Jihadist ‘civil war’ erupts in Africa’s Sahel region

The internecine strife, some experts say, is reminiscent of the violent showdown between ‘ISIS-Y’ and ‘AQAP’ in Yemen.
Friday 15/05/2020
A soldier of the Malian army is seen during a patrol on the road between Mopti and Djenne, in central Mali, last February.  (AFP)
A war within the war. A soldier of the Malian army is seen during a patrol on the road between Mopti and Djenne, in central Mali, last February. (AFP)

PARIS--A recent upsurge in the activities of Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa’s Sahel region is causing scores of casualties among African and foreign armies and has triggered growing concern about the adequacy of counter-terrorism strategies.

Some experts are however pinning hopes on the implosion of the jihadist nebula as previous collaboration between extremist factions in the Sahel seems to be giving way to some form of “jihadist civil war”.

In the past, al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates joined efforts to conduct terror activities and recruited from the same pool of foot-soldiers drawn by very similar narratives of alienation, violence and hostility both to local rulers and the West.

Since 2012, jihadist activity has proliferated in part as a result of growing insecurity in northern Mali after the return of militants and mercenaries from Libya with the fall of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in the wake of the NATO-led military campaign.

Mali graph

Militant activities expanded to Burkina Faso, Niger and other neighbouring countries, leading Western powers, especially France and the US, to intervene militarily to help local governments fight armed militants. Some of the militant groups subsequently re-branded themselves as al-Qaeda affiliates and then as offshoots of ISIS.

Since the beginning of 2020, there have been signs of growing strife between these al-Qaeda and ISIS militants in a large desert area where weak states have long had a tough time controlling porous borders and illicit trafficking.

Mahamat Saleh Annadif, the United Nations special representative in Mali, said that the strife is “no longer a secret.”

“We don’t know where it’s going to end, each one wants to get the upper hand over the other,” he said, explaining that the groups are fighting over land.

Ibrahim Maiga, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Bamako, told AFP clashes often break out over local disputes. For instance, during the dry season at the beginning of the year, fighting often erupts in central Mali over a fodder crop grown in the Niger river delta.”These conflicts should not only be understood through an ideological prism,” he said.

Middle East experts say the behaviour of al-Qaeda and ISIS militants in the Sahel mirrors at least partially some episodes of the two groups’ bloody relations in Syria and in Yemen.

The tensions between the Islamic State’s affiliate in Yemen (ISIS-Y) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have often escalated into a full-fledged war with its car bombings and propaganda campaigns.  There, too, competition was over local turf and raw power. According to Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen expert at Oxford University, the two sides fought over “local territorial and power rivalries”.

Clashes between the two camps in the Sahel started as a turf war after ISIS fighters crossed into al-Qaeda territory in central Mali from Burkina Faso. They went on a recruitment drive  which irked the GSIM alliance, the local al-Qaeda affiliate.

Scores were killed on both sides in March and April.

At least in one case, ISIS extremists used a suicide car bomb against their al-Qaeda affiliated rivals.

The only worrisome conclusion that could be drawn from the comparison between jihadist “civil wars” in the Sahel and in a place like Yemen is that such an internecine conflict is very unlikely to make the local affiliates of both extremist groups any less violent.