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.