In late 2015 and 2016, AQIM carried out a series of attacks on hotels popular with Western citizens in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. AQIM claimed that the attacks targeted locations used for espionage and conspiracies against Muslims. This string of attacks from north to south in West Africa likely aimed to increase the group’s relevance in the region in the face of the IS challenge. After an attack on a hotel in the Malian capital Bamako on 20 November 2015, which was claimed by al-Murabitun in cooperation with AQIM (Europol, EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2016, pp. 32-33.) , a similar attack on a hotel took place in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, on 16 January 2016. The attack was claimed by AQIM in a 17 January statement. On Telegram, the attack had earlier been attributed to al-Murabitun, which had joined AQIM in December 2015. On 13 March 2016, another group of terrorists attacked a tourist resort near Abidjan, capital of Ivory Coast, killing 19. The attack was claimed by AQIM in a statement issued the same day.
AQIM increased its propaganda output targeting Sahel countries in 2016. It adopted propaganda styles developed by IS. For example, AQIM issued videos showing the killing of alleged spies, accused of working for France, albeit without the same amount of graphic detail.
Its messages to local populations, however, differ notably from those of IS. Rather than threatening Muslims with accusations of unbelief if they fail to join the group, AQIM purported to defend the interests and lives of the Muslim population, while punishing “corrupt” governments for their collusion with foreign powers against Muslims. Western companies were labelled as legitimate targets for their alleged exploitation of the Muslim population and the pollution of Muslim land. For example, in March, AQIM claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on a gas plant in Algeria jointly run by BP and Statoil, saying it was part of its “war on the interests of the Crusaders”. In a May statement, AQIM claimed an attack on the uranium mine in Arlit, Niger, operated by French company Areva. It then reaffirmed its intention to strike French targets.
In Mali, AQIM continued to claim attacks on Malian, French and MINUSMA (The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.) troops in 2016 and to incite people to fight or support the fight against the Malian government, alleging that the latter brought French troops to the country. In an 8 July audio message, the head of AQIM’s Sahara division called upon Muslims in Mali to fight against France. He referred to the powerful role France still played in its former colonies. Several Western hostages were held by AQIM in Mali in 2016, including a Swedish and a South African citizen and a Swiss woman.
Since late 2015, the enemies of the UN mission in Mali, including AQIM and Ansar al-Din (“supporters of the religion”, Ansar Dine), increased their cooperation, for example by exchanging expertise in IED production and modus operandi. In several attacks in 2016, UN troops and Mauritanian soldiers were killed. These included a joint attack by AQIM, Ansar al-Din and another local group on 21 July on a military post in Nampala near the Mauritanian border, which killed at least 17 Mauritanian soldiers.
The competition between AQIM and IS, which in 2015 led to a split within al-Murabitun (Europol, EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2016, p. 32.) , continued in 2016. In late October, IS’s A’maq News publicised a repetition of the pledge of allegiance by al-Murabitun’s IS-leaning faction to the IS leadership. As mentioned above, immediately after this, AQIM released a video showing a Romanian hostage supposedly held by the IS faction. Whereas the faction was not officially integrated into IS’s system of “provinces”, several attacks in the Sahel region in the last quarter of 2016 were attributed to this IS branch. In Nigeria, jihadist militia Boko Haram, which had pledged allegiance to IS in March 2015, changing its name into IS’s “West Africa province” (Europol, EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2016, p. 33.) , split in early August 2016 when IS’s al-Naba’ newsletter introduced Boko Haram’s former spokesman as the new “governor” of the “province”. The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, rejected the appointment, insisting that he remained in charge. In late December, the Nigerian army claimed having defeated Boko Haram militarily. In a reply, Abubakar Shekau denied that the group had been driven from its stronghold in the Sambisa Forest in north-eastern Nigeria.