Jihadist Groups In The Sahel Region Formalize Merger

Leading figures gathered for the announcement of the merger into Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimin (screen capture from the video released by al-Zaleqa Foundation for Media Productions)

By Héni Nsaibia

In the midst of a faltering peace process in Mali that are characterized by quarrels and cleavages between the Malian government and signatory armed groups, they are increasingly fragmented along ethno-political lines. In contrast, jihadist groups at the core of a regional insurgency display a united front by merging and renewing their oath of allegiance to Al-Qaeda and its leader Aymen Al-Zawahiri, a move that possibly could fuel Islamist militancy in Mali and across the porous borders of neighboring countries.

From rebellion hijacked by Islamists to French intervention and the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission

In early 2012, a Tuareg-led rebellion against the Malian government in Bamako swept the north of the country with the aim to seek and achieve independence for a marginalized region largely inhabited by Tuaregs and Arabs. The rebellion was later hijacked by Islamists and consequently catalyzed a military intervention by France and the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) – considered the world’s deadliest – in order to stabilize the country. Despite these deployments, the deeply-rooted insurgency shows no signs of being defeated.

Jihadist leaders reunite for a watershed moment

On March 2, a video was released showing the gathering of five leading figures of several jihadist factions in the Sahara-Sahel region. The video constituted the founding statement of a “new group” bringing together the Islamist extremist Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb‘s (AQIM) Sahara Region, Al-Murabitoun, Ansar Dine, and the Macina Liberation Front (Katiba Macina) movements. Each of the factions were represented by militant commanders who have gained notoriety for spearheading jihadist militancy across the Sahel. Al-Qaeda’s North African franchise AQIM was represented by the Emir of its Sahara Branch, namely Djamel Okacha (Yahya Abu al-Hammam) and Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji who is responsible for the movement’s judicial affairs. Al-Murabitoun who have conducted several high-profile terrorist attacks across North and West Africa, led by the infamous militant commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar whose whereabouts and fate remains unknown, was represented by the group’s deputy commander Mohamed Ould Nouini (al-Hassan al-Ansari). Ansar Dine, Al-Qaeda’s (AQ) mainly Tuareg local affiliate was represented by its Emir Iyad Ag Ghaly (Abu al-Fadhl). Lastly, the Macina Liberation Front, a mainly Fulani Islamist group part of Ansar Dine and active in central Mali, represented by its Emir Mohamed Koufa. Together, the militant leaders proclaimed the watershed announcement of a united group, which has assumed the moniker of “Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimeen” translated as “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims” (JNIM).

Anything more than just a structural reorganization?

Despite publicising the alliance and the founding of this new group, it is important to note that the aforementioned factions already enjoyed close operational linkages on the battlefield, which has drawn attention to both the timing and purpose of the merger. So where lies the strategic importance in the formalization of an already existing nucleus? The first explanation for the announcement may be to debunk unsubstantiated media speculation about splits in the ranks of the jihadists, or that al-Qaeda’s Sahel based affiliate groups were seeking to switch allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). Secondly, the designation of Iyad Ag Ghaly as the Emir of this alliance further highlights the importance of ethno-political dynamics that are fueling Al-Qaeda’s ascendency in the Sahel. Ag Ghaly’s influence in the mountainous region of Adrar des Ifoghas has been important for AQIM’s implantation in the region where the nobleman and long-serving militant commander has used his wide-reaching familial linkages, and the Islamisization of Tuareg separatism, to secure a steady stream of recruits for his political and religious aspirations. Thirdly, it gives an injection to invigorate the insurgency in the Sahel and also puts a stronger imprint on the region within the global map of jihad.

Since the formation of Ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine in 2012, the movement has shared a mutually beneficial relationship with AQIM. Following France’s Operation Serval military intervention in Mali, several AQIM cells were reportedly rendered defunct by broad based counterterrorism operations; those that remained were reported to have been provided sanctuary by Ansar Dine. In Mali’s northernmost Kidal administrative division, AQIM had three active katibas or brigades, Al-Ansar, Youssef Ibn Tachfin, and Tariq Ibn Ziyad, which is believed to have been entirely assimilated into the Ansar Dine network. Evidence of this lies in the fact that the region in which these factions operated in – saw militancy which was almost exclusively claimed by Ansar Dine for the past three years, the result of a transient phase beginning with the French intervention, and the subsequent elimination of commanders and decimation of the AQIM brigades active in the area. The restructuring of the weakened AQIM factions, and their assimilation into more powerful groups amid intensive counterterrorism operations, may also explain the dynamics that precipitated the formation of Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimeen under the unifying Quranic slogan of  “One banner, one group, one emir”.

“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided” (Surah Al-‘Imran 3:103)

The message of unity is also articulated with reference to al-Sham – namely the Levant Region of the Middle East – and the alliances created by the formation of the region’s Al-Qaeda proxies of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, this despite the articulated intention to “cut ties” with Al-Qaeda by the creation of these alliances. Symbolically, Iyad Ag Ghaly also pays tribute to a long list of deceased al-Qaeda ideologues and commanders. In this regard, there is a strong pro-AQ message, thus cementing its ties with the parent organization Al-Qaeda. Although, there are exceptions, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and Abu ‘Anas al-Shami both emblematic figures within Al-Qaeda in Iraq, at the same time, precursors who laid the foundation for what was to become the Islamic State. Both held in high esteem by ISIS followers and frequently paid tribute. Al-Shami being the mentor of Taha Falaha more commonly known as Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the most prominent Islamic State commander. Falaha pledged allegiance to al-Zarqawi back in 2002. As an heir of al-Shami’s and al-Zarqawi’s legacy, their violent doctrine and entrusted by al-Zarqawi, Falaha rose to the top in the Islamic State organization. Falaha was killed in a US airstrike near al-Bab in northern Syria on August 30, 2016. Hence, a subtle indication that AQIM as part of a wider Al-Qaeda strategy is preparing for a post-Islamic State era by flirting with ISIS followers. Although, not without reservations, Iyad Ag Ghaly empasizes in his speech the importance to avoid extremism (ghulu’) and the priority to adhere to the unity of the Islamic Nation (Ummah), Ag Ghaly also mentions the sensitive issue of takfir (to declare other Muslims, individuals or groups as non-believers), a practice permissive within the sphere of the Islamic State, in contrast a subject and practice which Al-Qaeda ideologues consider to be dealt with by scholars.

Taha Falaha or by his nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (Photo from Islamic State’s al-Naba Newsletter #45)

Further, dispelling any suggestions of factionalism within the wider al-Qaeda body, Ag Ghaly reaffirms allegiance to the Emir of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud (Abdelmalek Droukdel), and asserts an oath of fidelity to the General Emir of Al-Qaeda Aymen al-Zawahiri and to the Emir of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, Haibatullah Akhundzada, who al-Zawahiri himself swore allegiance to in June 2016 – adopting the same approach as Usama Bin Laden when he erstwhile pledged loyalty to Mullah Omar. In this regard, we can also draw an interesting parallel to AQIM’s approach in Mali with that of Afghanistan, where Ag Ghaly has adopted the same leadership role as that of Mullah Omar and his successors.

From Sahel as rear base to the main base

Notwithstanding the renewed oath of allegiance to Abdelmalek Droukdel, it is evident that the ability of the AQIM Emir to assert influence in the Sahel has been limited, with the Sahara Region gradually moving from being a rear base and support zone to becoming the main base at the expense of AQIM’s central and historical base in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, where it has been dismembered by intense counterterrorism operations by the Popular National Army. Highlighting this, in the first two months of 2017, Algerian authorities announced to have killed as many as twenty-four terrorists. On March 17, an audio recording released featuring Droukdel himself, unsurprisingly embraced the consolidation that had taken place and stated that it has set an example for other jihadist groups to follow. Another key point in his speech addressed France, saying that its military activities in the Sahara and the Sahel Region only strengthened fraternity and unity between peoples and tribes, further threatening to move the war to France by stating “until you live the fear our people experience in our lands”.

Al-Qaeda vis-à-vis the Islamic State in the Sahel Region

In addition to the groups comprising the merger, it is important to mention other jihadist actors in order to provide a full picture on the state of affairs within the jihadist scene of the Sahel Region. Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi leads a faction known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). For apparent reasons excluded from the equation of the merger, firstly, because of the split within al-Murabitoun as a result of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi’s oath of allegiance to the Islamic State in mid-May 2015, with clashes ensuing about a month later near Gao between the followers of Belmokhtar and those of al-Sahrawi, leaving several of al-Sahrawi’s men killed and Sahrawi himself seriously injured. Secondly, Sahrawi is not a major player in the current affairs of the region embroidered with both jihadist and non-jihadist armed groups where Sahrawi’s faction seems to constitute a singular logic in the far east of Mali around the tri-state border area (Liptako), with the groups stronghold located along the Akabar-Andéramboukane axis. Nevertheless, al-Sahrawi’s faction has managed to carry out deadly attacks against security forces in both Niger and Burkina Faso, several of which have resulted in significant casualties. Al-Sahrawi carries the trademark of jihad in its most extreme form with the potential to attract followers from across the region, although without putting too much emphasis on Al-Qaeda / Islamic State competition in this specific context. The limited relevance of the AQ-ISIS schism on the local level was highlighted in January 2016 when AQIM’s Emir of the Sahara Region, Djamel Okacha, gave an interview to the Mauritanian news outlet Al-Akhbar, stating that “…our relationship is normal connecting us to them through relations and contacts”. It was further rumored by sources close to Al-Qaeda in early January, although still not confirmed, that al-Sahrawi had broken his pledge to the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi reading out pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (screen capture from video released by Islamic State-affiliated Amaq News Agency)

Another player more recently introduced on the regional jihadist scene is ‘Ansaroul Islam‘ led by the radical Burkinabe preacher Boureïma Dicko more commonly known as Malam Ibrahim Dicko. Dicko reportedly a former MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) member, detained for two years in Bamako before returning home, gained influence by transmitting his sermons via radio in Djibo and surrounding areas, now leading a fledgling insurgency in Burkina’s northern provinces of Soum and Oudalan. Linked to Ansar Dine’s Katiba Macina, seemingly close to Mohamed Koufa and with former MOJWA fighters in its ranks, the group is still in a premature stage to have a prominent role in the nascent merger. However, such symbiosis may yet occur by solidifying cross-border ties and cooperation between so-called Fulani-dominant extremist groups active in Burkina Faso’s Soum and Oudalan Provinces with others in Mali’s Mopti, Ségou, Sikasso, and Gao Regions.

Leader of Ansaroul Islam, Boureïma Dicko more commonly known as Malam Ibrahim Dicko.

It is necessary to stress that the region’s jihadist groups have far-reaching ramifications in the political economy, including complex ties beyond labels of jihadist groups, and as well to non-jihadist signatory armed groups and criminal networks embedded in both formal and informal structures of the political economy.

The Political and Military context

This announcement also comes in the midst of both significant political and military developments. On the political level, France at the center of counterinsurgency efforts in the Sahel Region is moving towards presidential elections with Francois Hollande leaving office in two months, raising questions about France’s future engagements, this while Germany is strengthening its presence in the region, increased regional military involvement by the US, and Canada still assessing and considering deployment within a framework of peacekeeping and counter-insurgency mission.

The Bamako government and signatory armed groups are in the process of installing the ‘Interim Authorities’ as part of an Algeria-brokered Peace Accord, a conciliatory process from which Mali‘s Islamists were excluded. Now, for the first time, Ansar Dine openly declares allegiance to Al-Qaeda, prior viewed as a disguised front group. Hence the creation of the new group could be viewed as a response to the sidelining of Islamists from the negotiation table and that the initiation of the peace accord has yet to provide full political autonomy to northern Mali under the necessary condition of an Islamic political and judicial system, a scenario unacceptable by both national and international actors. What this video statement also conveys is that in contrast to the signatory armed groups, the jihadists show a unified front represented by individuals of various ethnicities (Tuareg, Fulani, Arab, and Amazigh) and origins who nevertheless share the same objectives. This is in stark contrast to the fragmented signatory armed groups with different loyalties, conflicting interests, and ethno-political ambitions. The installation of the Interim Authorities has yet to be finalized, a part of the Peace Accord that have proven difficult to implement with dissatisfaction and disputes between various factions and actors.

The announcement is besides a political communication, a military one, a renewal of the insurgency, as stated in the speech of unification to close ranks against the “invading crusader enemy”. A development like this carries a significant amounts of public relations capital, hence functioning as a propaganda vehicle for recruitment and attracting support. Secondly, a move like this brings expectations and there is likely a worked out plan to orientate strategically, increase coordination between the different groups, and thus increase the frequency, deadliness, and geographic scope of regional jihadist operations. With the Islamists excluded from the political process it is to be expected that besides attacking MINUSMA peacekeepers, French forces of Operation Barkhane, and Malian forces, efforts will be focused on interrupting and disturbing this process including the targeting of security arrangements like the mixed patrols (MOC – Mécanisme Opérationnel pour la Coordination), signatory armed groups, and individuals viewed as cooperating with international or Malian forces. An attempt to interrupt the aforementioned peace process and security cooperation was projected on January 18 when a suicide bomber dispatched by al-Murabitoun struck the MOC camp in Gao targeting the planned launch of mixed patrols in the area, the attack left more than fifty killed and around hundred twenty wounded; although casualty figures differ depending on sources consulted.

The mere appearance of the aforementioned jihadist leaders carries subliminal messages, assumably calls for mobilization and activation of cells to conduct attacks. In the days that followed the announcement, a MINUSMA base in Aguelhok and a joint base with Barkhane in Tessalit, both located in the Kidal Region were subjected to rocket attacks. A Malian army camp located in Boulikessi, central Mali near the border with Burkina Faso suffered a high-casualty attack with at least 11 soldiers killed on March 5, the first attack claimed by JNIM, only three days after the announcement of the joint venture. In this context, MINUSMA and French Barkhane forces are in the process of strengthening their presence in central Mali, the home turf of Macina Liberation Front leader Mohamed Koufa, a region plagued by both jihadist activity and inter-communal violence. The answer by Malian authorities to address insecurity in the central region was to prohibit the essential movement with motorcycles between villages. Additionally, increasing security crackdowns which discriminately target the Fulani community, too often accompanied with abuses.

The Tillabéri Region of neighboring Niger has also seen an uptick in militancy ascribed to al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked forces. After being subjected to several deadly attacks in the past six months, Niger finally declared a state of emergency in areas bordering Mali and also requested assistance from France, who responded with the decision to deploy a force numbering up to eighty military personnel including special operations forces to the Tillabéri Region in order to aid Niger in fighting terrorists along its borders with Mali.

Neighboring Burkina Faso shows just like Mali and Niger, a negative trend with jihadist activity in the provinces of Soum and Oudalan in the country’s far north. Plagued by increased insecurity as a result of threats, targeted killings, and attacks on security forces, Burkina decided to impose a ban on the use of vehicles at night time in the north, a similar counterterrorism measure as implemented in Mali.

Despite the presence of a nearly 14,000 troop-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping mission force in Mali and 4,000 troops of Operation Barkhane in the region, countries like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso are failing to respond to the terrorist threat. All three countries share porous borders and common denominators such as widespread corruption, vast areas of underdeveloped and ungoverned space, with limited presence of authorities, including security forces, and structural weaknesses of their intelligence services. Burkina Faso and Niger are major contributors to the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali, troop deployments abroad which are unfavorable to internal needs, already lacking the resources to secure and manage their own borders and to provide adequate presence of security forces in remote high-risk areas. These deficiencies are being exploited by jihadist groups, from their asymmetric engagements in response to intended counterterrorism efforts, security arrangements, and military operations in the concerned countries previously mentioned. On January 24, the three G5 Sahel countries reaffirmed their commitment to create a joint security force in order to more effectively combat terrorism, although the establishment, efficiency, and results of this commitment are still to be seen.

This article was first published on March 27, 2017 by Aaron Y. Zelin at Jihadology.net [GUEST POST: Jihadist Groups In The Sahel Region Formalize Merger]