How ISIS is Challenging al-Qaeda in West Africa

Policeman outside the Ouagadougou hotel attacked by al-Qaeda-linked jihadis in January 2016. 

Opinion

How ISIS is Challenging al-Qaeda in West Africa

Ryan Cummings

15 Sep 2016

A recent attack in Burkina Faso's Sahel region was the first formally claimed by an ISIS-aligned group in an area dominated by those loyal to al-Qaeda.

On 1 September, a group of unidentified assailants attacked a security installation in Markoye – a settlement located near the Malian and Nigerien borders in Burkina Faso's Sahel Region. The attack was not unprecedented for its location. Since 2015, Burkina Faso's shared border area with Mali has witnessed a spate of armed attacks, either claimed by or attributed to al-Qaeda-aligned militant groups. Most of these acts of violence targeted isolated security outposts, a similar modus operandi as the Markoye incursion. But while Islamist militancy may not be anomalous for the region, the group behind the attack most certainly is.

In an email statement sent to the Mauritanian Al-Akhbar news agency, militant commander Abu Walid al-Sahrawi claimed that the attack was carried out by militants loyal to his armed group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISIG). The Markoye incursion would be the first act of violence formally claimed by the ISIS-aligned militant group.

Formed in 2015, ISIG arose as a result of Sahrawi's pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At the time, Sahrawi had transitioned from a spokesman for the Movement for Oneness Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) to head the al-Qaeda-loyal al-Mourabitoun movement – a merger between MOJWA and the al-Mulathameen Brigade of Mokthar Belmokthar. Sahrawi's May 2015 oath of fidelity to ISIS, however, was swiftly rejected by Belmokthar, who instead reaffirmed his and al-Mourabitoun's loyalty to al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

What ensued was a series of clashes between al-Mourabitoun combatants – now under the leadership of Belmokhtar– and Sahrawi loyalists, which saw the latter go relatively dormant for several months. However, the Markoye attack indicates that ISIG has remained a going concern. Further, it indicates that it may be looking to stake its claim in a terrorism-embattled region of the African continent that remains a key stronghold for al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.

Whether ISIG will succeed in challenging AQIM's pre-eminence in the region remains difficult to assess at this stage. Undoubtedly, the Western Sahara-borne Sahrawi is one of the key jihadi figures in the Sahel. Serving as a leading figure in groups such as AQIM, MOJWA and the Mujahideen Shura Council of Mali, Sahrawi has the influence and experience to mould ISIG into a formidable armed movement.

However, of the little which is known about ISIG's composition and operational capacity, it appears the movement may be no more than a small group of Sahwari loyalists whose capabilities are limited both in geographical scope and coordination. Such hypotheses are supported by the fact that despite pledging allegiance to ISIS in May 2015, the Levant-based group has yet to formally acknowledge Sahrawi's oath, nor has it declared the presence of an affiliate in the Sahara. ISIS' hesitancy in this regard may be due to ISIG's lack of relative strength and susceptibility to being neutralised by the myriad of hostile al-Qaeda affiliates operating in the region.

In addition to rival jihadi movements, ISIG is also likely to face a significant existential threat from regional militaries. The emergence of an ISIS affiliate in a region already beleaguered by al-Qaeda affiliates will not go unnoticed by governments susceptible to the scourge of extremist violence. In addition to local actors, France may be particularly weary of the ISIG threat in Francophone Africa given the country's domestic dealings with ISlS. In an attempt to counter and nullify the threat posed by a relatively infantile Islamist extremist organisation, it is plausible that ISIG may become a focal point of France's Sahel-wide Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism initiative. Only in its infancy, lacking territorial control, and marooned in an al-Qaeda dominated conflict theatre, any intensive and focused counter-terrorism against ISIG could yield a decisive blow against the group.

Despite the various challenges facing ISIG in establishing an entrenched operational presence in the region, Sahrawi has remained defiant in his ambitions. Prior to the Markoye attack, Sahrawi sent an audio message to Al-Jazeera in May 2016 threatening attacks in Morocco, specifically warning of acts of violence against the United Nations Missions in Western Sahara, the Moroccan government, Western tourists, and foreign-owned companies. However, current evidence suggests that ISIG will continue to lack the support and prowess to execute acts of violence against such high-value targets. A more probable trajectory for the group is the continuation of opportunistic attacks along areas straddling Mali's northeastern border, which is believed to be the group's primary – albeit limited – operational zone.