Islamic State in the Greater Sahara

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Name

Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS)

Overview

            The IS-GS emerged as an Islamic State (IS) grouping, initially called the Islamic State in Mali (ISM), in May 2015. At that time, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, a co-leader of Al-Mourabitoun (AM) (“The Sentinels”), an al Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) affiliate in Mali, Niger, Algeria, and southwestern Libya, and his followers split from AM and pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS’s leader in Syria/Iraq. At the time, Moktar Belmokhtar, AM’s co-leader, dismissed al-Sahrawi’s pledge to IS, declared himself Emir (“Prince”), and continued maintaining the group’s allegiance to AQIM. Reportedly, Belmokhtar’s followers attempted to assassinate al-Sahrawi after the latter’s pledge to IS. In October 2016, IS acknowledged al-Sahrawi’s pledge with a post on Telegram in Arabic by its Amaq News Agency, and referred to al-Sahrawi’s group as its battalion in Mali. IS-GS’s earliest configuration, the Mali Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), was formed in 2011 as an offshoot of AQIM. In August 2013, MUJAO merged with Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathamun (“The Masked Men”) Battalion (AMB), another AQIM offshoot, to form AM.

In March 2017, AQIM merged with three other al Qaida-affiliated groups to establish a new umbrella group called “The Group to Support Islam and Muslims” (“(Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin,” or JNIM).

Size

            In May 2015, IS-GS’s size was reported around 40 fighters. According to one estimate, its size increased to 300 fighters in April 2018, with another estimate of 425 fighters in late July 2018. [i] Most of IS-GS’s fighters are Fulani. In addition to its core members, the IS-GS’s forces also include Peul, Tuareg, and Arab fighters, which is part of a pattern in which the group draws on sympathetic local villagers by using Islamist messages to exploit their ethnic and other grievances.

Leadership

            IS-GS’s leader is Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi (last name also spelled al-Sahraoui). He is reported to be 40 or 41 years old. He was born in Laayoune, in Western Sahara, and grew up in the Tindouf refugee camps in southern Algeria, as a member of the Arabic-speaking Sahrawi people, who are spread across southern Morocco, Mauritania, and the Western Sahara parts of Algeria.

Aboubacar Chapori (also known as Petit Chapori) is reported to be one of al-Sahrawi’s key lieutenants. He reportedly led the IS-GS’s raid that attacked the Nigerien National Guard soldiers in November 2016.

Doundoun Cheffou is reported to be a “chef de poste” in IS-GS’s hierarchy, under Chapori. Reportedly, he was a target of the joint U.S.-Nigerien raid against IS-GS prior to the Tongo Tongo attack.[ii]

Mohamed Ag Almouner (also known as Tinka ag Almouner), a top IS-GS commander, was reportedly killed in a French military operation in Mali’s northern Menaka region in late 2018. Almouner was reportedly involved in IS-GS’s ambush in which four American Special Forces soldiers were killed in Tongo Tongo in October 2017.   

Djibo Hamma, a top IS-GS commander, is reported to have been killed in early March 2018 in a battle in the Tinzouragan area of Mali’s northern Gao region. 

Sultan Ould Bady, who led IS-GSs Katibat Salahadin force, surrendered to the Algerian military in early 2018.

Ideology and Affiliations

            As an IS-affiliated group, IS-GC’s ideology calls for establishing an Islamic Caliphate based on Sunni Salafist, jihadist, pan-Islamist, and anti-Western components. Its ideology is also based on localized communal grievances.

Funding

            IS-GS’s funding is derived from its criminal activities, such as kidnapping ransoms, robberies, extortion protection, and smuggling items such as cigarettes and illicit narcotics. It is not publicly known if it receives funding from external sources.

Location/Areas of operation

            The IS-GS primarily operates in northern Mali’s Menaka region, and along the Mali-Niger border in Niger’s Niamey region. Its forces also operate in Niger and Burkina Faso’s southeast region.

Significant Operations

September 1-2, 2016:  The IS-GS targeted a gendarmerie in Burkina Faso near the Nigerien border and killed two guards.

October 12, 2016:  The IS-GC attacked a police outpost in Intoum, Burkina Faso, near the Mali border, killing three police.

October 17, 2016:  the IS-GC conducted a jailbreak operation on the high-security Koutoukale Prison in Niamey, Niger, which held Boko Haram members. The attack also utilized an assailant wearing a suicide belt. The attack was repelled.

November 2016:  An estimated 100 IS-GS fighters on motorbikes and vehicles carried out an attack on 17 Nigerien soldiers manning an outpost of Niger’s national guard. Six Nigerien soldiers were killed, with two others taken hostage. One Nigerien soldier survived. 

October 4, 2017:  The IS-GS attacked a joint U.S.-Nigerien patrol in the region of Tongo Tongo, Niger, close to the Mali-Niger border. Four U.S. Special Forces soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers were killed.

August 6, 2018:  Mohamed Ag Almouner,a top IS-GS commander, was reportedly killed in a French military operation in Mali’s northern Menaka region. One of his bodyguards was reportedly killed, as well. 

August 29, 2018:  In two attacks in northern Mali’s Menaka region, IS-GS’s fighters killed 40 Tuareg members of their militia, the National Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA). The attacks were reportedly an attempt to provoke an inter-communal conflict between the Tuaregs and Fulanis.

Governments Counterterrorism Response

            The governments of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso have had difficulty countering the insurgencies by groups such as IS-GS, AM, and others because of the ability of their jihadist ideology to exploit local communal grievances. This has made these governments dependent on the intervention of French and United States military forces.

Future Trends

            IS-GS is likely to continue to grow the size of its force and expand its areas of operation due to its leader’s charisma, its link with the Islamic State’s “brand,” and its ability to exploit and exacerbate local ethnic conflicts, particularly between Tuareg and Fulani herdsmen over scarce water resources in northern Mali, and radicalize and recruit new adherents from such affected communities.

            The IS-GS’s continued growth is also dependent on its effectiveness in competing with proximate jihadi groups, particularly JNIM, al Qaida’s affiliate, and the effectiveness of the French and American counterterrorism campaigns against it, including their success in coordinating their military campaigns with the G5 Sahel’s governments and their militaries.

            Another future trend is whether a portion of the flow out of Syria of an estimated 6,000 of IS’s African fighters will bolster IS-GS’s forces in the Mali-Niger region, or will they prefer to join their IS brethren in Libya, Somalia, or Nigeria.

            Finally, there is concern that the IS-GC could serve as one of the terrorist hubs for the Islamic State’s ambition to increase its presence in West Africa, including Libya. This would not only threaten these African states’ stability, but also position their fighters to exploit smuggling routes to target Western European countries.


[i] https://ctc.usma.edu/islamic-state-africa-estimating-fighter-numbers-cells-across-continent/.

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/05/hostage-niger-islamic-state-group-they-want-to-kill-foreign-soldiers.

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