Al Qaeda, Islamic State strike across the Sahel

Photo released by the Islamic State of its men in the Tillabéri region of Niger earlier this month.

Continuing their assault across the Sahel, both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have claimed several attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger since the beginning of the month.

Starting with Al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), the militants claimed responsibility for killing at least 25 Malian soldiers in the northern town of Bamba on April 6.

The AFP, who spoke to local residents, reported that “armed men had been riding motorbikes around nearby villages” before actually beginning the raid.

According to JNIM’s version of events, the jihadists first entered the town from two flanks after shelling the city with mortars. In addition to alleging to have captured copious amounts of weapons and ammunition, the group also exaggerated the death toll by saying it killed 30 soldiers.

In the same statement, JNIM also called the current coronavirus pandemic “a soldier of God” and implored both France and Mali to repent and withdraw forces from the region.

JNIM also took credit for the assault on a Burkinabe military base in Sollé in Burkina Faso’s northern Loroum Province on April 9. According to local reports, at least 5 soldiers were killed and 4 were left missing.

One day later, at least 14 people were killed in another strike in Sollé, though local outlets have reported that the majority were civilians. JNIM’s statement also makes clear it is only referring to the event on April 9.

It is possible that the group also conducted the second attack, but has not claimed it as it does not want to show its hand due to the civilian deaths. JNIM has attempted to portray itself as a community defender in order to build public support.

These claims come one month after JNIM took responsibility for an assault on a Malian military base in Tarkint that killed at least 29 soldiers.

Turning to the Islamic State, the group said its men were responsible for two recent raids in Niger close to the borders with Mali.

In the most recent issue of its weekly Al Naba newsletter, the jihadist group said its men were behind the attacks in Abala and Bani Bangou in Niger’s Tillabéri region.

The Abala strike, which occurred on April 2, left four Nigerien soldiers dead and 19 others injured. Niger has also stated that its forces killed 63 Islamic State fighters, though this is unconfirmed. Three days later, two other Nigerien soldiers were killed in Bani Bangou.

Additionally, the Islamic State released footage of an earlier attack inside Burkina Faso that took place in February. The short video, which was released via Amaq News, shows a raid on a police station in the northeastern town of Sebba on Feb. 29.

At least 10 Burkinabe police officers were killed in that attack. The video details this, as well as the capture of at least one armored vehicle.

Increased tensions between the two groups

These assaults come as tensions between the two jihadist heavyweights have increased in the region. According to local media, the two sides have clashed recently in both southern Mali and in northern Burkina Faso.

Other clashes between the two jihadist camps have been reported in central and northern Mali since late last year.

Malian media also reported alleged skirmishes in January within JNIM’s Katibat Macina over members trying to join the Islamic State’s fold. 

Other former JNIM militants have also recently defected to the Islamic State. In a video released last month, jihadists in the Nampala area of Mali, which sits close to the borders with Mauritania, a group of fighters announced their loyalty to the new Islamic State emir.

JNIM was forced to address these issues in two pamphlets released earlier this year. The two booklets addressed complaints regarding JNIM’s implementation of Sharia law and called for unity among the jihadists of the Sahel.

As the Islamic State continues to grow in the Sahel, it is possible that it will be able to attract more fighters from Al Qaeda’s camp. This will not come without consequences, however, as future battles between the two are likely to occur.

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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