Burkina Faso: Ansaroul Islam pledging allegiance to the Islamic State? Maybe or maybe not..
On Thursday April 13, 2017, a pro-AQIM account on telegram and a pro-ISIS account on twitter respectively reported that a Burkinabe jihadist group possibly would pledge allegiance (bay’ah) to the Islamic State, the group was not mentioned by name, although it is believed that the reports (considered rumors) refered to Ansaroul Islam led by Boureïma Dicko, more commonly known as Malam Ibrahim Dicko. It is worth noting that the AQIM associated account most likely cited the pro-ISIS account. Dicko’s group, being the main source of a surge in insecurity in Burkina’s north, stemming from targeted killings, assassination attempts, village and school incursions and complex attacks against army or police positions. A security situation that have paralyzed the educational sector, impacted access to health and social services, also resulting in displacements and affecting food security in Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region.
The aforementioned rumors emerge in the wake of the recent tri-partite cross-border operation named ’Panga’ involving French Barkhane, Malian and Burkinabe forces. The Fhero forest located along the Mali-Burkina Faso border constituted the focal point of the operations, and also the site of a double-attack which targeted French forces in the afternoon of April 5. The double-attack was initiated by an IED detonation that struck a light armored vehicle (LAV), wounding two soldiers, and ensued by an ambush that targeted an engineering unit that arrived to secure the perimeter of the first attack, leaving one French soldier dead. Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the attacks. On April 7, residents in villages inside the Fhero forest and surroundings confirmed several airstrikes and shellings throughout the day, the following day things had calmed down, marking the last day of the operations.
The Fhero forest recently gained increased attention for harboring Dicko and his men, active between Djibo and Mondoro, notwithstanding the historical presence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Murabitoun, Ansar Dine and MUJAO. At present, there are five more distinct local groups active in the area, one based in the surroundings of Sèrma. Another group of smaller AQIM units in the Dogon country, more specifically in the area of Dinangourou and Dioungani-Peulh. Malam’s group along the border, remnants of MUJAO fighters, most prominently under the leadership of al-Sahrawi in the tri-state border area, and Al-Murabitoun, on the local level active along the axes Ansongo-Gao-Gossi. Hence, the claim of responsibility for the attack against French forces does not automatically confirm that Ansaroul Islam has joined the recent merger of AQIM-affiliated factions in the region, nevertheless an important sign.
Regarding the foregoing rumors, firstly, it is important to note that Dicko reportedly a former MUJAO member has a connection to Adnan Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, although the nature of this relation at present is not known. Secondly, well-informed sources confirm that Ansaroul Islam have expressed their intention to join the Islamic State, the previously referenced pro-ISIS source confidently confirmed the report to MENASTREAM while citing Libyan ISIS fighters, the original source of the rumor about a forthcoming bay’ah in Burkina Faso. Despite being dislodged from its former stronghold in Sirte and scattered across Libya, the network is there with a significant media presence and seemingly a not inconsiderable role regarding communications between West Africa and Raqqa.
A source refering to a Burkinabe security source working close to the ”Ansaroul Islam folder” also indicated the group’s affiliation with the ”Islamic State in the Sahel”, that is to say Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Dicko and Sahrawi share an operational space in Burkina’s north, whereas Dicko’s group pertains to the Soum Province while Sahrawi’s gang more to the Oudalan Province. Sahrawi has claimed responsibility for two attacks on Burkinabe soil. On September 1 last year, Sahrawi’s group attacked a customs post in Markoye, and on October 12 an army position in Intagom, also the first attacks materializing since Sahrawi gave his oath to al-Baghdadi in May 2015.
Moreover, the Mauritanian news outlet Al-Akhbar reported that Dicko’s group, in the article refered to as ”Ançar Allah” intended to give an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State, although stating that it was unclear if the oath was to be given directly to Al-Baghdadi or to (as stated) the ”Islamic State in West Africa” led by al-Sahrawi, citing the outlet’s sources. However, an official communication with an oath of allegiance emanating from Burkina is still to be seen.
Recently, an important meeting took place in Indaki, Mali, near the tri-state border. During this meeting fighters from Dicko’s Ansaroul Islam met up with a group of jihadists in the area, Almansour Ag Alkassoum, an Imghad Tuareg in his mid-forties is the commander and brain of this group, he was also present at this meeting together with an unnamed individual who had lived at the Mentao refugee camp in Burkina Faso. Alkassoum has the role of a coordinator among the sarayas (units) active in the Gourma and the Haïre. Alkassoum originates from the village of Madiakoye, the administrative center of the commune Séréré, located just south of the Niger River about seventy kilometers east of Timbuktu. He operates with some other Tuaregs from the Imouchag tribe, Bellahs from the Gourma, Fulanis from Séno Mango, and Bambaras from the Dawa movement coming from Bamako. Together the units operating in the area constitute the Ansar Dine katiba (brigade) refered to as Ansar Dine Sud or ”South of the River” (not to be confused with Katiba Macina). Alkassoum’s katiba has been responsable for multiple attacks against Malian and MINUSMA forces in the area, stretching from Gourma-Rharous in the north to Douentza in the south.
It is strongly assumed that the meeting between Dicko’s men and the group led by Alkassoum focused on Ansaroul Islam uniting with JNIM. Noteworthy, is that the area of Indaki, more precisely Tin Téhégrin saw clashes between a tri-partite patrol and presumed jihadists as late as April 7, no details or outcome of the clashes have been reported.
A question remaining is whether the relationship between Ansaroul Islam and JNIM might have changed following the recent events in the border area. The outcome of the tri-partite military operations as reported by the French Ministry of Defense, ”..materiel seized, two terrorists neutralized, eight others captured and several dozens of suspects handed over to the Burkinabe authorities.” Meanwhile, Nord Sud Journal reported that more than two hundred suspects were arrested in the Fhero forest and surrounding villages, at the same time villagers witnessed a still visible presence of jihadists in the area, specifically in Douna, now when the sweeping operations in the area have ended. Until now, no substantial evidence points at Ansaroul Islam joining the Islamic State, notwithstanding the various sources from where these rumors and speculations have emerged.