AQIM’s Alliance in Mali: Prospects for Jihadist Preeminence in West Africa

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 8

AQIM militant in northern Mali (Source: al-Jazeera)

Trends in the two main theaters of jihadist activity in West Africa have moved in al-Qaeda’s favor in recent months. In the Mali/Sahel region, the formation of a new alliance has consolidated al-Qaeda’s position as the preeminent jihadist force in the region, while in Nigeria/Lake Chad, the faction of Boko Haram loyal to Islamic State (IS) — known formally as West Africa Province — has stayed relatively quiet and even shown continued signs of an ideological and logistical disconnect from its parent organization.

With the IS leadership currently in too much disarray in Libya and too distracted in Syria to consistently focus on West Africa, it is unlikely IS will be able to compete in the long-term with al-Qaeda for supremacy over jihadist groups in West Africa. Instead, al-Qaeda’s strategy of “localization” — which it has employed to a greater or lesser extent successfully in theaters such as Syria and Yemen — is likely to see al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) gaining increasing prominence as jihadism in West Africa becomes both more local and more diffuse.

The establishment of the new alliance, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM, Group of Supporters of Islam and Muslims), in Mali in March 2017 sees al-Qaeda’s “localization” strategy at its most effective. It also demonstrates how adaptable al-Qaeda can be. The group can continue to exist in the region as an umbrella organization, accepting new members and groups tied to it by interpersonal and strategic bonds, while making open affiliation with IS and the massacre of civilians redlines for membership.

Al-Qaeda Alliance in Mali: JNIM

When the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra merged with Syrian rebel groups to become (or at least appear to become) a more locally rooted organization and reduce its al-Qaeda “branding,” it did so with the approval of a Syria-based deputy of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The al-Qaeda leader himself would have rejected such a merger because many of the groups with which Jabhat al-Nusra merged were too secular or outwardly nationalist for al-Zawahiri’s liking. An al-Qaeda insider has revealed that Jabhat al-Nusra’s localization in Syria was nonetheless consistent with al-Qaeda’s overall philosophy, but this specific merger represented an “organizational dispute” with al-Qaeda leadership that, once undertaken, could not be reversed. As a consequence, al-Qaeda’s leadership has subsequently accepted it (, April 4).

In direct contrast, the formation of JNIM in Mali was welcomed wholeheartedly by AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel and al-Qaeda’s General Command, including al-Zawahiri (, March 17).

The new alliance brings together leaders of multiple ethnic groups, including: Ag Ghaly, the ethnically Tuareg leader of Ansar Dine who is the overall leader of JNIM; Muhammed Kufa, the ethnically Fulani leader of Ansar Dine sub-affiliate Katiba Macina; Yahia Abu al-Hamam, the ethnically Algerian Arab leader of AQIM’s Sahara Region; the AQIM Islamic law judge Abou Abderrahman al-Senhadji, who is ethnically Berber; and al-Hasan al-Ansari, a Malian Tangara Arab (referring to his clan’s Mauritanian ancestry) who is the deputy leader of al-Mourabitun (al-Masra #42, March 6).

This allows al-Qaeda to portray itself as a pan-Islamic movement unconstrained by tribalism, something particularly important in the context of AQIM’s earlier bias in favor Algerian Arabs.

The inclusion of Kufa’s Katiba Macina group — the name Macina is a reference to a historic Fulani Islamic emirate of central Mali — is a particular boon. Kufa was a leader of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) in 2013 when the group controlled parts of northern Mali and began shifting toward central Mali. By bringing him into the JNIM alliance, AQIM can consolidate its presence among Fulanis in central Mali where in previous years it has had limited operations.

The group has so far seen one setback — a key “sub-faction” that had been expected to join JNIM’s orbit, the relatively new Burkina Faso-based Ansaroul Islam, has openly criticized it. Ansaroul Islam’s leader, Mallam Dicko, may suspect JNIM chief Ag Ghaly is an Algerian agent, or be unimpressed by his Salafist credentials, especially considering Dicko appears to be an even more radical Salafi-jihadist than AQIM members (, April 16).

Given Ansaroul Islam’s increasingly high level of operations and impact in a part of the Sahel that formerly experienced almost no jihadist activity, it is likely the group has backing from a larger entity (, April 9). Burkina Faso says the group’s supporters are members of the former government deposed in a coup in 2016, but it is also possible that the IS faction in northern Burkina Faso under Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, who was also a MUJWA leader, is working with it (, March 24). Indeed, pro-IS channels on social media have announced that a new pledge of allegiance to IS “from the Sahel” will be forthcoming, although they have not identified Ansaroul Islam by name. Al-Qaeda supporters dismiss the reports as a “myth” intended to embellish IS’ strength in the Sahel.

Strengthened Position in Northern Mali

The emergence of JNIM comes as Mali is attempting to implement the Algiers Accord of 2015, a peace deal agreed between the government and armed groups in northern Mali. AQIM’s sustained attacks — or, since March 2017, JNIM’s attacks — undermine the Malian people’s confidence in the agreement. Moreover, JNIM can portray itself as an indigenously rooted alternative if the new regional government’s attempts at bringing together various former rebels fails (, March 3). Ag Ghaly, familiar with Mali’s political terrain from his former life as a Malian diplomat in Saudi Arabia, which is where he developed his Salafist worldview, can be expected to exploit any failure in the Algiers Accord’s implementation.

The JNIM alliance represents the most effective employment of al-Qaeda’s localization strategy and puts a nail in the coffin of IS’ hopes to grow its own network in West Africa, even if Ansaroul Islam announces a pledge to IS caliph Abubakr al-Baghdadi.

IS can still count as loyal the faction of Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, whose pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi was aired by IS in October 2016, as well as that of another former MUJWA commander, Hamadou Kheiry. But al-Sahrawi has been quiet for several months, and Kheiry has done little since announcing his loyalty to IS in 2015.

Both factions would seem to benefit from Ansaroul Islam joining IS, although it is unclear what financial or other benefits they could offer Dicko’s group. It may therefore be the case that a link with Ansaroul Islam is mostly ideological, albeit IS propaganda support could significantly upgrade Ansaroul Islam from the platform it currently uses — Facebook. There could also be a latent MUJWA connection, given that Dicko too is a former member.

Islamic State’s Faltering West Africa Network

Further south in the Nigeria/Lake Chad region, IS has a more effective operational presence, but has seen limited success on the propaganda and ideological end. Its West Africa Province — the Abu Musab al-Barnawi-led faction of Boko Haram — is still loyal to al-Baghdadi, but has issued only a single video since Abu Musab al-Barnawi deposed Abubakr Shekau as leader in August 2016. Even then, that video’s narrative was tailored more toward contextualizing events in Nigeria in order to encourage IS sectarian narratives in Syria and Iraq, rather than inspire jihadists in Nigeria or the Lake Chad region (the video portrayed Iranian and Shia influence in Nigeria, for example)  (, February 13).

While some West Africa Province propaganda photos released by IS have shown its hisba (sharia enforcement) patrols in villages around Lake Chad, West Africa Province’s de-facto reign over territories it has held in northern Borno State since 2014 has otherwise rarely been featured in IS propaganda. Indeed, this may be because West Africa Province is barely governing its territory. Unlike IS, which enforces its social provisions, West Africa Province allows the population in areas it controls to live with little interference, as long as they avoid collaborating with the Nigerian government (, March 28).

In addition to the apparent disconnect between West Africa Province and the IS media apparatus, which likely reflects a broader disconnect to IS leadership, the group also appears to be coordinating with various cells in Nigeria that are or were part of Ansaru, the now operationally dormant al-Qaeda sub-group in Nigeria.

Such coordination would be unlikely if these Ansaru members believed West Africa Province was behaving toward the population in the same way IS does in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, evidence from conversations between West Africa Province leaders suggests the main area where West Africa Province does respect IS orders is the kidnapping of women, including the Chibok schoolgirls (Sahara Reporters, August 5, 2016).

West Africa Province leaders claim al-Baghdadi has permitted them to take captive only Christian women, not Muslims, even if the Muslim women are “apostates” who participate in democracy. Shekau, by contrast, considers any apostate — whether Muslim or Christian — to be deserving of enslavement and does not trust the West Africa Province leaders’ claims about relaying al-Baghdadi’s orders on the issue of slavery. In all other respects, West Africa Province appears not to take orders from IS on day-to-day affairs.

Developments in Kogi State

The West Africa Province-Ansaru relationship can be seen most prominently in developments in Nigeria’s Kogi State, which, like virtually all states south of Abuja, has been largely free from attacks since the start of the insurgency in 2009. There have, however, been a small number of notable incidents that show Ansaru is the main group to have a presence there, including:

  • an ambush by Ansaru in late 2012 on Mali-bound Nigerian troops before the French-led intervention that ousted AQIM, MUJWA and Ansar Dine from northern Mali commenced in 2013 (Vanguard, January 20, 2013);
  • the arrest of Ansaru leader Khalid al-Barnawi in April 2016 (Vanguard, December 28, 2016); and
  • a series of raids on bomb-making factories and prison breaks in 2012-2013, although these were not claimed by Ansaru or any other faction (Leadership, April 6, 2012).

Kogi State came back into the spotlight in February 2017 when the Nigerian government reported that a Kogi-based group called the Muslim Brotherhood — with no apparent relation to the Egypt-founded global Islamist group of the same name — had sent fighters for training with IS in Libya.

Some of these fighters are now returning to Nigeria. In February, members of the new group attacked police stations in Okehi, Kogi State, killing two people (, February 10; Premium Times, February 10).

A possible explanation for this Kogi State-Libya nexus is that the Salafist extremist cells that have reportedly been brewing in Kogi for years have finally connected with a broader umbrella jihadist movement, such as IS (, October 28, 2015).

It may also be the case that Ansaru cells in Kogi have grown impatient with the operational dormancy of Ansaru, left the group to form the Muslim Brotherhood and then traveled to Libya with West Africa Province’s support (al-Risalah, January 10). The overlap between the Muslim Brotherhood sending fighters to Libya and Ansaru can be seen in reports from the Nigerian security forces in northwestern Nigeria, where Ansaru was formed in 2011, that say at least two Ansaru cells there have been sending fighters to train with IS in Libya (, August 22, 2016; Premium Times; February 9, 2016).

While some Nigerians traveled to Libya independently to fight with IS, West Africa Province has likely facilitated others — at least five men and one child have featured in IS propaganda in Libya, and several Nigerian women have been recorded as married to IS fighters.

The reason for this coordination is that West Africa Province, Ansaru and presumably the Muslim Brotherhood share a common ideology, history (West Africa Province’s key leaders were former Ansaru members), area of operations and strategic objectives in Nigeria that make experience and training in Libya mutually beneficial. The West Africa Province-planned attack on the U.S. and UK embassies, for example, which was exposed in April, reflects the long-standing “far enemy” targets of Ansaru (Vanguard, April 12).

In sum, the new Muslim Brotherhood group is likely related to Ansaru and both the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansaru may be cooperating with West Africa Province for mutual gain, regardless of their affiliations.

The State of Play for JAS

Boko Haram’s faction under the leadership of Abubakr Shekau — known as Jamaat Ahlisunnah Liddaawati Wal-Jihad (JAS) — is neither affiliated to al-Qaeda nor IS and is operating independently but keeping a hand extended to IS.

It still claims to be an Islamic State in West Africa and issues video footage with IS branding, even though its films are not made or promoted by IS, and Shekau still declares al-Baghdadi to be the caliph. That aside, West Africa Province (and mainstream Muslims more generally) criticize JAS for its killing of Muslims civilians who Shekau deems to be “apostates” for not joining his group.

JAS has been engaged in a new narrative campaign targeting Nigeria’s Salafists and Ansaru sympathizers. JAS argues that Nigeria’s largest Islamic group, the Salafist/Wahhabist Izala movement, was wrong to have ultimately rejected the preaching of Boko Haram founder Muhammed Yusuf, whose blood JAS says “is valuable to us, more valuable than the blood of all Nigerians, all Nigerians, starting from [Nigerian President Muhammadu] Buhari, his aides, ministers, judges, military and everyone” (Youtube, April 3).

At the same time, JAS has reaffirmed its commitment to Yusuf’s successor, Shekau, who JAS describes as “the strong, courageous one, feared by the West, who is now the biggest threat to Nigeria.” Two other recent JAS videos have focused specifically on JAS attacks in Cameroon. They also, for the first time in JAS’ media output, highlighted French-speaking fighters, suggesting Shekau is trying to break out of his isolation by targeting Nigerian Salafist/Wahhabist and Cameroonians (Youtube, April 1; Vanguard, February 27).

Despite JAS’s “outreach,” West Africa Province’s Abu Musab al-Barnawi — along with his close allies Mamman Nur and Abu Fatima, both of whom used to operate with Ansaru — continues to criticize Shekau’s killing of fellow Muslims (Sahara Reporters, August 5, 2016). This criticism, which is the same as that al-Qaeda levies against IS, suggests there are ideological differences between the leaders of West Africa Province and the leadership of IS, even if for the time being West Africa Province’s belief in the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s position as IS caliph supersedes these differences.

Ansaru, for its part, is leaderless and largely inactive operationally, even if its members or former members still engage in jihadist activities. Some supporters still post on Facebook and criticize Shekau. Historically, Ansaru criticized Shekau not only for his killing of Muslims civilians and his bizarre mannerisms — such as a “crotch-scratching” incident during his video claiming the bombing of the Grand Mosque in Kano in November 2014 – but also his apparent heterodoxy (al-Hiddaya, February 10, 2015). For example, Ansaru supporters in a video posted on Facebook declared Shekau as an apostate for saying that Jesus Christ was not born through the word of God (Zalunci Haram, April 1).

Maintaining Preeminence in West Africa

The jihadist landscape of West Africa is prone to shifting alliances. To maintain its pre-eminence in the region, al-Qaeda will attempt to keep the newly formed JNIM clear of IS infiltration and JNIM is unlikely to openly cooperate with any IS-affiliated group.

In the long-term, if West Africa Province withdraws its support for IS — especially if al-Baghdadi dies, or IS loses its territory and there are doubts over the legitimacy of the caliphate — then JNIM could be further strengthened. An IS collapse could see West Africa Province, together with former Ansaru members and Muslim Brotherhood members, re-integrate into al-Qaeda structures and ultimately join JNIM.

Issues such as Ansaroul Islam’s current rejection of JNIM are manageable for JNIM. It seems unlikely that even if the Burkina Faso-based group pledges allegiance to IS it can overshadow JNIM’s operational tempo, even if allied with the other IS factions operating around Burkina Faso.

In Nigeria, JAS is unlikely to re-integrate into al-Qaeda structures unless Shekau is killed. But even that scenario is not so difficult to imagine — an assassination could come at the hands of West Africa Province or by former Ansaru members who tend to know the location of his hideouts. Shekau now refuses to meet with West Africa Province leaders for fear they will plant a tracking device on him (Vanguard, February 24).

The best-case scenario for JNIM — and as such for al-Qaeda — would be if al-Baghdadi dies, the IS caliphate folds and Shekau is killed. In that situation, it would not be inconceivable that JNIM could pull a newly united West Africa Province, JAS, Ansaru and the Muslim Brotherhood into the JNIM fold, likely under new names.

In such a case, Ansroul Islam or any other pro-IS leaning factions would be left marginal and obsolete, and would likely eventually fall into JNIM’s orbit.