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.
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 “
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.
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
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
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
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.
Seifallah Ben Hassine, commonly known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi—one of North Africa’s most influential jihadi ideologues—is confirmed to have been killed on February 21, 2019, in northern Mali.
A senior Tunisian Al-Qaida member, Afghanistan veteran, and founder of the Islamist organization Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) is now confirmed to have been killed in an operation by French forces, reportedly in the area of El Aklé, nearly 300km northwest of Timbuktu, Mali, on the border with Mauritania.
[Update] However, on 13 June, 2019, French defense minister Florence Parly stated that the operation took place in Bou Djebeha, approximately 125km north of Timbuktu. Ultimately, the emir of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abu Musab Abdul Wadud announced in an audio message on 27 February, 2020, the deaths of Yahya Abu al-Hammam and Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi.
In the wake of the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, Abu Iyadh founded AST and mobilized tens of thousands of Islamists. In mid-August 2012, Abu Iyadh hosted late Bahraini Islamic State ideologue Turki al-Bin’ali in his hometown of Menzel Bourguiba, a month later, he commanded the assault on the U.S. embassy in Tunis. The following year, two political assassinations of the opposition politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi took place, Abu Iyad is among the primary suspects to have planned the assassinations. Abu Iyadh escaped arrest attempts twice and the Tunisian government declared AST a terrorist organization in 2013. Since then, the whereabouts of Abu Iyadh have been shrouded in mystery after he fled Tunisia for Libya. In fact, he was announced dead in 2015, although he wasn’t.
Mohamed al-Zahawi, founder of AST’s brother organization in Libya, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), sustained severe injuries during the battle of the Benina Airport in late 2014. Al-Zahawi was transported via Ajdabiya to Misrata, and received treatment in Turkey, but succumbed to his wounds. The corpse of Al-Zahawi was repatriated to Misrata for burial—Abu Iyadh present during the funeral—mourned Al-Zahawi by his side.
On June 14, 2015, the U.S. conducted an airstrike against a farm south of Ajdabiya. Both Abu Iyadh and the infamous one-eyed Algerian militant commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar
Since the U.S. airstrike in Ajdabiya, not much has filtered regarding the fate of Abu Iyadh, at times said to be hiding in Derna, however, in mid-2016, the Tunisian news outlet Akher Khabar Online reported that Abu Iyadh managed to leave Libya for northern Mali, where he resided under the protection of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Ultimately, the report proved to be correct since Abu Iyadh now have been confirmed killed alongside Jama’ah Nusrat Al-Islam
Abu Iyadh is not the only Tunisian jihadist militant who has sought refuge in the Sahel. In November 2016, Nigerien security forces arrested his associate Wannes Ben Hassine Fékih and later extradited him to Tunisia. Fékih, accused of planning the Bardo attack in Tunis, was condemned to ten years in prison. Another former senior Ansar al-Sharia member, Moez Fezzani, met a similar fate in Sudan, his arrest was made possible through exchanges of intelligence between Italian, Sudanese, and Libyan authorities, and likewise extradited to Tunisia for prosecution, where he two months after his return was sentenced to thirty years in prison.
On July 29, French forces of Operation Barkhane conducted a military operation in the Tilemsi Valley, specifically in the area of Ersane near Tabankort, Gao Region. The operation was initiated by an airstrike followed by a ground assault. The operation resulted in the killing of Himama Ould Lekhweir (alt. Hamama Ould al-Khuwayyir) and at least thirteen of his associates, all Tilemsi Arabs including seven from Ould Lekhweir’s Lemhar tribe and six others from the Ladim tribe, according to tribal sources. However, the death of Ould Lekhweir was refuted by Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), as reported on Twitter by Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Maaly. Ould Lekhweir was a former member of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and in particular the katiba (brigade) “Oussama Ben Laden”. Regardless of the confusion about Ould Lekhweir’s fate, the death toll following the operation stands at fourteen killed and at least two combatants taken prisoners.
In August 2013, MUJAO merged with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al-Muwaqq’iun bi-Dima into Al-Mourabitoun, the merger was arranged in connection with two coordinated attacks against the Areva-operated uranium mine in Arlit and Nigerien army barracks in Agadez, Niger. Ould Lekhweir had a record of trafficking and was a close associate of late MUJAO-founder and Al-Mourabitoun emir Abderrahmane Ould El Amar (“Ahmed al-Tilemsi”). Ould Lekhweir was arrested in 2010 amidst a major counter-trafficking operation in the area of Lemzareb, Mauritania, but subsequently released.
Himama Ould Lekhweir (“Hamza al-Tabankorti”) has been described as an explosives expert and potential successor of late Al-Mourabitoun emir and JNIM co-founder Mohamed Lahbous (“Mohamed Ould Nouini”), Lahbous was a military commander who among other responsibilities directed the group’s regional operations, such as the attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast. Lahbous was killed together with several other senior JNIM commanders and fighters amidst a coordinated Barkhane operation on February 14 against targets in the areas of Tin Zaouatene, Boughessa, and Aouhou.
Moreover, this operation came in the wake of a presumed French airstrike a week ago in the southern Libyan town of Ubari, a strike which targeted the leadership of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Libya. Ramzi Mansour (“Ramzi al-Tunisi”), a senior Tunisian AQIM commander was killed in the strike. Al-Tunisi was a recruiter, trainer, and facilitator considered to be the organization’s number three in Libya, The organization’s Algerian top leader in Libya, Moussa Bourahla was killed in a previous strike on March 24, also in Ubari, for which the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced its responsibility.
In the evening of July 25, an unknown aircraft conducted an airstrike that struck a vehicle in front of a house in the Al-Sharib district of Ubari. An area mainly inhabited by Libyan and Malian Tuareg. The airstrike briefly interrupted electricity and telecommunications. The air raid was initially assumed to have been carried out by the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), considering recent U.S. action on March 24 in a nearby area of Ubari, an airstrike that killed two militants of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) including the Algerian senior commander Moussa Bourahla, known by his nom de guerre “Musa Abu Dawud”. However, AFRICOM denied responsibility for the latest airstrike in a communication to Airwars. U.S. denial strongly points to France as the author of the operation, taking into account previous action and its strategic interests in the region, although this has still not been confirmed.
Speculations have gone wild about the target of the airstrike and individuals killed. Some Libyan news outlets reported that six individuals including three Malians, two Algerians and a Libyan named as “Abu Laith al-Libi” had been killed, while others said that the deputy emir of Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and the emir of AQIM’s Sahara Region, Yahya Abu al-Hammam (Djamel Okacha) had been targeted together with Katibat al-Furqan commander Talha al-Mauritani. A source close to AQIM acknowledged in a communication (published on Twitter by French researcher Romain Caillet) that Abu al-Hammam and Al-Mauritani were those targeted, although not present in Libya, but on Malian soil fighting the “occupying Crusaders”, the same source further indicated that the airstrike had been carried out by the United Arab Emirates. However, according to information received by MENASTREAM, there was only one individual killed in the Ubari strike, namely AQIM commander Ramzi Mansour, a Tunisian going by the nom de guerre Ramzi al-Tunisi, an aide of late Moussa Bourahla, killed in the previously mentioned airstrike by the U.S. in Ubari. Another Tunisian, late Al-Mourabitoun member Mokhtar Akkouri was killed in an airstrike in Gardhah al-Shati in November 2016.
Timely, two days ahead of Mali’s presidential elections, the emir of Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Iyad Ag Ghaly made his first appearance since the announcement of the merger in March last year, which gathered several militant factions into a Sahelian jihadi conglomerate. A beard grey of age and whitened by the sun, cut into a montage of wooden blinds with a laptop placed on a table in front, the long-serving Tuareg sheik and militant leader began to read out his speech accompanied by gusts of the desert wind and reflections of sun rays and silhouettes of tree leaves and branches waving above.
The multifaceted political message delivered was motivated by expectations on the jihadi alliance to clarify its stance amidst major political events and developments in Mali, while underscoring that the issue of the soon to be held elections already had been addressed in a previous message by the group’s Moroccan qadi (judge) Ali Maychou, more commonly known by his nom de guerre Abu Abderrahmane Al-Sanhaji or Al-Maghribi. Ag Ghaly dismissed the forthcoming elections as a mirage that only exploits people’s illusions, a democratic process which the Shariah opposes, further advising the audience that religion is the right way. Al-Sanhaji had earlier urged Malians to boycott the elections since they only would maintain a system of corruption, oppression, and continued French occupation, the only solution is jihad, according to Al-Sanhaji.
On the field, the group has suffered a series of tactical defeats with a dozen senior and mid-level commanders killed so far in 2018, and it had limited success in terms of outcome of the military operations where significant means were deployed, although the complex attack against the Burkinabe army’s Chief of Staff (EMGA) headquarters, the failed assault on the French Embassy in Ouagadougou in March this year, and the complex attack which destroyed the G5Sahel-Force headquarters in Sevaré a month ago were highly symbolic and indicated that the group maintained significant operational capabilities and the ability to strike hard targets across the subregion. Nevertheless, Ag Ghaly proclaimed that France had failed in achieving its goals and that the prolonged “occupation” and the numerous operations only had multiplied the ranks and popular support for the “mujahideen”, additionally, militant expansion in neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. In light of the alleged failure on the part of France, Ag Ghaly accused the former colonial power of letting the Malian army commit massacres in Macina, Boulkessi and elsewhere, crimes that Ag Ghaly promised not to be left unanswered. Considering France’s central role in Mali, one gets a bit confounded that France does not use its leverage to pressure Malian authorities to put an end to these practices, essentially this is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, France did not hasten to express concerns over the massacres in Nantaka and Kobaka, Mopti, preceded by Canada and the United States. Meanwhile, Ag Ghaly puts further blame on France for igniting an ethnic and tribal war, or a war of jahiliyyah, referencing the tribal wars during the “age of ignorance” in pre-Islamic Arabia. To be seen in the light of France’s training and support of local militias engaged in hyper-localized conflicts catalyzed by political and tribal dividends, conflicts that currently are playing out in the Mali-Niger borderlands, rural Gao, and the Gourma.
Ag Ghaly warns the people in Mali and Azawad about diverting from the objective to fight the “crusaders” and their allies, with a reminder of the punishment for killing fellow Muslims, citing the Quran on the subject of killing believers.
But whoever deliberately slays another believer, his requital shall be hell, therein to abide; and God will condemn him, and will reject him, and will prepare for him awesome suffering. (Surah An-Nisa 4:93)
Thus, a pointer to the massacres that have taken place across northern and central Mali. Mass atrocities have been perpetrated by government forces, ethnic-based militias, and militants including ISGS and JNIM itself, although in the case of JNIM supposedly unintentional IED attacks that nevertheless have caused carnage with large numbers of civilian victims. In the context of ethnic and tribal fighting and collaboration with French forces of Operation Barkhane, Ag Ghaly calls on movements and militias who have allied with France to repent and return to their religion. Presumably, a communication primarily intended for armed groups in the north where such a message would have more penetrative power and potentially a more significant impact vis-à-vis militias composed of Dozos, Dogon, and Bambara in central Mali. While the militias, the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA) have conducted counter-militancy operations alongside Operation Barkhane or under French air cover against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), JNIM has largely been on the sideline, with only limited armed engagements with the aforementioned militias. However, in this context JNIM appears to portray itself as a broker, at the same time a subtle outreach which could be translated as the need for support, contradicting previous statements.
Ag Ghaly took the opportunity to express his support for imprisoned members who he calls on to stand firm, and says that no efforts will be spared to free them, note that JNIM constituent Katiba Macina freed prisoners in Banamba in late 2016 and that a senior Al-Mourabitoun cadre and former spokesperson made a breakout recently from the high-security prison in Koutoukalé, Niger.
A central focus of JNIM has been the launch and operationalization of the G5Sahel-Force, clearly reflected by the complex attacks in Ouagadougou and Sevaré, Ag Ghaly took the opportunity to lambast those Muslim countries that have provided the nascent regional counter-terrorism force with financial aid, materiel and other forms of support. He goes on by saying that war on Islam is a global war, and the G5Sahel-Force a device set up to eliminate the Islamic project in Mali. Ag Ghaly’s Algerian deputy, Yahya Abu al-Hammam, earlier described the G5Sahel-Force as another French intervention succeeding Operation Serval and Barkhane.
Ag Ghaly concluded his speech by articulating his support for the people in Gaza and Al-Quds (Jerusalem), forwarding thoughts and prayers for victory in defending Islamic sanctities. This in accordance with JNIM’s template for visual recordings which end with “Here we begin..and at Al-Aqsa we meet”.
In a previously unpublished “proof of life” video named “Appeal of the detainees”, dated October 1, 2017 by Al-Zallaqa, the media wing of Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) – Malian soldiers held in captivity by the group, appeal to the Malian people, the Malian government and in particular the president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita for help to find a solution, or as one of the prisoners stated “we call on each and every one of the Malian people for help in order to “bring us out of this crisis”.
The recording begins with an obligatory Qur’an quote, this in particular frequently used in the context of taking prisoners of war:
“So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens. That [is the command].” (Qur’an 47:4)
All prisoners give short testimonies, mentioning their rank, name, service number, and also the date and location of their capture, the largest group included five taken prisoners amidst a mass-casualty attack in Nampala last summer, with combat footage and sequences showing the capture of some of the soldiers, although those taken in Nampala were already featured in a previous release about two weeks after the attack. The prisoners look to be in relatively good shape considering the circumstances and having spent almost one and a half year in captivity, without disregarding the heavy emotional toll levied on the prisoners.
A second group of prisoners consisted of three soldiers captured amidst another mass-casualty attack, namely in Boulkessi on March 5 earlier this year, the first attack claimed by Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, just two days after the formalization of the merger between four jihadist factions active in Mali and in the border areas of Niger and Burkina Faso.
Three other soldiers were taken in three separate incidents, one during an ambush on the road between Diabaly and Nampala, the second amidst last year’s prison break in Banamba and a third taken in Boulkessi in early November last year under unclear circumstances.
Some of the prisoners mentioned in their testimonies that they were held by “Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin”. Several of the prisoners were given the oppurtunity to greet their families including wifes, children, parents, friends and collegues. Obvious and understandable, a unison and desperate call for help with hope of being released, although under the watchful eye of their captivators.
Currently there are as already mentioned eleven Malian soldiers, and five foreign nationals held by JNIM as publicized by the organization, although the fate of U.S. citizen Jeffrey Woodke and the identity of his captivators remains unknown.
Below is a list detailing name, date and location of the capture as well as images of the eleven Malian soldiers held in JNIM captivity.
Early on Sunday morning, an attack by unknown gunmen targeted a Malian army position in Almoustarat, located in the Tilemsi Valley, Gao Region, about 150km north of the regional capital Gao. The assailants cut off the local telephone network hampering communications from the village and also reporting about the events that had taken place. A not uncommon measure taken by jihadists and bandits in connection to armed attacks in the region.
Local media reported that a booby-trapped vehicle struck the Malian army position, causing panic among the soldiers with some fleeing towards Bourem. The provisional casualty toll reported late on Sunday counted 7 dead soldiers, 17 severely wounded (2 in a state of coma), 16 gone missing, and 3 pick-ups with heavy weapons mounted and ammunition seized. French Barkhane forces dispatched to the site of the attack evacuated the wounded to Gao.
The Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the attack – The assault targeted a base used as staging area for combing operations against the Mujahideen, and as a recruitment center for spies and agents working for the benefit of occupying Barkhane forces, but also the exacerbated frequency and widths of public violations of Muslim sanctities in the town, the statement said. Further, the attack was carried out from multiple axes, initiated with a Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) striking the garrison headquarters (perpetrator named by his nom de guerre Ahmad al-Ansari), followed by groups of ‘inghimasiyyin’ (commandos) and raiders who completely destroyed and burned the barracks, 7 vehicles and 2 trucks and also seized weapons and military material before returning to safety, the statement continued.
This is not the first time Malian forces have been attacked in Almoustarat, on March 25 unknown gunmen attacked an army checkpoint leaving 3 soldiers dead and 4 wounded. The presence of Malian government forces is highly contested in the area, not just by jihadists, but also armed groups, drug traffickers and smugglers. The Tilemsi Valley functions as a transit hub for trafficking routes and connects the regions of Gao and Kidal, therefore of strategic importance.
Just a few days ago on May 3, was the MINUSMA ‘Super Camp’ in Timbuktu subjected to a mortar barrage which left 1 peacekeeper dead and 9 wounded, JNIM claimed responsibility.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.