Analysis: Islamic State claims Al Qaeda started a war in West Africa

The Islamic State claims in the latest edition of its weekly Al-Naba newsletter that Al Qaeda started a “war” against the so-called caliphate’s men in West Africa. Independent reporting confirms that the two sides have clashed in recent weeks.

Al-Naba’s editors say that Al Qaeda’s men “never miss the chance for treachery,” as they recently “started a war against” the caliphate’s men in the middle of a “raging Crusader campaign.” In other words, the Islamic State accuses Al Qaeda of launching attacks on its fighters as they were battling the “Crusader” France and its allies.

Al Qaeda’s branch in West Africa, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (or “JNIM”), has a significant presence in Mali and the surrounding countries. JNIM grew out of an al-Qaeda effort to embed the jihadist’s cause within the fabric of local movements and organizations. And Al-Naba’s authors accuse JNIM of working with local parties to get the upper hand in the intra-jihadist rivalry.

Al-Naba’s authors write that Al Qaeda’s men “organized their armed movements and fronts in northern Mali” from “all kinds” of groups, including both those who are opposed to the “apostate government” and those who are “loyal to it.” Al Qaeda has even worked with the “idolatrous” “tribal movements,” according to Al-Naba’s contributors.

The self-declared caliphate bristles that JNIM “accepted an invitation by the apostate Malian government to negotiate and to set themselves up as guards of the borders of Algeria and Mauritania.”

This is similar to the Islamic State’s criticisms of the Taliban, which negotiated a withdrawal deal with the Americans and claims to prevent jihadists from using Afghan soil to threaten other countries.

Al-Naba’s editors also accuse the “Crusader campaign in the region” of failing to “target [JNIM’s] soldiers or the areas in which they are stationed.” This again parallels the Islamic State’s critique of the jihad in Afghanistan, as the caliphate’s men accuse the Taliban of focusing on them, while pledging not to fight the “Crusaders.”

Al-Naba makes it clear that its criticisms are pointed directly at JNIM’s leadership, namely Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Kouffa. Both of these “apostate leaders” began planning their war against their jihadist rivals “long ago,” the weekly newsletter’s authors claims. JNIM is attempting to counter the “Rogue Khawarij,” Al-Naba’s authors write — this dismissive phrasing is intended to undermine Al Qaeda’s claim that the Islamic State is filled with Kharijites, or extremists.

Ghaly is the overall leader of JNIM. When announcing JNIM’s formation in 2017, he affirmed his allegiance to the emir of AQIM (Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel), Al Qaeda’s global emir (Ayman al-Zawahiri), as well as the Taliban’s overall leader (Haibatullah Akhundzada).

JNIM has said it is willing to negotiate with the Malian government – as Al-Naba claims – but only on the condition that French forces are withdrawn from the country and the surrounding region. This is basically the same negotiating tactic employed by the Taliban, which secured an American commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan before “intra-Afghan” talks have taken place. Of course, ejecting Western forces from the region greatly increases the jihadists’ chances of success. Both JNIM and the Taliban seek to build or resurrect Islamic emirates in their respective countries.

Al-Naba’s article is consistent with the same criticisms levied by the Islamic State’s Yemen “province” in a video released in late April. In that video, the Islamic State’s men accused Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of working with “apostates.” The video’s producers critiqued the Taliban’s negotiations with the U.S., its supposed commitment to prevent attacks against the “Crusaders,” and its ongoing alliance with Al Qaeda. Similar motifs appear in the latest Al-Naba.

Independent reporting on the fighting in West Africa

The Al-Naba article was published in the wake of a French offensive in the Liptako-Gourma area of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Since early April, the French have conducted several operations targeting the Islamic State in this area. It was during this same timeframe that Al-Naba alleges the French avoided operations against JNIM.

A French Foreign Legionnaire was recently killed by an IED as part of this offensive. That blast was also claimed by the Islamic State in Al-Naba.

The Islamic State claims to have conducted several attacks against al-Qaeda’s men in the Sahel, from northern and central Mali to northern Burkina Faso. In central Mali, the Islamic State reports that its men “repulsed two attacks” by Al Qaeda in the Mopti region. 

Al-Naba’s authors specifically mentions the area near Nampala, which sits close to the borders with Mauritania, and the areas “east of Macina” in the Segou region. 

Local media has reported intense fighting between the jihadist groups in these same areas over the last few weeks. In early April, clashes were reported in the localities of Dialloube, Koubi, Djantakai, and Nigua in the Mopti region. And in March, fighting between the two was reported near the Mauritanian town of Fassala, which sits on the border with Mali.

This area has also seen defections from JNIM to the Islamic State in the past. Earlier this year, a unit belonging to JNIM in the Nampala area defected and pledged loyalty to the Islamic State’s new emir, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.

Not long after, other Fulani members were also alleged to have gone to the so-called caliphate. And in 2017, another group of Fulani fighters loyal to Al Qaeda’s Katibat Macina also defected in central Mali.

The Islamic State’s media team also discusses fighting in the border regions between Mali and Burkina Faso. In the first claim, the group mentions that after the alleged “repulsed attacks” in Mopti, further clashes south of Boulikessi, Mali “left behind more than 35 dead and a number of wounded” among Al Qaeda’s ranks. 

Much like the infighting in Mali’s Mopti region, battles have also been widely reported in the Liptako-Gourma area of Mali and Burkina Faso. On April 13, the Islamic State launched an attack on JNIM’s men near the locality of Tin-Tabakat. 

On April 20th, a firefight was recorded near the locality of Pobe inside Burkina Faso’s Soum province, while another occurred in Keraboule in the Koutougou department of the same province. Further battles in Arbinda and Nassoumbou have also been alleged

On April 18, however, one of the largest battles between the two was reported in the Ndaki area of Mali’s Gossi commune. According to local media, a large contingent of JNIM fighters targeted the Islamic State’s men in four different towns in the area.

Malian and Burkinabe media have stated as many as 40 vehicles were in the JNIM convoy. The Islamic State appears to confirm these events, albeit on a different date. 

According to the Islamic State, JNIM targeted Islamic State positions on the Mali-Burkina Faso border area with “dozens of motorcycles and vehicles” on April 10. The jihadist group alleges that its men thwarted the assault after gaining the momentum following a suicide car bomb against Al Qaeda’s men. 

It also claims to have captured 40 motorcycles and three vehicles, a claim that is generally consistent with what was reported in local media. However, it is unclear if this is indeed the same event given the discrepancies in the date. 

Lastly, Al-Naba also reports a firefight with JNIM between Mali’s northern Gao region near the village of In-Tillit and the village of Aghay in Niger’s Tillaberi region on April 16. The Islamic State reportedly killed 4 members of JNIM and captured 3 others. 

Furthermore, the Islamic State accuses JNIM of establishing checkpoints in the area to prevent oil tankers from providing fuel to the Islamic State. Al-Naba also provides a story that, on April 18, JNIM arrested several truck drivers for allegedly selling oil to the rival jihadist group.

As retaliation, the Islamic State’s men attempted to confront JNIM near In-Tillit, but Al Qaeda’s forces reportedly fled. FDD’s Long War Journal has not independently confirmed this story.

While this clash itself does not appear to have been confirmed by local media, its occurrence would not be surprising. The Islamic State has long had a presence inside Mali’s Gao and Menaka regions, where various attacks have been claimed by the group.

The Islamic State also fought a full-fledged war against two Malian-backed Tuareg militias in the nearby Menaka region in the past. And in March, the UN also noted that the Islamic State increased its presence inside Gao earlier this year.

Clashes or other tensions between JNIM and the Islamic State’s men have occurred sporadically since last fall, with the tempo occurring more rapidly in recent weeks.

JNIM attempted to mitigate this situation earlier this year with a series of booklets addressed to Islamic State-sympathetic members of its own organization and the Islamic State itself.

JNIM’s call for unity has so far fallen on deaf ears.

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.

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