Brief: New Jihadist Group Wahdat al-Muslimin Aims to Unite JNIM and ISGS in the Sahel

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 20

Sahelian jihadists posing. (Source: Maroc Diplomatique)

In August, the Sahelian Islamist landscape grew more crowded as a new group entering the scene: Wahdat al-Muslimin (Unity of Muslims). Wahdat al-Muslimin has called for Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) jihadist groups to unite against their common enemies for the “sake of preserving the blood of [civilian] Muslims” (Twitter/@MENASTREAM, August 24). In other words, Wahdat al-Muslimin aims to have ISGS and JNIM focus their efforts on the Malian and other Sahelian armies, as well as the various self-defense militias that have aligned with them.

In the years following the founding of ISGS in 2015, the group has increasingly emerged as a threat to its al-Qaeda-affiliated rival in the Sahel, JNIM. At first, JNIM indicated the possibility of remaining cordial with ISGS. However, ISGS subsequently encroached on JNIM-controlled territories, committed atrocities against civilians (potentially alienating locals from the jihadist movement more broadly), and demonstrated the ability to overshadow JNIM’s own actions with its large-scale attacks. This led JNIM to finally crackdown on ISGS (France 24, August 8, 2022).

Since 2019, the two groups have consistently clashed with each other. JNIM generally prevailed over ISGS, despite the latter’s occasional victories and consolidation around Menaka, Mali. The intra-jihadist battles have forced both groups to expend resources and manpower fighting one another instead of their ostensible enemies: the region’s government-aligned forces.

Wahdat al-Muslimin appears to not be a militant group, but rather a pro-jihadist (or anti-government) propaganda group that would benefit from JNIM and ISGS teaming up to combat the Malian army and its allies. The new group may be rooted in the Fulani communities of the tri-border region between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, which feel alienated and stigmatized by the three countries’ armies. The region’s militaries often conflate Fulanis with “terrorists” and allege that they aid JNIM and ISGS (Premium Times, February 19, 2021).

Moreover, as the conflicts among JNIM and ISGS and those between them and regional armies intensify, civilians are suffering even more than before. Attacks on civilians—whether by the jihadists or their government-aligned adversaries—have, for example, increased nearly 40 percent in the past year. 2023 has also seen levels of violence by all parties at a roughly 50 percent greater rate than only two years earlier in 2021 (ACLED, September 21). This may cause certain communities, including those in Fulani areas, to side with the jihadists due to fear of retribution, animosity toward the government, or both. These same communities may seek an end to the intra-jihadist conflict, either through the decisive victory of JNIM or ISGS—or by the establishment of peace between the two.

Given JNIM’s extension of an olive branch to ISGS in 2015, the statement from Wahdat al-Muslimin, and the desire from JNIM recruitment targets in Fulani communities to see a JNIM-ISGS rapprochement, it is possible that JNIM is reaching out to ISGS for a truce. In fact, ISGS’s relative silence in claiming attacks since the middle of the year suggests there may be dissent in ISGS’ ranks or dissatisfaction with ISGS by Islamic State’s central leadership over potential efforts to reconcile with JNIM (Twitter/@pvanostaeyen, September 24). Whatever unfolds between JNIM and ISGS in the future may nevertheless depend on the success of the jihadists in the near-term against the Malian and neighboring armies.