Abu Walid al Sahrawi, seen in an Islamic State video released in October 2016, pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
The State Department added the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations today. State also added the group’s leader, Abu Walid al Sahrawi, as a specially designated global terrorist.
ISGS now joins other Islamic State wings as US designated terrorist organizations. In February, State designated Islamic State groups in West Africa, Bangladesh, mainland Egypt, the Philippines, Tunisia, and Somalia. Islamic State franchises in the Sinai, Libya, Algeria, Afghanistan, the North Caucasus, and Indonesia have previously been designated.
ISGS has claimed several attacks in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. Its first claim was in September 2016, when ISGS assaulted a Burkinabe military outpost near the border with Mali. Since then, it has claimed a handful of operations in the tri-country region. Most notably, it was responsible for the Oct 2017 ambush near Tongo Tongo, Niger, which killed four US soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers. It has also claimed a suicide bombing on French troops in northern Mali this year.
The group is thought to be relatively small compared to groups within al Qaeda’s jihadist conglomerate in the Sahel, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM). It is known to recruit among the various populations in the aforementioned tri-country region. It has also attracted defectors from the JNIM constituent group Ansar Dine, as well as the more independent jihadist group Katibat Salahadin led by Sultan Ould Bady.
Not mentioned in State’s designation is the role ISGS is playing in intercommunal massacres in Mali’s northern Menaka region. Militants loyal to ISGS have slaughtered dozens of Tuareg civilians in Daoussahak communities near the borders with Niger since last month. The massacres are part of tit-for-tat killings between ISGS and two pro-Mali militia groups in the Menaka region, which is under the backdrop of counterterrorism operations against the jihadist group.
Also not mentioned is anything about American hostage Jeffery Woodke. Woodke was an aid worker in northwestern Niger when he was kidnapped from his home in October 2016. No group has so far claimed responsibility for his abduction, but suspicion quickly fell on al Qaeda. However, locals, as well as the Nigerien government, blamed the abduction on “MUJAO,” a term still often used by locals to describe Sahrawi’s men.
State’s designation did acknowledge the twists and turns that went into the formation of ISGS. The group is a splinter of the al Qaeda group Al Murabitoon in 2015. Murabitoon itself was the product of a merger between forces loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which pledged loyalty directly to Ayman al Zawahiri.
After several leaders of Murabitoon were killed, Sahrawi later took the helm and defected with a faction of the group to the Islamic State. Most of Murabitoon, however did not and eventually re-merged into AQIM. After defecting to the Islamic State, the bayah [pledge of allegiance] was not recognized by ISIS until over a year later.
Sahrawi was originally the spokesman and a senior leader for MUJAO and was based in the northern Malian city of Gao. In addition, Sahrawi was also the proclaimed leader of the ‘Mujahideen Shura Council of the Islamic Emirate of Gao‘ during the city’s jihadist occupation.