Sahel: ‘The Taliban are seen as a model of patience for al-Qaeda’

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Tuesday, 24 August 2021 08:54

Soldiers from the Barkhane operation have been fighting jihadist groups in the Sahel since 2014 © Philippe de Poulpiquet/MAX PPP

While Iyad Ag Ghali has welcomed the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, what impact will this return have on jihadist groups in the Sahel? Adib Bencherif, a specialist in the field, provides some answers.

Although the two areas are separated by several thousand kilometres, the recent return of the Taliban to Afghanistan is being closely observed in North Africa and the Sahel.

This is because, in theory at least, their leader Haibatullah Akhundzadala is linked to Ag Ghali’s Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM, or GNIM) coalition, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda.

Another key element is that the Taliban’s governance strategy, including normalised relations with neighbouring states, could offer a model for jihadist groups in the Sahel.

Adib Bencherif is an assistant professor at the University of Sherbrooke’s School of Applied Politics (Canada); an associate researcher at University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group and at the UNESCO Chair in Prevention of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism; and author of recent published works on ‘glocal (global and local) jihad’ in North Africa and the Sahel in the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism.

How do jihadist groups in the Sahel perceive the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan?

Adib Bencherif: Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of the JNIM coalition and affiliated to Al-Qaeda, made a statement on this subject at the beginning of August to congratulate the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (i.e. the Taliban) after the withdrawal of American forces and their allies. The Taliban are likely to be seen as models of patience and success in the imagination of the JNIM leadership and members.

Al Qaeda should not be confused with the Taliban, but there are close links between them. Some of their cadres and leaders act as a conduit between the two groups. Moreover, and this is what makes their relationship complex, al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri pledged allegiance to Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada in 2016, as did Ag Ghali at the time of the creation of the JNIM in 2017.

As for the Islamic State [IS], it is in open warfare against the Taliban, which it considers ‘apostates’ because of their negotiations with the US in Doha. The IS-GS [Islamic State in the Greater Sahara] is therefore unlikely to congratulate the Afghan group. It is more of a prestige victory for al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

Can we expect the same kind of developments in the Sahel with the – relative – withdrawal of France?

The areas of operation are very different. While the United States has negotiated with the Taliban, France refuses to consider this as an option with the JNIM; yet many of us analysts and academics are calling for the political option of negotiation to be considered. This would not mean ending military operations in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, it would simply mean doing both.

France remains very resistant to this approach; and even if it did [withdraw], the JNIM is not seeking to govern the whole of Mali, it is focused on the north and centre of the country, whereas the Taliban wants to rule the whole of Afghanistan.

The Malian authorities seem to be structuring negotiations with the JNIM. It would be interesting to see a coalition formed between Malian military troops, the various armed groups that signed the 2015 Algiers Agreement and members of the JNIM to fight against the IS-GS. This would require all of the parties involved to reach a compromise and agreement on a strategic, if not tactical, level in the short term.

I think this is a plausible scenario, given the conflicts between JNIM and IS-GS members since 2019-2020 and their ideological differences. The IS-GS attacks civilians very regularly, with an extensive reading of takfir (excommunication of Muslim status) that allows it to justify its crimes against the population. It also refuses to compromise with local authorities in the Liptako-Gourma territories under their influence.

The JNIM leaders disapprove of the IS-GS methods. They prefer to make compromises with the local population and avoid attacks on civilians. In this sense, a parallel can be drawn with the Taliban, since they are at war with the Islamic State. The continuation of this fight is part of their agreement with the Americans.

Will the return of Taliban control to Afghanistan mean that the Sahel will cease to be THE sanctuary for jihadist groups?

If we understand the expression ‘jihadist sanctuaries’ as social spaces that are favourable to jihadist groups, which allow them to survive or develop, and not simply the territories they control, there are already several of these in the Sahel. If they are located in the Liptako-Gourma and around Lake Chad, they are mobile spaces that depend on the socio-political realities of the moment. A strictly territorial reading of the ‘jihadist sanctuary’ is not necessary.

Knowing that the Taliban are in conflict with the IS, Afghanistan can only be a refuge for groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. However, I doubt that al-Qaeda members will be very visible in Afghanistan to avoid undermining the Taliban’s attempts to legitimise itself internationally. The Taliban will maintain discreet links and perhaps offer protection for al-Qaeda members; but it is unlikely that they will allow them to conduct jihadist activities from their territory, [if not] in a very covert manner…

Could the return of the Taliban produce a new momentum for al-Qaeda, to the detriment of the Islamic State, including in the Maghreb and the Sahel?

Once again, the local contexts are very different. However, it is certain that al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and the Sahel will [term] the return of the Taliban as a victory for their movement. This will play into the representations of local jihadist movements. They will also try to learn from the Taliban and their governance of Afghanistan.

The return of the Taliban may lead some IS-GS affiliates to leave the group to join the JNIM, for example, considering that the al-Qaeda movement has a political project that is taking shape (although the Taliban is not al-Qaeda…). This may renew some of the impetus among elements of an already radicalised youth who were seeking to join jihadist groups.

This is why I consider the term ‘glocal jihad’ to be often relevant, as it captures the plurality and intertwining of spatial realities in the jihadi landscape and the potential effects of one theatre on another. It is necessary to go beyond the understanding of ‘glocal’ as the simple meeting of a global ideology and local contexts.

Yes, the contexts are different, but the groups learn from each other and share experiences, advice and instructions. The ideological disputes between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda also have an impact on the ground, particularly in the Sahel, in the way of thinking about governance, negotiation or relations with civilians for example.

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