The End of the Sahelian Anomaly: How the Global Conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida Finally Came to West Africa
By Héni Nsaibia, Caleb Weiss, CTC Sentinel , July 2020
Aug 1, 2020 - 3:02:42 PM
Abstract: After the emergence of the Islamic State in the Sahel (or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) in 2015, the group existed in an uneasy alliance with al-Qa`ida’s various franchises in the region. Proving to be an exception to the rule that al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State fight each other in whichever territory they co-inhabit, the Sahel was for several years spared from such jihadi-on-jihadi fighting, in part because of personal relationships between jihadis in the rival groups. However, in recent months, this trend has been bucked by fighting between the two jihadi forces in Mali and Burkina Faso. As the two forces expand in the Sahel, a number of factors explain the growing tensions between the two sides, including the hardening of ideological divisions, pressure from Islamic State Central for its regional satellite to take on a more confrontational approach toward its rival, and tensions created by the growing ambition of the Islamic State affiliate in the Sahel.
Persistent violence has raged on for more than eight years in the Sahel, where al-Qa`ida’s Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are driving sub-regional insurgencies in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. After the emergence of ISGS in 2015, the two rival jihadi franchises for several years existed within an uneasy alliance in the region. This relationship was often described as the “Sahelian exception,”1 drawing attention to the lack of conflict between the two amid intra-jihadi fighting between al-Qa`ida and Islamic State affiliates in other conflict theaters around the world.
For instance, internecine battles between the Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province in Afghanistan,2 al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State in Yemen,3 al-Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia,4 and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State in Syria5 have all transpired since the inception of the Islamic State. Despite this precedent, JNIM and ISGS were reported as still cooperating in the region by the United Nations as recently as February 2020.6
While it is true that ISGS had intermittent issues with the various al-Qa`ida franchises in the Sahel in the years after its emergence, these issues had historically always stopped short of outright violence, with the sides able to deconflict before disagreements came to blows. This so-called ‘exceptionalism,’ however, appears to have recently run its course. Beginning last year, tensions and violent clashes between the two sides have been reported in several areas of northern and central Mali, and northern and eastern Burkina Faso.7
The recent fighting between JNIM and ISGS, which since March 2019 has formally operated as a subgroup with the Islamic State’s West Africa Province,a has sparked debate among observers and analysts about the nature of the relationship between the two. Some argue that these groups have historically been two clearly distinct entities with no cooperation between them,8 or at best opportunistic or circumstantial cooperation, while others state that they regularly coordinate and conduct operations to jointly control territory.9 Proponents of the former argument tend to contend that the historical lack of violence is explained by indifference and that clashes were inevitable,10 while proponents of the latter argument tend to find that the lack of perceived violence is indicative of outright amity and cooperation.11
This article seeks to offer a nuanced perspective of the JNIM and ISGS relationship. The authors find that while there never was a “grand alliance” between JNIM and ISGS, the two groups benefited from cooperation on the ground owing to their shared histories and the personal relationships that transcended the global jihadi rivalry. Over time, however, significant local tension between the jihadi franchises developed, which undercut the previously built-up goodwill and led to violent clashes between them across the Sahel.
The first part of the article examines the special relationship that was forged between ISGS and JNIM. In looking at the “Sahelian” anomaly, it examines the common origins of both ISGS and JNIM, before assessing what the authors identify as the two key drivers and manifestations of the previous special relationship between the groups in the Sahel: amicable personal relationships and coordinated actions in the Sahel. The second part of the article looks at how the groups have descended into open warfare since the summer of 2019. It provides a timeline of clashes between the entities and then identifies and examines a number of drivers of tension and conflict between the groups, which help to explain why the special relationship collapsed. The article concludes by discussing the future outlook for the conflict and the implications of the intra-jihadi clashes for the Sahel writ large.
Part One: The Forging of a Special Relationship
The Common Origins of ISGS and JNIM In discussing the relationship between JNIM and ISGS, it is important to briefly describe the common origins of both entities. This history provides important context that helps explain why the two organizations continued to cooperate, even after one set of jihadis left al-Qa`ida’s fold.b In this respect, ISGS can be traced back to the former Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a splinter group that left al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2011.12
Originally founded by Sultan Ould Bady, Ahmed al Tilemsi, Hamada Ould al-Kheiry (or Kheirou), and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui,13 MUJAO continued to work with AQIM and other al-Qa`ida franchises in the region, especially during the 2012 takeover of northern Mali.14 During al-Qa`ida’s control of northern Mali, many of MUJAO’s leaders became influential in Gao, including al-Sahraoui, who subsequently became the leader of the proclaimed ‘Mujahideen Shura Council of the Islamic Emirate of Gao.’15 Following the French-led intervention that removed al-Qa`ida from its northern Mali territory in January 2013, much of MUJAO merged with another al-Qa`ida group in the region, Al-Mulathimin (or the Al-Muwaqqioon Bid-Dima Brigade) led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, to form Al-Mourabitoun and pledged allegiance directly to al-Qa`ida’s overall leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.16
Both Tilemsi and Belmokhtar, however, would step aside to allow Egyptian fighter Abu Bakr al-Masri to command Al-Mourabitoun.c Following al-Masri’s death in April 2014, Tilemsi, a Malian Arab, would then take over until his death in December 2014.17 It was after Tilemsi’s death and the emergence of the Islamic State that Al-Mourabitoun would start to split. In May 2015, the aforementioned al-Sahraoui released an audio message in which he pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State on behalf of Al-Mourabitoun, declaring the formation of a new group called the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS).18 This was quickly rebuffed by the group and Belmokhtar himself, but confirmed a splinter had taken place because it showed that only part of the group had defected to the Islamic State.19 Regardless of the confusion, it was clear that the Islamic State now had its first loyal band of fighters in the Sahel.d
In late 2015, Al-Mourabitoun minus the defectors, renewed its loyalty to al-Qa`ida by joining AQIM’s Saharan branch,20 heralded by a series of successive terrorist attacks in Mali,21 Burkina Faso,22 and Ivory Coast.23 In March 2017, AQIM’s Sahara wing, along with Al-Mourabitoun and two other franchises, the AQIM front group Ansar Dine and its southern Malian contingent Katiba Macina, merged to form the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM).24 Iyad Ag Ghaly, the Tuareg leader of Ansar Dine, was given the reins over the conglomerate and pledged his allegiance to Abdelmalek Droukdel of AQIM, al-Qa`ida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Hibatullah Akhundzada of the Afghan Taliban.25
To make the groups, leaders, and affiliations discussed in this article clearer, the authors have delineated these relationships in Table 1.
Table 1: Overview of the Sahelian jihadi constellation since 2012, including top leaders, dates of existence, and relationships with other groups.
What Drove and Embodied the Special Relationship Despite the early defection of a wing of Al-Mourabitoun and public disagreements over who actually joined the Islamic State, this did not stop the local wings of two global jihadi franchises from communicating or even cooperating on the ground in the Sahel. In this respect, the authors assess there were two main sources of cooperation between JNIM and ISGS: amicable personal relationships along with crossovers of personnel and coordinated actions.
Personal Relationships and Crossovers of Personnel The first and perhaps most important driver of cooperation between JNIM and ISGS was that senior members of both organizations maintained interpersonal ties with each other despite belonging to rival groups. The web of relationships was to a significant degree a function of the just discussed common origin story of both entities. The amicability this produced was a key manifestation of the special relationship. This is perhaps unsurprising as the deep historical ties between local clans and tribes have transcended the group labels, allowing for a greater ease in cooperation.f As such, these close relationships formed by the shared roots in the AQIM network and years of fighting together in the Sahel contributed to the so-called “Sahelien exception.”
This can be seen when, almost a year after the creation of the so-called ‘Islamic State in the Greater Sahara,’ Saharan al-Qa`ida commander Yahya Abu al-Hammam was quite open about AQIM’s ongoing relationship with al-Sahraoui and the would-be Islamic State group.g In a January 2016 interview with Al-Akhbar, a Mauritanian news outlet, al-Hammam was even asked about his relationship with al-Sahraoui and his group, stating that “it is still a normal relationship and we have a connection with them.”26h
In addition to relationships between leaders of groups, evidence has also emerged about the presence of lower-level liaisons that have worked to maintain relations between the two groups, who likely benefited from the common origins of both organizations. For instance, local media has reported that Amadou Kouffa, the emir of JNIM’s Katiba Macina, personally met with Illiassou Djibo (or Petit Chafori), a Fulani emir within ISGS with a long history of previously being within the al-Qa`ida milieu in the Sahel, in early 2017 to discuss cooperation.27i Perhaps most notably, however, at least three individuals from al-Qa`ida’s ranks were identified by the United Nations as having acted as liaisons to al-Sahraoui’s ISGS. In August 2018, the UN Panel of Experts on Mali identified Abdallah Ag Albakaye, a senior leader based in Talataye within JNIM’s constituent group Ansar Dine, as a coordinating official between JNIM and ISGS in the Gao region of northern Mali.28 Several ISGS fighters arrested by a joint force of French soldiers and Tuareg and Dawsahak militiamen also said that they received orders from Talataye and specifically mentioned Abdallah Ag Albakaye.29 Another commander and senior aide of JNIM emir Iyad Ag Ghaly, Malick Ag Wanasnate, was in charge of these liaison efforts near In-Delimane in Mali’s Menaka region until his death in early 2018, according to the United Nations.30 Following Wanasnate’s death, the United Nations reported that Faknan Ag Taki, a JNIM commander in northern Menaka, took over this responsibility.31
Another JNIM commander, Almansour Ag Alkassoum, who acted as JNIM’s emir in the Gourma region,32 has also played a role in facilitating meetings with ISGS. For example, a summit in late 2017 between ISGS figures and Alkassoum related to ending what JNIM regarded as ISGS’ excessive civilian-targeted violence against Imghad Tuareg and Dawsahak communities amid the jihadi groups’ conflict with two pro-government Tuareg militias.j Following this meeting, Iyad Ag Ghaly, the overall emir of JNIM, appeared in a video in July 2018 and warned against “killing fellow Muslims,” referring to the various ethnic battles being fought across Mali.33
Another individual known as Fally Ould Kadana, a member of ISGS, was named by a former Malian rebel fighter as an intermediary working with JNIM commander Inkarouta Ag Nokh in Mali’s Menaka region.34 And in early November 2018, French forces arrested a jihadi commander known as “Marouchet,” a longtime veteran in al-Qa`ida’s ranks in the Sahel, near In-Ates, Niger.35 Reporting suggests he was heavily tied to both ISGS and JNIM,36 illustrating the fluidity between the two organizations.
In addition to liaisons and meetings between JNIM and ISGS, the two groups, according to the authors’ assessment, found it easier to find common ground because of crossovers of personnel. The Sahel’s long history of militancy, in which armed groups have often drawn from a common pool of fighters,k has allowed for a greater fluidity of militants among the region’s many armed groups. Individuals without any defined allegiance, who act as what could be termed ‘armed group nomads,’ often shift from group for hyper-localized tribal dynamics or transactional purposes. The networks from which JNIM and ISGS are constituted are exceptionally complex with ethnic and tribal interconnections often transcending local, regional, and global jihadi affiliations, therefore making JNIM and ISGS (at least for a while) somewhat resistant to the forces driving al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State apart in other parts of the world.
One such ‘armed group nomad’ cited in a recent U.N. report is Najim Ould Baba Ahmed (or Nweijam), who is frequently mentioned in the context of militant activities in the Mali-Niger borderlands. He has, at various times, been called a member of MUJAO, Al-Mourabitoun, and of several militias such as the loyalist and ex-rebel factions of the Arab Movement of Azawad and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA).37 Interchangeably described as a commander and facilitator, Nweijam is suspected of leading a group of 30-40 Fulani Tolebe combatants that is believed by the United Nations to have carried out several attacks against local and foreign forces in the area of In-Delimane.38l It is likely that Nweijam has also facilitated attacks for ISGS given his stronghold within the group’s zone of influence.m
Coordinated Actions Beyond the amicable personal relations and exchanges of personnel as described above, joint and coordinated actions also help forge the special relationship between the groups. Though more may exist, at least five instances of ISGS-JNIM cooperation in raids can be cited. Significantly, in none of these instances were there dual or competing claims by the groups, unlike for other attacks discussed later in this section. Instead, in each of the five instances, the attack was claimed by one of the groups while independent reporting later found that militants from both ISGS and JNIM took part in the raid. First, in November 2017, the two groups launched a coordinated assault on a joint MINUSMA and Malian military grouping in the area of In-Delimane, located between Ansongo and Menaka in northeastern Mali.39n Then, on May 14, 2019, ISGS fighters carried out a complex ambush near Tongo Tongo, Niger, which killed almost 30 Nigerien troops.40 It was later indicated that a JNIM commander identified as Inkarouta Ag Nokh (or Abu Alghabass) reportedly provided fighters for the operation, after which spoils were shared between the organizations.41
Not long after that assault, ISGS carried out another large-scale attack against a military outpost in Koutougou, Burkina Faso, in August 2019.42 However, the French researcher Mathieu Pellerin assessed in a December 2019 report that it was likely another joint assault with JNIM.43 A month later, JNIM claimed a near-simultaneous assault against a Malian national guard camp in Mondoro and the base of the regional G5 Sahel Force in Boulkessi, both situated in central Mali’s Mopti Region along the border with Burkina Faso.44 Similarly to Pellerin, a coordinator for a Sahel-based NGO made the observation to one of the authors that ISGS fighters took part in the double attack.45
Finally, on December 10, 2019, ISGS launched the single deadliest attack on security forces recorded in Niger, killing more than 70 soldiers.46 Afterward, Malian media reported that two of the fighters killed in jihadi ranks were members of the Malian rebel group HCUA, but they were locally identified as actually affiliated with JNIM, indicating that the raid was likely supported by JNIM.47 It is evident that these instances were part of a larger coordinated offensive in the Liptako-Gourma (or tri-state border area of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso) in which numerous military outposts were successively overrun by both groups. This forced the militaries of each respective country to tactically withdraw from their respective border areas, leaving previously contested areas under JNIM and ISGS control.48
In some instances, operations claimed by each organization appeared to show some levels of coordination between the franchises—though without partaking in joint raids. Take, for example, when ISGS militants assassinated Hamid Koundaba, the mayor of Koutougou, Burkina Faso, on April 8, 2018.49 On the very next day, JNIM claimed responsibility for an IED on Burkinabe forces who were sent to reinforce the area following the assassination.50 This type of coordination was also seen in the intermittent conflicts between the jihadis and a variety of groups such as the pro-Bamako Tuareg and Dawsahak militias, the Imghad Tuareg, the Allies Self Defense Group (GATIA), and the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) in the Menaka region of Mali. In early 2019, JNIM trumpeted being at war with MSA and GATIA by claiming a series of attacks in the Gao and Menaka regions.51 These attacks were occurring simultaneously with assaults by ISGS against the militias.52 The United Nations has also confirmed specific instances of where JNIM and ISGS have cooperated, including the aforementioned attacks on GATIA and MSA in Menaka.53
As outlined above, there have been several instances of JNIM and ISGS cooperation in Mali. In Kidal in northern Mali, JNIM leader Ag Ghaly’s historical stronghold,54 ISGS was able to operate unimpeded as shown by several attacks in Algeria just across the Algeria-Mali border, likely indicating a certain degree of acceptance on the part of JNIM. In fact, these attacks indicate ISGS continued to have a presence in the area until at least late 2019, months after clashes began between the groups in other regions.55 o
The two groups also may have coordinated a hostage-taking operation in Benin. In May 2019, two French tourists were kidnapped by jihadis in northern Benin who then took the pair to Burkina Faso where they were to be transited to northern Mali.56 The two were later freed in a French special forces operation in Burkina Faso, during which two French soldiers were killed.57 After the raid, French officials stated that the group that sponsored the operation was JNIM’s Katiba Macina without referring to the group actually holding the hostages.58 But it was reported by the French publication Le Monde that Burkinabe intelligence found that the kidnapping in Benin was performed by militants linked to ISGS who were then going to transfer the French nationals to Katiba Macina.59 p
Cooperation between JNIM and ISGS has also been reported by French and U.S. military officials. For instance, General Bruno Guibert, the former overall commander of France’s Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, confirmed in 2018 that JNIM and ISGS have launched joint assaults across the Sahel, though he cautioned against the idea of any grand alliance between the groups.60 For his part, Brigadier General Dagvin R.M. Anderson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, noted in an interview published in February 2020 that the United States had identified instances where JNIM and ISGS have cooperated and coordinated in attacks.61
General Anderson was speaking after clashes had erupted between ISGS and JNIM but before the relationship between them had fully deteriorated. His view at the time was that “JNIM provides unity of purpose, unity of effort but not necessarily unity of command. JNIM and ISIS-GS operate together and even coordinate attacks together.”62 Anderson also stated that JNIM and ISGS were “less concerned about who has complete control locally, focusing instead on propagating their extremist ideology and working toward the greater cause of establishing an Islamic State.”63 Like his French counterpart, he stopped short of implying a grand merger between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State in the Sahel.
Indeed, it should be noted that there were several instances of dual claims wherein both groups claimed responsibility for the same attacks. This includes a February 2018 IED attack against a Barkhane convoy near In-Delimane that was initially claimed by JNIM,64 for which ISGS later took credit.65 Almost a year later, several attacks were separately claimed by both JNIM and ISGS in the Mansila area in Burkina Faso’s Yagha Province in January 2019.66 And a March 2020 ambush against the Malian army near Boulkessi was also claimed by both organizations with identical statements.67 While dual claims may signal competition, it could also indicate difficulties JNIM and ISGS face in distinguishing themselves from one another, especially with regard to how their respective chains of command identify actions by the rank-and-file.68
In sum, while it was always very unlikely that JNIM and ISGS would merge, it was evident the groups oftentimes coordinated their efforts against shared enemies and even had designated commanders in various areas across the region to facilitate this relationship.
Thus, as shown above, ISGS and JNIM’s historically non-violent relationship has been the product of more than mere non-aggression: instead, as evidenced from personnel exchanges and participation in multiple attacks together, the non-violent armistice between them was in part the result of occasional cooperation, not merely ignoring one another.
Part Two: Descent into Open Warfare
The special relationship between ISGS and JNIM forged by common origins, personal connections, crossovers of personnel, and coordinated actions eventually gave way to the same levels of hostility seen elsewhere between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida. Part two of this article first documents the clashes between ISGS and JNIM that began in the summer of 2019. It then explains the collapse of the special relationship by identifying and examining several drivers toward conflict.
The Clashes Between ISGS and JNIM Based on data compiled by the authors, ISGS and JNIM have physically clashed at least 46 times across the Sahel beginning in July 2019 in the Mali-Burkina Faso border region. Since then, the fighting has shifted from Mali’s Inner Niger Delta and the Gourma Region of Mali and Burkina Faso, to areas of Burkina Faso’s eastern provinces along the borders with Niger and Benin.
According to estimates by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), more than 300 jihadis have been killed on either side as the result of these armed engagements since the start of the clashes.69 The International Crisis Group also stated in an April 2020 briefing that fighting in Burkina Faso’s Soum Province alone that month “left at least 100 [jihadis] dead.”70 As such, it is clear that the “Sahelian exception” once enjoyed by both JNIM and ISGS is now over.
The war between JNIM and ISGS began in earnest in July 2019 after a firefight in the Burkinabe border village of Ariel.71 Another confrontation was reported in Mali in September 2019 in Haoussa-Foulane between Gao and Ansongo.72 In December 2019 and January 2020, clashes between the groups were reported in southern Mondoro (Douentza), Dogo (Youwarou), and In-Abelbel (Gourma-Rharous).73q The clashes intensified in 2020. In March 2020, fighting between JNIM and ISGS was reported near the Mauritanian town of Fassala, which sits on the border with Mali.74 Except for Haoussa-Foulane and In-Abelbel, all of these locations sit within the areas of operation for JNIM’s Katiba Macina, showing that this conflict largely began within its zone of influence as it tried to push ISGS away from the Inner Niger Delta before spreading to other areas and other katibas.
Despite these clashes, it was not until a May 2020 issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Al Naba newsletter that either side openly acknowledged the violent clashes between them in the Sahel. The Al Naba article discussed fighting between the two jihadi heavyweights in both Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as the Burkina Faso-Niger border region over the previous month. In central Mali, the Islamic State reported that its men “repulsed two attacks” by JNIM in Mali’s Mopti region. It also specifically mentioned the area near Nampala, which sits close to the borders with Mauritania, and the areas “east of Macina” in the Segou region.75 Local media reported fighting between the jihadi groups in these same areas over the few prior weeks, adding some credence to the Islamic State’s claims. For instance, in early April 2020, clashes were reported in the localities of Dialloube,76 Koubi, Diantakaye, and Ninga in the Mopti region.77
The Islamic State’s May 2020 newsletter also makes notes of further clashes south of Boulkessi, Mali, in the weeks prior.78 Much like the jihadi-on-jihadi fighting in Mali’s Mopti region, battles have also been widely reported in the Gourma area of Mali and Burkina Faso. For instance, on April 13, 2020, the Islamic State launched an attack on JNIM’s men near the locality of Tin-Tabakat.79
Three days later, another skirmish between JNIM and ISGS was reported by Al Naba near the village of In-Tillit in Mali’s Gao region.80 While this claim was not backed by local reporting, the United Nations has noted that the Islamic State has increased its presence inside Gao earlier this year, making this instance entirely plausible.81
On April 18, 2020, one of the largest battles so far between the two reportedly took place in the Ndaki area of Mali’s Gossi commune. According to local media, a large contingent of JNIM fighters targeted the Islamic State’s men in four different villages in the area.82 Malian and Burkinabe media stated that as many as 40 vehicles were in the JNIM convoy. The Islamic State appears to have confirmed these events, albeit on a different date. According to the group, JNIM targeted Islamic State positions in the Boula area, west of Korfooueyoueyr on the Mali-Burkina Faso border area, with “dozens of motorcycles and vehicles” on the Islamic calendar date corresponding to April 26, 2020. The Islamic State further contended that its men gained the upper hand during the battle following a suicide car bomb against al-Qa`ida’s men.83 It also claimed to have captured 40 motorcycles and three vehicles from JNIM.84
On April 20, 2020, another firefight was recorded near the locality of Pobe inside Burkina Faso’s Soum province,85 while another occurred in Kerboule in the Koutougou department of the same province.86 Further battles near the Burkina Faso towns of Arbinda and Nassoumbou have also been reported.87
Another issue of Al Naba, released in June 2020 made the first explicit reference to clashes with Ansaroul Islam.88 In the June 2020 newsletter, the Islamic State claimed that Jafar Dicko, the leader of Ansaroul Islam, founded with support from JNIM’s constituent groups,89 allegedly lost over 170 fighters in clashes in late May 2020 with the Islamic State’s men in the border region between Mali and Burkina Faso.90 Another clash in Burkina Faso between JNIM and ISGS was reported near Ghana in the aforementioned June 2020 Al Naba issue,91 which likely correlates to a confirmed incident near Pama, Burkina Faso, on May 28, 2020.92 Fighting in Burkina Faso’s Yagha Province, which is close to the border between Burkina Faso and Niger, was also reported in late May 2020.93
Al-Qa`ida channels on Telegram had a different version of events, however. The al-Qa`ida loyalists argue that Al Naba’s retelling of events were lies, while adding that JNIM had killed several ISGS members in Burkina Faso in recent weeks.94 Another statement posted by pro-al-Qa`ida sources alleged that Abdelmalek Droukdel ordered JNIM to “eradicate the Islamic State and eradicate them from land of the mujahideen,” implying that Droukdel’s role in the fighting between Islamic State and al-Qa`ida franchises in the region was much deeper than previously thought.95 But the details in both of these statements have not been confirmed. And as of the time of publishing, official al-Qa`ida channels have so far not publicly commented on the fighting between both groups.
The Drivers Toward Conflict What factors then led a once amicable—and cooperative—relationship to turn into outright violence? The growing tensions between ISGS and JNIM were, the authors assess, the result of several different factors. One likely driver is the longstanding ideological differences between the groups. Whereas previously these were glossed over, in recent months—as will be described below—they have been increasingly starkly articulated by both sides, further cementing the ideological divide. A second likely factor that drove the two groups toward conflict, and that helped cement the ideological divide, was ISGS formally becoming a regional subunit of the Islamic State’s West Africa Province in March 2019, with Islamic State Central taking over ISGS’ media output from that time onward.96 This presumably resulted in Islamic State Central pushing its satellite toward confrontation and taking a more confrontational approach as evidenced by the increasingly hostile discourse in its propaganda. A third likely factor was the growing ambition shown by ISGS after it formally became part of ISWAP. Another likely driver was their sharply different treatment of the local population. A fifth likely factor was the fallout from defections. As will be outlined, given these forces pulling the groups apart, attempts to mediate between them failed.
Ideology As time went by, it was perhaps inevitable that the deep-seated ideological differences that always existed between ISGS and JNIM would challenge their special relationship. In recent months, JNIM and ISGS have released several pieces of propaganda that have addressed the ideological differences plaguing the two organizations.
The first in this volley of propaganda was a series of pamphlets released by JNIM in early 2020.97 Penned by Qutaybah Abu Numan al-Shinqiti, a Mauritanian religious scholar affiliated with AQIM,98 the booklets were addressed to both JNIM’s detractors though neither explicitly mentions ISGS by name.99
The first pamphlet, which was addressed to those who have criticized JNIM’s implementation of sharia law, argues for what it portrays as al-Qa`ida’s slower and more calculated approach in its implementation as a counter to the Islamic State’s quick and often heavy-handed approach. The second booklet can be viewed as a call to restore unity among JNIM and ISGS. The booklet, entitled “Year of the Group,” recalled the story of the historical Hasan-Muawiyah treaty as an analogy for the current challenges in the Sahel.s In Shinqiti’s retelling of the story, the ideologue makes an appeal to jihadis in the Sahel to also come together to prevent further clashes and disagreements.
Around the same time as the pamphlets, several audio messages from JNIM commanders were released in local languages, including Tamachek, Fulfulde, and Arabic, which focused on doctrinal divergences between JNIM and ISGS. One such audio message in Tamachek (or Tuareg language) was representative of the other messages in its warning against the recent arrival of the “khawarij”t in the Sahel, describing the Islamic State’s arrival “as a test for the mujahideen in order to separate the true [believers] from the false.”100
This exact sentiment would again surface following severe clashes between JNIM and ISGS. In an unofficial video produced for local consumption dated June 1, 2020, JNIM showcased purported spoils of war seized in fighting with ISGS.101 Throughout the clip, one of the jihadis featured repeatedly refers to the adversary [ISGS] by the pejorative term “khawarij.”
Push Toward Confrontation by Islamic State Central
In March 2019, a photo was released online showing Islamic State fighters in Burkina Faso branded as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).102 This photo was intended to denote that ISGS had formally been subsumed under the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, which is largely based in and around northeastern Nigeria. This restructuring in effect produced two regionally distinct subgroups within the Islamic State province, with ISGS becoming more integrated into the Islamic State’s overall structure, including its media apparatus. For example, at some point in 2019 following the rebranding under ISWAP, an ISGS cell was created along the border between Mali and Algeria.103 Anecdotal evidence has since suggested that this cell may have been an attempt by Islamic State Central to establish operational oversight by using Islamic State-Libya operatives as middle management.104 With likely greater control over its affiliate, Islamic State Central was seemingly able to push it to take the same confrontational approach toward al-Qa`ida in the Sahel as the Islamic State had globally. In turn, this likely led to spiraling tensions and the groups to not only starkly articulate their ideological differences in a war of words, but also to go to war with each other in some parts of the Sahel.
Prior to March 2019, ISGS primarily relied on its own rudimentary media infrastructure to produce its propaganda as its communications with the Islamic State’s central media remained sporadic at best.105 Following the formal restructuring of ISGS under the Islamic State West Africa Province brand in March 2019,106 most media statements including videos and photos produced by ISGS have been released through the Islamic State’s official media apparatus.107 This has allowed the Islamic State to push the messaging toward more hostile criticism of JNIM to suit its general narrative. The subsuming of ISGS into the West Africa Province and the more confrontational tone likely antagonized JNIM with ISGS no longer viewed as a junior ally to the Sahelian al-Qa`ida franchise, but now a potent competitor challenging its hegemony, which needed to be confronted.
The Islamic State sharpened its criticism of JNIM after Qutaybah Abu Numan al-Shinqiti’s opening salvo earlier this year. Just a few months after al-Shinqiti’s pamphlets were released, the Islamic State began to incorporate the local Sahelian tensions into its global propaganda. For example, the Islamic State highlighted the tensions in the Sahel in a video released by its Yemen Province in April 2020, which accused al-Qa`ida of “deviating” following the Arab Spring protests.108 In regard to the Sahel, the video strongly denounced AQIM’s actions in the 2012 jihadi takeover of northern Mali and condemned AQIM and its then leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, for working with “apostate movements,” namely the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, in the occupation.u
Just a few weeks after the Islamic State branch in Yemen’s broadside, the Islamic State Central media apparatus expanded on its criticisms of al-Qa`ida in the Sahel, going so far as to argue that the latter had started a war in the region.v In the aforementioned Al Naba newsletter, which for the first time acknowledged the violent clashes between the groups in the Sahel, the Islamic State said that al-Qa`ida “never misses the chance for treachery.”109 The newsletter also made clear that these criticisms were directly aimed at two of JNIM’s top leaders, Amadou Kouffa and Iyad Ag Ghaly, in that the two had “planned the war long ago.”110 Moreover, it also echoed earlier complaints made by ISGS field commanders over JNIM’s purported willingness to negotiate with the Malian government, though JNIM has insisted this would only happen after French troops leave the region.111
The most senior Islamic State criticism of JNIM came on May 28, 2020, in a speech by the Islamic State’s official spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Quraishi. In his address, al-Quraishi explicitly accused al-Qa`ida’s men of working with the Malian government to kill the Islamic State’s men in the region.112 The spokesman went on to further criticize JNIM’s alleged willingness to negotiate with the Malian government before calling JNIM “guard dogs” for Algeria and accusing it of working with “nationalist and secular groups.”113w He even alleged that JNIM has “prevented others from fighting it [Algeria].”
According to al-Quraishi, the fighting between ISGS and JNIM across the Sahel began after JNIM “got upset by the news of the Islamic State’s conquests” in the region.114 The spokesman then lambasted JNIM for its handling of defections within its ranks, stating that “their backs broke when a large grouping of their followers joined the Islamic State.”115 As a result, he stated “they are today killing those who left their movement to join the Islamic State in West Africa.”116 Highlighting the fluid nature of armed groups in northern Mali, al-Quraishi also noted that JNIM “does not stop its followers from joining the apostate factions from the secular, to the national, or others, and they see them as their brothers in religion.”117 At one point, al-Quraishi took offense at the use of the term “khawarij” used by JNIM leaders in local audio messages.x
The Growing Ambition of ISGS ISGS, as it has grown in strength, has increasingly sought to usurp its position in relation to its historically dominant counterpart in JNIM. Its drive for dominance was heightened by its rebranding under ISWAP, which has likely afforded Islamic State Central more authority over ISGS. As previously discussed, the more formal integration of ISGS into the Islamic State’s fold has also likely meant that directives from Islamic State Central have caused ISGS to be more aggressive on the ground. This can be seen in at least three respects: increased expansion in central Mali, large assaults on military positions across the Sahel, and contestation over natural resources. Firstly, in central Mali, ISGS has taken advantage of internal dissent within JNIM to make inroads in the historical al-Qa`ida stronghold of the Inner Niger Delta.118 As will be discussed more in depth later, internal squabbling within JNIM’s Katiba Macina has allowed ISGS to poach members from JNIM in the region. This has, in turn, afforded ISGS more influence in the area. Secondly, ISGS has conducted a series of major assaults across the Sahel since the more formal integration into the Islamic State. In just the past year alone, ISGS has committed some of the deadliest attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, indicating its growing capabilities.119 Lastly, ISGS’ growth has allowed it to challenge JNIM over control for several strategic areas across the Sahel, many of these areas rich in natural resources. For instance, in the Inner Niger Delta, ISGS is vying for influence over pastureland.120 In the Gourma, it has sought more influence in areas near artisanal mining sites, such as gold mines.121 Whereas in Burkina Faso’s east, it has challenged JNIM’s dominance over wildlife and hunting reserves.122
Differing Treatment of the Local Population At the heart of the current competition between JNIM and ISGS is how each respective organization deals with the local communities in which they operate and recruit. As both groups are vying for power and influence amidst various communal conflicts within the Sahel,123 each franchise has taken a different approach in order to exploit these conflicts for their own respective benefit.
At the organizational level, JNIM has followed a community-based approach based on al-Qa`ida’s modus operandi whereby local grievances are exploited and local militants are transformed into allied groups.124 JNIM has attempted to embed itself within the local fabric of the Sahel,125 often portraying itself as a communal defender to such ethnic groups as the Fulani of central Mali.126 Conversely, ISGS has posited itself as a more uncompromising alternative to JNIM and preys on more violent or vengeful individuals to exacerbate communal conflicts.127
These differences in how both JNIM and ISGS have interacted with local communities have been at the forefront of tensions between the organizations. For instance, ISGS leaders have openly voiced their criticisms over JNIM’s Katiba Macina and how its leader, Amadou Kouffa, is open to agreements with ethnic Bambara and Dogon militias and negotiations with the Malian government.128 ISGS’ second in command, Abdelhakim al-Sahraoui, has been particularly vocal in his criticism of JNIM’s alleged openness to negotiations with the Malian government and agreements reached with Bambara Donsosy in the Macina (Inner Niger Delta).129
Additionally, land disputes among the Fulani of central Mali have also bled into the competition between JNIM and ISGS. As outlined by researcher Yvan Guichaoua, JNIM and ISGS have differed on the institution of taxes and regulations on pastures used by Fulani pastoralists in the areas under their influence.130 In conjunction with the groups’ increasingly close geographic proximity to each other because of their expansion in the region, this has contributed to the increased tensions.
The Fallout from Defections As ISGS has grown in the region, JNIM has faced several rounds of defections to its rival, with the fallout contributing to tensions between the groups.
In one of the first such instances of defections from JNIM to ISGS, in the summer of 2017, a group of Tolebe Fulani fighters in central Mali belonging to Katiba Macina defected to ISGS.131 Around the same time, Katiba Salaheddine, a jihadi outfit led by Sultan Ould Bady that was loosely within al-Qa`ida’s orbit in the Sahel, also joined ISGS.132z
These desertions were not lost on JNIM, as it eventually indirectly responded to these events in a propaganda video released in November 2018. In that video, Amadou Kouffa, JNIM’s leader in the Macina [Inner Niger Delta], ostensibly called on Fulani across West Africa and beyond to wage jihad in the Sahel. However, the speech appeared to be more a call for unity amid the aforementioned defections to ISGS.133 In the speech, Kouffa addressed all Fulani jihadis or “mujahideen” in the region, without being specific to any particular group or movement. At one point in the video, Kouffa even explicitly stressed that they (the Fulani jihadis) should “come together and unite.”134
Despite the early efforts by JNIM to stem the tide of defections to ISGS, it is clear that the initiative failed. Throughout 2019 and 2020 in neighboring Burkina Faso, segments of Ansaroul Islam also saw defections to ISGS in the Centre-Nord region,135 Seno Province,136 and in other areas near the border with Mali.137aa These defections from Ansaroul to ISGS were the culmination of attempts by ISGS to wrest influence over the group away from JNIM since Ansaroul Islam’s inception in 2016.138 Starting in late 2019, Katiba Macina also saw defections to ISGS in Burkina Faso’s Kossi Province.139 Then by January 2020, another unit belonging to Katiba Macina near Nampala, Mali, also left JNIM for ISGS.140 And another set of Fulani fighters also left al-Qa`ida’s ranks in the same general area not long after.141
Katiba Macina, specifically, has faced sharp internal debates between local and non-local fighters over usage fees for access to lavish pastureland, zakat collection (or alms giving), and booty-sharing. These issues combined have caused a perception of marginalization among non-local fighters in the Inner Niger Delta, consequently spurring defections to the Islamic State.142ab
While JNIM, through its silence on the clashes, may be trying to play down mounting tensions, ISGS has continued to try to poach JNIM combatants, undoubtedly antagonizing JNIM.
Failed Attempts at Mitigating Tension Clashes erupted and intensified between JNIM and ISGS despite attempts by the two groups to work out agreements and establish deconfliction zones. For example, representatives from both JNIM and ISGS, facilitated by veteran al-Qa`ida leader Sedane Ag Hitta,143ac who also serves as JNIM’s local military commander, reportedly met to discuss such issues in Boughessa in Mali’s Kidal region in February 2019.144 Following the February summit, violent clashes broke out between the jihadi camps that prompted at least two more meetings in June 2019145 and October 2019, with the latter taking place in the Tinzaouatène area of Kidal, as documented by the United Nations.146
Future Outlook Notwithstanding the violent clashes between JNIM and ISGS, concern has grown about the threat the groups pose to the region. In July 2020, the U.N. monitoring team that tracks the global jihadi threat stated that “ISIL franchises in West Africa and the Sahel continued to enjoy operational success in early 2020, as have those of Al-Qaida, heightening international concern about stability in the region.”147 Since 2017, both ISGS and JNIM have rapidly expanded across the Sahel.148 The two groups are pushing into new territory deeper in Burkina Faso, southwestern Niger, and southern Mali, while remaining a constant threat in central and northern Mali and western Niger.149 JNIM’s constituent groups have penetrated deeper into Burkina Faso, now directly threatening the security of several West African states like the Ivory Coast, Benin, and Togo.150
In other areas, such as in eastern Burkina Faso, both JNIM and ISGS are controlling or contesting significant swaths of territory.151 French military officials have posited ISGS as the biggest security threat in the Sahel.152 This is further indicated by significant French military action taken against the group relative to raids against JNIM.153 At the same time, however, U.S. officials have maintained that JNIM remains the most potent jihadi group in the region.154 The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.
In early June 2020, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s overall emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel, whom Iyad Ag Ghali and JNIM had the most immediate loyalty to, was killed in a French operation in northern Mali. The operation reportedly took place near the locality of Talhandak in Mali’s far north.155 His death was undoubtedly a major blow to al-Qa`ida’s overall efforts in North and West Africa given his long-standing role in al-Qa`ida’s international network.156 His death also represented a major loss to al-Qa`ida’s overall global leadership, as the French Ministry of Defense has referred to Droukdel as the “third deputy” to al-Qa`ida’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri.157 But it remains to be seen what effect, if any, Droukdel’s death may have on JNIM and its rivalry with ISGS. While JNIM had sworn bay`a (allegiance) to Droukdel, it is unclear how much control he wielded over JNIM’s day-to-day activities. It is also unclear what role Droukdel played in the current fighting between JNIM and ISGS in the region.ad
This article has shown that the peaceful relationship in which JNIM and ISGS used to exist was the product of more than mere non-aggression: on various occasions, the two groups made clear and conscious efforts to cooperate on the ground. Owing to the complex nature of the Sahelian militant landscape, both JNIM and ISGS were able to leverage personal ties between various commanders to facilitate this cooperation. But as both organizations have grown in the region, sources of tension, including notions of how to treat local populations and divergences in ideology, have caused this special relationship to sour. Disagreements over core issues gradually pushed the groups apart, overwhelmed personal relationships, and outmatched their shared objectives. The growing ambition of ISGS in this co-inhabited territory set the scene for a widespread turf war.
But despite the ongoing battles in various parts of Mali and Burkina Faso, JNIM and ISGS are still apparently able to coexist in other areas of the Sahel, such as Mali’s Menaka region, most of Niger’s Tillaberi region, and other parts of Burkina Faso, especially in the Center-North. These areas have likely so far been saved from the violence between the two jihadi groups thanks to what the authors assess to be the particularly close ties between jihadis in both JNIM and ISGS there. But as this conflict continues, it is possible that these relative sanctuaries may also succumb to the intra-jihadi battles.
The fighting between the two camps elsewhere stands to negatively impact the already perilous security situation in the Sahel by increasing the levels of violence. While some argue that fighting between jihadi groups is positive for the counterterrorism landscape, it is also possible that the two groups are in effect engaging in a process called “outbidding,” wherein a group aims to show “greater resolve to fight the enemy than rival groups.”158 Some scholars have found that fighting between jihadi groups can also contribute to the groups’ longevity via new innovations and incentives that arise from the competition.159 In both cases, this could lead to further violence and entrenchment on the ground for both JNIM and ISGS. As some of the fighting between the two groups has a sectarian dimension, communal and ethnic violence could also be exacerbated by this conflict. CTC
Héni Nsaibia is a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). He is also the founder of Menastream, a risk consultancy providing intelligence analysis. Follow @MENASTREAM
Caleb Weiss is a research analyst and contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal, where he focuses on political violence and jihadism in the Middle East and Africa, and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Follow @Weissenberg7
The authors thank Jules Duhamel, who created the map featured in this article. Follow @julesdhl
[d] While this was the first official Islamic State group in the region, Hamada Ould al-Kheiry, who would later join the Islamic State, penned a letter in support of the group and its proclaimed caliphate almost a year prior to the formation of ISGS. Additionally, while ISGS first emerged in May 2015, it would not be officially recognized by the Islamic State until over a year later. See Hamada Ould al-Kheiry, “Azawadi Support for the Islamic State,” July 10, 2014.
[e] Following his death in northern Mali in early June 2020, a successor has yet to be publicly named by AQIM.
[j] On June 1, 2017, a joint force composed of French Barkhane forces as well as Movement for the Salvation of Azawad and Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self Defense Group militiamen, in coordination with Malian and Nigerian regular forces, carried out an ambush in Tissalatene on an ISGS convoy returning from Abala, Niger, where the Islamic State militants had attacked a gendarmerie camp. The involvement of the militias in this operation pushed ISGS and JNIM to ally up to fight them in Gao and Menaka. The ambush infuriated ISGS emir Al-Sahraoui who issued a fatwa against the Imghad Tuareg and Dawsahak, rendering it “halal” to seize their belongings and livestock. JNIM, which likely did not agree on the legal basis for the fatwa because as a group it has been more focused on building broad popular support, opposed the move. In the wake of al-Sahraoui’s fatwa, attacks and abuses against Imghad and Dawsahak civilians escalated, spurring JNIM to send a delegation led by Alkassoum to ISGS in late 2017, a summit that resulted in heated arguments between the camps. Notably, Alkassoum and his aide Hamada (also present at the reported meeting) originate from the Imghad and Dawsahak communities, respectively, indicating that the JNIM commanders likely responded to complaints from their respective communities. Héni Nsaibia interview, local area expert from Gao, Mali, May 2019.
[l] The trajectory of Nweijam may also reflect the difficulties smaller tribes and their allies face in positioning themselves vis-à-vis stronger tribes and the often-predatory armed groups operating in the areas they inhabit.
[n] While JNIM claimed responsibility for the In-Delimane attack, an ISGS lieutenant based in In-Ates from the Tuareg Imouchag tribe provided fighters for the assault. Héni Nsaibia interview, local area expert from the Tuareg community in Niger, November 2018.
[o] Several ISGS fighters relocated from Gao to the area around Kidal in the 2018-2019 period. One of them was Aboubacar Ould Abidine, successor and cousin of Sultan Ould Bady, MUJAO’s co-founder who in 2013 created his own group, Katiba Salaheddine, in Mali’s Gao region. The Algerian military killed Ould Abidine in an air-supported operation on November 18, 2019, in Tawendert, Algeria. See, for instance, Menastream, “#Algeria-#BREAKING: Aboubacar Ould Abidine (aka Abu Zoubeir), cousin & Katiba Salaheddine/#ISGS lieutenant of #MUJAO …,” Twitter, November 21, 2019.
[p] To date, it has not been confirmed that ISGS militants were the hostage-takers in this operation. The authors believe this may be explained by Burkinabe authorities underestimating Katiba Macina’s influence in the area concerned. The Burkinabe intelligence assessment may also have been influenced by reports that a Beninese tourist guide was shot dead and beheaded during the hostage-taking, a modus operandi that Burkinabe authorities probably viewed as indicative of Islamic State militants being the perpetrators. See “Bénin : ‘Le guide a été tué par balle et décapité, selon un source locale,’” France24, May 6, 2019.
[r] The Boula area is the local Fulani name for the waterhole-filled areas stretching from Gountouré in Burkina Faso to Tin-Tabakat in Mali.
[s] That treaty, which occurred in the early days of Islam, stipulated that Hasan (the grandson of Muhammad and son and successor to Ali as caliph following the former’s assassination) would abdicate as caliph in favor of his father’s rival Muawiyah. That peace accord was originally designed to prevent further conflict between the two rival camps. See “The Terms of the Peace Treaty,” Al Islam.
[u] This statement made by the Islamic State harkens back to an earlier letter penned by Abu Walid al-Sahraoui’s Mujahideen Shura Council in Gao during al-Qa`ida’s takeover. That statement, which was published in late 2012, also denounced the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad for being secular and refusing to “implement Islamic Sharia.” See Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen in Gao, “To the People of the Cities in Northern Mali about the reason for its fight with the MNLA (secular movement),” November 26, 2012.
[w] The phrase “nationalistic and secular groups” is likely a reference to the various Tuareg and other ethnic militias that have fought against the Islamic State, mainly in Mali. In June 2020, an Al Naba issue was more specific in this reference, accusing JNIM of working with the Coordination of Azawad Movements, a grouping of Tuareg and Arab nationalist groups, against the Islamic State. See Al Naba, Issue 238, June 11, 2020.
[x] In al-Quraishi’s speech, he explicitly referred to the use of ‘khawarij’ in reference to members of the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP), under which ISGS operates. However, he mentioned this in the context of the fighting between JNIM and the Islamic State’s men in the Sahel, making this a reference to the audio messages from JNIM.
[y] Donsos are members of traditional hunter fraternities in Mandé-speaking communities across West Africa. These groups have formed community-based militias in Mali and Burkina Faso, united in their pro-government stance and campaign against Fulani groups. The Bambara are one of the largest ethnic groups in Mali.
[z] Interestingly, Abu Walid al-Sahraoui had previously rebuked Sultan Ould Bady and his Katiba Salaheddine for leaving MUJAO in 2013 and joining Ansar Dine. See “Formation of the new Katibat Ansar al Sunnah and Four Sarayyas,” Al-Murabitun Foundation for Media Production, January 5, 2013.
[aa] With these defections, it is clear that Ansaroul Islam’s loyalties were divided between a pro-JNIM camp and a pro-ISGS camp. Given the defections to ISGS, it is unclear if Ansaroul Islam is still operating on an independent basis or if it has been more formally subsumed by JNIM.
[z] The arguments were mainly between those fighters local to southern Mali and those regional fighters who came from areas outside of central Mali, not necessarily fighters from other countries. Local fighters have been given preference over their non-local counterparts, leading to the marginalization of the latter group of militants.
 Data collected by Héni Nsaibia from local sources in Burkina Faso.
 Statement originally posted by the pro-al-Qa`ida Al-Ghareeb Al-Ifriqi channel on Telegram on June 15, 2020. It was subsequently reposted by several other al-Qa`ida loyalist channels on the platform.
 Statement originally posted by the pro-al-Qa`ida Rayyan al-Sham channel on Telegram on June 16, 2020. It was subsequently reposted by several other al-Qa`ida loyalist channels on the platform.
 Héni Nsaibia, “Islamic State in Burkina Faso,” Menastream, March 23, 2019.