Unlike the Taliban, the Sahel’s extremist groups — notably Iyad ag Ghali’s Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the État islamique dans le Grand Sahara (EIGS) — are not a cohesive force. Nor are the Boko Haram groups in the Lake Chad basin region of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. JNIM and EIGS are a mixture of various militias whose goals sometimes but not always align and increasingly less so with the global ideological contest between Islamic State and al-Qa’ida. Indeed, over the last couple of years, there have been significant outbreaks of fighting between the JNIM and EIGS.

JNIM is affiliated to al-Qa’ida, whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, pledged allegiance to Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada in 2016, as did Iyad Ag Ghali at the time of JNIM’s creation in 2017. This month the latter also congratulated the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (i.e. the Taliban) on the agreed withdrawal of American forces and their allies. As for the Islamic State (IS), it is in open warfare against the Taliban, which it considers apostates because of its negotiations with the US in Doha. EIGS has therefore condemned rather than congratulate the Taliban. 

Iyad ag Ghali congratualtes the Taliban on their victory in Afghanistan (Source – Az-Zallaqa media)

Even though the Taliban is not al-Qa’ida, and there are many differences between them, its victory will be seen as a prestige victory by al-Qa’ida affiliated groups, such as JNIM. As one expert, Adib Bencherif, wrote: ‘The Taliban are likely to be seen as models of patience and success in the imagination of the JNIM leadership and members.’

The obvious question is: what kind of parallels can be drawn between the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the French withdrawal from the Sahel?

The first point to be made is that, whereas the US negotiated with the Taliban, so far France has refused to consider this as an option with the JNIM. However, in the wake of the Taliban victory, Chad’s apparent withdrawal from the Three Borders Region (see below) and President Emmanuel Macron’s difficulties in the run up to the 2022 presidential elections, such an option might yet become a reality. Moreover, negotiating with JNIM would not mean ending the military operation: the two could run parallel.

France’s strong resistance to any negotiations might be mitigated by the fact that, even if it were to entirely withdraw from the region, JNIM’s interest is not in taking over the whole of country but rather just the north and centre of Mali which its’ constitute groups effectively controlled up until the time of the French military intervention in January 2013.

Adib Bencherif raised the possible scenario of a coalition — between Mali’s military troops, the various armed groups that signed the 2015 Algiers Agreement, and members of the JNIM — to fight against EIGS.

Such a joint campaign is conceivable because there are major ideological differences between JNIM and EIGS and especially over the latter’s attacks on civilians, which it tries to justify through an extensive reading of takfir — the excommunication of one Muslim by another — that enable it to defend its crimes against the civilian population. EIGS also refuses to compromise with local authorities in the Liptako-Gourma areas that are under its influence. JNIM’s leaders disprove of these methods and prefer to make compromises with the local population and avoid attacks on civilians.

Even if JNIM were to join such a coalition, it would almost certainly insist on control of northern Mali as a reward for its contribution. Such a fragmentation of the Malian state is currently unacceptable to Bamako but, if the situation were to further deteriorate, they might have little choice but to compromise with JNIM. 

Another possible scenario is that, if the Sahel’s al-Qa’ida affiliates see the Taliban victory in Afghanistan as a victory for their movement, it will not only give JNIM renewed momentum but make it more attractive to already radicalised youths who were seeking to join jihadist groups. In this respect, we might well even see members of the IS-affiliated EIGS switching allegiance to JNIM. If this were to happen, and if the coalition forces were to concentrate on the elimination of EIGS, while simultaneously negotiating a deal with JNIM over northern Mali, it is conceivable that the region, albeit with a fragmented or federated Mali, could achieve a greater degree of stability than currently looks likely.

This excerpt is taken from Sahara Focus, our monthly intelligence report on the Sahara region. Click here to receive a free sample copy.


Sahara Focus – August 2021

Sahel 

  • What does the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan mean for the Sahel?
  • UN Security Council concerned by rise of jihadism in the Sahel
  • Chad withdraws half its troops from the G5 Sahel force
  • Implications
  • Growing Turkish interest in the Sahel raises concerns

Mali

  • An intensification of jihadist attacks
  • Assimi Goïta’s attacker dies in hospital
  • Arrest warrants for Karim Keïta and Ma-Gen Moussa Diawara
  • Prime Minister Choguel Maïga’s action plan

Niger

  • Surge in terrorist attacks
  • Niger also hit by major flooding
  • US holds a ‘strategic’ military exercise in Niger
  • Global Atomic’s uranium feasibility study nearing completion

Chad

  • Assessment of Chad’s Conseil militaire de transition (CMT) 

Mauritania 

  • Opposition parties attack government for lack of political courage

Burkina Faso

  • Escalating violence from Islamist extremists
  • Thomas Sankara assassination trial set for 11 October