Islamic State in Greater Sahara Sets Sights on Burkina Faso
In late 2019, Islamic State (IS)’s Sahel-based fighters under the leadership of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi surged ahead of their al-Qaeda rivals in the Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin—JNIM). Major attacks on soldiers in Niger and Mali and, to a lesser extent Burkina Faso, indicated al-Sahrawi’s group, which is commonly known as Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), was a force to be reckoned with in the Sahel. France accordingly designated ISGS as the number one terrorist threat in the Sahel, convened with Sahelian leaders to redouble counter-terrorism efforts against ISGS, and rolled back its previous stated plans to reduce French troops in the Sahel (Al-Jazeera, November 6, 2019; France24, January 15).
Throughout 2020, JNIM also combated ISGS and gained the upper hand (nordsudjournal.fr, April 21). ISGS now appears to be on weaker footing than its JNIM archrival, but ISGS may be carving out parts of Burkina Faso as its main area of operation where, unlike Mali and Niger, it can be stronger than JNIM. This is demonstrated by several major ISGS attacks in Burkina Faso in recent weeks.
On November 11, for example, ISGS conducted an attack on a military convoy in Tin-Akoff, Oudalan Province, northern Burkina Faso, killing 14 soldiers (lefaso.net, November 12). While Oudalan straddles the borders of Mali and Niger, the neighboring Seno Province only borders Niger. It was in Seno Province that ISGS carried out several other attacks in the same week as the Oudalan military convoy attack (Twitter/AlerteTemoin, November 13). Since JNIM is also active in these areas, ISGS’ new stronghold is emerging in this Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso axis alongside, and potentially in increasing competition with, JNIM.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose Sahelian offshoot is JNIM, historically operated in this axis. In the early 2010s, al-Sahrawi himself was also involved with AQIM, including for trafficking and kidnapping operations. Al-Sahrawi, who reportedly married a Fulani woman in order to integrate into cross-border communities in recent years, is, therefore, not unfamiliar with this terrain (rfi.fr, March 27, 2017). Although al-Sahrawi had not been heard from since Abubakar al-Baghdadi praised him in an April 2019 audio, IS again highlighted him in a November al-Naba newsletter interview (Al-Furqan, April 29, 2019; Twitter/oded121351, November 14). While recounting ISGS’ rivalry with JNIM and aspects of AQIM history, al-Sahrawi also confirmed that he remained ISGS’ leader and he was indeed alive.
Meanwhile, AQIM’s leadership vacuum since French forces, backed by the United States, killed Abdelmalek Droukdel in June has been resolved (France24, June 5). AQIM’s new leader, Abu Obaida Yusuf Annabi, is a longtime Algerian jihadist with a record of focusing on the Sahel and Nigeria in his video speeches (see Militant Leadership Monitor, September 6, 2018; al-Andalus, March 2010). Moreover, JNIM’s own leadership remains intact, including the Tuareg Malian Iyad ag Ghaly and Malian Fulani Hamadou Kouffa, who is among Iyad ag Ghaly’s deputies.
Even with al-Qaeda’s overall leadership in flux amid reports that Aymen al-Zawahiri is dead, AQIM and JNIM’s capable leaderships should allow them to withstand ISGS. In fact, ISGS’ operations in Burkina Faso may indicate an uptick in its strength in that particular border region. However, on the whole, ISGS appears to be in strategic retreat vis-à-vis JNIM.
Austria and Switzerland Attacks Reveal Islamic State’s Weakness in Europe
On November 24, a woman, whose name was not immediately released, stabbed two shoppers in the popular tourist city of Lugano, Switzerland, which is near the Italian border (De Telegraaf, November 24). Swiss authorities revealed the attacker had in 2017 attempted to travel to Syria to join Islamic State (IS), but was caught in Turkey before crossing the border into Syria. She initially met an IS fighter online and would have married him if she was able to reach Syria.
The attack, therefore, highlights some well-known routes of radicalization for Islamic State fighters and supporters, including the internet, romance, and finally, travel to Syria. Moreover, the attack follows others in France and the United Kingdom where attackers known to authorities have conducted attacks (France24, October 17; BBC, December 4, 2019). The hundreds of known Islamic State supporters in Western European countries makes it increasingly difficult for security agencies to not only monitor them, but also interrupt their plots if they act. France has begun to take the most aggressive measures to monitor suspected jihadists since a Chechen refugee beheaded a schoolteacher who showed his class the Charlie Hebdo cartoon mocking Prophet Muhammed (elysee.fr, November 4).
What made the Lugano attack unique, however, is that virtually all Islamic State foreign fighters who have conducted attacks in Syria and Iraq or back in their home countries have been men. In Lugano, however, it was a woman. At the same time, the lack of sophistication of her attack and its inability to cause any deaths indicates she was likely a lone actor. This is a positive sign regarding Swiss measures to prevent more dangerous weapons from getting into the hands of IS supporters in the country. The fact that IS did not claim the attack further reflects the likelihood IS was not directly involved. Even if IS was involved, it would not necessarily claim or condone a woman attacker.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Austria, another attack by a man of Albanian descent with Macedonian and Austrian dual nationality took place on November 2 (diepresse.com, November 2). This attacker had also attempted to travel to IS territories in Syria, but was stopped and detained in Turkey in 2018 before being extradited and detained again in Austria (egm.gov.tr, November 8). However, unlike the Lugano extremist, the attacker in Austria acquired a gun on the black market and used it to kill four civilians in his November 2 attack in Vienna.
The attacker in Austria also issued a video pledging loyalty to Islamic State, indicating his commitment to IS’ cause (dein.tube, November 3). However, it is unclear if IS knew about or directed the attack in advance. IS’ claim of the attack, for example, did not demonstrate insider knowledge of the attack.
The trendlines following these most recent attacks in Lugano and Vienna show that IS supporters remain in Europe, including in countries like Switzerland and Austria that have seen significantly less jihadist violence than other countries in Western Europe over the past several years. However, attackers increasingly tend to be known to authorities and are unable to launch sophisticated attacks with multiple cell members like the 2015 IS-coordinated Paris attacks. Nevertheless, the shock of even these two attacks will likely lead more European countries—especially France and Austria—to demand stronger European border controls, more restrictive asylum processes, and greater powers to detain IS supporters, particularly those who have already demonstrated intent to join the group (France24, November 5).