November 02, 2017
The Salafi-Jihadi Base in the Sahel
Details are still emerging on the ambush that killed four U.S. Special Forces soldiers near the Nigerien-Malian border on October 4. No group has laid claim to the attack, and both al Qaeda and ISIS have the operational capabilities to have conducted the ambush.
The Salafi-jihadi base creates a network across both organizational and ethnic affiliations in the Sahel. Salafi-jihadi leaders wield local credentials and influence to draw recruits to their organizations and can achieve outsized effects by coordinating with other members of the Salafi-jihadi network. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) provides military support to these indigenous insurgent groups, expanding its own operational range and attack capabilities while the groups pursue their own local goals. AQIM attack cells receive support from the local insurgent groups in exchange, enabling AQIM to attack western targets, like the luxury resort hotel in Bamako in June 2017. The May 2015 defection of Abu Walid al Sahrawi from al Qaeda to ISIS reflected tensions already present among the Salafi-jihadi leadership in the Sahel. Sahrawi did not build his group from scratch when he established ISIS in the Greater Sahara, but brought with him a well-trained cadre of militants that had deep experience operating in the region. U.S. policymakers should understand that it is not ISIS or al Qaeda that is the enemy, but the highly networked Salafi-jihadi base in the Sahel.
- Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM): Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali. It formed from the merger of al Murabitoun, the Macina Liberation Front, the AQIM Sahara Emirate, and Ansar al Din in March 2017. Its leader is Iyad Ag Ghali, who also led Ansar al Din.
- Al Murabitoun: An AQIM affiliate that formed in August 2013 from the merger of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi, and the al Mulathamun Battalion, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. It is part of JNIM.
- Macina Liberation Front: A primarily Fulani Salafi-jihadi group. It is part of JNIM.
- AQIM Sahara Emirate: AQIM’s southern brigade. It is part of JNIM.
- Ansar al Din: A primarily Tuareg AQIM associate formed in December 2011. Its leader is Iyad Ag Ghali. It is part of JNIM.
- Ansar al Islam: A Salafi-jihadi group operating in Burkina Faso. It is not part of JNIM but likely coordinates with JNIM members.
- Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa: An AQIM splinter group formed in October 2011. It merged with the al Mulathamun Battalion to form al Murabitoun.
- ISIS in the Greater Sahara: An ISIS-linked group formed when Abu Walid al Sahrawi broke from al Murabitoun and swore bayat to the leader of ISIS in May 2015. ISIS media informally recognized the group in October 2016.