Analysis: Islamic State confirms Sahelian leader’s death, criticizes Al Qaeda

Image from the Islamic State’s interview with Abu Walid al Sahrawi in last week’s Al-Naba newsletter, including the honorific “May Allah accept him” indicating his death.

The Islamic State confirmed on Thursday that its longtime chief in Africa’s Sahel region, Abu Walid al Sahrawi, is dead. Sahrawi was reported killed by French forces in August in a tweet from French President Emmanuel Macron last month. 

While not detailing the events around his death, the jihadist group’s weekly newsletter, Al Naba, used the honorific phrase “May Allah accept him,” a common jihadist phrase used for killed fighters and leaders, alongside Sahrawi’s name. 

The weekly newsletter used the phrase as a subtle confirmation of Sahrawi’s death as part of an interview with the jihadist commander, the second half of an interview originally conducted late last year. 

The group has not issued a more formal confirmation of Sahrawi’s death. The Islamic State has not publicly named a successor. Abu Walid’s longtime deputy in ISGS, Abdelhakim al-Sahrawi, also died earlier this year in northern Niger

Prior to his death, Abu Walid was the emir of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), a branch of the Islamic State officially under the hierarchy of its West African Province (ISWAP), but which operates with a great deal of autonomy from ISWAP. 

Sahrawi previously served as a senior leader in and the spokesman for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an al-Qaeda-linked group among the constellation of al Qaeda groups in the Sahel in the early 2010s. In that role, Sahrawi was allied with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was originally a commander in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). 

Disagreements with AQIM’s leadership led Belmokhtar to establish his own force in 2012. MUJAO later merged with Belmokhtar and his men in 2013 to form Al Murabitoon. But Sahrawi and a cadre of fighters broke away to establish a branch of the Islamic State in Mali just two years later.

Sahrawi first swore bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to the so-called caliphate in May 2015. However, the Islamic State did not publicly recognize it until Oct. 2016, when the group’s Amaq News Agency released a short statement acknowledging Sahrawi’s oath, as well as a video of him reading his pledge.

Since then, Sahrawi’s ISGS has grown to be one of the most potent jihadist force across the Sahel, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians and local and international military troops. The U.S. government offered a reward of up to $5 million for information on Sahrawi’s whereabouts as a result.

At the same time, Sahrawi became a key figure in the global rivalry between the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Just like the first part of his interview with the Islamic State’s Al-Naba newsletter, much of the second half of Sahrawi’s interview is thus dedicated to critiquing al Qaeda in the Sahel. 

Critiques of Al Qaeda’s localized strategy 

Sahrawi spends a considerable amount of time discussing the Sahel’s tribal and ethnic dimensions across Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger before discussing al Qaeda’s role in these dynamics and the infighting between ISGS and al Qaeda. 

Al Qaeda’s men have long leveraged and exploited tribal and communal grievances and dynamics in the Sahel in order to more fully ingrain itself within the local fabric. 

According to Sahrawi, al Qaeda, in form of its Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), “is today attempting to push the different components of northern Mali, from the tribes and government militias, to stand with it against the mujahideen [the Islamic State’s men].” 

Further, the jihadist commander accusses JNIM of inflaming tensions through its heavy recruitment among the Fulani of central and southern Mali. For instance, Sahrawi states “sometimes it [JNIM] describes the fighting [with the Islamic State] as a means to prevent the Fulani from controlling Tuareg or Arab lands.” 

“Even though,” Sahrawi continues, “most of its soldiers are Fulani and not Tuareg or Arab! JNIM then uses double speech in front of the Tuareg and Arab tribes, in which it warns them about the displacement of the Fulani tribes!” 

Much like in the first half of Sahrawi’s interview, the leader states that the conflict between ISGS and JNIM did not happen until ISGS began poaching Fulani members away from JNIM. 

Sahrawi again specifically calls out JNIM’s leader in central Mali, Amadou Kouffa, for his role in inciting Fulani against the Islamic State. Kouffa is a common target among Islamic State publications against al Qaeda in the Sahel.

Turning to Burkina Faso, Sahrawi accuses JNIM of “volunteering to fight a war against the Islamic State” and working with what it says are Christian and pagan militias. 

For instance, Sahrawi states that al Qaeda in Burkina Faso has “overcome its differences and conflicts with the pagan and Christian militias in order to immerse itself with thousands of the sons of the Fulani tribes in its war against the mujahideen [Islamic State].” 

In contrast, however, Sahrawi states that ISGS, which also allies itself with local communities, only facilitates relations with the local tribes that “do not associate with apostate parties and movements, nor their leaders and chiefs.” 

By delineating the two group’s strategies with the local communities, Sahrawi is attempting to portray ISGS as a non-manipulative force.

In this regard, Sahrawi also notes that JNIM relies on local tribes and communities “in order to achieve their goals and they [JNIM] use them [local communities] as playing cards in order to put pressure on the Crusader regimes.”  

Condemns Al Qaeda’s negotiations 

In addition to critiquing al Qaeda’s strategy of implanting itself within the Sahel, Sahrawi also turns his ire on the jihadist group’s relations with regional states, particularly Mauritania and Burkina Faso, and others – groups and entities the Islamic State regards as apostates and infidels. 

This discussion comes within the context of numerous reports about Mali negotiating with JNIM to end the longstanding conflict. JNIM, for its part, has conditionally ‘agreed’ to talks but only if French and other foreign troops leave the Sahel. 

However legitimate JNIM’s reported willingness to negotiate in good faith with Mali, its rivals in the Islamic State have nevertheless condemned JNIM’s offer. As such, Sahrawi states this is just the latest in a series of negotiations between al Qaeda and various “apostate” entities in the Sahel. 

For instance, Sahrawi says that one of JNIM’s predecessor groups, Ansar Dine, which he states “acted as a political facade of al Qaeda” during its occupation of northern Mali, negotiated with influential tribal leaders in northern Mali to stop the targeting of Algeria. 

Further, he also states that al Qaeda negotiated with the French company Areva in 2011 to receive payments in exchange for not targeting the company’s assets in northern Niger. Ironically, Sahrawi’s MUJAO later worked with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Katibat al Mulathameen to target an Areva facility in northern Niger just two years later. 

The late jihadist leader then turns to the long reported truce between al Qaeda and Mauritania, which Sahrawi confirms as true. According to Sahrawi, various jailed al Qaeda members in Mauritania facilitated talks between the terrorist organization and the Mauritanian state in which Mauritania would pay al Qaeda to not attack within its territory. 

This reported truce was discussed in several documents found in Osama bin Laden’s compound and later declassified by the US government. No independent confirmation has emerged of this deal but several other jihadists, including al Qaeda’s Abu Hafs al Mauritani, have spoken to its authenticity. 

Likewise, Sahrawi indicates that al Qaeda and Burkina Faso had a similar agreement in the past – though it is clear, given the focus Burkina Faso now plays in JNIM’s overall operations, any supposed deal between the two no longer exists. 

The former strongman of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, who was ousted in 2014, has long been accused of striking deals with various militant groups, including al Qaeda, to stave off attacks within his territory. 

Rounding out his interview, Sahrawi then turns to his own men, stating that they keep working to defend the Muslims of the Sahel against “those who mislead the Muslims and who try to divert them from their religion.” 

This line serves as yet another jeer at al Qaeda and summaraizes the main thesis of Sahrawi’s interview, as the jihadist leader makes the case that JNIM are hypocrites that manipulate local communities and tribes for their own benefit. 

At the same time, Sahrawi states that while JNIM says it is fighting ‘apostates,’ it routinely negotiates with them.  

Much like with the first half of Sahrawi’s interview last year, the Islamic State is likely hoping this line of argument will discredit JNIM’s reputation as a well-organized jihadist entity composed of various groups made from the Sahel’s various ethnic groups.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to 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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