02 Mar

Could Jihadis confront each other in the Sahel?

In what is sure to have significant security and counter-terrorism implications on three continents, al-Mourabitoun, AQIM (AL Qaeda in the Maghreb), Ansar Dine, Macina Liberation Front have announced that they have all joined together to create a new but unified al-Qaeda Trans-Sahelian franchise.

While some, or all of the groups have been operating in concordance at least since late 2015, this public declaration changes the game in some ways, and is significant in that it is coming days after the start of Flintlock 2017, the training programme being run by the US Africa Command. Troops from twenty countries, including Nigeria, are taking part in the programme.

It also comes at a time when, the Islamic State, on the back foot in Iraq and Syria, may be looking to beef up its Africa operations, with a view to using the continent as a springboard to mount attacks in Europe.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have been at odds almost from the beginning, with AL Qaeda publicly condemning ISIS in the past. Also, in Africa, local ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates have been opposed to each other for a long time now, but have yet to clash on the continent, mainly for reasons of geography. The various groups – al-Mourabitoun, AQIM, Ansar Dine and Katibat Macina, have yet to come into all out conflict with al-Wilayat al-Islamiyya Gharb Afriqiyyah, as Boko Haram would rather be known. With fighters from all these groups increasingly using the Libya corridor to increase their numbers, and with IS looking to expand its strength in Africa, this may change quickly. The likely area for the first contact, and resultant friction, will be Niger, Nigeria’s northern neighbour.

Image showing the regions of influence of various Islamist groups around the Sahel.
Note that the trafficking routes, which intersect in Niger, en-route Libya, also serve as the same routes for arms, and fighters, in the opposite direction.
Image source: terrorismanalysts.com

It will be important to keep an eye on moves by these extremist groups, because any expansion, friction, and resultant fallout, will have some effects – both groups, Al Qaeda, and ISWAP, will look to recruit more members. Northern Nigeria, with its masses of out-of-school children, high poverty rates and IDPs desperate for survival, will provide fertile recruiting ground. The second effect, a fallout of the first, will be a turf war, for the hearts and minds of these people which we expect to be more brutal due to the fact that the groups will be fighting for supremacy and to silence dissent or opposition. If we get to such a stage, that turf war, will be fought in Northern Nigeria. A third effect is that these groups will not get a lot of funding for their activities from their principals, hence they will need to raise funds for their operations and will turn to kidnap, the drug trade, robbery and human trafficking to raise these funds hence an upsurge of these crimes may be seen in the area.

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