December 19, 2018

The Salafi-Jihadi Base in the Sahel: December 2018

Affiliations, including shared purposes, histories, and personal relationships, create the Salafi-jihadi base in the Sahel. These affiliations overcome organizational divides.

Common purposes, shared histories, and ethnic and tribal affiliations unify the highly complex and fractious Salafi-jihadi base[1] in West Africa’s Sahel region. Organizational splinters have not stopped Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel from cooperating to achieve the same objectives.[2] Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) serves as an umbrella group for four factions. A breakaway faction of al Murabitoun under Abu Walid al Sahrawi, which became the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), continues to cooperate with the al Qaeda-linked groups. The relationships between Sahrawi and members of JNIM have enabled operational deconfliction and even cooperation between the groups.[3] Ethnic and tribal affiliations cut across the organizational divides and further enrich the network. Militant commanders who are dual-hatted as ethnic or tribal notables lead factions that draw on their local identities, like Iyad Ag Ghali’s Tuareg-majority Ansar al Din and Amadou Koufa’s Fulani-majority Macina Liberation Front. These cross-cutting identities have allowed the Salafi-jihadi base in the Sahel to mobilize local ethnic identity groups to gain access to communities and expand their operational reach.[4]

Notes on the Salafi-jihadi Base in the Sahel graphic:

The death of Macina Liberation Front leader Amadou Koufa is not confirmed. French Minister of the Armies Florence Parly corroborated Koufa’s death in November. AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel denied Koufa’s death.[5]

The graphic identifies the primary ethnic affiliations of group members. The groups are not entirely ethnically based, however, and all include members of other ethnic groups. The graphic does not attempt to show sub-tribal affiliations, but they are present and reflect the groups’ infiltration of intra-ethnic as well as inter-ethnic conflicts.[6]

Revisit the 2017 Salafi-jihadi Base in the Sahel graphic.

See below for additional sourcing.[7]


[1] This base forms a network of the individuals and organizations operating predominantly in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso who seek to impose their conception of a correct Islamic polity on populations through the use of armed force. Katherine Zimmerman, “America’s Real Enemy: The Salafi-Jihadi Movement,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, July 18, 2017, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/americas-real-enemy-the-salafi-jihadi-movement.

[2] Al Murabitoun (Figure 1, top left), led by commanders who split from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), conducted joint operations with AQIM in 2015 before joining AQIM’s Malian affiliate, Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), in 2017. Andreas Hagen, “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Leaders and their Networks,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, March 27, 2014, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/al-qaeda-in-the-islamic-maghreb-leaders-and-their-networks; Andrew Lebovich, “The Hotel Attacks and Militant Realignment in the Sahara-Sahel Region,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Sentinel 9, no. 1 (January 2016), https://ctc.usma.edu/the-hotel-attacks-and-militant-realignment-in-the-sahara-sahel-region/; “Al-Murabitoon Declares its Joining AQIM in Audio Speech,” SITE Intelligence Group, December 4, 2015, English translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; “Ansar Dine and AQIM’s Sahara and Murabitoon Branches Announce Merger,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 2, 2017, English translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] Katherine Zimmerman and Emily Estelle, “A New ISIS Branch in the Sahel?,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, November 15, 2016, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/a-new-isis-branch-in-the-sahel; “Threat Update: June 13, 2018,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, June 13, 2018, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/threat-update/uae-begins-operation-to-seize-al-hudaydah-port; “Threat Update: January 31, 2018,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, January 31, 2018, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/threat-update/in-yemen-divisions; “ A kamikaze with an explosive belt shot down in Menaka in northern Mali,” Maliweb, January 28, 2018, https://www.maliweb.net/la-situation-politique-et-securitaire-au-nord/kamikaze-a-ceinture-dexplosifs-abattu-a-menaka-nord-mali-2735093.html; “ Sahel: Iyad Ag Ghaly tries a rapprochement with Abu Walid al-Sahraoui?” Jeune Afrique, March 19, 2018, http://www.jeuneafrique.com/mag/529517/politique/sahel-iyad-ag-ghali-tente-un-rapprochement-avec-letat-islamique; “A rapprochement between the organization ‘Dahesh’ and al Qaeda in the Sahel,” Kirabu, December 14, 2017, https://kibaru.ml/ar/art/mzsd7%20https:/kibaru.ml/ar/art/mzsd7; and Philippe Desmazes, “ Mali: two major jihadist groups make a rapprochement,” RFI, December 14, 2017, http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20171214-mali-deux-importants-groupes-jihadistes-operent-rapprochement?ref=tw_i.

[4] The formation of the Sahelian Salafi-jihadi base and its southward expansion follows a trend of ethnic identity mobilization. AQIM and al Murabitoun are Arab-dominant. Ansar al Din is Tuareg-dominant. The Macina Liberation Front and Ansar al Islam are Fulani-dominant, and the Arab-led ISGS has pursued a Fulani-focused recruitment strategy. This mobilization has allowed the Salafi-jihadi base to expand into central Mali and Burkina Faso. Katherine Zimmerman and Alix Halloran, “Warning from the Sahel: Al Qaeda’s Resurgent Threat,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, September 1, 2016, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/warning-from-the-sahel-al-qaedas-resurgent-threat; and Andrew McGregor, “The Fulani Crisis: Communal Violence and Radicalization in the Sahel,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Sentinel 10, no. 2 (February 2017), https://ctc.usma.edu/the-fulani-crisis-communal-violence-and-radicalization-in-the-sahel/.

[5] Alex Thurston, “Mali: Roundup on the Reported Death of Amadou Koufa,” Sahel Blog, December 7, 2018, https://sahelblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/07/mali-roundup-on-the-reported-death-of-amadou-kouffa/; and “AQIM leader addresses Yellow Vest protests in France in audio, denies killing of JNIM’s Macina official,” SITE Intelligence Group, December 11, 2018, English translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[6] Ansar al Islam’s appeal to the grievances of marginalized communities has yielded recruits from segments of the Fulani population alongside other ethnic groups, for example. Heni Nsaibia and Caleb Weiss, “Ansaroul Islam and the Growing Terrorist Insurgency in Burkina Faso,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Sentinel 11, no. 3 (March 2018), https://ctc.usma.edu/ansaroul-islam-growing-terrorist-insurgency-burkina-faso/.

[7] Tom Peters and Katherine Zimmerman, “The Salafi-Jihadi Base in the Sahel,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, November 2, 2017, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/The-Salafi-jihadi-Base-in-the-Sahel; Andrew McGregor, “Anarchy in Azawad: A Guide to Non-State Armed Groups in Northern Mali,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, January 27, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/anarchy-azawad-guide-non-state-armed-groups-northern-mali/; and Remi Carayol, “Mali: Keita and Koufa, the disturbing terrorist duo of the South,” Jeune Afrique, December 3, 2015, https://www.jeuneafrique.com/mag/280602/politique/mali-keita-koufa-linquietant-duo-terroriste-sud/; and Alex Thurston, “Mali: Roundup on the Reported Death of Amadou Koufa,” Sahel Blog, December 7, 2018, https://sahelblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/07/mali-roundup-on-the-reported-death-of-amadou-kouffa/; and “AQIM leader addresses Yellow Vest protests in France in audio, denies killing of JNIM’s Macina official,” SITE Intelligence Group, December 11, 2018, English translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; Nicolas Desgrais, Yvan Guichaoua, and Andrew Lebovich, “Unity is the exception. Alliance formation and de-formation among armed actors in Northern Mali,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 29, no. 4 (2018), 654-679, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09592318.2018.1488403?journalCode=fswi20; Caleb Weiss, “Veteran Malian jihadist surrenders to Algeria,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 12, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/08/veteran-malian-jihadist-surrenders-to-algeria.php; “New jihadist configuration: Head of Salah ad-Din Sultan Ould Badi leaves Ancar Dine and pledges allegiance to Islamic State,” Kibaru, February 20, 2018, https://kibaru.ml/fr/art/zqaag; “Letter dated 16 July 2018 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in the Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,” United Nations Security Council, July 27, 2018, http://undocs.org/S/2018/705; Heni Nsaibia, “The Fledgling Insurgency in Burkina’s East,” ACLED, September 20, 2018, https://www.acleddata.com/2018/09/20/the-fledgling-insurgency-in-burkinas-east/; Andrew McGregor, “Islamist Insurgency in Burkina Faso: A Profile of Malam Ibrahim Dicko,” Aberfoyle International Security, April 30, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3908; “Burkina Faso: Killings, Abuse in Sahel Conflict,” Human Rights Watch, May 21, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/05/21/burkina-faso-killings-abuse-sahel-conflict; MENASTREAM, Twitter, July 17, 2016, https://twitter.com/menastream/status/754658180614021120; “AQIM’s Sahara Division Announces Death of Mauritanian Commander in Raid,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 17, 2016, English translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; “Mali: Al-Mourabitoun Commander and Associates Killed Amidst Barkhane Operation Near Tabankort,” MENASTREAM, August 8, 2018, http://menastream.com/mali-mourabitoun-barkhane-tabankort/; “Threat Update: November 28, 2018,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, November 28, 2018, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/threat-update/hardliner-led-impeachment-proceedings-against-iranian-foreign-minister-mohammad-javad-zarif-may-backfire-and-could-lead-to-anti-regime-protests ; “Top Mali jihadist Amadou Koufa killed in French raid – army,” BBC, November 24, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-46331928; “Burkina Faso: Ansaroul Islam Pledging Allegiance to the Islamic State? Maybe or Maybe Not..[sic]” MENASTREAM, April 16, 2017, http://menastream.com/burkina-faso-ansaroul-islam-pledging-allegiance-to-the-islamic-state-maybe-or-maybe-not/; “Al-Mansour faction leader Ag Alkassim targeted in Barkhane raid,” RFI Afrique, November 15, 2018, http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20181115-mali-chef-faction-al-mansour-ag-alkassim-vise-raid-barkhane; and Dalia Ghanem, “Jihadism in the Sahel: AQIM’s Strategic Maneuvers for Long-Term Regional Dominance,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, June 23, 2017, http://carnegie-mec.org/2017/06/23/jihadism-in-sahel-aqim-s-strategic-maneuvers-for-long-term-regional-dominance-pub-71413.

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