This article was written by Ana Maria Baloi and originally published on Grey Dynamics

Why Does This Matter

  • The Islamic State’s (IS) newspaper al-Naba reported that heavy fighting between the IS-affiliated Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) and al-Qaeda-aligned Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) has been ongoing since 17 April 2020.
  • ISGS blames JNIM for attacking them simultaneously with the French-led forces in Mali and Burkina Faso and for stopping fuel supplies from reaching the ISGS camps.
  • IS is criticizing JNIM for its willingness to conduct talks with the Malian government for a potential truce


Sahel analysts often use the concept of a “Sahelian exception” to describe the cordial relationship between ISGS and JNIM in contrast to other regions where IS and al-Qaeda affiliates are open rivals. The leaders of both groups have met on multiple occasions to discuss the conditions of cooperation: mainly territorial agreements and red lines not to be crossed. The meeting in September 2019 between Jaffar Dicko (head of Ansarul Islam) and Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi (ISGS leader) was such an occasion. However, the groups did not come to an agreement, leading to increased tensions.

On 7 May 2020, IS published a detailed report in its weekly newspaper al-Naba blaming al-Qaeda’s Sahel affiliate JNIM for mobilizing large forces to attack ISGS positions in Mali and Burkina Faso. IS claims that JNIM’s move coincides with an upscale in operations against ISGS by regional African and French troops in the Sahel. JNIM is blamed for using these conditions as an opportunity to target ISGS at this particular time.

Clashes between IS and al-Qaeda affiliates are nothing new. Terrorist infighting has also taken place in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. The two terrorist organizations often compete for recruits, resources, and influence. Clashes might also occur because of different ideological approaches or political strategies.

The IS report follows an unverified statement attributed to JNIM and shared online on 5 May 2020 by unofficial jihadist accounts, in which the al-Qaeda group firmly rejected a purported IS ceasefire proposal.

The ISGS-JNIM Rivalry

Sporadic confrontations between JNIM and ISGS have been reported by the local press in the second half of 2019. These escalated into major battles in central Mali and Burkina Faso at the beginning of 2020. Clashes between the two jihadist groups started after ISGS fighters crossed into a region in central Mali from Burkina Faso at the beginning of the year. The groups have fought in two different areas.

  • Inland Niger Delta area, around Mopti (Koulbi, Dialloubé, Dogo) in Mali
  • Gourma area on both sides of the Mali-Burkina Faso border (Ndaki, In-Tillit and Tin-Tabakat in Mali, and Korfooueyouey, Arayel, Arbinda, Nassoumbou, Pobé in Burkina Faso)

According to local officials, the ISGS fighters move from village to village, spreading their message. In Burkina Faso, ISGS claimed that its operatives had killed more than 35 members of the JNIM near the Malian border.

There is a pattern in the rivalry between IS and al-Qaeda. IS accuses al-Qaeda of going soft and deviating from core jihadist principles, while al-Qaeda portrays IS members as bloodthirsty ultra-extremists who violate Sharia law and ruin “the mujahidins'” reputation.

To reiterate its stance against al-Qaeda, IS uploaded a lengthy “documentary” video listing all the reasons that allegedly made al-Qaeda and its branches, including JNIM, “apostates.” The group used the video to urge al-Qaeda members to defect to IS.

Local reports indicate that JNIM perceives ISGS as the only obstacle for conducting successful talks with the Malian government and has allegedly made peace with all pro and anti-government forces and tribes in northern Mali, including the Dogon self-defense militias.

Current Situation

As of July 2020, JNIM seems to have gotten the upper hand in the confrontations. The ISGS did not manage to expand its reach to the Niger Delta area as most of its attacks were either repelled or failed to result in a lasting presence.

Despite some initial ISGS successes in the Malian Gourma, JNIM has now regained control over almost the entirety of this area. In northern Burkina Faso, JNIM even managed to increase its reach further as it chased the ISGS from some of their traditional strongholds in the Soum province.

ISGS militants have fled from central Mali towards the Mauritanian border (Nampala), or further southeast towards the Burkina Faso/Niger border. According to local reports, ISGS is currently sending some reinforcements from Tillabéri (Niger) not so much to fight, but rather to advise militants on a comeback strategy.

Implications for the G5 Sahel Forces

The infighting, however, could have an impact on jihadist operations against local and foreign troops in the Sahel, where both groups have significantly stepped up attacks since last year.

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Although the French-led forces might benefit from the clashes between ISGS and JNIM as they lead to the weakening of both of the groups, a boomerang effect might also occur. In a competition to prove their credentials, ISGS and JNIM are likely to step up their attacks. The talks between JNIM and the Malian government might also stall, as a result of the intensified conflict.

On 3 June 2020, French forces killed Algerian national Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in a raid in northern Mali. Three jihadist leaders now loom large over the central Sahel: Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Koufa — who are both linked to al Qaeda — and Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui, who leads the region’s Islamic State group.

On 30 June 2020, the heads of G5 Sahel countries (Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso) met in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott. They discussed the need to intensify the fight against terrorism and to implement the roadmap adopted at the Pau Summit, which delineates a specific timetable for further operations, and the G5 Sahel Joint Action Plan.

Further measures include the deployment of Task Force Takuba, of a contingent of 3,000 African Union soldiers, and of a British brigade that also deployed in 2020 to support the U.N. mission in Mali (MINSUMA).

Task Force Takuba is European military task force integrated into operation Barkhane, which will advise, assist, and accompany Malian Armed Forces, in coordination with G5 Sahel partners.

Additionally, violence in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique has escalated in recent months. There have been suggestions that South Africa could draft in its own recruits to fight the terrorists alongside troops from Mozambique and other members of the African Union. However, this draws the furry of the local Islamic State cell.

On 6 July 2020, IS vowed to bring a war to South Africa if it tries to get involved with its northeasterly neighbor. The insurgents have also taunted the government, saying that an orchestrated terror campaign would bring the country to its knees financially.

The Islamist insurgency in Mozambique is led by Ansar al-Sunna. It is staging increasingly sophisticated and destructive attacks on LNG facilities and government targets this year. The attacks are part of a three-year uprising in the country that has turned markedly more violent this year. Last year there were 660 deaths in 309 attacks, whereas, so far in 2020, 447 people have died in terrorist attacks in Mozambique — a higher rate since last year.

The tactics recently used by Ansar al-Sunna suggest a growing relationship with IS. Such tactics include launching small drones for position scouting, displaying IS flags during attacks, beheading victims, and kidnapping girls in the model of Nigeria’s Boko Haram. IS representatives took credit for some attacks in the country, as on 10 April 2020, when the private security company Dyck Advisor Group lost a helicopter.