|
|[NEWSWEEK] The Pentagon is reluctant to attribute the ambush to any specific group, but the Defense Intelligence Agency told ABC News it is "highly likely" a group linked to ISIS is responsible.|
The group, known as ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), has been active in Niger for roughly two years. In 2015, the current leader of the group, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, severed ties with an Al Qaeda affiliate and pledged allegiance to the and its leader, . But ISGS has not been formally recognized as an official branch of ISIS, according to ABC News.
"[ISGS] primarily operates along the Mali-Niger border in Mali's Menaka region, but its reach may extend as far as Niamey, Niger," Robyn Mack, a spokesperson for AFRICOM, tells Newsweek. "The group has conducted small-scale attacks against regional security forces."
AFRICOM is one the Pentagon's six geographic combatant commands and is responsible for military relations with African nations, the and African regional security organizations.
ISIS recently suffered a major defeat when it was driven from Raqqa, a Syrian city that became the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate. But the attack in Niger highlights the terrorist organization's continued global appeal, even as its presence in Iraq and Syria dwindles.
Al Qaeda's presence in the region is much more significant than ISGS.
Other terror organizations are also active in the region where the ambush occurred, including Al Qaeda's rebranded Mali-based affiliate Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal- in (JNIM).
"JNIM is an umbrella organization of regionally-focused terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Sahara Emirate, al-Mourabitoun, and locally-focused groups Macina Liberation Front (MLF) and Ansar al-Din (AAD)," Mack says.
The group has for at least 35 attacks since it formed in early March, "including the June 18 attack on a Western-frequented hotel near Bamako, Mali, and probably are responsible for the August 13 attack on a Western-frequented cafe in Ouagadougou, ," Mack adds.
Experts were surprised to hear ISGS is being blamed for the ambush.
Jason Warner, an assistant professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, tells Newsweek he was "surprised" when he heard the October 4 ambush was being blamed on ISGS.
Warner, who's done extensive research on terrorism in Africa, says he "never really heard anyone mention ISGS in a serious way" and the group has "not really ever come up as a real threat" in conversation.
"When it first came out that these four Americans were killed, for most of us who watch this region, it seemed unlikely it was ISGS since they haven’t been so active," Warner adds.
In Warner's view, if the attack is indeed "pinned down to [ISGS], it would be the most ideologically significant" it has been involved in thus far