Under increasing pressure in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Libya, Islamic State (IS) is activating and reorganizing its networks elsewhere, observably in Europe and Turkey, and, less conspicuously, in West Africa.
On October 30, 2016, IS confirmed via its Amaq news agency that it had recognized a militant faction led by Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, a former Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and al-Murabitun commander, releasing a video of al-Sahrawi and 40 of his fighters giving the pledge of allegiance, or baya, to IS leader Abubakr al-Baghdadi. Although this did not receive the same level of fanfare in IS circles as the pledge Boko Haram made in March 2015, IS ensured its followers were made aware of al-Sahrawi’s pledge. The mentions were brief, but the 53rd edition of Islamic State’s al-Naba newsletter and the 3rd issue of IS’ multilingual magazine, Rumiyah, both hailed the integration of al-Sahrawi’s faction of al-Murabitun into the “Islamic Caliphate.”
However, al-Sahrawi’s faction of al-Murabitun – or as he terms it the “Greater Sahara Division” – first made its pledge to al-Baghdadi in May 2015. Why then did it take more than a year for IS to grant the group recognition? Further, how will al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) respond to the existence of a newly recognized IS faction in the Sahel where until now (despite Boko Haram further south in the Lake Chad region) it has had a virtual monopoly on jihadism?
Most likely al-Sahrawi had to first prove himself in order to win IS recognition, but his faction provides a useful case study to explain new trends in IS’ expansionist strategy. As for AQIM, the group will be able to manage – and possibly even benefit from – the rise of al-Sahrawi’s faction in several important ways.
The Importance of Timing
The timing of the Amaq, al-Naba and Rumiyah publications show that IS coordinated the confirmation of al-Sahrawi’s pledge across its media outlets, but what is notable is the delay in recognizing al-Sahrawi’s faction. Al-Sahrawi had released an audio as early as May 2015 calling on al-Murabitun to join IS “for the good of the Muslim community,” but IS ignored the announcement (France24, May 14, 2015). In contrast, immediately after the release of the audio recording, the historical leader of al-Murabitun, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, declared that al-Sahrawi’s al-Murabitun faction had gone against the “Shurah Council,” and reasserted that he and (his faction of) al-Murabitun were still loyal to al-Qaeda (rfi.fr, May 16, 2015).
One theory behind IS’ delay in recognizing al-Sahrawi’s pledge is that al-Sahrawi had to first prove himself. On May 4, 2016, about one year after the release of al-Sahrawi’s first audio recording, another recording attributed to al-Sahrawi threatened Morocco and the UN mission in Western Sahara (al-Sahrawi’s native land) in the name of “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara,” but nothing resulted from the threat (al-Jazeera Arabic, May 4, 2016). Shortly after the recording was released, however, Morocco broke up an IS cell planning attacks in Tangiers. The cell was led by a Chadian national, which would be consistent with al-Sahrawi’s sub-Saharan support base. The foiled attack may have been planned by al-Sahrawi in an attempt to impress IS, although information on the cell is scarce and Morocco has not released any further details of the arrests.
On September 1, 2016, al-Sahrawi carried out his first attack, striking a Burkinabe customs post in Markoye, not far from the border with Mali and Niger, killing a customs officer and a civilian. He claimed that attack three days later (al-Akhbar, September 3, 2016). Al-Sahrawi then carried out his second attack and claimed it in the name of IS in Greater Sahara on October 12, in Intangom, northern Burkina Faso (al-Akhbar, October 14, 2016). In this attack, four Burkinabe soldiers and two civilians were killed. A third attack, also claimed it in the name of IS in the Greater Sahara, came on October 17 at the Koutoukalé prison in Niamey, where many jihadists are imprisoned. This attack, however, was repelled by the Nigerien security forces (rfi.fr, October 19, 2016).
Less than two weeks after this attack, IS confirmed al-Sahrawi’s pledge from 2015, promoting the video of al-Sahrawi and his fighters pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi. This suggests the attacks gave IS the confidence that al-Sahrawi’s brigade could become a “legitimate” operational branch of IS, unlike several Algerian groups that broke from AQIM in 2014 and 2015 to join IS, but which were largely inactive and quickly destroyed by Algerian security forces.
Supporting this is the experience of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the leader of IS in West Africa Province (formerly known as Boko Haram), whose faction operates further southeast from al-Sahrawi’s area of operations in the Lake Chad region. Before IS announced in its al-Naba newsletter that al-Barnawi had replaced Abubakar Shekau as leader of its West Africa Province in August 2016, the militants, then still formally under Shekau’s leadership, carried out a string of raids on towns and military barracks in Bosso and Diffa, southeastern Niger. These were actively promoted by IS media.
Given al-Barnawi’s historic focus on the Nigeria-Niger (Nigeria-Chad and Nigeria-Cameroon) border areas, and the style of the videos showing the raids, it is likely al-Barnawi’s faction (not Shekau’s) commanded those raids. Al-Barnawi likely carried out the raids to establish his credibility and capabilities to IS before the group would name him as Shekau’s replacement (see Terrorism Monitor, August 19, 2016).
AQIM and Ansaroul Islam
IS’ recognition of al-Sahrawi’s faction will likely lead to competition with AQIM and its network of branches (Sahara Branch); allies (Belmokhtar, Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi); sub-affiliates (Ansar Dine); and front groups (Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia and Macina Liberation Front (MLF)) in the broader Sahel region.
Indeed, AQIM already appears set to encroach on al-Sahrawi’s main area of operations in Burkina Faso, which had limited experience of jihadist attacks until AQIM’s large-scale hotel and café attacks in Ouagadougou in January 2016. These had been preceded by similar attacks by AQIM on hotels in Bamako and near Abdijan in late 2015.
AQIM’s most recent front group, Ansaroul Islam, is based in Burkina Faso, and reportedly is a sub-group of the Malian MLF which, like MLF, exploits historical Fulani jihadist narratives to recruit among Fulanis on the Burkina side of the Mali border (menastream.com, January 3). If Ansaroul Islam takes after the MLF, it will have the grassroots networks and intelligence to be able to eliminate local clan, tribal and government officials who oppose AQIM and jihadist preaching more generally.
Al-Sahrawi, whose main support base has historically been around Gao in Mali, is unlikely to have such a grassroots base in northern Burkina Faso, given the diverse backgrounds of his fighters. This holds true even if al-Sahrawi receives some of the sub-Saharan African IS foreign fighters who have recently fled Libya.
AQIM may seek to prioritize Ansaroul Islam in response to al-Sahrawi. AQIM has paid close attention to the former al-Murabitun leader. Not only did Belmokhtar respond immediately to al-Sahrawi’s audio pledge in 2015, but also after that same audio pledge from al-Sahrawi, AQIM released a video of a Romanian hostage, who was abducted on April 4, 2015 from a mine in northern Burkina Faso (voaafrique, May 19, 2015). Until then, the man had not featured in any hostage video. AQIM made clear that its branch of al-Murabitun, rather than al-Sahrawi’s, had the Romanian hostage. It is unlikely this was a coincidence. Instead it was likely a rebuttal to al-Sahrawi and intended to show AQIM was the stronger faction. Now with Ansaroul Islam AQIM has part of its network in the same geographic area of al-Sahrawi and can more effectively operate and recruit in his terrain.
Possible AQIM Responses
Although there have been reports of clashes between al-Sahrawi’s fighters and Belmokhtar’s fighters, such as in Gao in mid-2015, AQIM can likely use “non-violent” measures to deal with the emergence of al-Sahrawi’s Greater Sahara Province (maliactu.net, June 17, 2015). The leader of AQIM’s Sahara Branch, Yahya Abu el Hammam Okacha, for example, said in an interview with al-Akhbar in January 2016 that there was still communication with al-Sahrawi, suggesting cooperation was an option (al-Akhbar, January 10).
More generally, despite infrequent crackdowns on defectors, AQIM has adapted its messaging to cater to IS interest among its foot-soldiers, including using IS nasheeds and “talking points” – such as promising to conquer Rome – aimed at keeping IS-inspired youths in AQIM’s orbit. At the same time, however, AQIM’s overall leadership has employed more sophisticated theological arguments to counter IS and cater to more “intellectual” (likely experienced) jihadists. It has, for example, condemned IS for its killing of Muslims in Libya and elsewhere (Libyaschannel, July 9, 2015).
There are other non-violent measures AQIM can take to manage interest in al-Sahrawi’s faction and IS in the Sahel more generally:
- AQIM, like other al-Qaeda affiliates, may develop “rehabilitation” programs for IS fighters who are disaffected by the group’s mass killings and the loss of the Caliphate, and who seek to rejoin al-Qaeda and accept its more methodological approach to Caliphate-building.
- AQIM may use double agents to infiltrate al-Sahrawi’s faction and sow discord within it to cause defections – something AQIM may already be doing to West Africa Province in coordination with al-Qaeda’s “reviving” Ansaru as an alternative to both West Africa Province and Shekau’s faction in Nigeria (al-Risalah Issue 4, January 11). Indeed, on January 1, 2017, a high profile and credible al-Qaeda media official announced on Twitter that members of al-Sahrawi’s faction “split from Daesh [IS]” (and presumably joined with AQIM), although no evidence was provided to validate the claim (@Nourdine_1991, January 1).
- AQIM could expend more of its resources to consolidate its hold on the insurgency in Mali, including staging recent attacks on Timbuktu and Gao airports, especially via Ansar Dine and MLF, both of which have escalated attacks in central Mali in recent months. Mali is a geographic lynchpin of West Africa; as long as AQIM controls that space for insurgency, it will make it difficult for IS to send reinforcements from Libya to either Burkina Faso or further south to al-Barnawi in the Lake Chad region.
AQIM may be more likely to seek these “non-violent” alternative avenues to deal with al-Saharawi, now that he is a competitor, rather than engaging him directly in battle because of AQIM’s longstanding “organizational psychology.” Having experienced the IS-like ultra-takfiri Armed Islamic Group (GIA) during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, veteran AQIM leaders will well remember the infighting, death and destruction that defined its confrontations with the GIA and the Algerian government during that era.
Al-Qaeda vs Islamic State
The relative slowness with which IS recognized al-Sahrawi’s pledge shows the group is becoming more deliberate about acknowledging new factions. It has abandoned the earlier model of expeditiously declaring new “provinces” as the subsequent inability of those provinces to grow harms the reputation of IS. Although IS has been promoting its fighters in the Philippines in recent months, it has as yet avoided declaring a “province” in the region, for example.
Notably, neither al-Sahrawi — nor al-Barnawi in the case of West Africa Province — continued their momentum after IS recognized them. Al-Sahrawi is yet to claim another significant attack in the Burkina Faso-Niger-Mali axis since October 2016, and West Africa Province has slowed down the pace of attacks in Niger (and Nigeria) since mid-2016.
It could be that the al-Sahrawi and al-Barnawi carried out their string of attacks to impress IS enough to receive recognition simply in order to improve their own localized recruitment and legitimacy. On the other hand, it is possible that both al-Sahrawi and al-Barnawi exhausted their resources in these attacks before receiving recognition from IS and have since been replenishing or awaiting further funds or IS reinforcements before launching new campaigns.
If al-Sahrawi and al-Barnawi do not continue to carry out attacks for IS, they could end up further diminishing IS’ Africa brand, especially following the underperformance of IS’ Algeria Province and its Libyan Province’s loss of Sirte, which was its African “capital.”
Despite IS’ recognition for al-Sahrawi, and its promotion of al-Barnawi to lead West Africa Province, AQIM remains a greater threat to West Africa than IS. AQIM has carried out the higher profile attacks and has the deepest-rooted insurgency in the region in Mali (Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram is also deep-rooted in Nigeria but left IS in August 2016). AQIM also continues to maintain its cadre of core leaders in the Sahel and North Africa and is making significant efforts to respond to interest in IS from among its foot soldiers.
AQIM can also count on the support of the global al-Qaeda affiliates, which have stayed loyal to al-Qaeda throughout the rise (and now decline) of the IS Caliphate project. But, perhaps most importantly, AQIM has a well-developed and multi-layered insurgency structure in West Africa that can withstand the limited expansion of IS in the region. AQIM may even benefit from the insecurity brought to the region by al-Sahrawi, as it further exhausts national security forces and creates a greater market for jihadism in West Africa from which AQIM can pull new recruits.