Jihadists Gain Strength Even as Troops Arrive in West Africa

As a convoy of United Nations police on a night patrol stopped to chat with residents on the sand-blown streets of the central Malian city of Sevare, Sada Cissoko could no longer hold back his emotions.

“There are soldiers from all around the world in Mali, but despite the drones and the resources spent, things are only getting worse,” Cissoko, a 48-year-old counselor at a local school, said visibly agitated. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Once a stable democracy, Mali is now on the front-line of an intensifying push by al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated militants and the simultaneous deployment of thousands of Western and United Nations troops in the Sahel region. It’s playing out in a wide arid area in West Africa south of the Sahara desert that’s a key gateway for the trafficking of migrants and drugs to Europe.

Mali is home to the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, with more than 100 UN soldiers killed in attacks since the 15,000-strong mission deployed five years ago, following a jihadist insurgency in the north that few people had ever imagined possible in the religiously moderate country. There have been as many as 60 raids since the beginning of the year, killing at least 45 Malian soldiers and five peacekeepers.

Timbuktu Attack

Last week, in an unprecedented assault, militants loyal to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims, or JNIM, arrived in vehicles painted in UN and Malian army colors and opened fire on a UN camp in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu, destroying the airport terminal and wounding 14 French and UN soldiers.

“JNIM’s capabilities are clearly growing as demonstrated by the recent attack on Timbuktu airport,” said Sean Smith, senior West Africa analyst at risk-advisory company Verisk Maplecroft. “The mounting levels of regional and international troops stationed in the country appear incapable of preventing JNIM from becoming more potent.”

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