Al Qaeda and ISIS Had a Truce in Africa—Until They Didn’t

The Sahel region was inching toward stability, but conflict between local jihadi groups is threatening to bring back chaos.

Prisoners charged with belonging to the al Qaeda-affiliated MUJAO armed group are taken out of a jail at the gendarmerie in the northern Malian city of Gao while they wait to be transferred on a military flight to Bamako on Feb. 26, 2013.
Prisoners charged with belonging to the al Qaeda-affiliated MUJAO armed group are taken out of a jail at the gendarmerie in the northern Malian city of Gao while they wait to be transferred on a military flight to Bamako on Feb. 26, 2013. JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

Not long ago, it was plausible to believe the Sahel region of Africa might be spared the internecine fighting that has characterized relations between the Islamic State and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. For years, jihadis linked to al Qaeda operating in the Sahel tried hard to maintain jihadi unity, keeping open lines of communication with Islamic State franchise groups operating in North and West Africa, even while disavowing the Islamic State’s more extreme ideology. Some reports from the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso tri-border area have gone beyond describing tolerance between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and spoken instead of more concrete forms of collaboration, including the coordination of attacks.

But as the world’s attention focused on the coronavirus pandemic, recent developments in West Africa reveal new forms of unrest between the Sahel’s terrorist and insurgent groups. A recent ISGS suicide truck bombing against JNIM suggests an all-out conflict is on the verge of spilling into the open, further destabilizing an already fragile region.

Despite al Qaeda’s ideological opposition to the Islamic State, JNIM had attempted to preserve peace with ISGS until as late as January of this year, when one of JNIM’s young, promising theologians published two treatises urging Sahel-based jihadis to work toward common goals. But several factors contributed to a breakdown in relations, leading to the current state of affairs, which is characterized by all-out confrontation between JNIM and ISGS.

First, JNIM has maintained significant leverage over ISGS as the stronger group in the Sahel since 2017. However, ISGS surged from November 2019 until January 2020, executing a series of deadly raids against military posts in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Naturally, the Islamic State was quick to release video footage of ISGS’s impressive battlefield performances. Defections from JNIM to ISGS were subsequently reported and celebrated in the latter’s propaganda. Moreover, in Nigeria, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), also known as Boko Haram, has been growing in strength and has far surpassed al Qaeda’s Nigerian representative, Ansaru, despite the latter’s spectacular January attack on a traditional local ruler’s convoy. West Africa was therefore on the precipice of becoming the Islamic State’s undisputed showcase region, which would partially offset setbacks in Iraq and Syria resulting from the collapse of the caliphate. To avoid being overshadowed in a region where it once held dominance, al Qaeda, through JNIM, was compelled to fight back.

Second, as ISGS’s strength was growing its fighters inevitably began approaching areas where JNIM traditionally operated. The overlapping of their camps and areas of operations might have once allowed the groups to have minimal tacit cooperation, or at the very least deliberate indifference. However, since January this proximity has manifested into violent clashes, intensifying as a result of their growing competition. Moreover, when pragmatic voices within JNIM—the Algerian Yahya Abu al-Hammam and the Tunisian Abu Iyad al-Tunisi—were killed in 2019, their previous calls for restraint were removed from the equation.

Third, the Islamic State has begun strengthening its command-and-control apparatus, in effect reasserting stricter oversight and guidance on ISGS and other external provinces. This is perhaps most clearly reflected in increasing ISGS media releases through the Islamic State’s centralized media apparatus, including its pledges of loyalty to former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his successor. One result has been that ISGS fighters, like their ISWAP counterparts in Nigeria, have begun to more closely resemble the Islamic State in terms of style and tactics. The changes also extend to strategy. Just as it was incumbent upon ISWAP to execute its own members in Nigeria for merely communicating with JNIM, it was also only a matter of time before ISGS would clash with JNIM, proving its loyalty to the Islamic State and fully adopting the leadership’s worldview of a zero-sum contest between the feuding organizations.

In some corners of the Western world the growing conflict between al Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated groups in the Sahel will be welcome news, with the conventional wisdom suggesting that by fighting each other the terrorists will be consumed with survival and strapped for resources. However, there is a solid foundation of research that details how competition between terrorist organizations can be a net benefit for them, boosting recruitment and spurring innovation.

As terrorism expert Mia Bloom has pointed out, competition between groups can lead to a process known as outbidding, where adversaries engage in various forms of tactical experimentation in an effort to gain support. For example, ISWAP in Nigeria upgraded its military capabilities to outbid a rival jihadi faction led by Abubakar Shekau, only to see Shekau’s fighters respond by carrying out the deadliest attack in Chad’s history, which killed nearly 100 soldiers in March.

Scholars such as Brian Phillips have shown that rivalries between violent nonstate actors can actually contribute to the longevity of some groups, further entrenching them and allowing them to grow in size, evolve into more sophisticated organizations, and play a spoiler role in peace processes and political negotiations aimed at terminating conflicts.

The final point on sabotaging potential peace deals is particularly interesting in the case of the Sahel. It seems unlikely that French and U.S. counterterrorism operations against jihadis in the region are likely to defeat these organizations. This is especially the case as the United States prepares to reposition some of its most elite forces to meet the challenge of great-power competition with Russia and China, while other forces are being drawn down in response to the coronavirus. Without negotiations, it seems likely that militants will continue to spread across borders, further destabilizing West Africa and opening up new fronts, as they have done in Burkina Faso.

In March, JNIM proposed that it would be open to peace talks with the Malian government, although most observers tempered their enthusiasm, considering the proposal unlikely given the al Qaeda-linked group’s insistence on a withdrawal of French and United Nations forces. Although there has been no recent progress with negotiations, the fact that JNIM hinted at the possibility is a sign that some kind of detente might be reached in the future.

But if conflict between al Qaeda and the Islamic State ramps up, this could increase the Islamic State’s incentive to play the role of spoiler in any future peace deal, to deny any benefits to its rival. Even if JNIM were to scale back its attacks in some kind of cease-fire arrangement with Mali or other governments in the region, ISGS would not be bound by these same dictates, and it could actually increase its operational tempo and the frequency and scale of attacks to keep the region on edge. This would reverse gains made by negotiating a reduction of hostilities with JNIM. Moreover, the Islamic State will undoubtedly allege JNIM’s acceptance of international mediation means al Qaeda recognizes Westphalian borders. This has been a core narrative for the Islamic State and could convince hard-line ideologues in the Sahel to side with ISGS, weakening JNIM and the fruits of any deal.

This could further plunge the region back into chaos it hasn’t seen since 2012, when jihadis controlled Mali and imposed Taliban-style rule on the population, restricting women’s freedoms, destroying Sufi shrines, and cutting off the hands of “thieves” who were often from marginalized ethnic groups, while using Mali as a base to launch major attacks on Western interests in Algeria and Niger. At that time, it was the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar outbidding al Qaeda to demonstrate his jihadi credentials in the region. Now, ISGS has a vested interest in ratcheting up violence in the Sahel to unprecedented levels to outbid and undermine JNIM before negotiations can even get underway.

Jacob Zenn is a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC, and the author of Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram: The Prize in al-Qaeda’s Africa Strategy (2012). Zenn was strategic communication component leader for an EU-supported countering violent extremism program in Nigeria from 2014 to 2016.

Colin P. Clarke is a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and an assistant teaching professor in the Institute for Politics & Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

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