In May 2021, after eight years of military presence, the French President Macron announced officially the gradual withdrawal of the French troops from the Sahel and the termination of operation Barkhane. The decision came amidst the expansion of Jihadi violence in the whole Sahel region and the inability of the local States to quell those groups responsible for the violence. Indeed, since 2013, the international community has delivered a large amount of military help to the sahelian States, encouraging local initiatives to foster security cooperation such as the G5 Sahel in addition to deploying troops to combat terrorist groups. In spite of this, jihadi groups have been able to not only maintain themselves but even more to grow in strength and power in spite of a high level of attrition and losses, wreaking havoc among the local States. Among them, the two most powerful ones: the Jammaat Nusrat Al Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and the Muslims) commonly known as JNIM affiliated with Al Qaeda and its archrival, the Islamic State in the Grand Sahara (ISGS). Today, and observing the current evolutions in Afghanistan with the rapid advances from the Taliban, one can only wonder if this what to be expected in the Sahel. In order to understand that, one needs to look closely at those organizations, their strategies and aims.
The Jamaat Nusrat Al Islam wal Muslilimeen – JNIM: The strategic threat
In November 2013, and shortly after the final break up between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which was to become the Islamic State (IS) or Daech, Ayaman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda supreme emir sent a letter to all Al Qaeda affiliates around the world. A blue print for Al Qaeda strategy and certainly one of the most important documents released by the organization, it outlined the strategy and behavior its affiliates were to follow in order to establish an Islamic caliphate which was to be considered a long term goal rather than an immediate one. Thus, Al Zawahiri instructed his organization to target the United States and its allies all over the world however the goal was to exhaust its enemies and primarily the local allies and regimes in a conflict of attrition rather than achieving a decisive victory over the US or a major power, being conscious that this would be nearly impossible to achieve. It also called the affiliates to be close to the local populations, to preach to them, to help them and under no circumstances to commit acts of violence against them in order to gain their support. It also called to work and unite with all other Armed jihadi organizations including those not close to Al Qaeda as well as to those which were not Jihadi at all, as long as they were opposed to the regimes in place, they could be considered as allies. This strategy shows the high level of maturity acquired by Al Qaeda in terms of strategic thinking and which led the organization to posit itself on the long term interests and goals rather than the short ones.
The JNIM strategy echoes almost word by word the plan outlined by Al Zawahiri. Indeed, its leader, Iyadh Ghali, a major local Touareg figure initially created the organization Ansar Al Dine in 2012 which was allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a transnational organization affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Sahel led by the Algerian Yahia Abou Houmam. In 2015, those two joined their forces and allied with the powerful Jihadi organization Al Mourabitoune, initially a splinter and rival of AQIM , led by the notorious Mokhtar Belmokhatar while cooperating in the center of Mali with Katibat AL MECINA led by the popular Amadou Koufa. In 2017, all those groups merged together and gave birth to what is today known as the JNIM led by Iyadh Ghali. Ever since, they have also been cooperating closely in Burkina Faso with the local jihadi group Ansarul Islam. Moreover, in 2018, the JNIM entered into talks, which eventually failed, with the ISGS to cooperate together.
In parallel to this, the JNIM has followed a careful strategy of socialization and proximity with the local populations and is known for maintaining order and law in wherever localities it controls. The JNIM also abstained from committing any acts of mass violence against the locals. Instead, the JNIM has been actively involved in mediations among the various ethnic communities in Mali, filing in a State void. They also played an important role in the management of local natural resources making the JNIM an important economic actor. Towards the local governments, the JNIM has launched a strategy of harassment and exhaustion against their troops all over the Sahel, conducting massive attacks against them while also attacking international troops including the French Barkhane force, the MINUSMA and others. However, It has also shown that violence was not an end in itself and that it was open to compromise, showing its ability to make short term concessions to gain long term ones. This reinforced the positive image of the JNIM among some local populations and its power.
Thus in 2020, the JNIM agreed to the principle of negotiations with the Malian government to end the war. And strikingly, when one looks at the demands made by the JNIM, we can only be struck by the fact that they are similar to ones of the Taliban in the context the US-Taliban deal which is currently being implemented.
Also, in late 2020, the JNIM struck a major exchange of prisoners with Bamako in which nearly 200 of its fighters were released from prison in addition to millions of euros in ransom in exchange of the JNIM releasing 3 western hostages. This was perceived a major success as never such a deal has occurred in the whole region. This played a role in reinforcing the JNIM supremacy in the region. This deal also occurred in the context of the exhaustion of the Ouagadougou government which was unable to counter the JNIM and its allies, and de facto agreed to a truce in Northern Burkina Faso. Furthermore, All this took place in the context of a one long year conflict between the JNIM and ISGS which also saw the victory of the JNIM and the defeat of ISGS.
Thus, and in spite of heavy losses and the killing of almost all of its founders including Yahia Abou Houmam, the number 2 man of the JNIM and of AQIM supreme emir Abdelamalek Droukdal in addition to hundreds of fighters, the JNIM has emerged as the most powerful jihadi organization in the Sahel. Indeed, all those losses, however substantial, never really affected its long term operational capabilities and the organization was always able to continue its expansion and to regenerate itself with new leaders rising. This eventually led the JNIM to impose itself as the most powerful Al Qaeda affiliates in the region shifting the epicenter of Jihadism towards the Sahel and marginalizing its North African acolytes, who are currently in a virtual state of collapse. The JNIM is certainly today the most powerful jihadi organization, very well entrenched in the local populations and thus more dangerous than any other jihadi organization.
Putting itself on the long term, believing that time is on its side, the JNIM has followed a very articulated strategy of harassment and entrenchment which proved very successful and insured it resilience. As a matter of fact, many argue that the Iyadh Ghali is modeling his strategy on the Taliban in Afghanistan with the successes that we can see. Thus, in the context of the French withdrawal, and the inability of the Malian army nor of other armies to stop the JNIM with the exception of the Chadian army, the future of the Sahel is raising major concerns at the regional and international level. Those concerns are furthered by the fact that the ISGS although smaller has proved itself as well very resilient and even more violent.
The Islamic State in the Grand Sahara: The Khilafa at all cost
The Islamic State in the Grand Sahara (ISGS) was created in May 2015 after its founder, Adnane Abou Walid al-Sahraoui split from the Al Mourabitoune from which he was the number 2man. Indeed, al-Sahraoui, has initially joined the MUJWA (Movement for Unicity and Jihad in Western Africa), considered then as one of the most radical jihadi groups in the sahel between 2011 and 2013. In 2013, the MUJWA joined forces with another powerful radical organization Those who sign with blood (El-Mouaguiine Biddam) led by the notorious Mokhtar Belmokhtar who had separated himself from AQIM due to major disputes with its supreme leader Abdelmalek Droukdal. This merger led to the birth of the Al Mourabitoune organization in 2013, affiliated with Al Qaeda, but more spectacular and violent than AQIM. Al Mourabitoune was among others responsible for the mass hostage taking of Ain Amenas in Algeria in January 2013 during which over 700 people were taken hostages and released only after a violent assault form the Algerian special forces.
By 2014, when ISIL proclaimed the establishment of the caliphate and the changed its name to IS, many jihadi groups from around the world faced major divisions between those who wished to remain loyal to Al Qaeda and those who wanted to join the newly created IS. Al Sahraoui whose jihadi trajectory denotes one of further radicalization at each step, argued strongly in favor of Al Mourabitoune joining the more radical and extremist IS. However, Belmokhtar a veteran of the Afghan jihad of the 80’s and a long term loyalist of Al Qaeda, refused. Thus in the Spring of 2015, Al Sahraoui faction split from Al Mourabutoune and pledged its allegiance to IS.
At this point one should note that IS is very different from all point of views from Al Qaeda. Indeed, for IS, the caliphate is an immediate objective and so is the creation of State structures modeled along Islam as it did in Syria-Iraq with the creation of a proto-State between 2014and 2017. This was expected by IS leadership to provoke a sort of electroshock all over the world among the Muslims to unite, join IS and overthrow the regime in place.
Also while Al Qaeda argues for a defensive Jihad, IS argues for an offensive one which aim is universal. As a result and becaus the caliph is supposed to be the head of the Umma, the community of the Muslims, anyone and any organization who/which does not pledge his allegiance to him is a mourtad (traitor), including the jihadi organizations such as Al Qaeda which need to be fought and destroyed. Moreover, and while Al Qaeda ideology is Salafism jihadism, IS ideology is neo-takfirism which is the most extreme branch of jihadism. Thus, for the neo-takfirists, those who do not practice pure and Islam, including civilians are often to be treated as infidels and traitors. In that context, IS does not refrain from exercising extreme violence against civilians.
From there however, and initially when Al Sahraoui created the ISGS, he was followed only by a small number of supporters as he was relatively unknown compared to the massive figures that Ghali, Houmam or Belmkohtar were. Also after some initial clashes with Al Qaeda affiliates, ISGS refrained from attacking them and instead withdrew to the eastern border of Mali towards the region called the 3 borders (zone des trois frontieres).
Almost insignificant in 2015-2017, it received little attention from anyone including IS leadership itself in Raqqa. Indeed, IS recognized ISGS as its affiliate only in September 2016, that is almost a year and half after it was created. Until then, IS recognized only Boko Haram which became known as the Islamic State in Western Africa Province ( ISWAP) as its affiliate in the region. This recognition of ISGS took place only in the context of the battle of Mossul when IS decided to recognize as many affiliate as possible including the then rather obscure Al Sahraoui. Nonetheless, it is only in 2017 that ISG rose to prominence, after a successful and almost accidental ambush against US special troops in tongo tongo. This ambush allowed Sahraoui to gain his “letters of nobility” among jihadists and public attention in the Sahel and thus support from the radical fringes in the Sahel. Also he had until then been rather spared from Barkhane pressure as the French troops were more concentrated on the Al Qaeda affiliates which allowed the ISGS to grow in numbers and strength.
Galvanized by the success of the ambusg, new recruits poured into ISGS while also many JNIM fighters defected to al-Sahraoui. This allowed ISGS to launch a series of violent and spectacular attacks in the Sahel region from 2017 onward.
In term of his relations towards the local populations, initially Al-Sahraoui showed continuity with Al Qaeda, in the sense that while officially part of IS, he did not exercise any particular violence against the locals. However, starting from 2018, many testimonies emerged accounting for “a radicalization” of ISGS towards the local populations including beheadings of civilians suspected of being informants. By 2019-2020, many large massacres against civilian populations were committed by the ISGS. One should note here that the JNIM systematically denied being involved in these massacres and condemned them. Moreover, and towards the JNIM, and while the two tried to cooperate in 2018-2019, the fact that ISGS was pushing its grip towards central and northern Mali, JNIM historical territories, its harsh treatment of the local populations, the encouragement of JNIM loyalists to defect to ISGS and the condemnation of the JNIM-Bamako negotiations led eventually by the spring 2020 to clashes that escalated to full scale war in the summer 2020. The ISGS went as far as declaring the takfir (apostasy) on the JNIM. However weaker, less well and structured than JNIM, and under now pressure form Barkhane and other military operations, ISGS was weakened and pushed back to the 3 borders area. In spite of this, ISGS has shown resilience and remains able to launch extremely violent and bloody attacks all over the Sahel from its strongholds. This strength of ISGS in spite of those setbacks is reinforced by the comparatively enduring weakness of the local governments.
To that extent and while weaker and less well entrenched than the JNIM, and focused on immediate tactical goals rather on long ones, the ISGS has proved nonetheless extremely resilient and dangerous. The organization has proved willing to attack all its perceived as enemies without distinction (Sahelian States, Algeria, JNIM etc) and using all the means of violence including beheadings or suicide Bombings which were never used before in the region.
What lays ahead
In the context of weak States and ever rising of powerful jihadi organizations, the French gradual withdrawal from the Sahel raises major concerns including the possibility of a major security vacuum. So far the Sahelian States, with rare exceptions, have proved to be totally unable to stop on their own these jihadi organizations. Thus many fear that we can expect a collapse of these after the end of Barkhane and a reproduction of the Afghan scenario in the Sahel. However, several points have to be made. First, while extremely powerful and well entrenched, those jihadi organizations do not amount to more than 2000 men according to various estimates. Other groups are way more powerful than them. Second, one would note that these nourish themselves from State weakness more than anything else. Thus, the reinforcement of the State capacities, local, regional and international cooperation coupled with a real attempt to address the needs of the local populations would certainly play a major role in preventing such a scenario as those groups often nourish themselves on local populations grievances in the context of States weaknesses more than on their own strength.