Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger…Islamic State in the Greater Sahara flexes its muscles

By Manon Laplace
Posted on Wednesday, 14 December 2022 09:21

A French soldier looks over the camp of the new Task Force Takuba, a multinational military mission at the Ménaka base, on 7 December 2021. © THOMAS COEX/AFP

New propaganda images show large gatherings of jihadist fighters in various parts of the continent. This show of force is particularly strong in Mali, where the Islamic State is gaining ground.

Columns of armoured vehicles, rows of pick-up trucks and motorbikes, and hundreds of fighters with weapons in their hands, and rocket launchers on their shoulders stretch from Mali to Mozambique, via Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria.

In the many strongholds that the Islamic State has erected in Africa, the local groups fighting under the jihadist nebula’s black and white banner have demonstrated a show of force and pledged their allegiance to Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurachi.

On 30 November, an audio message announced that he was Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurachi’s successor as head of the terrorist group.

Translation: 🇲🇱#Mali — #ISGS’s ceremony of allegiance (Gourma & haoussou) to the new caliph (ameri moumine) of the #IS.

Propaganda

The Islamic State’s various propaganda channels quickly noticed that these images that looked like a show of force were circulating.

In particular in the Sahel, and the so-called “three borders” zone between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Since March, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the caliphate’s local branch, has been relentlessly attacking the population and gaining ground in northeastern Mali’s Ménaka region.

Before leaving the country in August, the French forces had concentrated their efforts against the ISGS in this area.

With the end of Operation Barkhane and the Malian army’s almost non-existent response in the region, a window of opportunity has opened for the armed terrorist group.

“The recent propaganda images of the ISGS in Mali probably come from the Ménaka or Gao regions. The group has gained a lot of territories there in recent months and feels sufficiently unthreatened to allow itself to gather such a large number of fighters in one place,” says Rida Lyammouri, a senior researcher at the Moroccan think-tank Policy Centre for the New South (PCNS).

This method allows the nebula to not only remind its enemies of its ability to mobilise, but also “its freedom of movement acquired following Barkhane’s departure”, adds the researcher.

This is evidenced by the endless processions of fighters, and the caravans of pick-ups and motorbikes featured in the images.

Rival groups

The Islamic State’s local branch plans to consolidate its influence in this territory, which it contests in particular with its rivals: the Support group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM or JNIM), Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian offshoot.

“It is difficult to know at this stage whether the ISGS has really gained the upper hand over the JNIM, but this allegiance to the new caliph is an opportunity for Sahelian fighters to claim their rise to power,” says Lyammouri.

Though his communication efforts are aimed at the Islamic State’s central organisation, which has raised its Sahel branch to the status of “Province”, as well as the JNIM’s men led by Mali’s Iyad Ag Ghali, they also sound like a scathing response to Malian officials.

At a press conference in October, Colonel Souleymane Dembélé, head of the Direction de l’Information et des Relations Publiques des Armées (Dirpa), said while many “talked about the ISGS”, the Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMa) “did not see the ISGS on the ground”.

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