A year has passed since the relationship between the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) deteriorated into a full-fledged turf war in the Sahel, joining the league of conflict between Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (IS). The conflict between JNIM and ISGS is amongthe deadliest in the world. What the inter-jihadi battles across the broader Middle East and Africa have in common is that they are either cyclical or gradually decline. It is probable that the JNIM and ISGS fight will follow a similar path, especially given the external pressure both groups face from the French-led Operation Barkhane.
JNIM and ISGS – respectively the regional affiliates of the global terrorist organizations Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – share common origins in the network of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). ISGS formed in 2015 after splintering from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Mourabitoun, although its relationship with Al-Qaeda-aligned counterparts remained characterized by collusion, coexistence, and tacit territorial arrangements. Formed in 2017, JNIM gathered several disparate jihadi groups – including AQIM’s Sahara branch, Al-Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine, and Katiba Macina into a Sahelian conglomerate – and also tied the local Burkinabe jihadi group Ansaroul Islam to the alliance.
The unique relationship between the two groups has been shaped by long-standing personal ties, coordinated actions to confront common enemies, and lack of jihadi infighting. It is often described as the “Sahelian exception.” JNIM’s and ISGS’s pre-interwar configuration brought the benefits of pooling resources, exchanging tradecraft, and providing support in a complex and ambiguous insurgency ecosystem to confound enemies about the character of jihadi affairs and the control landscape. ISGS emerged as a small and shadowy group reliant on a rudimentary media infrastructure, giving it a clear disadvantage in promoting its struggle compared to JNIM, which in contrast inherited the combined numerical strength, military, and media capabilities from its already well-known constituent groups.
However, ISGS’s appropriation of grievances, especially protection demands and state neglect, and exploitation of rivalries among pastoralist populations in the marginalized and hostile “tri-state border” region (or the Liptako-Gourma), enabled its growth. By tapping into a range of local conflicts and issues, ISGS also managed to incorporate weakened or marginalized JNIM units. In rural Gao, it built trust by engaging in the fight between primarily Arab and Tuareg Imghad communities, drawing Katiba Salaheddine into its ranks. Disagreements over access to pasture in the Inner Niger Delta (the flood-prone and vegetation-rich wetlands in central Mali’s Mopti and Segou regions) caused dissent within Katiba Macina and spurred fighters to switch allegiance to the Islamic State. Violence along ethnic fault lines in northern Burkina Faso further provided ISGS the opportunity to attract Ansaroul Islam units on the fringes.
Mounting competition between JNIM and ISGS paralleled the two groups’ collusion. JNIM’s unwillingness to share territory in some of its traditional strongholds and ISGS’s incessant poaching of the former’s members likely engendered mutual perceptions of treason. JNIM’s openness to engage the Malian government in dialogue and signing agreements with Donso militiamen aroused mistrust of the commitment and credibility of the tacit coalition. Islamic State’s integration of ISGS into its overall structure as a distinct faction of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) put the final nail in the coffin of the strained JNIM and ISGS coalition.
The insurgency reached its peak in 2019 when JNIM and ISGS in a simultaneous offensive overran military outposts in the tri-state border region, forcing local armies to withdraw. In that year, ISGS’s activities had reached a level nearly on par with those of JNIM. In early 2020, France declared ISGS “enemy number one” after the group had killed more than 400 Malian, Burkinabe, and Nigerien soldiers in the course of a one-year period in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
To counter ISGS’s onslaught, France surged troops and scaled up military operations alongside local forces. More than 430 ISGS fighters were killed in 70 French operations in 2020 compared to approximately 230 JNIM combatants killed in 20 operations during the same time period. After weakening ISGS’s capabilities, French forces in October 2020 shifted focus to JNIM, which was considered by senior French military officials to be the “most dangerous enemy” for international and Malian forces. This was demonstrated by a series of recent deadly attacks carried out by JNIM against French, United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and Malian forces.
However, disunity and fighting between ISGS and JNIM ultimately weakened the insurgency, with the groups intermittently contesting influence and territory among themselves rather than their previously shared adversaries. This wasted human resources, and exposed the groups to surveillance and airstrikes. Since the first skirmishes in 2019 until the present (as of 2 January 2021), the two groups have clashed at least 125 times, resulting in an estimated 731 fighters killed on both sides.
During the initial escalation between January-April 2020 in the Inner Niger Delta, JNIM largely pushed ISGS out of the area, although ISGS maintains discrete pockets such as in Dialloube and Kounari, in the Mopti Region. The fighting soon spread to other areas. Eastern Burkina Faso, along the borders with Niger and Benin, experienced sporadic fighting, but it is in the tri-state border region where the most gruelling combat has taken place (see figure below). The tri-state border region constitutes key ground that JNIM and ISGS continue to contest — in Islamic State propaganda described as the “triangle of death.”
Most importantly, the fighting reflects a shift in the power ratio between the two groups and ISGS’s ability to seriously challenge JNIM. Neither JNIM nor ISGS has managed to penetrate far into or maintain more than a negligible presence in the opponent’s traditional strongholds, underscoring the importance of each group’s level of embeddedness and the role of geographic and ethnic affinities. Islamic State frequently boasts about ISGS’s purported victories against JNIM in its propaganda output. This reflects the Islamic State Central’s demand on its regional affiliate to adopt a more hostile posture towards its Al-Qaeda competitor, after incorporating ISGS into the organizational infrastructure in March 2019. JNIM, in contrast, has gone to great lengths to hush up the hostilities, and instead more subtly used victim-narratives to discredit ISGS's often excessive targeting of civilians. This is part of JNIM’s more comprehensive approach to building broad popular support by re-localizing and mainstreaming its struggle. Hence, ISGS and JNIM exhibit contrary trajectories and different approaches. Nevertheless, the two platforms have proven to perform well for armed mobilization in a conflict-ridden region. For the time being, they represent two incompatible visions of insurgent social order.
Despite the frequent fighting between JNIM and ISGS, the former continues to fight a multi-front war and maintains a significant operational tempo. However, the war between JNIM and ISGS is becoming increasingly costly as both face sustained pressure from counterinsurgent forces spearheaded by the French Operation Barkhane mission. Deconfliction may already have occurred in certain locales, such as in eastern Burkina Faso, where fighting was sporadic. Hence, ISGS and JNIM could agree to a modus vivendi even though the relationship is unlikely to return to the status quo ante bellum.