Analysis: Islamic State official critiques Al Qaeda in the Sahel

“Discussion with Sheikh Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, emir of the Caliphate’s soldiers in the Greater Sahara region,” as seen in the Al-Naba issue.

Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the emir of the Islamic State’s Saharan branch, heavily critiqued al Qaeda’s operations in the region in an interview as part of this week’s issue of the Islamic State’s Al-Naba newsletter. 

It is unclear when the interview took place, but the publication comes several months after unconfirmed rumors circulated that Abu Walid’s deputy, Abdul Hakim al-Sahrawi, took over the helms of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

Seemingly putting those rumors to bed, the newsletter refers to Abu Walid as the group’s current emir. 

In the interview, the jihadist leader offers his take on al Qaeda’s history in the Sahara, its inner workings there, and its rivalry with the Islamic State following its emergence from the al Qaeda milieu in the region. 

While some information is more self-serving and not aligned with other evidence, the interview is meant to convey that unlike al Qaeda, the Islamic State has offered a real sense of unity for Sahelian jihadists that is removed from internal squabbles. 

As such, much of the interview is focused on al Qaeda’s history inside Mali, with Abu Walid specifically focusing on the movement’s emergence in the area and its operations during the 2012 takeover of northern Mali. 

Sahrawi links much of the events during these periods, as well as the emergence of the Islamic State in the region, to the creation of the current Sahelian al Qaeda wing, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM). 

For instance, in the first question the editors of the newsletter ask Abu Walid is how al Qaeda got its start in the Sahara. Abu Walid uses this space to document al Qaeda’s history of internal rivalries in the region.

He starts by stating that al Qaeda first became involved in the Sahara “more than two decades ago” when fighters from the former Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) moved into northern Mali in order to use it as a rear base in its fight against Algeria. 

According to Sahrawi, as the GSPC began to create distinct fighting units in the Sahara, this began a series of problems for the group. In his retelling, the main problem was that the GSPC failed to create a unified command structure in the region.

Instead, the various units operated independently of each other with each only answering to GSPC’s leadership in Algeria. 

And when the GSPC became al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in early 2007, Sahrawi states, these same problems carried over to the new organization.

As a result, he contends that this “only increased the competition between the emirs of the battalions and increased the disagreements and accusations among them.” 

Sahrawi then states that eventually AQIM did attempt to create a unified structure when the group’s leadership in Algeria dispatched Nabil Makhloufi (also known as Nabil Abu alQama) to the region and promoted him as the deputy emir of the group’s Saharan wing over Yahya Djouadi

However, Sahrawi notes that not every fighting unit agreed to Makhloufi’s ascension and the continued competition between two regional leaders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, prevented actual unity from happening.

Abu Walid then argues that Makhloufi’s promotion was made moot following the outbreak of the civil war in Libya when some of AQIM’s Saharan units, including Belmokhtar’s, went to Libya to fight there.

He adds that more disunity was then cemented when another group split from AQIM to form the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – a group Sahrawi himself would later join.

More bad luck would continue to strike AQIM, as Makhloufi would later die in a car accident in Sept. 2012. And Sahrawi then notes that when Belmokhtar returned from Libya he refused to listen to AQIM’s leadership, further compounding the al Qaeda branch’s problems.

Some of Sahrawi’s narrative does contain kernels of truth, while other tidbits are either half-truths or not supported by other sources and evidence.

For instance, while the rivalries between Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid and other AQIM leaders has been written about extensively, AQIM had already created a Saharan leadership hierarchy before Makhloufi’s appointment to the region.

Moreover, the networks that would eventually form both the GSPC and AQIM had units in the Sahara long before the GSPC officially began operating in the region in 1998. For instance, Belmokhtar himself stated he was active in the Sahara as part of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) around 1994.

Takeover of northern Mali and the emergence of the Islamic State

Sahrawi then turns his focus to the 2012 takeover of northern Mali, in which the various al Qaeda groups worked with Tuareg separatists to evict Malian troops from the region.

Following the successful capture of various northern cities, the jihadists then turned on their former Tuareg allies and implemented Shari’a in cities such as Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. 

The Islamic State leader concedes that the various al Qaeda groups did attempt to promote some form of unity during this period. For instance, Sahrawi says that AQIM’s leadership directed its local units to operate under Ansar Dine, the local jihadist group that emerged in late 2011

Additionally, he notes that Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and AQIM’s Saharan wing coordinated its ruling over northern Mali while Belmokhtar’s independent unit helped MUJAO conquer Gao.

And when MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s group later merged to form Al-Murabitoon, this was another instance of unity. 

However, these acts were not enough according to Sahrawi. Though these groups were all part of al Qaeda’s web in the Sahel, they did not operate as a cohesive unit while they each had competing agendas.

In particular, Sahrawi chastises the willingness of AQIM and Ansar Dine to negotiate and work with Tuareg groups in northern Mali as he blames these groups for bringing the French intervention against the jihadists. 

Sahrawi adds that the continued lack of unity in the Sahel made it difficult to combat the French. As such, Al-Murabitoon was forced to look elsewhere for guidance and support following the death of its second emir, Ahmed el-Tilemsi.

Sahrawi contends that following the death of Tilemsi in late 2014, the group’s shura council then made the decision to pledge allegiance to the then-Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

This retelling, however, has been contradicted by Al-Murabitoon itself. Shortly after Sahrawi publicly pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in early 2015 on behalf of Al-Murabitoon, a statement attributed to Mokhtar Belmokhtar refuted that the entirety of the group defected and that the decision was not actually made by the group’s shura council. 

Abu Walid then states that the emergence of the Islamic State in the Sahara forced al Qaeda’s hand into combatting it and was forced to finally merge its franchises in the region into one cohesive entity, JNIM

Though this too has been contradicted by al Qaeda leaders.

In JNIM’s inaugural video, its emir, Iyad Ag Ghaly, offered his own justification for the creation of the united group. According to Ghaly, the various al Qaeda branches united “into one group” operating under “one emir,” so they could “stand united against the occupier Crusader enemy.”

Moreover, Ag Ghaly contended that the move was in accordance to al Qaeda’s reading of sharia law, drawing lessons from the life of Mohammed, such as “distinguishing between” times of “vulnerability and empowerment.”

By this, Ghaly likely meant that al Qaeda concluded that the full implementation of sharia law is not possible in areas where the jihadists do not have a firm grip on power. The unification was therefore, according to Ghaly, needed to both effectively fight the French and work towards its goals of controlling and governing territory.

Current War Between JNIM and ISGS

Finally, Sahrawi turns to the current battles between his organization and JNIM. However, much of his account repeats what the Islamic State has said previously about the conflict. 

For example, the Islamic State leader boasts that over the years since its creation, ISGS has poached members from JNIM’s official constituent groups, and Ansaroul Islam, a local Burkinabe jihadist group founded with the help of al Qaeda’s men in Mali. 

As a result, al Qaeda then started a war with the Islamic State in the Sahel as it “could no longer bear the continuous bleeding from its factions.”

These themes were previously expressed in an earlier release of Al-Naba and in a speech from Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Hamza al-Quraishi that were both released in May.

Sahrawi also specifically calls out Amadou Kouffa, whom he accuses of leading offensives against ISGS in central Mali, and one of JNIM’s top religious scholars, Qutaybah Abu Numan al-Shinqiti, whom Sahrawi accuses of also being involved in jihadist battles against the Islamic State in Libya. 

Kouffa has become a common target among Islamic State publications against al Qaeda in the Sahel.

Again echoing prior complaints, Sahrawi ends his interview by chastising JNIM’s openness to work with non-jihadist groups and negotiate settlements with various communities in central Mali. 

Despite Sahrawi’s instance that al Qaeda’s men have always combatted his group, al Qaeda leaders and independent reporting has also contradicted this narrative.

In February 2016, Yahya Abu al-Hammam, who was at that time the leader of AQIM’s Saharan branch, publicly told a Mauritanian outlet that his group still retained ties and communications with Sahrawi’s ISGS. 

The United Nations has also identified several jihadist leaders on both sides of the divide who acted as liaisons to facilitate a working relationship between the jihadist rivals.

Members of ISGS and JNIM have also participated in joint raids and coordinated selected operations together, as confirmed by the United Nations and local reporting.

Abu Walid’s short interview clearly falls into the wider propaganda war the Islamic State has been waging against JNIM since the beginning of the year.

By painting JNIM as a group with a troubled history rife with internal struggles and disunity, Sahrawi and the Islamic State are likely hoping this will discredit JNIM’s reputation as a well-organized entity comprised of various groups made from the Sahel’s various ethnic groups.

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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