In sub-Saharan Africa, trouble keeps expanding in the form of new branches of extremist terror and criminal organizations. The question today is: Who is the Islamic State in the greater Sahara?
The easy answer to that question is they are an Islamic State affiliation, which means they fall in line with Al Baghdadi’s group in Syria and Iraq. IS has been making moves in Africa for a while now with little success. Al-Shabaab denied them access to their network in Somalia. That does not mean there are not little offshoots in northern Somalia, but they are barely any threat to Somalia and its neighbors. In Libya they had better opportunities, but even now the ground is shrinking around them.
Mali, Niger and Libya are no stranger to terror groups of the likes of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Mourabitoun, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in west Africa, Ansaru, Ansaroul Islam and Macina Liberation Front.
They have had success with Boko Haram in Nigeria. Having the group swear-in sometime last year gave them a good footprint in northern Africa. The thorn in IS’s heel is Al-Qaeda (AQ). AQ has been established there for a long time and runs the criminal activity in the area. That means anything from drug running, arms dealing, kidnapping and of course human trafficking.
The local Tuareg community has a better understanding with AQ because they assisted the Tuareg in their rebellion in 2012, even though AQ had its own ideas and the two sides split. However, business is still done between them. The hard part to all of this is: Where did ISIS-Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS) come from? Who are their leaders? What is their area of operations? With such a new group, there’s limited open-source information on them.
Where did they come from?
They are nomadic people – were they not, they would reference a country in the title like their counterparts in Iraq and Syria. The Tuaregs based out of Mali have shown an ambition for violence and a separate state, exemplified in the Tuareg rebellion in 2012. Mali is a mix of Islamic extremist terror groups and some in the past have shown signs of wanting to move towards a solidified Islamic state and join their brothers in Nigeria, Iraq and Syria. In regards to Al-Mourabitoun, its leaders were undecided in which direction to take the group early this year. Some of them were loyal to AQ with the younger members seeing the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Who is leading the group?
While it’s impossible to say who may be leading the group, the one man on the list is Abu Walid Al-Sahraoui, who is one of the leaders in Al-Mourabitoun. Al-Sahraoui has in the past publicly voiced his opinions on joining the Islamic State and pledged an allegiance to ISIS, but was denied by the AQ loyalists. It is possible that he has split from Al-Mourabitoun and has formed ISIS-GS.
He may not be in the public eye, as his forces are likely still small. Also worth noting, Jeff Woodke is an American hostage imprisoned in Mali, but no group has group forward to claim him. It is also possible that this is the work of Sahraoui. Why else would the other groups not come forward as they have done with every other kidnapping? Whoever has him is not strong enough yet to go public. These groups always have allied groups in with which they work, ISIS-GS is likely working with Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin. Both groups follow strict Sharia law and have been responsible for a lot of attacks lately in Mali and Burkina Faso. It also possible that the two groups will work together from time to time and may even emerge as one in the future.
What is their area of operations?
Their area of operations (AO) will be in the traditional areas of the Tuareg people, Mali, Niger, Liybia, Algeria, Burkina Faso. This area is vast and large with many ratlines, tunnels, caves etc. Only local Tuareg people can navigate these lands. With such a large complicated area stretching across 3-4 different countries, trying to locate this group would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Regardless, here are some key locations in Mali to keep an eye on:
- Menaka, Mali, is most likely to harbor the attackers from the ambush, Abu Walid Al-Sahraou has been sighted around this area in the past.
- Kidal, Mali, as long been a troubled stop for French forces and this area is always in high activity, due to the vast remote areas around the city, it is easy for groups to come and go.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reported an increase of more than 100 percent in attacks since June, and declared that the security situation had significantly worsened in the West African country.
The Security Council is due to discuss the crisis in Mali on Thursday.
In all, extremist groups carried out 75 attacks: 44 against Malian forces, 21 against the UN’s MINUSMA operation and 10 against the French Barkhane mission, mostly in the north of the country.
“These figures represent an increase of 102.7 percent for all attacks,” compared to the previous four months, said the report to the council.
During that period, six peacekeepers, one civilian and eight UN contractors were killed and 34 other UN personnel were injured in MINUSMA, which has earned the title of the UN’s deadliest mission.
The heaviest toll, however, was suffered by Malian forces, with 39 members killed and 44 wounded. No French soldiers were killed since June but 17 were injured, compared with two in the previous four months.”
What’s next for ISIS-GS:
That’s a hard question to answer. Groups pop up and fade away all the time. It’s the first ISIS-affiliated group in the area, where AQ has long been the main terror force. As such, it could be the start of something. With ISIS losing ground in Syria and Libya not to mention that Malian and Nigerien terrain offer some advantages with it being so vast. Additionally the steady stream of weapons coming in from Libya makes for a perfect AO and maybe a new place for ISIS to operate.