Katiba Salaheddine’s second video was released on June 24, entitled “Response to Aggression by MSA and GATIA”. The group’s first video was published the day before, showcasing two GATIA technicals taken as “spoils of war”, reportedly amidst clashes on December 22, 2017, in the area of Ahina, rural Gao. Katiba Salaheddine is led by Sultan Ould Badi, a Malian militant, with a reputation for trafficking activities, he joined Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2009, and co-founded the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in 2011 with late Al-Mourabitoun Emir, Abderrahmane Ould el Amar, also known as “Ahmed Tilemsi”. Katiba Salaheddine draws most of its members from various Arab tribes and the Fulani, although the leader Ould Badi is of mixed Arab and Tuareg descent, namely the subfactions Ahel Taleb (Tilemsi Arab) and Taghat Mellet (Ifoghas Tuareg confederation). Although barely legible, a blue text displayed on the video screen explicitly states that the fighters seen taking turns firing rounds are Arabs and Fulani.
The date and location of the combat displayed in this latest video have not yet been verified, presumably not a recent recording. Several confrontations took place in late 2017 and earlier this year between Katiba Salaheddine and the militia coalition, supported by French forces of Operation Barkhane. Notably, on February 17, was a Katiba Salaheddine base destroyed in the area of Intameda amidst a joint operation, which left ten militants dead. Katiba Salaheddine and GATIA regularly trade abductions of members of the communities perceived as being close to each group.
It is worth noting that Katiba Salaheddine sometime in mid-2017 pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State, consequently joining the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), to which it has contributed with reinforcements. ISGS has through various channels claimed responsibility for 15 attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2016, although the operations claimed only constitute a fraction of the attacks and acts carried out. ISGS including Katiba Salaheddine was subjected to intense counter-militancy operations during the first quarter of 2018 and has sustained significant losses. However, militant groups operating in the Sahel have a remarkable ability to recover, replenish, and resume action, this due to a multitude of contributing factors. These groups draw upon experience from the parent organization AQIM, which (including predecessors) has developed considerable knowledge in conducting insurgency warfare over close to three decades, deeply enmeshed in the social fabric, and given the opportunity to configure local dynamics amidst the jihadi takeover of northern Mali. The space where they operate provides an ideal template, characterized by a general lawlessness, abuses by government forces and militias, intercommunal violence rooted in fights over scarce resources and trafficking routes, and for some communities, an urgent need for community protection.
Meanwhile, French forces Operation Barkhane continue to conduct simultaneous operations alongside Malian forces in the areas of Ansongo and Menaka, and together with Nigerien forces in the area of Ouallam, however, the main focus has largely shifted toward the Gourma where joint forces of Operation Barkhane, the Malian army, and GATIA are pursuing ISGS elements and members of other militant factions. The Gourma is the home turf of an Ansar Dine katiba led by Imghad Tuareg Almansour Ag Alkassoum (Alkassoum functions as liaison between katibas in the Gourma, Haire and Burkina Faso), Al-Mourabitoun is also present, and ISGS has a local branch under the command of Abdelhakim Al-Sahrawi with a zone of influence stretching across the border into Burkina Faso’s Oudalan Province. Amidst pressure in the Mali-Niger borderlands, ISGS has made inroads into eastern Burkina Faso, presumably by crossing the border from southern Tillabery in western Niger, it also appears that there is an Ansaroul Islam component contributing to the emergence of militant activity in Burkina Faso’s east.
In the Menaka region, the Dawsahak community was subjected to a number of massacres that followed joint counter-militancy operations. These operations were accompanied by abuses against the Fulani in the Mali-Niger borderland. The conflict also spread further north and triggered intercommunal violence between Arabs and Dawsahak in the Cercle of Ansongo.
In the Gourma, abductions and assassinations targeting the Imghad community has surged in recent months, which raises concerns about an extending perimeter of instability. Operations in the Gourma and Arabanda which began two weeks ago and military movements by GATIA have sparked unrest among Arabs. From Taoudenit to Tilemsi, critical voices have been raised with various degrees of heated rhetoric, some have the perception that the drums of war are beating.