Examining Extremism: Islamic State in the Greater Sahara
The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), an operationally independent subgroup of Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), operates in the Liptako-Gourma region of the Sahel—which includes portions of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. In seeking to establish a Salafi-jihadist caliphate, it has inflamed community tensions and violently competed with other jihadist groups in the region. ISGS is noted for its violence against civilians and has repeatedly attacked both local and international security forces. The group will likely continue to pose a threat to local communities and Sahelian states as counterterrorism efforts alienate civilians and fail to roll back ISGS’s territorial gains.
ISGS’s history can be traced to Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi’s oath of allegiance to the Islamic State in May 2015. At the time of this oath, al-Sahrawi was a veteran of Salafi-jihadist conflict in the Sahel. Al-Sahrawi joined the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in 2012 before becoming a senior commander in al-Mourabitoun, an al Qaeda-affiliated group that is currently a constituent organization of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims—JNIM). Al-Mourabitoun leader Mokthar Belmokthar rejected al-Sahrawi’s pledge to the Islamic State and subsequently reconfirmed al-Mourabitoun’s loyalty to al Qaeda. The split in loyalties formalized al-Sahrawi’s defection from al-Mourabitoun, representing the genesis of ISGS as an independent Salafi-jihadist organization.
Al-Sahrawi’s allegiance was not immediately recognized by the Islamic State’s core leadership, leaving some public ambiguity as to the group’s status within the Islamic State structure. In September 2016, ISGS claimed its first armed attack, on a border post near Markoye, Burkina Faso. In October of that year, ISGS fighters attacked a Nigerien prison complex in Koutoukalé in an apparent attempt to free imprisoned Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants. This demonstration of the group’s capabilities prompted the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency to release an acknowledgement of ISGS’s loyalty pledge on October 30, 2016, indicating a formal—if symbolic—link between the two entities. The Islamic State’s acknowledgement, however, did not elevate ISGS to the status of an official wilayah (province). The pledge from ISGS was not formally accepted until April 2019, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a video praising al-Sahrawi and encouraging ISGS members to increase attacks against French and local security forces. Since that time, ISGS has expanded its territorial zone of operations, spanning an arc that includes the Mopti, Gao, and Ménaka regions of Mali, the Sahel and Est regions of Burkina Faso, as well as the Tillabery and Tahoua regions of Niger.
ISGS has a history of cooperation, accommodation, and contestation with other Salafi-jihadist groups in the Sahel. With shared local recruiting pools and ties to communities, ISGS and JNIM initially exhibited a pattern of cooperation despite global competition between the Islamic State and al Qaeda. This coordination extended as far as joint operations, as in the case of an August 2019 assault against a Burkinabé military detachment in Koutougou. Ideological tension—including a push from the Islamic State core for ISGS to become more aggressive toward JNIM—as well as a series of high-profile defections of JNIM fighters to ISGS, led the two into open conflict beginning as early as summer 2019. Islamic State propaganda has featured this conflict prominently, detailing attacks against JNIM cells and actively encouraging defections from JNIM to ISGS. The depth of the conflict suggests that, while some local cells may be able to reduce the level of intra-jihadist violence, the two groups are unlikely to restart collaboration in the manner observed in 2019. Additionally, ISGS has sought linkages with the Burkina Faso-based Ansaroul Islam. ISGS has successfully recruited Ansaroul Islam fighters, bolstering its own numbers, and potentially contributed to a fracture within that group over divided loyalties to JNIM or ISGS.
ISGS, in line with broader Islamic State ideology, seeks to establish a hardline Salafi-jihadist caliphate in the Sahel governed by a conservative implementation of sharia law. In areas controlled by ISGS, local commanders ban music and parties while heavily regulating the celebration of events like weddings. In May 2021, suspected ISGS militants publicly amputated the right hands and left feet of alleged thieves in a market in Tin-Hama, Mali. ISGS has also, in some instances, delivered governance services where the state has failed to do so, including by resolving land tenancy issues and protecting cattle from theft by raiders in Niger’s Tillabery region. In areas of eastern Burkina Faso, ISGS-aligned fighters have been responsible for implementing rudimentary social welfare initiatives and distributing food and medicine to local communities, while offering cash incentives for locals who carry out attacks on ISGS’s behalf.
At its outset, ISGS was organized around al-Sahrawi and a small number of pro-Islamic State al-Mourabitoun fighters who defected from the group following al-Sahrawi’s 2015 oath of allegiance to the Islamic State. Over time, ISGS has grown by mobilizing and recruiting local populations as well as co-opting existing Salafi-jihadist cells in the Sahel, expanding the group’s network and territorial reach. ISGS has cultivated a relationship with the Burkina Faso-based Ansaroul Islam, collaborating with and incorporating militants with Islamic State sympathies. Additionally, ISGS’s numbers have been bolstered through multiple rounds of defections by JNIM fighters in areas like central Mali and northern Burkina Faso. Individual ISGS cells demonstrate varying levels of autonomy from ISGS leadership, leading ISGS’s structure in areas like Burkina Faso to be relatively more decentralized than in other areas.
ISGS functions as a subgroup, or “branch” of ISWAP. While ISGS is a subunit of ISWAP according to the Islamic State’s bureaucratic structure, the two are distinct operationally, with ISGS operating primarily in the Liptako-Gourma region of the Sahel and ISWAP operating in the vicinity of Lake Chad. Since spring 2019—the time at which al-Baghdadi accepted ISGS’s oath of allegiance—Islamic State core has taken responsibility for ISGS propaganda production, crediting ISWAP for operations carried out by ISGS operatives. ISGS, however, maintains direct lines of communication to Islamic State core leadership and collaborates with ISWAP commanders while remaining operationally independent. Increasing connections between ISGS and ISWAP, including “joint facilitators,” could forecast operational linkages between the two groups, including common tactics and targets.
Tactics and Targets
ISGS fighters regularly target international and Sahelian security forces in their attacks as well as community-based armed groups. For example, ISGS claimed responsibility for an October 2017 ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger, that killed multiple Nigerien and U.S. soldiers. In December 2019, ISGS claimed responsibility for an attack on a Nigerien military installation in Inates, killing at least 71 soldiers and allegedly taking control of and holding the base for several hours. One analysis of data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) found that, between May 2019 and May 2020, ISGS orchestrated 18 attacks that killed more than 400 soldiers in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Additionally, ISGS regularly clashes with militias like the Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defense Group (GATIA) and the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and targets their leaders for assassination.
ISGS also carries out significant violence against civilians. One analysis found that the group is responsible for 3.5 civilian fatalities per attack. ISGS routinely targets civilians who are seen as representatives of state or religious institutions against which ISGS is fighting. For example, in April 2018 ISGS claimed responsibility for kidnapping a Burkinabé schoolteacher who allegedly used French in classroom instruction as well as the assassination of the mayor of Koutougou, Burkina Faso, for his alleged collaboration with the Burkinabé military. In June 2021, ISGS claimed to have kidnapped five Christian civilians at a roadblock between Gao, Mali, and Niamey, Niger, later executing them.
ISGS operates in a number of geographically dispersed cells demonstrating varying levels of operational autonomy. Examining attack claims in official Islamic State propaganda, ISGS activities appear to be broadly dispersed throughout the Liptako-Gourma region, with little geographic clustering. Some cells also benefit from rural border areas in the region to move between operational zones, evading detection by security services. For example, one ISGS cell regularly moves between villages in Benin and Niger near W National Park and, while the cell’s presence is largely transitory, the freedom of movement allows fighters to execute mobile attacks and avoid local security forces like park rangers. Operating in rural border zones stretches the capacities of Sahelian security forces and exposes them to more direct targeting by ISGS cells, as they are forced to travel in convoys on a limited number of passable rural routes, making them susceptible to ambush.
ISGS also seeks to exploit local community tensions to recruit new members and advance its broader ideological goals. For example, ISGS permits its fighters to carry out reprisal attacks against community-based armed groups that threaten civilians to whom ISGS is sympathetic. This dynamic was prominent from 2017 to 2018, when French Operation Barkhane forces and the Nigerien state aligned with Tuareg-linked Malian militias—notably MSA and GATIA—on counterterrorism efforts in Mali and Niger. While these operations weakened ISGS by leading to the seizure of materiel and the killing of fighters, the engagements also reportedly facilitated extrajudicial killings of civilians, particularly Peul herders, by GATIA and MSA militia members. This, in turn, led ISGS to violently retaliate against civilian communities who were perceived to be connected to GATIA and MSA in an attempt to undermine support for the militias and deter future militia attacks against civilians. ISGS coupled these attacks with propaganda. Al-Sahrawi issued a 2017 letter declaring a “war of extermination of your species,” assumedly referring to Tuaregs. ISGS’s co-optation of intercommunal tensions for recruitment and further violence risks having an ethnicizing effect on the insurgency.
ISGS will continue to pose a threat to local communities, military actors, and Sahelian state institutions over the near term. Declines in the power and influence of the Islamic State’s core leadership, including the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have not impeded ISGS’s growth, and the “quantum leap” in the pace and severity of attacks in 2019 provide evidence for ISGS’s durability as an insurgent group. Recent pressures on ISGS, brought on by the group’s simultaneous conflicts against JNIM and state militaries, could undermine the group’s successes over the near term.
ISGS will likely continue to succeed in gaining influence and controlling territory if local communities continue to view the group as a governance alternative to existing Sahelian states. While counterterrorism efforts have emphasized “the return of the state,” state structures like the military and civil administration are in need of reform if they are to win the support of rural populations in the Sahel. Some local communities view the restrictions on personal freedom imposed by ISGS to be a worthwhile bargain for personal security, with Nigerien civilians citing the protection they have received from ISGS against state security force abuses. “Indirect abuses” (i.e., abuses committed against local communities by state proxies) are also a key factor in ISGS mobilization and recruitment. Should international partners and Sahelian states rebalance their efforts to emphasize accountable governance and the reconstruction of public trust, they stand to rebuild the local legitimacy that will be crucial to ending the insurgency.
Military responses to the insurgency have not stemmed the tide of violence or provided a concrete path to peace. While French operations have resulted in the killing and capture of senior ISGS commanders, violence has continued to surge and the group has expanded its territorial reach. Additionally, misguided counterterrorism strategies like sanctioning paramilitary and militia activities, as well as the killing of civilians by both local and international forces, have undermined relationships with local communities that are key to delegitimizing ISGS. In order to correct this trend and reduce the ISGS threat, military interventions should be reimagined and aim to mollify community conflicts, secure local ceasefires, and emphasize local development and civilian protection.
Jared Thompson is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.