Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 90, 13 May 2020

Africa: the Sahel becomes the new hotspot for al Qaeda-Islamic State clashes
Harini Sha

In the news

On 11 May, the BBC report highlighted that West Africa's Sahel is becoming the latest battleground between al Qaeda and the Islamic State group. This was based on an announcement by the IS that the group has been engaged in fierce fighting with al Qaeda in Mali and Burkina Faso. The report in al Naba has blamed the al Qaeda's Sahel affiliate, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) for mobilising troops and starting the fight in the region. 

Issues at large

First, there has been a strong presence of both the IS and al Qaeda in the Sahel region. In the western part of North Africa that includes countries like Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, both have been fighting. The region has remained home to several Islamic terrorist groups who have killed thousands of people and displaced 50,000 villagers in the tri-border region at Lake Chad. 

Second, these groups have been fighting with each other. According to the BBC, in-fighting between these two groups has been the case in Yemen, Somali, and Syria. The IS-affiliated group called Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) has been fighting the JNIM for being moderate in spreading ideologies in the Sahel region. 

Third, the supply of arms through illegal markets and the lack of governing bodies in the semi-arid Sahel region remains the primary cause for the presence and continuation of these groups in the Sahel. The central part of the Sahel has been the strategic point for the illegal arms movement which connects the borders of Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria. The supply of arms by the UK, the US and Saudi Arabia to fight the civil wars in Yemen and Libya have found a route through Sahel's illegal arms market into the hands of IS and Al-Qaeda. Besides, the differing governing systems in each state have left the region underdevelopment and the people in abject poverty. In the absence and failure of the governing systems, the terrorist groups like Boko-Haram, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State are filling the space to grow. In addition, the existing terror groups in the region have vowed allegiance to either al Qaeda or the Islamic State, thereby leading to a deepening presence of these terrorist organisations. 

In perspective 

The poorer countries, weaker governments, large Muslim demography, and oil-rich countries have accelerated the spread of these terror groups and became vulnerable to the Islamic State. The Islamic State has been searching for an alternate ground away from the Middle East after it lost a considerable amount of territories and control in the region. This transition of the Islamic State and the clashes between two terror groups in West Africa will now lead to increased violence and intra-group conflicts in the region. 

The increasing terror activities in the region had also called for international attention in 2017 when the Sahel Alliance was launched by France, Germany, and the European Union jointly with the G5 Sahel countries to coordinate the action in the fight against terrorism. With an additional clash between Islamic State and the al Qaeda affiliates, it will be a challenge for the alliance to contain the spread of violence by JNIM which will now emerge as one of the deadliest branches of al Qaeda in the region.


Harini Sha is a Research Intern at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). The author is pursuing a Masters in International Studies from Stella Maris College, Chennai. 

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