November 15, 2016

A New ISIS Branch in the Sahel?

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The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) informally recognized a new branch operating in the Sahel region of West Africa on October 30, 2016. The group had been operating under the ISIS name for over a year, but only demonstrated any real attack capability in September and October 2016. ISIS may have waited until the group proved potential value before broadcasting its presence in the Sahel. It may wait for the group to develop further before formally recognizing it as a wilayat or province. ISIS may also have sought to show that the Caliphate was more than just Raqqa, Syria, or Mosul, Iraq, as operations to recapture those cities commenced.  It is too soon to tell if this announcement reflects a real change in the situation in the Sahel, but the prospect of an expanding ISIS presence there partially offsetting the group’s losses in Iraq, Syria, and Libya is concerning.

ISIS-linked media channels disseminated the pledge of bayat, allegiance, to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in the first public recognition of an ISIS group operating in the Sahel. Pro-ISIS Amaq News Agency published a video of Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi swearing bayat on behalf of "al Murabitoun" to Baghdadi in northern Mali on October 30, 2016. Sahrawi is the leader of a small splinter group of the al Qaeda-associated al Murabitoun group that declared loyalty to the Islamic State in May 2015. ISIS did not recognize Sahrawi's initial pledge and ISIS-linked media largely ignored the group until mid-October 2016. Even now, ISIS does not seem to have recognized Sahrawi's group as a formal extension of the Islamic State.

 ISIS probably withheld the recognition of Sahrawi's group because it was not clear whether the group had any real capability. Sahrawi's splinter faction, known also as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, was small. Sahrawi had been a spokesman and a leader of one of two al Qaeda-linked groups that merged in August 2013 to form al Murabitoun. He was not able to compel his full faction to split from al Murabitoun, and the prominent Salafi-jihadi leadership in the Sahel soundly rejected both Sahrawi's move and the concept of an “Islamic State” as conceived by ISIS. Sahrawi threatened attacks in Morocco in May 2016 but never followed through.

The first indication of Sahrawi's group’s operational capacity was a string of small-scale attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger in September and October 2016. Sahrawi’s group conducted a small arms attack on a Burkinabe gendarmerie post on September 2, 2016, in northwestern Burkina Faso. Sahrawi claimed the attack for “the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’s Burkina Faso branch” in a statement through al Akhbar, a Mauritanian newspaper. On October 12, the group conducted a small arms attack that killed three Burkinabe soldiers at a military position in northern Burkina Faso. Sahrawi claimed the attack again via al Akhbar, which identified Sahrawi’s group as the “Islamic State." The group attacked a Nigerien prison holding Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants with a small team and at least one suicide bomber less than a week later on October 17. Nigerien security forces rebuffed the attack. Al Jazeera published Sahrawi's claim of responsibility on October 18.

Sahrawi’s group may now be in the preliminary stages of becoming an official ISIS wilayat. It has achieved some of the prerequisites for wilayat status, including the documentation of its pledge and possibly the declaration of an emir. Indicators that would indicate further progress toward wilayat status include pledges of bayat from other groups with the intent to join Sahrawi’s group, as well as the transfer of capabilities or resources from ISIS to the group. Sahrawi's group also has, at minimum, connections with individuals who have access to pro-ISIS media outlets. It could also have a line of communication to ISIS, too, though there is no clear evidence of such a link. The group is already able to conduct small tactical unit attacks and has combined small arms fire with an improvised explosive device through the use of a suicide bomber. It has not yet displayed the ability to build a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device or revealed that it possesses heavier weaponry. Shifts in its capabilities in terms of tactics, targets, or lethality could indicate assistance from ISIS. 

ISIS is under pressure in Iraq and Syria and may see Sahrawi's group as a way to prove that its so-called Islamic Caliphate is global. ISIS’s ability to claim operations in the Sahel feeds its narrative of global expansion. It may also create an opportunity for ISIS to compete with AQIM in the Sahel, though ISIS does not pose a threat to AQIM’s regional dominance at this time. 

Sahrawi’s group will likely continue to conduct small-scale attacks on security targets in the Malian-Burkinabe-Nigerien border region that pro-ISIS media outlets will promote. A more dangerous development would be the full integration of Sahrawi's group into ISIS. This development would probably lead to increased ISIS recruitment in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, as well as Sahrawi’s native Western Sahara. It also raises the risk of attacks on Western and allied interests in the Sahel. Sahrawi's group would also serve as a connector for ISIS's affiliates in Libya and Nigeria and increase opportunities for ISIS to profit from illicit networks in the Sahel. Finally, the group could be a destination for African recruits should ISIS face significant setbacks in Libya. Another significant attack by Sahrawi’s group, especially one that demonstrates new attack capabilities, should ring alarm bells in Washington.

Read the Critical Threats Project’s report on al Qaeda’s resurgence in the Sahel region and the Institute for the Study of War’s reports on ISIS’s global attack network and regional campaigns

Caitlin Forrest contributed insight to this report.