Jihadists’ Rivalry In The Sahel Is Good News For Counterinsurgency Efforts

The recent clashes between the two terrorist groups — JNIM and ISGS — stem from a disagreement in 2019 over operations and, to some extent, extremist ideology. 

Members of two prominent jihadist groups in Africa’s Sahel region, the Jama’atu Nusratil Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS), have recently been engaged in a fight for dominance, exposing them to the danger of successful attacks from the governments of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

In March, ISGS released images documenting the aftermath of their assault on the JNIM stronghold in the village of Osadia, located in the Gao Region of Mali. The attack resulted in the elimination of their high-ranking commander, Liassou Amadou Moussa, along with several other individuals who were apprehended alive and then executed by the ISGS terrorists. 

The recent clash represented an ongoing conflict between the two groups, stemming from a disagreement in 2019 over operations and, to some extent, ideology. Over time, a series of attacks and clashes have occurred between ISGS and JNIM, totalling nearly 200 incidents. In these clashes, ISGS has proven to be more aggressive and agile, allowing them to gain more ground and positions despite their smaller size and operational reach.

In July 2023, a clash between JNIM and ISGS was recorded in the Tessit and Hourara communities of Gao in northeastern Mali. There was also a clash between the two terrorist groups near Anderanboukan of the country’s Menaka region in October 2022. 

In 2020, JNIM called for more offensives against the ISGS after the latter claimed to have killed 40 of its members in the Menaka region. 

In Burkina Faso, the group clashed in the Seytenga area of the Seno province in March 2023. The previous year, another clash was recorded in the Oudalan area.

These events came somewhat as a shock because the groups had collaborated prior to 2019. Despite their operational differences and allegiance to rival international bodies (Al-Qaeda and ISIS), they have been known to coordinate and work together in an arrangement often referred to as a “Sahelian exception”.

Jihadists from the rival groups formed unexpected alliances to effectively combat their common enemies, including the governments of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Personal relationships among the militants fueled the collaborations. As a result, the tri-border region, where they primarily operate, experienced significant devastation. 

In 2019, three years after the formation of the Sahelian Exception, the ISGS accused JNIM of treachery. This accusation came after negotiations began between JNIM and the Malian government, during which JNIM demanded the withdrawal of French troops from the country in order to allow peace to prevail. 

According to the ISGS, their actions go against jihadist principles, as their ultimate goal is to eliminate the secular government rather than engage in negotiations with them. There were suspicions among the ISGS fighters that JNIM had intentions of collaborating with Malian authorities to launch attacks against them.

In response, JNIM accused ISGS of engaging in excessive violence, including targeting and killing innocent civilians, as part of their strategy to seize control of villages under the JNIM’s control. These attacks were mostly a result of issuing takfir (ex-communication) orders against the civilians under JNIM control, as the two groups have been having issues on who should be declared kafir (unbelievers) and, therefore, liable to be attacked.

From a broader perspective, ISGS and JNIM had a falling out due to external pressure from ISIS, which resulted in ISGS gaining control over a separate province in 2022. The central leadership of the Islamic State is pressuring ISGS to establish its independence from the JNIM. ISIS demands that the group expand its territories, which may involve engaging in battles to gain control over JNIM-controlled areas. 

JNIM’s rivalry with ISGS is similar to the one between Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Jama’atu Ahlussunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad (JAS) in the Lake Chad region spanning Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. 

The ideological differences have caused a major rift between the two major violent extremist players in the region and caused them losses in terms of fighters and logistics, including top commanders like Abubakar Shekau, the long-time leader of JAS, who was killed as a result of the rivalry.

Group of individuals with faces blurred, some seated on the ground, others standing with uniforms and rifles.
JNIM fighters paraded by ISGS for execution in March 2024. 

Operational divergence 

ISGS and JNIM have shown contrasting trajectories and distinct approaches. Both groups have demonstrated their effectiveness in mobilising armed forces in a region plagued by conflict, although their relationship eventually deteriorated. 

ISGS emerged as a splinter group of Almourabitoun, resulting from the 2013 merger of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Almulathameen, two jihadist groups. In 2015, a prominent member of the Almourabitoun group, Adnan Abu Walid Al-Sahrawy, broke out and established a new terrorist organisation known as ISGS in 2016. This move came after he pledged loyalty to ISIS. 

ISGS started as a small group initially consisting of around a hundred fighters, informants and supporters, and later evolved into a mobile terrorist organisation that capitalises on local grievances primarily within Niger and Burkina Faso. In an area plagued by constant incidents of cattle rustling, they committed to offer security and thereby attracted the support of the local population.

ISGS strategically fuels ethnic tensions, exploiting divisions between groups like the Fulani and Tuareg. It manipulates these sentiments to target secular organisations in the Sahel, including the Tuareg Self Defense Group and Allies (GATIA) and Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA). 

During the years 2017 and 2018, a series of attacks were carried out by ISGS on various Malian civilian nomad positions. The primary focus of these attacks was on the Tuareg community. In the Liptako region of Burkina Faso, tensions between Tuaregs and Fulanis were further heightened when MSA and GATIA combatants responded by taking the lives of several Fulani herders. 

On the other hand, JNIM emerged in 2017 as a result of Sahel jihadists being influenced by the merger of extremists in the Middle East. Several terror groups, including Almourabitoun, Ansarud Din, Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Macina Liberation Front (Katibat Macina), formed the initial core of the group.

ISGS and JNIM both aimed to transform the governments of the Sahel region and establish an Islamic State. However, they have taken different approaches. JNIM primarily focuses on targeting foreign elements, whereas the ISGS goes a step further by attacking not only foreigners but also civilians who do not align with its ideology. Their operations and ideological stances have been influenced by their international affiliations. 

Their interaction with civilians sets them apart. The relationship between ISGS and the civilians has been characterised as exploitative. The group’s method of collecting tax and zakat involves coercing people into giving without providing any form of reciprocation. JNIM, on the other hand, collects taxes from civilians and redistributes them. It employs this approach as part of a strategy to win over people’s hearts and minds. 

The ISGS has actively inserted itself into the lives of civilians, imposing its own laws and way of life. In contrast, JNIM has chosen to focus on establishing peace agreements with local communities. While it advocates and enforces shari’a, its approach is not as forceful as that of ISGS. 

The impact of the rivalry

The ongoing power struggle between JNIM and ISGS in the Sahel region has had devastating consequences for the civilians caught in the middle. Despite the weakening of the terror groups, innocent people living between the conflict areas continue to suffer the most. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) observes that both groups “have committed numerous serious abuses in several Mali regions, including widespread killings, rapes, and looting of villages”.

The individuals in these areas endure the harshness of the attacks, experiencing fear and anxiety as a result of the ongoing cycle of violence. Countless schools have been forced to shut down, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.

According to Jacob Zenn, a researcher on armed movements in Africa, due to the rivalry between JNIM and ISGS, “attacks on civilians—whether by the jihadists or their government-aligned adversaries—have, for example, increased nearly 40 per cent in the past year [2022]. 2023 has also seen levels of violence by all parties at a roughly 50 per cent greater rate than only two years earlier in 2021.” 

ISGS’s recruitment method has further heightened tensions in the region. The group exploits existing ethnic tension to recruit members and cause communal conflict. 

Recently, the rivalry between JNIM and ISGS has had a detrimental effect on their activities in certain regions, diverting their focus away from their shared adversaries in the Sahel and leading them to engage in internal clashes. This rivalry has not only exposed them but also streamlined the government’s aerial attacks against them. 

There have been attempts by another independent pro-jihadi group, Wahdatul Muslimin, to reconcile the two warring factions. However, Zenn argues, “whatever unfolds between JNIM and ISGS in the future may nevertheless depend on the success of the jihadists in the near-term against the Malian and neighbouring armies.” 

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Aliyu Dahiru

Aliyu is an Assistant Editor at HumAngle and Head of the Radicalism and Extremism Desk. He has years of experience researching misinformation and influence operations. He is passionate about analysing jihadism in Africa and has published several articles on the topic. His work has been featured in various local and international publications.

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