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The Shifting Sands of the Sahel’s Terrorism Landscape

12 Mar 2020

Cet article est également disponible en français.

In recent years, the Western Sahel has experienced an unprecedented rise in terrorist violence, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019—a fivefold increase in the number of fatalities caused by terrorist attacks since 2016. While once contained in northern Mali, terrorist violence has rapidly spread both east- and southward, reaching not only central Mali, but also neighbouring countries. These include Niger and, perhaps most notably, Burkina Faso, which alone accounted for 1,800 of the deaths reported last year—an increase of 2,150% over four years.

In recent history, the jihadist presence in the Sahel has been dominated by al-Qaeda-aligned groups, now coalesced under Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). Despite al-Qaeda’s presence, the region was not a chief area of concern for most of the international community until the fall of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in early 2019. It was at this point that concern shifted to which other regions could host the violent, millenarian group—allowing it to re-establish its territory and re-emerge as a significant threat to global security. The instability, poor governance, vast territory, and porous borders of the Sahel rendered the region as an obvious mark for the Islamic State (IS), diverting attention away from the threat posed by JNIM and towards the possibility of a new base for the Islamic State. 

Indeed, the region has seen a significant rise in power of the Islamic State’s local branch, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Declared as the priority target of counter-terrorism operations by the G5 Sahel countries and France during the Pau Summit in early 2020, ISGS has progressively gained momentum in the Sahel region—in contrast to the situation encountered by its “parent organization” in the Middle East. Undoubtedly, the broad concern about the future of IS and its possible attempts to relocate in areas where it already benefits from the presence of well-established local affiliates is well-placed. But viewing ISGS as a copycat that will follow the same playbook as its parent in Syria and Iraq both misunderstands the dynamics of the group and of the spread of terrorism in the Sahel more generally. Moreover, the myopic fixation on the Islamic State’s emergence in the Sahel crowds out a needed focus on simultaneously countering the continued threat of the al-Qaeda-affiliated JNIM throughout the region. Most critically, it ignores the active cooperation between the two erstwhile rivals—a phenomenon unique to the Sahel.

The Emergence and Rise of the Islamic State in the Sahel

ISGS emerged in a period marked by the predominance of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups whose presence in the Sahel dates back to the early 2000s, when elements from the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) found refuge in northern Mali after being chased out of Algeria during that country’s civil war. Although the group—having rebranded as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as of January 2007—had already conducted several attacks (including kidnappings for ransom), its presence was brought to global attention in March 2012 when the group, along with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mouvement pour l’Unification et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, MUJAO) and Ansar Dine, seized control over most of northern Mali. Chased out from major cities by France’s Operation Serval, jihadist elements instead relocated to rural areas. In the years since, al-Qaeda has continued to dominate through the merger of all main al-Qaeda-aligned groups, namely, AQIM Sahara Emirate, al-Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine, and Katiba Macina. Thus, in March 2017, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM)—also known as the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM)—was founded.

In May 2015, two years prior to this merger, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, a senior commander of al-Mourabitoun—itself an entity created of a merger between MUJAO and another terrorist group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar—unilaterally pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Belmokhtar quickly rejected this purported bay’at and reaffirmed the group’s loyalty to al-Qaeda, including the regional affiliate, AQIM. While al-Sahrawi, along with some of his followers, split from the group to form ISGS, his bay’at remained unanswered by Baghdadi for seventeen months and the group temporarily went dormant.

Nonetheless, in the two years that followed al-Sahrawi’s pledge, ISGS laid the groundwork to be able to compete with al-Qaeda, spending time in training that has since resulted in some of the most deadly attacks in the region in recent memory.  As early as October 2017, ISGS marked an ominous turning point with the Tongo Tongo ambush, in which five Nigerien troops, as well as four US Special Forces, were killed, demonstrating the group’s operational capabilities. Although ISGS’s rise in power was not linear—the group having had to face increasing pressure in mid-2018, with the surrender of affiliates to Algerian authorities and the death of a high-level lieutenant of ISGS in a Barkhane raid—it has demonstrated the group’s resilience and adaptability. And, while these 2018 losses led some observers to conclude that ISGS was on the decline, the group has continued to mount increasingly frequent and devastating attacks across the region.

The growing threat posed by ISGS has been particularly tangible since early 2019. The group is largely responsible for a spate of attacks the region witnessed in the final months of 2019, starting with an assault against a Malian military base in Indelimane on November 1 and continuing through early 2020 with the raid against Nigerien armed forces in Chinagoder on January 9, in which 89 members of the security forces were killed. Having conducted some of the deadliest attacks in the Sahel, ISGS has moreover demonstrated its ability to inflict massive casualties—despite having a limited number of fighters—by using highly mobile and increasingly sophisticated tactics. The group has launched attacks utilizing dozens of fighters on motorbike to target defense forces, from whom they have pre-emptively cut communications channels. After the initial blitz, which often includes bombarding the attack site with mortars, ISGS’s forces disappear before army re-enforcements have time to respond. However, this series of spectacular strikes, which resulted in nearly 300 deaths in the course of just two months, has led to the misplaced perception that the Islamic State has eclipsed al-Qaeda as the region’s most-lethal jihadist group. 

Al Qaeda’s Sahelian M.O.

Even though IS's local affiliate has attracted much of recent attention globally due to its materialization as a significant threat in the Sahel, its growing capabilities should not be (mis-)interpreted as a sign of JNIM-linked groups’ decline. Al-Qaeda, rather than the Islamic State, remains the biggest threat both within the Sahel and as a global player: al-Qaeda “continues to quietly expand", and still represents a “longer strategic concern.” Despite the increase in attacks and fatalities by ISGS in 2019, it is al-Qaeda’s affiliate JNIM who has been responsible for the greatest number of fatalities—around 65% of all terrorist fatalities in the Sahel.

In addition, al-Qaeda’s foothold over jihadism in the Sahel through JNIM runs deep. For years, al-Qaeda’s local affiliates have sought to integrate into local communities throughout the region, doing so with high levels of success based on their ability to understand local contexts and grievances. They have used their deep pockets to facilitate the work of hospitals and ambulances, regulate land use, provide cellular phones, and improve security, through providing protection from either government forces, other opposing extremist groups, or other types of criminal gangs. They have married into local families, and have secured some local support through providing vehicles, money, and weapons. They have ingratiated themselves to some local marabouts (traditional religious leaders), who have spread al-Qaeda’s strict interpretation of Islam in return. In a region where the central governments are often viewed as indifferent at best towards significant portions of their populations, al-Qaeda’s ability to address some of the basic needs of local populations has lent them an air of legitimacy—despite any potential misgivings about their ideology. 

However, the strategies used by the various al-Qaeda affiliates that have allowed these groups to exert power may serve as a model for others looking to operate in the region, not least of all ISGS. And even more since the model of undermining insufficient existing structures of governance and positioning oneself as the true legitimate authority was one of the most notable and horrifying hallmarks of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Having both their parent organization, as well as their al-Qaeda counterparts in the region to lead the way, it seems likely that ISGS militants will follow suit—if they have not already done so. Recent developments already point to at least some similarities in the two groups' approaches—both having proven very skilled at exploiting underlying ethnic tensions and co-opting existing animosities to further their power grabs. Just as JNIM under Amadou Koufa capitalized on longstanding tensions between Fulani herders and Dogons farmers in central Mali over land and natural resources, ISGS took advantage of intercommunal conflicts between Fulani and Tuaregs in the Mali-Niger border area. By utilizing existing rivalries, ISGS and JNIM have been able to easily tap into a supply of individuals willing and able to take up arms, against either rival groups or against government forces.

Further underscoring the risks implied in solely focusing on the threat posed by ISGS, another key element to be taken into account while deciphering the Sahel terrorist landscape is the unusual collaborative nature of these group’s interactions in the region. Not only ISGS's emergence as a significant regional player did not result in a subsequent weakening of JNIM, but thus far, it has neither translated into intense competition or confrontation with al-Qaeda, but rather into cooperation. 

IS and al-Qaeda’s Working along the Same Lines in the Sahel

ISGS has progressively gained influence in a region which has traditionally been part of al-Qaeda's sphere of influence, and yet this has not resulted in an open confrontation between the two terrorist networks. Apart from a notable clash in June 2015, terrorist organisations active in the Sahel, whether linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, have avoided targeting one another. Much to the contrary, JNIM and ISGS have allegedly worked in parallel in order to increase instability in the region, with their respective leaders suspected of having met on several occasions since late 2017.

Far from being self-evident in view of these movements’ ideological discrepancies, their amenable—and even collaborative—relations in the Sahel contrast starkly with the situation witnessed in other regions, including the Middle East and East Africa, where groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are in open conflict with each other. The reasons behind the unusual nature of the relations al-Qaeda- and IS-affiliates have maintained are likely attributable to the nature of violent extremism in the region: group allegiances are highly fluid, with ideology mattering far less than practical concerns.

Heightening the ability of both of these groups to build a solid presence across the Sahel is their utilisation of methods and approaches tailored to exploiting local grievances and gaining local support. Indeed, “whereas in other parts of the world they have different objectives and a different point of view that tends to bring Islamic State and al-Qaida into conflict, here [in West Africa] they’re able to overcome that and work for a common purpose." This common purpose seems to be to exploit existing criminal networks (which in the Sahel are most often linked to traffickers of arms, drugs, or people) and interethnic violence, as well as carry out brutal and deadly attacks, in order to gain control of territory, further destabilize the region, and win over local populations.

Terrorist groups in the Sahel are adaptive—the sheer number of groups that have emerged, coalesced with other erstwhile rival groups, and then coalesced yet again with other new groups or factions illustrates that “Sahelian terrorist organizations appear willing to change their names and sacrifice personal and ideological variances.” Contrasting with the oft-held stereotypes of ideologically committed extremists, some analysts estimate that anywhere up to 70% of the fighters involved in jihadist attacks in the Sahel are individuals hired solely to take part in the operation, with many being involved in other criminal enterprises. Given the malleability of terrorist groups in the Sahel, and their (relatively) low levels of ideological commitment and motivation, the cooperation of JNIM and ISGS has not come as a surprise to many who have been closely observing the region since 2012. 

How to Move Forward in Countering the IS/AQ Threat

With signs pointing towards a continued increase and further geographical expansion in terrorist violence in the Sahel, and no indication that either JNIM or ISGS are on the retreat, the international community must address the joint and separate threats posed by both of these groups. Overarching concerns about the potential relocation of IS to the Sahel should not overshadow the very nature of terrorist groups in the region. Despite alleged ties with rival global terrorist networks, these jihadist groups are both deeply rooted in the local context and seems to cooperate on the ground. Al-Qaeda’s established approach to ingraining themselves into local communities, through providing services, protection, and intermarriage, has been key to their success in the Sahel. It can be—and to some extent already has been—easily replicated by ISGS, especially given that it draws upon many of the same principles demonstrated by IS in Syria and Iraq.

The nature of terrorist groups in the Sahel is highly fluid, with ideology seeming less important than in other regions. Looking forward, this "volatility" in jihadist fighters' affiliations makes the future configuration of the terrorist threat in the Sahel quite uncertain. While some expect ISGS' growing influence to lead to increased tensions with al-Qaeda's Sahelian franchiseswhich could either be triggered by the defection of more JNIM fighters willing to join the increasingly influential ISGS or the increased overlap between the two groups operational areasit could also reasonably be argued that the two terrorist groups share mutually beneficial cooperative relations which are not likely to change, at least in a near future.

These uncertainties touch upon the difficulty in pinpointing and targeting the threat in the Western Sahel, which is ever changing and is, for the most part, not just about extremist ideology, but ties into far deeper and more foundational grievances that have plagued the region for decades, or even longer. Until the legitimate governments can address the underlying issues, including by building stability and social cohesion, groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State will continue to be able to find support amongst the marginalized local populations and will continue to pose a threat—to the region and beyond.