Commentary – Jihad and Instability in Sahel: The Extent of a Crisis

The video message recently released by the al-Furqan media network, showing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for the first time since 2014, turned the spotlight on the presence of the Islamic State (IS) in the Sahel – the region of Western Africa south of Sahara. Urging jihadist fighters in Mali and Burkina Faso to intensify their attacks against France and its allies to avenge the aggressions in Syria and Iraq, al-Baghdadi explicitly confirmed the oath of allegiance to the Islamic State made by Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, a former MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) member and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s comrade in the Sahel. 

Just a few weeks before, IS applauded the jihad fought by mujahedeen against African tawaghit  (transgressor of the will of Allah) governments, tribal murtadd (apostate) militias and Western crusader armies in the Sahel. In al-Naba newsletter (N. 175), Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks conducted by assailants loyal to the Caliphate against foreign military forces and pro-government armed groups in Mali, slightingly defined as Sahawat[1]– particularly, colonel El Hadj ag Gamou’s GATIA militia (Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies) and the coalition of former rebel groups MSA (Movement for the Salvation of Azawad). 

Al-Sahrawi’s bay’a to al-Baghdadi dates back to 2015, and was formally accepted by IS in October 2016, just a few weeks after an attack on the maximum security prison of Koutoukale, in Niamey, where several jihadist militiamen had been jailed.

In effect, al-Sahrawi had already tried to situate under Islamic State’s sphere of influence the organization for which he was spokesman, al-Murabitun; however, his initiative caused a rift within the armed group. In a public statement, Belmokhtar – commonly known as Mr. Marlboro, due to his deep interests in illicit trans-Sahelian trafficking networks – denied that his group had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State network. He emphasized the fact that al-Sahrawi’s announcement was violating the conditions and rules of operation of the Shura, the governing council of the jihadist organization, and did not reflect the shared will of its members. He therefore accused the Islamic State of dividing the front of global jihad, confirming al-Murabitun’s membership in the Qaedist network in Sahara-Sahel. In August, Belmokhtar was formally appointed as emir of the organization, which was renamed al-Qaeda in West Africa as a way to strengthen its allegiance to al-Qaeda, further worsening the strategic competition with Daesh in West Africa.

The al-Sahrawi group’s split from al-Murabitun was followed by the creation of a new jihadist organization, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which is currently operational in the ‘three frontiers’ region bordering Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. It has claimed responsibility for the October 2017 ambush in Tongo Tongo, a small village in the western Tillabéri region of Niger, when four US soldiers and several Nigerien members of security forces were killed. 

The appearance of ISGS on the public scene has been associated with a redefinition of regional balances. The main jihadist actors in the Sahel-Sahara region – the Timbuktu Emirate, a Saharan katiba of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Ansar Dine, a Tuareg-based Salafi-jihadist group; al-Murabitun, or al-Qaeda in West Africa (AQWA); the katiba Macina, founded by radical preacher Amadou Koufa and mainly operational in central Mali – gave birth to a ‘jihadist network’Jamaʿat nusrat al-Islam wal-muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, GSIM), under the leadership of Iyad ag Ghali, a former rebel chief during the Tuareg insurrection in Mali in the ‘90s. Ansaroul Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliate led by Jafar Dicko and active throughout Burkina Faso, completes the picture of the jihadist presence in the western Sahel.

The rivalry between the two jihadist fronts in West Africa has been smoothed out through adoption of a cooperation strategy, according to a recent UN Security Council report, within which a reference was made to the jihadist armed groups’ joint efforts during recent terrorist attacks in the Liptako-Gourma region. 

On the one hand, the jihadist networks’ strategy of action leveraged local dynamics based on fragile balances. Al-Qaeda or Islamic State’s franchises took advantage of community conflicts between semi-nomadic herders and sedentary farmers for access to natural resources (water and grazing lands) and the definition of transhumance routes, lacking effective institutional mechanisms of conflict management and resolution. At the same time, the intervention of radical armed groups nourished earlier inter-ethnic tensions between the Tuareg, Dogon, Bambara and Fulani communities, and heightened clashes among social groups. In central Mali, Fulani civilian populations, accused of endorsing Salafi-jihadist armed groups, are victims of violent attacks by self-defense, ethnic-based militias, while the Dogon and Bambara communities are the targets of indiscriminate attacks by jihadist movements in the region. On the other, the explicit reference al-Baghdadi made to the French presence in the Sahel, and the responsibility ascribed to Paris’ allied governments – West African states to which France ensures support in the struggle against terrorism – situate the jihad fought by local armed organizations in a global perspective

France remains the main target of jihadist rhetoric in the Sahel. Paris is still in the region through a counterterrorism operationOpération Barkhane, made up of 4,500 troops, which replaced the Serval and Épervier contingents in Mali and Chad, regionalizing France’s military presence. Recently, Barkhane reinforced its military deployment in the Liptako-Gourma area and established an operational base in Gossi, not far from the Mali-Burkina Faso border, in order to hinder the activism of the armed groups. For their part, the governments of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – member states of the G5 Sahel, a regional organization for security cooperation created in 2014 – are having great difficulty in facing the progressive spread of jihadist violence and the strengthening of criminal trafficking networks. Furthermore, they are struggling to ensure full operational capability to the regional military force: formally created in July 2017, the G5 Sahel Joint Force has been targeted by wide-ranging attacks, such as the suicide bombing that destroyed its headquarters in Sevaré, on 29 June 2018. 

As a proof of the deep security instability in the whole region, al-Baghdadi’s video message was released in the same days that new terrorist attacks hit Burkina Faso, striking a school in the south-east and a Pentecostal Church in the north of the country, from 26 to 28 April.

The state of emergency declared by the Sahelian governments, restricting civil rights and individual freedoms, weighs further on local communities, already affected by a fragile socio-economic situation, while national security forces’ violence in response to jihadist groups’ attacks nourishes a low-intensity conflict in which civilians pay the highest price. 

[1] Ethnic-based militias allied to American forces in Syria and Iraq in the struggle against ISIS.

Originally published on ISPI

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