Intense fighting once again threatens what little stability remains in the Sahel region. In recent weeks, though, the worst bouts have not been between militants and international or regional security forces – although these conflicts are also escalating at an alarming rate. Now, the most disruptive violence stems from clashes between rival jihadist factions as they battle for supremacy in the war-torn desert.
Most fighting takes place between jihadist groups on opposite sides of the al-Qaeda / ISIS divide. Whether directly, through proxies or via their affiliates and allies, the two groups engage in constant fighting across many of the least stable parts of the Islamic world, including Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia – and, of course, the Sahel.
Who has skin in the game?
The Sahel is now home to numerous deadly jihadist groups, each with slight variations in their ideology. Some are closely aligned to either al-Qaeda or ISIS; others are largely or entirely self-directed.
First is Boko Haram, the ISIS-affiliated Nigerian Islamists, which gained international notoriety in 2014 when they kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. The group is also known as Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). In recent years it has expanded its operations out of Nigeria and into the Sahel, most notably Chad and Niger.
Another ISIS-affiliated group, Islamic State in The Greater Sahara (ISGS), operates across Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. ISGS originally pledged allegiance to the regional al-Qaeda branch, Al-Qaeda in The Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) before switching to the ISIS franchise of jihad. Although both have ISIS links, it is unclear how much (if any) cooperation exists between ISGS and Boko Haram.
Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) is al-Qaeda’s Sahel branch and was formed as part of an international strategy of al-Qaeda unity. This so-called ‘doctrine of unity’ has facilitated informal relationships between al-Qaeda affiliates, bringing them together to consolidate control of territory and access to resources. JNIM was formed in 2017 when jihadists released a video announcing the merger between four militias: the Sahara branch of AQIM, Al Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front (MLF).
And then there’s Ansoural Islam, which was founded in 2016 by Ibrahim Malam Dicko, a radical preacher from the country’s Fulani community. Dicko resented what he saw as the long-term neglect of the Fulani by Burkina Faso’s government and aimed to re-establish the historic Fulani empire. Ansoural Islam was one of the first groups to launch major attacks against the security forces of Burkina Faso in December 2016. Dicko was (probably) killed in an airstrike a few months later, but the group has continued to capitalise on the region’s growing instability and spread into the wider Sahel. Bafflingly, despite credible rumours of links between Ansoural Islam and the majority-Fulani MLF (now part of al-Qaeda’s Sahel branch, the JNIM), Dicko is thought to have been on the cusp of pledging allegiance to ISIS when he either died or was replaced as leader by his younger brother, Jafar.
Why all The in-Fighting?
ISIS announced on 7th May that its militants have been engaged in fierce fighting with al-Qaeda affiliates in recent weeks across Mali and Burkina Faso. The group said it was directing significant resources to target al-Qaeda affiliates in the region. It also accused JNIM of blocking fuel deliveries and arresting locals suspected of cooperating with ISIS.
It makes sense for ISIS to pile the pressure on JNIM. The al-Qaeda-affiliated group has now agreed to hold talks with the Mali government, as well as various militant forces in the region. If JNIM is flirting with moving towards a form of government-endorsed legitimacy, this could make it very hard for ISIS and its affiliates to compete, especially when it comes to recruiting local fighters. ISIS has previously argued that JNIM’s willingness to negotiate with governments undermines its jihadist credentials.
The uptick in violence also comes at a time when ISIS is increasing its aggression against regional African state armies and international troops based in the Sahel. The drastic increase in activity could be a sign that the group has received a new influx of funds. It could be that the group is trying to take advantage of decreasing in military presence amid Covid-19 containment measures. Or it could simply be a sign of desperation. For now, answers are thin on the ground.
Confused? So is the Sahel.
The changing allegiances and power struggles of militant groups in the Sahel are certainly complex. But for all the talk of franchises, affiliates, mergers and acquisitions, the reality is that these are often unsophisticated, violent groups fighting over control of barely existent resources, in areas where there are complete vacuums of state control.
In any case, violence in the Sahel is raging at an unprecedented level. Over 500 civilians were killed in Mali last year alone. It’s a vicious cycle: instability breeds discontent and desperation, leading more young men to join extremist groups, contributing to rising violence and greater instability.
What Happens Now?
While international military intervention helps prevent Islamist groups consolidating too much territorial control, it does nothing to address or mitigate the underlying drivers of the conflict, which include extreme drought, poverty and a lack of social services or even government presence in much of the region. For as long as these issues loom large, jihadist groups looking for recruits will have easy pickings.
The prospect of talks between the JNIM and Mali government is a positive step forward, but for any chance of lasting peace, all these militant groups will need to be brought to the negotiating table. Otherwise, as we’ve seen, rival groups will likely step up violence in a bid to disrupt and deter talks that could undermine their power in the region. There are no easy answers in the Sahel, but investing in deprived, ignored communities and opening up a dialogue with insurgent groups would be a good start.
Lead Photo: Sand dancing in the Sahara Desert, by Wolfgang Hasselmann.