Abu Walid al Sahrawi pledging allegiance to the Islamic State
The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency has officially recognized an oath of allegiance sworn on behalf of a group of jihadists operating in Mali and neighboring countries.
Abu Walid al Sahrawi first swore bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to the so-called caliphate more than seventeen months ago, but Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise did not advertise it until yesterday. Amaq released a short statement acknowledging Sahrawi’s oath, as well as a video of him reading his pledge.
Sahrawi’s organization is commonly known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
Sahrawi previously served as the spokesman for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). In that role, Sahrawi was allied with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was originally a commander in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Disagreements with AQIM’s leadership led Belmokhtar to establish his own force in 2012. MUJAO merged with Belmokhtar and his men in 2013 to form Al Murabitoon. But two years later, in May 2015, Sahrawi and a cadre of fighters broke away to establish a branch of the Islamic State in Mali.
Amaq’s statement reads like Sahrawi’s pledge of fealty is recent, but it is actually old news. “Katibat Murabitoon, under the leadership of Abu Walid al Sahrawi in northern Mali, pledges allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the Islamic State organization,” Amaq’s statement reads.
Separately, Amaq also released a video of Sahrawi reading his loyalty pledge. Sahrawi refers to Baghdadi as “Emir ul-Mu’minin” (or the “Emir of the Faithful”), a title that is usually reserved for the Caliph. A small number of fighters are shown standing and sitting behind him as he reads the announcement. These same fighters join hands at the end of the video to emphasize their own unity with the “caliphate.” (Screen shots from the video can be seen below.)
In May 2015, Sahrawi issued an audio statement in which he announced his oath to the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. He claimed to do so on behalf of the entire Al Murabitoon group. Sahrawi repeats this claim in the new video.
However, only some of Al Murabitoon’s fighters joined Sahrawi in defecting to the Islamic State. Belmokhtar, an al Qaeda loyalist, quickly released a statement saying that Al Murabitoon remained in al Qaeda’s camp. Local media reported clashes between Sahrawi’s men and fighters loyal to Belmokhtar in the weeks that followed.
In Aug. 2015, Al Murabitoon’s shura council elected Belmokhtar as the group’s new leader. But after the challenge from Sahrawi and the Islamic State, Belmokhtar’s men reunited with AQIM in late 2015.
Belmokhtar has reportedly been killed on several occasions. Most recently, he was thought to have perished in a June 2015 airstrike in Libya. But his demise was never confirmed and al Qaeda refers to Belmokhtar as if he is alive and still leading part of AQIM’s forces. Indeed, al Qaeda heralded Belmokhtar’s decision to join forces with AQIM last year. Still, AQIM has not produced a proof of life audio or video message from Belmokhtar. Only written statements attributed to Belmokhtar have been published online since the airstrike in Libya last year, thereby leaving his status somewhat ambiguous.
Sahrawi’s group survived the clashes with Belmokhtar’s followers and has claimed three attacks so far this year — two in Burkina Faso and one in Niger.
The first attack took place in September, when ISGS assaulted a Burkinabe military outpost near the border with Mali. The second operation occurred near the site of the first and left three Burkinabe soldiers dead. The ISGS most recently attempted a prison break in Niger, near the capital Niamey. [See LWJ reports: Islamic State’s Sahara branch claims first attack in Burkina Faso, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara claims second attack in Burkina Faso and Niger thwarts jihadist prison break attempt.]
The Islamic State has grown in West Africa by winning the loyalty of established jihadists. In 2015, for instance, Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr Shekau announced his allegiance to Baghdadi. The Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, quickly accepted Shekau’s loyalty oath and Boko Haram was rebranded as the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). However, leadership disputes emerged earlier this year and Shekau was replaced as the head of ISWA.
The Islamic State’s acceptance of Sahrawi’s pledge gives the self-styled caliphate a second official group in West Africa. It is not clear why it took so long for the Islamic State to acknowledge Sahrawi as one of its representatives. Adnani, who was killed in August, never recognized Sahrawi as one of Baghdadi’s subordinates, as Adnani did in Shekau’s case.
It is possible that Baghdadi’s lieutenants were uncertain about Sahrawi’s operational capacity, especially as his men had to ward off the threat from Belmokhtar’s loyalists. But the ISGS has claimed three attacks in the past two months, proving that it has at least some ability to act. Still, the precise reason for the delay is unclear.
Screenshots from the Amaq video of Sahrawi’s oath:
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and a contributor to The Long War Journal.