West Africa: Mapping the contours of jihadist groups in the Sahel

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The Sahel region, an area of ​​3 million square kilometers, has been a breeding ground for Islamic jihad groups in recent years.

Today there are no fewer than seven insurgent groups in the region, scattered in six countries. The area stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and includes a dozen countries. These include Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

Jihadist groups have made use of a number of framework conditions that are fueling local grievances in the Sahel. These include endemic poverty, inequality, high unemployment, illiteracy, ethnic divisions and poor governance.

The groups have advanced by entering the vast unregulated rooms where governments have largely been absent. Here they have helped to solve land lease problems, protect cattle from theft and prosecute thieves. They have also provided social assistance, distributed food and medicine, offered monetary incentives, and provided some forms of government services.

But they are also responsible for atrocities that have killed thousands. For example, mass kidnappings, attacks on civilians in villages, schools and attacks on military bases.

Since 2015, the Islamic State invasion of Syria and Iraq, also known as Daesh, has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. This followed the establishment of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara by al-Sahrawi, who pledged allegiance to IS. In the same year, Boko Haram swore allegiance to the Islamic State. This led to the establishment of his breakaway faction – the Islamic State Province of West Africa.

The Islamic State in West Africa Province and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara are known to have attacked military bases in Nigeria, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The two groups are also known to kidnap civilians for ransom. This despite the murder of some important commanders within the groups. Many of these deaths were attributed to France following the 2013 military intervention in Mali.

Recent reports point to the fate of two important leaders. Reports of the murder of the leader of the Greater Sahara Islamic State, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, have been confirmed. However, there were no reports of the death of the leader of the West African Province of the Islamic State, Abu Musab Al-Barnawi.

Jihadist groups have continued despite repeated losses. In light of recent developments, it is worth assessing how large the presence of the Islamic State is in Syria and Iraq in the Sahel.

Origin of entry into the Sahel zone

Before the establishment of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, al-Sahrawi was a member of the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, which fought for independence from Morocco. In 2012 he joined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib and later became co-leader of a Malian Islamist group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

He later rose to become a high-ranking commander in al-Mourabitoun, another al-Qaeda-affiliated group that is currently part of the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslim (Group in Support of Islam and Muslims).

His promise to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was denied by al-Mourabitoun’s leader, Mokthar Belmokthar, in order to maintain the group’s loyalty to al-Qaeda. This led to the secession of al-Sahrawi in October 2016 and the formal establishment of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

The leadership of the Islamic State in Syria and the Iraq core officially accept the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in April 2019.

In 2018, the al-Barnawi-led Islamic State province in West Africa was estimated to have 3,500 fighters. It operates primarily in parts of northeast Nigeria such as Borno State, the epicenter of the Boko Haram uprising, and the Lake Chad Basin, which includes Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

In the same year, it was estimated that the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara had 300 fighters. It operates mainly in the Liptako-Gourma region and other parts of Mali and Niger. The group’s relationship with Ansaroul Islam, a Burkina Faso-based jihadist group, has increased the number of its fighters, as have defectors from former fighters from the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslim.

More recently, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has expanded its activities to areas in Mali such as the Mopti, Gao and Ménaka regions, the eastern regions of Burkina Faso and the Tillabery and Tahoua regions in Niger. The goal of both groups remains the establishment of a Salafist-jihadist caliphate in the Sahel region under Sharia law.

Despite the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the ISIS core, the Islamic State in Greater Sahara and the Islamic State Province of West Africa continued attacks. The death of al-Shawari and the unconfirmed death of al-Barnawi are unlikely to materially change the operations of these groups in the Sahel.

Defeat IS in the Sahel region

Jihadist groups have demonstrated over the years their ability to put in place internal governance structures that allow continuity in the event of unforeseen events such as the death of a leader or commanding officer. The recent takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan further strengthens these groups.

While national and international security forces continually seek to degrade, dismantle, and defeat these groups through the arrest or killing of high value targets, a more results-oriented approach would be to address the underlying political and socio-economic factors driving their activities in the region. In addition, increased efforts to discredit the influence of these groups must be a priority.

Folahanmi Aina, PhD candidate in Leadership Studies, King’s College London


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