Mali: Barkhane forces neutralize ten ISGS fighters including a senior commander in Menaka

French forces of Operation Barkhane conducted an air-landed operation overnight between December 14-15 in the Menaka Region. The operation resulted in ten militants of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) being “put out of action”, and arms and electronic equipment seized, according to France’s General Staff of the Armies (EMA).

EMA did not provide any precisions regarding the location of the operation or any further information about the ISGS fighters targeted. However, local sources indicated that the operation took place in Inazole, southwest of Menaka, along the Ansongo-Menaka transit route. At least five militants were reportedly killed and the remaining arrested. Among those killed, Katiba Salaheddine lieutenant and ISGS member Salkou Ould Abalawe, a Tilemsi Arab of the Mashdouf tribe. The group targeted was composed of a mix of Arab, Fulani and Tuareg fighters.

The area of Inazole has witnessed several Barkhane operations and clashes between ISGS fighters and militiamen from the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA). For instance, an ISGS unit commander, Moctar Ould Libnine was killed in fighting with MSA in May 2018 in the area.

Ould Abalawe was lastly signaled on 8 July 2018 in the area of Taziwanate, near Tamkoutat, accused of being involved in the murder of four elderly Tuareg Imghad men at their camp. Ould Abalawe was also a close associate of the two cousins Aboubacar Ould Abidine (“Abu Zubeir”) and Sultan Ould Bady (“Abu Ali”), an early Sahelian member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), co-founder of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and founder of Katiba Salaheddine. Ould Bady turned himself in to Algerian military authorities in early August 2018 in Tamanrasset, Algeria. Ould Abidine was killed less than a month ago in an air-supported operation by the Algerian People’s National Army (ANP) on 18 November 2019 in the area of Tawendert (Tinzaouatine), Algeria. Ould Abidine had relocated to the border area between Mali and Algeria, in particular, the area of Boughessa in the extreme north of the Kidal Region. The presence of ISGS fighters in the area was already reported in February 2019.

Sahelian militants pledge(d) allegiance to the Islamic State

Decoding the Sahelian part of ISWAP’s ‘And the [best] Outcome is for the Righteous’ (published on June 15, 2019) – Islamic State’s recycling of old footage to advance its cause and influence in the Sahel.

The Islamic State’s (IS) reconstitution in Africa has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For years, assorted media outlets (of various credibility) “reported” the presence of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself in Libya (or even in the Nigerien desert), sometimes accompanied by reports on alerts raised along the Tunisian and Algerian borders. Meanwhile, think tanks and pundits foresaw an exodus of jihadi militants from the Middle East to Africa, foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) returning to their countries of origin in order to carry out attacks, establish new cells, or reinforce the ranks of pre-existing groups. Yes, there’s where IS will reconstitute itself..in Africa.

The crux of the matter is that this would be done without the presence of any self-styled “Caliph” on the African tectonic plate, or any major influx of FTFs relocating. The local environment was already proven fertile ground for militant expansion. As witnessed in the Sahel throughout the year of 2018, a ceaseless deterioration of the subregional security situation self-sustained by a chaotic mix of armed actors and constellations, misguided government responses, abuses by state forces, and intercommunal violence, triggering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. However, amidst the fall of the so-called “caliphate”, the organization would channel the support it had accumulated in recent years in the Sahel (and elsewhere) into its media and propaganda apparatus. 

Preceding the capture of the last pocket of IS-held territory in Baghuz, Syria—the organization began a media campaign pivoted to the African continent. In Tunisia, IS ramped up its media activities which in previous years had been on energy-saving mode. The organization created the Central Africa Province, grouping rebels of The Allied Democratic Forces in the borderlands of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda—founded in the mid-1990s, and militants of a nascent insurgency in Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of Mozambique. Analysts argued that while IS’ expansion model differs from that of Al-Qaeda, IS had now set the bar low, the group was “happy to rumble in the jungle“. Significant attention was also given to the Sahel, Islamic State Central (ISC) had re-established communications with its Sahelian affiliate—Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Oaths of allegiance to al-Baghdadi had been given in Mali and Burkina Faso—accepted in persona by the IS leader in a rare audiovisual appearance in late April, alluding to ISGS emir Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi as the subregional interlocutor. Following a two-and-a-half-year-long hiatus in communications, ISC now had plenty of material to exploit.

“Islamic State in Burkina Faso”

On June 15, in a video entitled ‘And the [best] Outcome is for the Righteous‘, militants of Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) renewed their pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi after a lengthy speech by an ISWAP commander named as “Sheikh Abu Salmah al-Mangawi”. Abu Salmah affirmed that military campaigns and operations by national and regional forces had failed to liberate Lake Chad and impose peace, rather the militants had shattered the borders by opening up several municipalities in Nigeria and expanded their operations into Niger and Chad.

Screen grab from speech by ISWAP commander “Sheikh Abu Salmah al-Mangawi” at an unspecified location, presumably in the area of Nigeria (Lake Chad)

The renewal was ensued by oaths of allegiance purportedly given in Mali and Burkina Faso. Indeed, IS has made headway in the Sahel and the successive pledges of allegiance emanating in the region have provided the organization with substantial propaganda capital. Add to this, a step-change in capacities of its Sahelian branch on the operational level, coinciding with the resumption of communications between ISGS and ISC—translating into action on the ground. Capacities dependent on local inter-armed group dynamics between ISGS and Al-Qaida’s Sahelian affiliate Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), transfer of competencies by migration of fighters, and coordination and cooperation between the two, while the inclination to conduct spectacular attacks reasonably would have been fueled by ISGS reconnecting to the global. However, by decoding the footage we may find a better measure of the actual value of the pledges in Sahel. 

A video cut takes us from what presumably is Nigeria to Mali. A gathering of approximately forty young men in the bush of Intameda, situated about ninety kilometers east of the regional capital, Gao. Several fighters are recognizable from a previous by ISGS self-produced media item, namely the “Battle of Tongo Tongo”. The man in the middle of the gathering with his face uncovered is Aboubacar Ould Abidine (aka Abu Zoubeir), a younger paternal cousin of Sultan Ould Bady (aka Abu Ali)—an early Sahelian member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and co-founder of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

Ould Abidine is a former member of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), part of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), signatory of the Algiers Accords, and also a former officer of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC), or mixed patrols.

Ould Bady himself would have been present at the meeting about two years ago, discretely and in contrast to his cousin, not visible or identifiable on the footage. In early August 2018, Ould Bady turned himself in to Algerian military authorities in Tamanrasset, Algeria.

The base in Intameda was destroyed amidst a joint operation on February 17, 2018, two days after was Katiba Salaheddine’s pledge first reported (alongside JNIM cells that had defected). Mauritanian journalist, Mohamed Mahmoud Abou al-Maaly hinted to the alliance taking shape two months before the pledge was made public, while Sidi Kounta explicitly made reference to al-Sahrawi and Ould Bady. However, Katiba Salaheddine, had already since mid-2017 begun integrating into ISGS. Ultimately, the group was defeated in rural Gao, those not already absorbed by ISGS were dispersed, Katiba Salaheddine was defunct as a group, and the leaders had left the field. The image analysis below suggest that the footage used in the video is from the same gathering as the second photo featured as a still photo in the “Battle of Tongo Tongo“.  During another shorter sequence, is another unidentified individual exposed with his face uncovered, who  would be another of Ould Bady’s cousins, representing the core of the group founded back in 2013. The same individual is also featured on the still photo from Katiba Salaheddine’s pledge in “Battle of Tongo Tongo”, although back then with face covered.

Katiba Salaheddine pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. (June 15, 2019 – The Media Office of Islamic State’s West Africa Province)
Katiba Salaheddine pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. (February 19, 2018 – “Battle of Tongo Tongo” self-produced by ISGS)
Katiba Salaheddine pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. (June 15, 2019 – The Media Office of Islamic State’s West Africa Province)
Katiba Salaheddine pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. (February 19, 2018 – “Battle of Tongo Tongo” self-produced by ISGS)

The video now cuts into another view and gathering of men piling up hands to give the oath of fidelity, nothing really provides any hint about location, only a basis for speculations.

Caption: “Pledge by the brothers in Mali and Burkina Faso”

The following screen is a bit more revealing, previously featured as still photo in an Amaq report on a complex mass-casualty ambush against the Nigerien army not far from Tongo Tongo, and an attempted prison break targeting the Koutoukale high-security prison. In the midst of the gathering, a 9K32 Strela-2 (SA-7 Grail) is visible, most likely the same unit featured in the 2016 oath-giving-ceremony.  With this in mind, the actuality of the footage again becomes subject to scrutiny, possibly more old material recycled. While it’s hard to tell where and when the ceremony actually did take place, you can ask if a MANPADS with missing battery crisscrossed the tri-state borders for tacticool ceremonial purposes during the course of three years?

Photo featured in a May 16 (2019) Amaq report on a complex ambush targeting Nigerien forces near Siwili (officially referred to as Tongo Tongo/Bellaberi)

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi reads out pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, as featured in Amaq video on October 30, 2016, visible and marked to the right, a 9K32 Strela-2 (SA-7 Grail) with battery missing
Unofficial photo from the 2016 pledge-of-allegiance ceremony showcasing a 9K32 Strela-2 (SA-7 Grail) with battery missing

More or less subtle details could provide us with further clues, such as arms (you look for a few FN-FALs, but spot a couple of AK-74s, the former very common on the local Nigerien market, and the latter used by Nigerien forces), physical attributes, colour and style combinations of clothing, like how the headscarves are wrapped and so forth. For instance, note the sand camo and khaki fatigues combined with dark headscarves, frequently used by ISGS fighters in the Mali-Niger borderlands, but also around the tri-state border. The point here is that we’re trying to narrow down by combining multiple elements for plausibility without ignoring other aspects such as militant mobility.

Or the thightly wrapped grey headscarf worn on the fighter on the below screen grab, probably a Dawsahak (or Tuareg) fighter. Or in a second set of images, the possible presence of a Dawsahak-speaking commander in the midst of the gathering, comparing two images from two separate videos, again pertaining to the Mali-Niger borderlands, between Menaka and Tillabery.

Presumed Dawsahak (or Tuareg) ISGS fighter featured in the oath-of-allegiance video by Katibat al-Murabitin led by Abu Walid al-Sahrawi published by Amaq on October 30, 2016
Screen grab of a Dawsahak-speaking ISGS commander “Jaafar al-Ansari” featured in the by ISGS self-produced video, “The Battle of Taranguit”
Possibly the same commander seen on the previous screen grab, although here featured in the official June 15 ISWAP release

A video circulating on closed local WhatsApp groups in the wake of the official release, showed a drowsy pledge by a few dozens of Burkinabe militants (identified as Fulani Djelgoobe) on a misty morning, presumably somewhere in the Burkina Faso-Mali borderlands. Far less impressive in terms of quality, numbers of fighters, and ambience when compared to the official ISWAP release that showed hundreds of fighters “aestethically” lined up with motorbikes and parading to the sound of the accompanying nasheed blasting.

Screen grabs from the official ISWAP release

Screen grabs from the self-produced video circulating on WhatsApp

What this brief analysis concluded is that Islamic State in this release used old footage related to a group in Mali now defunct, probably used other old footage to visually amplify the impact of pledges of allegiance in Mali and Burkina Faso. Further, the organization likely took advantage of the relatively limited output of visual open-source material in the Sahel concerning jihadi militant groups, Thus, knowing they could pick, cut and mix according to preference, regardless of the age of the footage, as shown with the case of Katiba Salaheddine, that reportedly pledged allegiance in mid-2017, an event already announced in February 2018.

“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.

Mali: Complex attack against French forces in Menaka

ISGS militants aboard motorbikes in the Mali-Niger borderlands

Around 1300 local time on Sunday afternoon, an attempted complex attack targeted French forces in the area of Akabar, Menaka Region, not far from the border with Niger. French forces reportedly spotted and opened fire against a Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) (Ouest-France), triggering a premature detonation, local sources testified about the sound of a heavy explosion echoing across the plains of rural Menaka. Enfilading small arms fire by a group of an estimated fifteen presumed Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants aboard motorbikes followed the detonation. Around fifteen French soldiers were wounded, mostly minor injuries, however, two were severely wounded, necessitating a strategic medical evacuation to France. The attack came as the French forces set up a security post in the area. Mirage 2000 fighter jets and a quick reaction force (QRF) deployed didn’t manage to intercept the bikers (RFI).

Yesterday’s attack constitutes the second SVBIED attack carried out by presumed ISGS militants targeting French forces. On January 11, 2018, an explosives-laden pickup truck struck a Barkhane patrol between Menaka and In-Delimane, wounding three military medics. Furthermore, it’s the fourth complex attack involving the use of SVBIEDs in the past seven weeks, the three preceding were all claimed by Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). Thus, the deployment of suicide tactics is occurring at a pace not witnessed since in the wake of the French intervention
back in 2013 with Operation Serval.

During the first fortnight of February, ISGS and JNIM conducted what strongly appeared to be a coordinated campaign against the local militias of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA), armed groups known to cooperate with the French forces. Attacks and clashes took place in Tidimbawen, Inahar, Taringuite, In-Agar, and Talataye, the coalition lost around forty men with others injured, a considerable toll within such a short time frame. Moreover, JNIM announced for the first time in public to be at war with MSA and GATIA by officially claiming responsibility for two attacks targeting the two movements which the group described as “agents of the crusaders”, as well as previous attacks in the area, without providing further details.

While militant groups recently have suffered multiple tactical defeats and lost senior commanders (MENASTREAM), militancy is expanding in the subregion (The Conversation), notably in Burkina Faso where new fronts have opened up in the eastern and southwestern parts of the country since the beginning of last year (ACLED). A more recent development is that militants are gaining ground in the Centre-Nord Region.

In the context of militant expansion and adaptation, there are several discernible trends. The proliferation and spread of IED and landmine usage as seen in previously untouched areas such as Torodi and Ayorou in Niger’s Tillabery Region, and across several provinces in Burkina’s Est Region. Another tendency is the increasingly frequent use of explosives to destroy public infrastructure including administrative buildings, schools, and security facilities. An additional aspect is innovation, reflected by the modus operandi of booby-trapping corpses as seen on two occasions near Diankabou, Mali, and near Djibo, Burkina Faso. Part of the adaptation process is that JNIM and ISGS are increasingly melting together in order to consolidate ranks, sharing objectives and adversaries.

Burkina Faso: Attack against customs checkpoint in Nohao, customs officers and Spanish priest killed

(Updated)

Around 17h local time, presumed militants attacked a customs checkpoint in Nohao, situated in the Boulgou Province on national route 16 between Cinkansé and Bittou, near the Ghanaian border.

Four customs officers were killed in the attack and three vehicles burned. Koglweogo militiamen arriving at the site were told by the militants to make a “u-turn” and not to meddle in their affairs, since they were after defense and security forces (FDS). Consequently, the Koglweogo left the area.

In connection to the events in Nohao, a vehicle carrying a Spanish priest and two local colleagues traveling from Cinkansé en route to Ouagadougou was intercepted by the militants who separated the Spanish priest from the others and shot him dead.

The organization CERFI planned to hold an Islamic conference on Sunday in Bittou, the event was postponed as a result of the attack.

The Burkinabe air force carried out an erroneous airstrike on January 30 against the village of Zanta, also located in the Boulgou Province, while in the process of retaliating against militants who had overrun an army camp in Kompienbiga. (see Menastream: Burkina Faso: Airstrike hit village 130km from the actual target)

Yesterday, two Burkinabe soldiers were killed and six others wounded after being dispatched to the site of a corpse dressed in military uniform between Djibo and Mentao in the country’s north. The body was booby-trapped and detonated when the team handled the corpse in order to move it from the area. The incident is the first of its kind, although militants frequently use IEDs, mines, and explosives when conducting attacks and blowing up security and educational facilities.

Mali: French forces killed ISGS commander involved in Tongo Tongo ambush

Early on the morning of August 26, French forces of operation Barkhane conducted a combined air-ground operation between Infoukaretane and Labouta, about 30km south of Ménaka. Two Mirage 2000 fighter jets carried out an air raid followed by action on the ground by commandos. The operation resulted in the death of a senior commander of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), namely Mohamed “Atinka” Ag Almouner and one of his guard corps. In addition to the nickname “Atinka”, Ag Almouner was referred to as “Le Réseau”, a French word meaning the network.  The member of the guard corps killed has been named as Mouta, the son of a prominent marabout in Infoukaretane. Two civilians including a woman and a child were also killed in the airstrike, the French General Staff of the Armies said that it had opened an investigation because of the civilian fatalities. Two more civilians and a militant were wounded amid the operation, subsequently provided medical care by Barkhane’s medical staff.

Ag Almouner from the Idoguiritane fraction of Dawsahak tribe was one of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi’s most senior lieutenants, identified as having played a leading role in the ambush on October 4, 2017, against a joint force of U.S. Green Berets and the Nigerien army in Tongo Tongo, Niger. An earlier article by the New York Times stated that Ag Almouner was killed in Tongo Tongo, citing American military officials. In the same way, another article by the New York Times stated that the Nigerien ISGS commander, Dando Cheffou “may be in custody”. Ultimately, none of the reports were proven to be correct. Local sources further confirmed that Al Mahmoud “Ikaray” Ag Baye who was a superior commander of Ag Almouner is still alive, in contrast to the U.S. assessment that he also had been killed in the Tongo Tongo ambush.

In late March this year, Nigerien gendarmes on a routine patrol in the small village of Wedi Bangou, Tillabery, arrested a group of men, some of them were armed, the gendarmes blindfolded and lined them up on the ground in the vicinity of the gendarmerie. During the interrogations, a young man caught the attention of the interrogators who suspected it was Ibrahim Ousmane, more commonly known as Dando Cheffou, prompting the Nigeriens to alert the Americans, believing that they finally had got their hands on the American hostage Jeffrey Woodke’s suspected caretaker. However, at the time was Cheffou traveling in a convoy with his senior commander Illiassou Djibo, also known as Petit Chafori, spotted while passing through a hamlet in a valley not far from the Malian border, an area which serves as a base for the ISGS militants.

Between February and early April 2018, ISGS was the target of intense counter-militancy operations spearheaded by Barkhane, aided by a coalition of local militias including the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA). However, these operations were followed by a series of mass atrocities in the Mali-Niger borderlands, the violence soon spread to rural Gao, and later to Gourma and Arabanda.

The losses suffered by ISGS have caused a quasi-breakdown in its ranks. On August 11, the Algerian Ministry of National Defense (MDN) announced that Sultan Ould Badi, the commander of ISGS constituent Katiba Salaheddine, had surrendered to the military authorities in Tamanrasset, Algeria. A report by France 24 suggested that Ould Badi had been captured in late June amidst an operation by the Algerian army, although Ould Badi turned himself in within the frame of a negotiated settlement with the Algerian authorities together with three of his associates. Ould Badi and his companions were spotted near Aguelhok in early August while traveling from the Tilemsi Valley toward the Algerian border.

Video: Another video released by Katiba Salaheddine (ISGS) – “Response to Aggression by MSA and GATIA”

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.

 

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.

Members of the jihadist group Ansaroul Islam

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.

Burkina Faso: The jihadist threat continuously rising in the far north – A new Ansar Dine branch in gestation, Ansaroul Islam?

From targeted killings to complex attack – The Irchad network

Recent months have seen a significant increase in incidents of suspected jihadist activity in the Soum Province of Burkina Faso’s far north. Spillover from the Mali conflict in the border areas is nothing new, but the current trend shows very negative tendencies. Various attacks have plagued the area ranging from targeted killings, assassination attempts, village incursions to a high-casualty complex attack against an army position. A significant component of the insecurity in the regions stems from what could be viewed as the wider “Fulani struggle” where the notion of jihad plays an increasingly important role. Recent events in Djibo and surroundings point to a intra-communal dimension of this conflict with one layer being the targeting of community elites, shown in the almost simultaneous attacks that targeted local councilmen in the localitys of Pétèga and Soboulé on November 12, these types of targeted killings are far from as common as on the Malian side of the border. Another important layer is the internal conflict of a local network of Imams or Muslim preachers named Al-Irchad, at least one member of this network has been subjected to a targeted killing with other members being the suspected perpetrators. This conflict indicates that some radical elements aim at eradicating those more moderate or unwilling to take part in the radicalization and recruitment of youth or even more extreme activities like conducting violent and armed attacks, like in the case of Amadou Boli assassinated on November 12 in Djibo, allegedly number two in the Al-Irchad network, an individual who may have known too much about the network’s activities to constitute a threat.

More recently, the Al-Irchad network received renewed attention, on January 1, two attacks took place in Djibo and Sibé, in Djibo a man escaped an attempted abduction or assassination but was shot three times, in Sibé an imam was shot dead by alleged members of the Al-Irchad network. Local media reported that the mentioned imam actually was killed by his son in the presence of another Al-Irchad member. Additionally, the locality of Kérboulé saw an incursion by unknown gunmen who on October 18 clashed with the Koglweogo self-defense militia, the attack claimed the lives of three miners, one Koglweogo and another individual was wounded. Further, on December 16 a large-scale attack targeted the army camp in Nassoumbou, an attack that left twelve Burkinabe soldiers dead, all being soldiers belonging to GFAT or ‘Groupement des forces armées anti-terroristes’, the Burkinabe army’s counter-terrorism battalion.

Large-scale attack in Nassoumbou – From Irchad to Ansaroul Islam

The extent of the attack in Nassoumbou is significant and constitute the largest damages in terms of human lives ever inflicted on the Burkinabe army by jihadists, none of the known groups roaming the area have officially claimed responsibility for the attack, similar to the attack in Tazalite, Niger on October 6, which also resulted in a heavy casualty toll. The area of Soum is far from alien to jihadist militancy and the Burkinabe and above all the Fulani component within groups operating in the region is strong in all the various militant factions both jihadist and non-jihadist, be it Ansar Dine’s southern katibas (al-Mansour, Macina and Khalid Ibn al-Walid), AQIM’s al-Mourabitoune, remnants of MUJAO now going by the name Islamic State in the Greater Sahara following their break away from al-Mourabitoune or any of the armed signatory groups in Mali. Burkinabe media attribute the attack to Malam Ibrahim Dicko, alleged leader of the previously mentioned Al-Irchad network, also given the name “Ansar-ul-Islam lil-Irchad wal-Jihad”. Worth noting regarding Dicko’s name is that ‘Malam’ is a simple transcription of the Arabic word ‘Mu’alim’ or colloquially ‘Maalem’ meaning Teacher, hence, Dicko has been given the title teacher or scholar for having teached in neighboring Niger and for being a well-known preacher in Djibo, although his real name is Boureïma Dicko. Dicko is married to the sister of the Grand Imam of Djibo. The imam himself threatened by Dicko and his followers.

The reports on the Nassoumbou attack do not only attribute the attack to Dicko, it is also stated that he claimed responsibility for the attack something that raises some skepticism, the claim that a relatively unknown network should have been able to recruit, train, arm and independently carry out a military operation of the magnitude like the Nassoumbou attack is dubious. A report in Le Quotidien links Dicko to Amadou Koufa, the emir of Ansar Dine’s Katiba Macina, although the report contains inconsistencies by stating that Dicko during a stay in Mali in 2015 was arrested together with Koufa, detained on charges of possession of illegal arms, but subsequently released. The actual time of this incident and the arrest of Koufa seems incorrect, although a recent article in Jeune Afrique mentions a certain Ibrahim, close to Koufa arrested in late 2013 by French Serval forces in the area of Tessalit on charges of attempting to join jihadist groups, kept detained for two years under the supervision of DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité d’État) in Bamako before being released. The passage mentioning Ibrahim makes reference to a known preacher in Djibo and in connection to dozens of men who have chosen jihad and joined the ‘maquis’ (shrublands) during the last months in the area of Djibo, doubtlessly Ibrahim Dicko. Prior to his arrest reportedly a member of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). Multiple attacks on the Burkina side of the border have been claimed or attributed to previously mentioned jihadist groups, several of these groups have lost some important operatives according to reports such as the arrests of Souleymane Keïta, Yacouba Touré and the Burkinabe Boubacar Sawadogo, who allegedly was responsable for a previous attempt to install a Burkinabe branch for Ansar Dine, and also possibly behind the attack that targeted Burkinabe gendarmes on October 9, 2015 in Samorogouan.

A new Ansar Dine branch in gestation, Ansaroul Islam?

The reports in the Burkinabe media do not seem totally unfounded, recent activity in Soum points to the presence of units operating with a hyper-localized agenda, additional activity has been signaled in the forests between Mondoro and Djibo, and also on the Malian side of the border. The attack in Nassoumbou has not been claimed by any of the more well-known groups and katibas roaming the region, still a detailed claim of responsibility does exist if we follow the trails in Burkinabe media reports, the facebook page ‘Ansaroul Islam’ have issued claims for both the attack in Nassoumbou and the targeted assassination and assassination attempt that took place just days ago in Djibo and Sibé, the authenticity of the claims are questionable although the claims are “signed Malam Ibrahim Dicko”, received directly from Dicko or retreived from another source. One message on the page makes direct reference to Amadou Koufa stating that Dicko and Koufa are together at the front. If we assume that the claims mentioned are authentic and that the connections between Dicko and Koufa are true, then it is valid to say that Ansaroul Islam could be viewed as a Burkinabe branch of Katiba Macina, and by extension Ansar Dine.

The historical references, Macina and Djelgodji

Like Amadou Koufa’s Katiba Macina claims the revival of the Fulani Macina Empire (l’Empire Peul du Macina) established by Cheikou Amadou in the early 19th century, we also find the reference ‘Djelgoodji’ below in the purported claim of responsiblity for the Nassoumbou attack. Djelgodji constitutes the historical region and kingdom of the Peuls with the Soum province marking the borders except for the eastern part that covers the historical part of the Kurumba of Arbinda. In addition to the often natural ties between communities in border zones there is a strong historical link between Mopti and Soum, dating back to the migrations of Peuls into Songhaï territory in the 17th and 18th century with a group of Dicko lineage (nobles), the Djelgobè, migrating from Hombori (Douentza) in the Mopti Region at the end of the 17th and in the beginning of the 18th century, due to famines or dynastic quarrels in the Macina, but also as part of Peul movements in general during the period, migrations that consequently led to the creation of what today constitute the Fulani heartland in Burkina Faso. Hence, we have the links between Koufa and Dicko, references to historical regions of Peuls on both sides of the borders added to the alleged establishment of this new faction. Two “brothers” united by blood, sharing a common goal by restoring their respective historical Fulani kingdoms. References and discours likely used as a tool to attract and recruit Fulani youth.

Purported claim of responsibility for the Nassoumbou attack on December 16, “signed Maalam Ibrahim, commander of the believers, guide of Ansaroul Islam”

 

“..the commander of the believers Maalam Ibrahim greets you from the front in the company of the Great Emir Amadou Koufa, Grand Imam of Macina..”

 

Purported claim of responsibility for the assassination attempt and the assassination that targeted as stated in the message “hypocrite collaborators” in Djibo and Sibé on January 1

 

Ibrahim Dicko, alleged commander of ‘Ansaroul Islam’