The International Centre for Counter-terrorism (ICCT) based in The Hague is one of the premier research centres in Europe on terrorism and extremism. Over the past five years, ICCT has done extensive research on these phenomena in West Africa. In 2019, there was a massive rise in deaths caused by terrorism in the Sahel, a total of 4,000. On 26 March, ICCT hosted a webinar on this issue, “Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State: Competition or Cooperation in the Western Sahel?” The panel, chaired by Alexander von Rosenback, the ICCT operation manager and senior fellow, contained Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Centre and an associate fellow at ICCT, and Julie Coleman, a senior research fellow at ICCT.
Al-QAEDA GROUPS IN THE SAHEL
Clarke noted that a lot of his research on West Africa comes from his recent book, After the Caliphate, which was reviewed at European Eye on Radicalization shortly after it came out over the summer. Clarke contends that terms like “cooperation” and “nexus” are used too loosely in relation to terrorist groups, with little distinction between one-time transactional contacts and sustained, strategic collaboration. There is also the problem, Clarke argues, that with the Islamic State (ISIS) having lost its territorial base it no longer makes sense to treat the group, or Al-Qaeda, “like they’re monolithic entities [when] clearly they’re not”; the “local dynamics” are key.
Clarke focuses on Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM), the Qaeda merger in the Sahel that operates across Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. These states are weak, their militaries are predatory to some degree creating grievances that JNIM can feed off, and the United States drawing down in the area is opening security vacuums, says Clarke. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while regarded as having diminished, provides crucial logistical and financial support to JNIM across the various states of the Sahel region and helps it coordinate its operations.
Clarke addressed an article in The Washington Post at the end of February, which got a lot of attention in the analytical community, by purporting to report that the U.S. believed ISIS and Al-Qaeda were “working together” in the Sahel. While acknowledging that JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have tensions, Clarke believes that this report is essentially correct—in contrast to other analysts who believe that “deconfliction” between ISIS and Al-Qaeda over areas of operation is the maximum extent of “cooperation”.
In terms of cooperation, Clarke notes that the major reason terrorist groups avoid it is because such open collaboration often invites counter-terrorism action from the West and other states. The literature on terrorist cooperation explains why groups do it at all, Clarke explains, and it is to do with resources, combatting existential threats, and learning, among other things. Clarke recommends Assaf Moghadam’s Nexus of Global Jihad as a good primer on navigating the various kinds of cooperation, from mergers and strategic partnerships to more arm’s length relationships.
With the decimation of the ISIS leadership that broke with Al-Qaeda, Clarke suggests that this potentially opens a path to the two groups reconnecting and with the jihadist movement under pressure this adds incentive for such reconciliation. He cautions that this should not be seen as a one-size-fits-all conclusion: from Afghanistan to Iraq to Mali it will look different based on local conditions.
THE ISLAMIC STATE IN THE SAHEL
Ms. Coleman focused on ISGS. The rise of the ISIS branch in the Sahel, established in 2015 and formally giving a bay’a (oath of allegiance) to ISIS “central” (ISIS-C) in 2016, comes in the context of an “exponential” rise in jihadi violence in the area, says Coleman (see Figure 1). The violence spread from northern Mali, to the centre of the country, east to Niger, and south to Burkina Faso and even the Gulf of Guinea.
It took ISIS-C seventeen months to recognise the bay’a from ISGS, far longer than from other wilayats (provinces, i.e. branches around the world), hinting at possible problems in the command structure. But this has not stopped ISGS becoming a very powerful group, Coleman notes. ISGS’s emergence as a major public force was in October 2017, when its attack in Tongo Tongo killed not only Nigerien troops but four U.S. Special Forces. By the end of 2019, ISGS was launching sophisticated and hugely lethal attacks in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
ISGS has used drones to do reconnaissance before its attacks, but Coleman says that this similarity with ISIS-C does not necessarily indicate sharing of material or even directly of guidance from ISIS-C. It is more, she contends, a product of the increasing availability of this technology and the positive feedback loop of their raids—the more weapons they acquire, the more attacks they can carry out to capture more weapons.
Where JNIM has about 2,000 members, ISGS is about ten times smaller, according to Coleman, and the way it inflicts such high casualties is by co-opting people—by bribery and intimidation—into assisting their attacks, but these people are not “true” members. This is a stark contrast with the tens of thousands of international peacekeepers in the area and the vast sums of money sent to combat what is a very small insurgent force.
Coleman reiterates Clarke’s distinction between “strategic coordination” and “tactical or operational cooperation”. When it comes ISGS and JNIM, it is public knowledge that up through 2017 there was communication between the senior leaderships of the two groups, and there are reports of contacts at a lower level. The two groups agree on the goal of expelling Western forces, and they draw on similar and (literally) related groups—ethnic and tribal. Coleman says, however, that the proper view should be of ISGS and JNIM “working in parallel”, that is to say they “deconflict and [do] not target each other”, but “the word ‘cooperation’” should be avoided. There “does not seem like there is any tactical cooperation” in the sense of joint raids or anything close to it, says Coleman. ISGS and JNIM conduct attacks “independently”. When their attacks are mapped, there is minimal overlap in central Mali, while JNIM sticks largely to western Mali and northern Burkina Faso (the red dots in Figure 2), and ISGS sticks to eastern Mali, eastern Burkina Faso, and western Niger (the blue dots in Figure 2).
ISGS has, like its mother branch, sought the spotlight, and received it in the media. But the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, operating in the shadows, have been quietly rebuilding as ISGS draws fire from local and international states, Coleman says, and JNIM are more deadly than ISGS overall.
Going forward, says Coleman, the Malian government in particular has shown a willingness to negotiate with insurgent groups—but only those affiliated with Al-Qaeda; ISGS remains out of bounds. While this political track has merit, and the whole approach cannot be securitized, JNIM insists that French and other foreign forces leave before it will negotiate with local governments—an extreme demand, since these states would struggle to hold ground to negotiate on without international support.
The fragile and fluid security situation in West Africa has proven to be a magnet for jihadist groups—and, indeed, organised crime groups. Unlike in the Levant, the competition between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is proving so far to be more dangerous for local governments than it is for either of the jihadist groups. How this dynamic evolves over time might well determine the future of the region.