A Brief Note on the Spike in Intra-Sahelian Conflict in Light of al-Naba

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In last week’s al-Naba, a weekly newsletter the Islamic State issues every Thursday, two interesting articles focused on the newest local manifestation of intra-Jihadi conflict. The Sahel was long seen as “the exception”, but in the summer of 2019 tensions finally started to emerge between the local Islamic State affiliate known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), a subgroup of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM), the local al-Qaida franchise (and a sub-group of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb). During the fall of 2019 skirmishes were reported, but the conflict really got going in early 2020. For a great timeline see Nsaibia and Weiss’ piece in the CTC Sentinel from July. Here, the authors report that between July 2019 and July 2020 the two groups clashed 46 times.

The first article of interest in al-Naba issue 260 is an interview with ISGS amir Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi. Caleb Weiss already dealt with the interview more broadly, but what is of interest here is al-Sahrawi’s comments on the conflict with JNIM. Al-Sahrawi mentions how the conflict initially erupted because JNIM fighters started to defect and pledge allegiance to ISGS. That much we already knew. He explains how JNIM reacted aggressively, arresting and killing several fighters leaving the group. One of them was al-Miqdad al-Ansari, a local leader of the contingent of JNIM fighters from Nampala that pledged allegiance to ISGS. Al-Sahrawi also aims his pen against Amadou Kouffa, the amir of the Macina Liberation Front, a constituent group of JNIM. Kouffa, he claims, ordered the defecting JNIM fighters to hand over all their weapons and leave Nampala within ten days or face persecution. It is interesting how a similar issue of weapons ownership also dominated the early tensions between Hay’at Tahriral-Sham and Hurras al-Deen in Syria. Finally, al-Sahrawi turns his attention to the issue of JNIM’s rapprochement with the Malian government. Their arrogance and delusion, he says, is “pushing them to follow a path similar to that of the apostate Taliban”.

The second—and arguably the more revealing—article is a military report covering the previous three months of skirmishes. According to the report, the two groups clashed 26 times during that period, leaving 76 al-Qaida fighters dead. Approximately 30 al-Qaida fighters were killed in just one attack in Mali’s N’Tillit area (see map above). The attack took place on October 21, when ISGS fighters allegedly ambushed a camp of about 600 JNIM fighters southeast of N’Tillit close to the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger. As is standard for the Islamic State’s military reports, while enemy casualties are described in detail, there is no mention of any killed ISGS fighters. Yet if these numbers are anywhere near the truth, they imply that clashes between the two groups have surged dramatically over the last three months.

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