The Sahel’s IS offshoot is resurgent despite the recent death of its leader. But does it have greater political ambitions beyond violence and terror?
Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) had "lost its grip" in the region. He certainly must have been hoping so, as he withdrew French military forces that had been stationed in Mali to combat terrorism since 2018. However, ISGS-instigated violence in recent weeks shows that it is anything but defeated, with the group responsible for killing dozens of people in the central Sahel, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). One of the deadliest attacks happened on 18 June, killing at least 20 civilians in several hamlets in Gao district's Anchawadj commune in Mali. But why does ISGS pose such a threat a year after the death of its founding leader, Adnan Abu Walid al- Sahrawi?
Brutality born of weakness
ISGS is a Sunni extremist group affiliated with the Islamic State that operates in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso border region. It was founded in 2015 by al-Sahrawi, a former member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In August 2021, French forces carried out a drone strike that killed al-Sahrawi, according to the French military.
But the death of al-Sahrawi doesn't seem to have had a significant impact on ISGS's ability to carry out attacks. If anything, the group appears to have become more active in recent weeks. The ICG report published two months after al-Sahrawi's death read that while the short-term effect of the killing could include disruption of ISGS's operations, "in the long term, his killing could also rouse a desire for vengeance among his fighters and lead to escalating violence".
To back up this claim, the report pointed to a spate of deadly ISGS attacks in March 2021, including one that killed 137 Niger villagers in what is considered to be the worst massacre by Islamic extremists in the West African country’s history. The report concluded "the massive violence already perpetrated against civilians by ISGS was partly related to the relative weakening of the organisation, which had stepped up its brutality to keep control of its strongholds. The death of Abu Walid could reinforce this trend."
Based in the Sahel region of Africa, ISGS is one of the Islamic State's (IS) most active branches outside the Middle East and North Africa. It has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State's objective of restoring the caliphate, and Sahrawi recognised Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State's former self-proclaimed caliph, as the group's leader in a video released in 2015.
But ISGS's declared loyalty was not immediately reciprocated by the Islamic State's central leadership. It wasn't until more than a year later in October 2016 that IS formally accepted ISGS into the fold, says Jared Thompson, a scholar with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The Islamic State's acknowledgement, however, did not elevate ISGS to the status of an official wilayah (province)," he wrote. "The pledge from ISGS was not formally accepted until April 2019, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a video praising al-Sahrawi and encouraging ISGS members to increase attacks against French and local security forces."
The group is most active in the so-called "three-border" area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Since 2019, according to Thompson, ISGS has expanded its footprint to include the Mopti, Gao and Ménaka regions of Mali, and eastern regions of Burkina Faso, as well as the Tillabery and Tahoua regions of Niger. The group has been successful in recruitment, especially among impoverished young people who are attracted to IS's ideology, taking advantage of the instability, weak governance and lack of development in the region.
Violence before politics
In recent years, ISGS has been responsible for an increasing number of attacks in the region, according to an ICG report. The report notes that "between early 2018 and late 2020, ISGS organised several large-scale attacks on military bases and convoys, killing more than 500 members of the Sahelian defence and security forces (including 283 Nigeriens, 124 Malians and 98 Burkinabé, according to the ACLED database). More recently, as Crisis Group has shown, ISGS intensified its civilian massacres on both sides of the Mali-Niger border."
Despite the group's stated aim of establishing an Islamic caliphate, some experts point out in practice, ISGS is focused mainly on violence and terror. "Unlike those groups in the Middle East, this group is extremely predatory and doesn't really provide any type of governance function to the population of the Sahel," Adam Sandor, a Canadian academic who researches insecurity in the Sahel, told the BBC last year.
Recently, Adele Orosz, the Deputy Special Envoy to the Sahel of the German Federal Foreign Office, wrote of the growing threat of ISGS and Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM), an al-Qaeda-linked group, in the Sahel. In the piece published by the London School of Economics, she wrote that ISGS and JNIM have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people and the displacement of nearly 1.5 million in Burkina Faso alone.
"First it was Mali," she wrote in February, "then came Burkina Faso and Niger. Next in line, it seems, are Benin and Côte d'Ivoire. Violent extremism is spreading across the Sahel, having already affected people's lives for almost a decade." Describing the local and international responses to the growing threat as "too little too late to curb terrorist activities in the region", she added that "there is strong evidence that the largest jihadist groups have plans to expand into the Gulf of Guinea."
Last month, French troops withdrew from Menaka in Mali, where they had been stationed since 2018 as part of the Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism mission. The French withdrawal comes after the 2020 coup in Mali, where President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was ousted by the military.
The United Nations warns that the French withdrawal could lead to increased violence in the region. El-Ghassim Wane, the UN Secretary-General's special representative in Mali, who visited Menaka recently, said that a jihadist attack on the town's 5,000 residents could not be ruled out. "Should this scenario come to pass, the MINUSMA base is likely to be perceived as the last haven for civilians fleeing violence," Wane said, referring to the base housing the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.
ISGS continues to be a growing, rather than receding, threat in the Sahel region, despite the recent death of its leader. The withdrawal of the French forces, which were instrumental in combating the group, could lead to an increase in violence. The international community must continue to support the efforts of the Sahelian countries in combating this threat. Otherwise, the ISGS will continue to spread its ideology of violence and terror in the region and beyond.
Written By: Olivium staff.