“Islamic State in Burkina Faso”

For the first time ever did Islamic State Central officially publish a media product related to the militant group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). A modest release limited to a low-quality photo showing seven of the group’s fighters wearing military fatigues, equipped with AK rifles, an RPG launcher, and flying a black standard. However, a number of circumstances draws attention to the timing and purpose of this release.

“Soldiers of the Caliphate in Burkina Faso – 1440 Rajab [March 8, 2019 – April 5, 2019] Gharb Ifriqiyah (Ar) West Africa”

First of all, the Islamic State is about to—and will inevitably lose the last tiny pocket it holds in Baghuz, Syria. While underlining that it’s not holding territory that will decide the future of ISIS, nevertheless quite apparent that the territorial loss fait accompli is a factor that has guided the organization’s strategic choice to convey a number of messages across the African continent. It clings on to its slogan “baqiyah wa tatamaddad“, remaining and expanding, and aims to give the impression of expansion in Africa.

The organization has stepped up media operations in the Lake Chad Region with a sharp increase in claimed attacks, already amounting to the total number of attacks claimed in 2018. Media products emanating in Tunisia in recent weeks have resulted in premieres including a beheading video published by the semi-official al-Furat Media Foundation, and a photo report showing the daily lives of Tunisian fighters in the western mountains, activities that apparently triggered a response from special units of the National Guard (USGN) who two days after the publication of the photo report conducted a raid at Mount Salloum in the Kasserine Governorate, and removed three Jund al-Khilafah militants including an alleged emir from the ecosystem.

Then it was Burkina’s turn, the country where ISGS carried out its first two attacks in the fall of 2016. Yet until now, ISIS hasn’t officially claimed responsibility for a single attack carried out by its—in October 2016—accepted Sahelian affiliate. Official media activities related to the group limited to two news items in the weekly Al-Naba newsletter, replicating mainstream media, and a delayed unofficial release of an already leaked video of the Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger.

Furthermore, on March 10, presumed ISGS militants carried out one of its most advanced attacks involving a suicide car bomb and a motorbike-borne assault squad targeting French forces in the process of setting up a security post near Akabar in Mali’s Ménaka Region. While the attack was thwarted, as many as fifteen French soldiers were wounded including two sustaining severe injuries, necessitating a strategic medical evacuation to France. The ISIS Central publication also comes in a context where ISGS and JNIM are deepening cooperation and coordination, groups that are interconnected and share a common substratum, geographical space, objectives, and adversaries. See: Mali: Complex attack against French forces in Menaka, Menastream, 2019.

ISGS has independently from ISIS Central during the past three months (consistent for the past four years) produced and released for local consumption, two videos and a photoset showing militiamen killed and arms seized. Neither has ISIS Central mentioned the aforementioned attack, any other recent attacks nor the cited media products.

A single low-quality photo would come to represent the first official publication attributed to its “caliphate soldiers” in Burkina Faso. Well, the thing is, the photo is more than a year old, taken in the area of Touka-Bayel northwest of Dori, Séno Province. Noteworthy is that Séno constitutes the province with the lowest level of militant military activity in Burkina’s Sahel Region out of four provinces. In fact, only one attack has taken place in the province. On December 4, 2018, presumed ISGS or Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) militants raided a gendarmerie checkpoint, seven kilometers east of Dori, on the road toward Seytenga, three gendarmes were wounded, and vehicles burned and motorbikes seized by the assailants. Five months earlier, security forces arrested a municipal councilor in Dori, described as an Ansaroul Islam tax collector. Thus, locations of armed action do not fully reflect militant presence or areas of operations. During an audiovisual speech in November 2018, JNIM’s Katiba Macina emir Amadou Kouffa greeted militants specifically in the area of Dori, among others. See: Comment le djihad armé se diffuse au Sahel, The Conversation, 2019.

Here follows a brief photo analysis comparing a photo obtained by Menastream in April 2018 with the single ISIS low-quality photo. The analysis will show that the two photos most likely were taken during the same gathering in Touka-Bayel. The ISIS media photo shows seven fighters, all identifiable on the ISGS photo obtained almost a year earlier. The individuals are numbered to show the corresponding matches and markers used as identifiers. The resolution is visibly higher on the first photo, the color tones differ due to shadow, sunlight, and possibly editing. The camo patterns on the fatigues worn, other accessories, and arms are identical.

Individual 1 wears a distinct white cheche, and a com-radio attached in the same angle on both images, probably the commander of the group.

Individual 2 wears a noticeably angular cap or bucket hat wrapped in a bandana high on top of the head.

Individual 3 is the only one wearing a camo bucket hat with screen visible, belt with a water bottle, and an RPG-7 launcher.

Individual 4 is relatively tall wearing a camo cap or bucket hat wrapped in a bandana and com-radio on the left side of the chest.

Individual 5’s headscarf is sloppy wrapped and does not fully cover the face, revealing facial features, transparent sunglasses, and black boots.

Individual 6 is the only one wearing a cap without a screen over the headscarf without a bandana, the face is partly uncovered with some distinguishable facial features, com-radio attached in the middle of the tactical vest, and a shoe tag not removed.

Individual 7 is hidden on the second row, but discernible by a distinct sand yellow headscarf with the edge folded down over the nose, a grey and green camo fatigue, and hiking shoes.