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Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)


Introduction & Overview


Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is an ISIS affiliate organisation which operates in the Sahel region (Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso) and consists of around 400 to 1000 fighters (United Nations Security Council, 2022). ISGS formed on the 13th of May 2015 when the group’s leader, Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi, swore allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and its emir at the time -- Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (VOA, 2019). This occured after internal disagreements with a former al-Qaeda (AQ) aligned group, al-Mourabitoun. Increasing tensions within the leadership of the latter led to the splintering of the organisation as al Sahrawi was declared by another senior founder within al-Mourabitoun, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, as not having enough experience (Lyammouri, 2015). Sahrawi released an audio statement in May of 2015 declaring his, and al-Mourabitoun’s, allegiance to IS (Joscelyn, 2015). However, this was rejected by Belmokhtar, and Sahrawi consequently left al-Mourabitoun and founded the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). ISGS and Belmokhtar-loyalists fought following this splitting of allegiance, and assassination attempts on Sahrawi were frequent. In October of 2016, the main IS organisation acknowledged the ISGS as an affiliate within West Africa (RFI, 2016). Following a French airstrike in Mali in 2021, al-Sahrawi was killed (Ataman and Vandoorne, 2021) and a successor has yet to be named by IS.


History & Foundations


Created due to internal differences between the leaders of a former Islamic organisation, al-Mourabitoun, the ISGS is now affiliated with the wider IS role of spreading Salafi Jihadism globally. It also began preying upon previously disunited ethnic groups which have suffered discrimination against themselves by varying regional national governments. This has come in the form of the recruitment of marginalised people (Carayol, 2016) from diverse groups across the Sahel including the Fulani. The group has launched various attacks on military and civilian targets within the Sahel region, such as an attack which occurred in Intangom, Mali, which killed four soldiers and several civilians (Kishi and Nsaibia, 2018). The group is also more famously responsible for the attack on a joint US-Nigerien task force in Niger which left four US SPEC-OP soldiers dead after being ambushed by around 100 ISGS militants (Friend, 2018). The group was incorporated into ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) in 2019 and announced as a part of that group's Central African province (Perkins, 2020). However, in March of 2022, the Islamic State declared ISGS an autonomous province and it has subsequently been renamed as Islamic State Sahel Province (Chesnutt and Zimmerman, 2022).


Ideology & Objectives


As an organisation, the ISGS shares many of its strategic directions and ideological goals with the wider goals of its ‘parent’ organisation. This comes as ISGS has pledged allegiance to IS and its leader in order to ‘restore’ the Islamic caliphate. In a video published in 2015, al Sahrawi, the former leader of ISGS, swore bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and within another video published shortly thereafter, Sahrawi refers to Abu Bakr as “Emir il-Mu’minin” (Emir of the faithful) (Joscelyn, 2016) which could indicate that ISGS/Sahrawi perceived Abu Bakr's leadership as legitimate. Also present within ISGS ideological basing is the idea that they are fighting against the ‘Crusaders’ (Le Monde Afrique, 2018a). This shows a similarity to many jihadist groups in that they are claiming to be fighting against foreign armies or even the armies of the nations in which they are present, such as in Mali or Burkina Faso, as they are ‘foreign invaders’ in which the countries' Christian populations are seen as a threat to the existence of these groups (Roche, 2017).


Military & Political Abilities


ISGS has extensive military abilities and follows similar tactics to those used by other regionally present militant organisations such as its former parent group, al Mourabitoun. This may include attacks such as suicide bombings and also the murder of regional leaders who the group may oppose (Le Monde Afrique, 2018b). The group has had its abilities bolstered militarily by the joining of a group of formerly JNIM-aligned (Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin) militants known as Katiba Salaheddine. Another group of militants which is primarily composed of Toleebe Fulani people who were also previously part of JNIM’s Katiba Macina (a group closely linked to JNIM) also joined with ISGS bolstering its ranks (Berger, 2020a). Although ISGS is one of two IS affiliate organisations in this region (the other being Boko Haram), it is unknown how much support IS gives its affiliate and this has led to suspicions that its affiliation is in name only (Campbell, 2018). Images of the group which are released through various local news networks (when attacks are claimed) have been shown to include varying forms of small arms including, AK-47s and rocket propelled grenade launchers (RPGs). ISGS may have been able to recover the weapons from the Niger ambush, as a propaganda video which features the execution of ‘traitors’ features a US-made M4 rifle being carried, likely as a trophy piece (Hassan, 2019).


Approach to Resistance


The group has frequently targeted the military and police forces of the countries in which it operates and also has attacked intervention forces from countries such as France, the USA (previously mentioned attack against US SPEC-OP convoy) and also MINUSMA forces as a part of the UN stabilisation mission within Mali (Nsaibia, 2018). This indicates a violent predication to their actions and a willingness to use suicide attacks, as with the suicide-car bombing of a French military convoy in 2018 (Le Monde Afrique, 2018c). They have also frequently targeted civilians through executions, and this has led to the degradation in the organisation's relationship with villagers in the Sahel region and especially within Burkina Faso (Human Rights Watch, 2018).


International Relations & Alliances


The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara is the second IS affiliate within West Africa (as previously mentioned) after the founder of ISGS pledged allegiance to IS in May of 2015; however, it is uncertain as to why the main IS group took over a year to recognise ISGS’s pledge of allegiance until October 2016. Furthermore, the group was not recognised as an official wilayah (province) of IS and it was only in 2019 that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a video praising al-Sahrawi and ISGS (Postings, 2019). As aforementioned, the group has also received fighters from both Toleebe Fulani militants and Katiba Salaheddine, a militant jihadist group which was loosely associated with JNIM. A meeting which took place in September of 2019 between the leadership of ISGS and JNIM was intended to demarcate territorial boundaries and to also declare peace between the two groups as they worked towards a similar goal. Nonetheless, they did not come to an agreement and further clashes have occurred (Berger, 2020b).


Works Cited (MLA-style)

Ataman, J. and Vandoorne, S. (2021). French President claims targeted killing of ISIS chief in Sahara. [online] CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/09/16/africa/france-killed-isis-al-sahrawi-intl-hnk/index.html.

Berger, F. (2020a). Sahel – a new battlefield between IS and Al-Qaeda? [online] The Africa Report.com. Available at: https://www.theafricareport.com/29184/sahel-a-new-battlefield-between-is-and-al-qaeda/.

Berger, F. (2020b). Sahel – a new battlefield between IS and Al-Qaeda? [online] The Africa Report.com. Available at: https://www.theafricareport.com/29184/sahel-a-new-battlefield-between-is-and-al-qaeda/.

Campbell, J. (2018). The Islamic State ‘Presence’ in the Sahel Is More Complicated Than Affiliates Suggest. [online] Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: https://www.cfr.org/blog/islamic-state-presence-sahel-more-complicated-affiliates-suggest.

Carayol, R. (2016). Mali : dans la région de Mopti, ‘l’État ne contrôle plus rien’ – Jeune Afrique. [online] JeuneAfrique.com. Available at: https://www.jeuneafrique.com/383833/politique/mali-region-de-mopti-letat-ne-controle-plus-rien/.

Chesnutt, K. and Zimmerman, K. (2022). The State of al Qaeda and ISIS Around the World. [online] Critical Threats. Available at: https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/the-state-of-al-qaeda-and-isis-around-the-world.

Friend, A.H. (2018). DoD’s Report on the Investigation into the 2017 Ambush in Niger. [online] www.csis.org. Available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/dods-report-investigation-2017-ambush-niger.

Hassan, A. (2019). Analysis: Latest Islamic State propaganda video shows recovered weapons of Niger ambush? [online] SOFREP. Available at: https://sofrep.com/news/analysis-latest-islamic-state-propaganda-video-shows-recovered-weapons-of-niger-ambush/.

Human Rights Watch (2018). ‘By Day We Fear the Army, By Night the Jihadists’ Abuses by Armed Islamists and Security Forces in Burkina Faso. [online] Available at: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/burkinafaso0518_web2.pdf.

Joscelyn, T. (2015). Confusion surrounds West African jihadists’ loyalty to Islamic State | FDD’s Long War Journal. [online] www.longwarjournal.org. Available at: https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/05/confusion-surrounds-west-african-jihadists-loyalty-to-islamic-state.php.

Joscelyn, T. (2016). Islamic State recognizes oath of allegiance from jihadists in Mali. [online] FDD’s Long War Journal. Available at: https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/10/islamic-state-recognizes-oath-of-allegiance-from-jihadists-in-west-africa.php.

Kishi, R. and Nsaibia, H. (2018). In light of the recent attacks in Ouagadougou. [online] ACLED. Available at: https://acleddata.com/2018/03/03/in-light-of-the-recent-attacks-in-ouagadougou/.

Le Monde Afrique (2018a). Au Burkina Faso, le rapt d’un enseignant revendiqué par un groupe islamiste. Le Monde.fr. [online] 18 Apr. Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2018/04/18/au-burkina-faso-le-rapt-d-un-enseignant-revendique-par-un-groupe-islamiste_5287156_3212.html.

Le Monde Afrique (2018b). Au Burkina Faso, le rapt d’un enseignant revendiqué par un groupe islamiste. Le Monde.fr. [online] 18 Apr. Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2018/04/18/au-burkina-faso-le-rapt-d-un-enseignant-revendique-par-un-groupe-islamiste_5287156_3212.html.

Le Monde Afrique (2018c). Trois soldats français blessés dans un attentat au Mali. Le Monde.fr. [online] 12 Jan. Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2018/01/12/trois-soldats-francais-blesses-dans-un-attentat-au-mali_5240959_3212.html.

Lyammouri, R. (2015). Key Events That Led to Tensions Between Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi Before Splitting | Sahel Memo. [online] Sahel Memo Consulting. Available at: https://www.sahelmemo.com/2015/12/07/key-events-that-led-to-tensions-between-mokhtar-belmokhtar-and-adnan-abu-walid-al-sahrawi-before-splitting/.

Nsaibia, H. (2018). Targeting of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). [online] ACLED. Available at: https://acleddata.com/2018/03/21/targeting-of-the-islamic-state-in-the-greater-sahara-isgs/.

Perkins, B. (2020). THE SHIFTING POWER OF AL-QAEDA’S AFFILIATES. [online] Available at: https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/TM-Mar.-20-2020-Issue.pdf?x78547.

Postings, R. (2019). Islamic State puts the Sahel in West Africa – for now. [online] The Defense Post. Available at: https://www.thedefensepost.com/2019/05/30/islamic-state-greater-sahara-west-africa/.

RFI (2016). Mali: le groupe Etat islamique officialise sa présence au Sahel. [online] RFI. Available at: https://www.rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20161031-mali-groupe-etat-islamique-officialise-presence-sahel-Abou-Walid-Sahraoui.

Roche, J.T. (2017). A medieval historian’s take on ISIS’s appropriation of the Crusades | Opinion. [online] Newsweek. Available at: https://www.newsweek.com/isis-and-appropriation-crusades-medieval-historians-take-647186.

United Nations Security Council (2022). Twenty-ninth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities. [online] United Nations Security Council, p.10. Available at: https://nordicmonitor.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/UNSC_report_al_Qaeda_ISIS.pdf.

VOA (2019). Rewards for ISIS-GS Leader Adnan Abu Walid. [online] VOA. Available at: https://editorials.voa.gov/a/rewards-for-isis-gs-leader-adnan-abu-walid/5117310.html.

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