Islamic State in Greater Sahara Escalates Attacks Against al-Qaeda’s Sahelian Affiliate
Since Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS)’s August 10 attack in Tessit, Mali that killed 42 soldiers, the group has been resurgent after a period of relatively few attacks. ISGS has ceded contested territories where they have been operating to the al-Qaeda-affiliated rival, Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) (lemonde.fr, August 10). Despite the struggles of Islamic State (IS) in its “core” territories in Syria and Iraq and its inability to get resources to ISGS or other provinces, ISGS’s Tessit attack was one of its most sophisticated since its partnership with IS began in 2015. This is because the ISGS attack involved the coordinated use of drones, explosives, car bombs, and artillery, which defies notions that ISGS has been debilitated by either JNIM or regional armies (aljazeera.com, August 11). (Twitter.com/@calibreobscura, July 18).
Seizing on its momentum against the Malian army, ISGS followed through with a series of subsequent attacks against JNIM in Gao (garda.com, September 10). Unlike in 2020 when JNIM gained the upper hand against ISGS through a combination of raids on ISGS bases and pressure on ISGS from French forces, which declared ISGS the top security threat in Africa in January 2020, this time ISGS killed more JNIM soldiers than vice-versa. Moreover, ISGS pilfered a wide array of guns, ammunition, and vehicles from JNIM, which will further bolster the ISGS arsenal (Twitter/@calibreobscura, November 3).
In October, ISGS continued carrying out attacks throughout Menaka (rfi.fr, October 10). Despite this, JNIM regrouped and retook the town of Tamalate from ISGS by the end of October (imangahdien.com, October 29). ISGS’s military resurgence was necessary for JNIM to thwart, as well as the perception that ISGS, and therefore IS, was returning to previous form. Thus, JNIM needed to put to rest any suggestions that ISGS might eclipse JNIM itself (journaldumali.com, November 3). To further reiterate the successful counteroffensive, JNIM issued claims of attacks on ISGS that, according to JNIM, killed “dozens” of ISGS fighters (Twitter/@menastream, November 1). This was rare for JNIM, which usually does not highlight combat with ISGS and historically had expressed interest in coexisting with ISGS after the group’s formation.
IS has increasingly been relying on its African provinces to showcase their remaining global strength, especially with the Southeast Asian provinces weakened and others, such as in Yemen, North Africa, and the Caucasus, defunct or virtually extinct (Terrorism Monitor, November 4). ISGS, which is officially known as IS’s Sahel Province is, therefore, now accompanying Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Nigeria as well as other IS provinces in Africa as a highlight of their global campaigns. While ISGS’s recent resurgence has been surprising, it is likely to continue given the apparent lack of interest the Malian armed forces are showing towards ISGS. The Malian military regime which came to power by a coup in 2021 are still deflecting attention from their own counter-terrorism failings by blaming France for allegedly backing ISGS (voaafrique.com, October 25). If anything, the main rival holding ISGS back will not be Malian or other regional armies, but its jihadist rival, JNIM.
Sweden Reassures Turkey Concerning Pledge to Prevent PKK Attacks
On November 8, Sweden’s new prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, visited Ankara and met with Turkish President Recep Erdoǧan and confirmed the country’s pledge to “counter terrorism and terrorist organizations like the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] in Sweden” (euronews.com, November 8). Some evidence suggests that Sweden is matching its words with actions. In August, for example, Sweden rejected the asylum application of a PKK member who had been in the country for eight years on grounds that he was a “security threat” and deported him back to Turkey. This occurred only days after Sweden extradited another Turkish citizen back to Turkey, who had been accused by the Turkish authorities of committing various financial crimes (dailysabah.com, August 19). Despite these moves to assuage Turkish concerns, Turkey still claims there are 33 terrorists in Sweden and Finland which those countries refuse to extradite (turkiyegazetisi.com, August 4).
Pressure on Turkey to admit Sweden into NATO has come from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who met with President Erdoǧan in Istanbul on November 4 (nato.int, November 3). Stoltenberg reminded Erdoǧan of the Permanent Joint Mechanism by which Sweden and Finland would “strengthen counter-terrorism legislation,” including exchanging information with Turkey on counter-terrorism (dailysabah.com, November 6). The day before meeting with Erdoǧan, Stoltenberg had also urged Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, to accept Sweden’s and Finland’s plea to join NATO to “send a clear message to Russia” about launching any further military aggression.
The most relevant question regarding Sweden’s accession to NATO, therefore, seems to be whether Turkey will offer its approval if Sweden follows through with its crackdown on the PKK and its Syrian affiliates. Erdoǧan stated that the approval would come depending on how fast Sweden follows through with its promises (france24.com, April 11). In addition, according to Çavuşoğlu’s statements earlier this year, once Sweden has demonstrated that it has eliminated the PKK and PKK-affiliated activities in its territory, Sweden and other NATO countries would also have to end their arms embargo against Turkey (dailysabah.com, July 4).
The PKK issue is also an unsettled domestic political issue in Sweden, which risks upsetting the current expectations of Turkey. Sweden’s Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has asserted that her party will not form an alliance with the Left Party because of its relationships with the PKK (euractiv.com, August 26). Given Andersson’s success in the last election, Sweden was able to move forward with NATO succession based on the mutual understanding with Turkey. However, if the political climate in Sweden should change in the future, it may once again jeopardize relations with Turkey and, therefore, NATO. Further, the latest PKK attack in Istanbul, which killed six people and resulted in Turkey accusing the U.S of “complicity” will only further Turkey’s resoluteness to see Sweden, Finland, and other allied NATO countries fully renounce and disassociate themselves from the PKK or else risk undermining the succession process entirely (aljazeera.com, November 14).