Tuareg militias again clash with Islamic State-loyal militants in northern Mali

Fighters from GATIA (left) and MSA in northern Mali in an undated photo posted by GATIA on its Facebook page. 

The Imghad and Allies Self Defense Movement (GATIA) and the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) have again reported its fighters have battled with militants loyal to the Islamic State led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi.

According to the joint statement released by the groups, one of their joint patrols engaged in combat with the Islamic State-loyal militants in the Tinzouragan area of Mali’s northern Gao region yesterday. The locale sits close to In-Delimane and the Nigerien borders, an area where the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) operates. The Tuareg alliance reported that five jihadists were killed, including a high level commander named as Djibo Hamma. Other militants and vehicles were reported captured.

At the same time, France’s Operation Barkhane reported its forces also clashed with suspected jihadist militants near In-Delimane on March 6. It is unclear which group the French troops battled with. While ISGS operates in that area, al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims have claimed attacks on French troops in that area as well.

GATIA and MSA last reported offensives with ISGS militants late last month also in the same area. GATIA said at the time that six jihadists were killed or captured while one vehicle originally belonging to the Nigerien military was recovered. RFI reported that French forces also conducted joint operations with the Tuareg groups, beginning on Feb. 22, and were aimed at killing or captured Sahrawi, but he reportedly fled the area.

The Islamic State-loyal forces led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi, referred to as “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara” (ISGS), has been linked to several attacks in the Tillabery region of Niger, the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, and in the Gao region of Mali. This includes last October’s ambush in Niger which killed four US Special Forces soldiers and a suicide bombing on French troops in the Gao region earlier this year.

ISGS formed out of the former Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO), which merged with forces loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar to form Al Murabitoon in 2013. Two years later, Abu Walid al Sahrawi, a former MUJAO spokesman, left with several fighters from the former MUJAO, and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of the Islamic State.

ISGS gained little publicity from Islamic State central, with its pledge of allegiance only being acknowledged in an Amaq video one year later. Nevertheless, the group continues to operate in the Sahel with loyalty to the Islamic State.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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