North Africa is one of the battlefields of the fight between the two major organizations within the jihadist galaxy, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). Al Qaeda’s branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is prevailing but IS cells are still dangerous.
Since the beginning of 2017, the most relevant news related with terrorism in Africa was probably the creation of a new terrorist organization, ‘Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (Group for the Support of Islam and the Believers – JNIM). JNIM (also known as Al Qaeda in Mali, AQM) is linked to the Al Qaeda international jihadist network, and directly to its North African branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. On 2nd March a Jihadist leader active in Mali with his group Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghali, announced the birth of JNIM from the merger of four different groups: Ansar Dine, Al Murabitoun (led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar), the Macina Liberation Front (led by Ahmadou Koufa and previously linked to Ansar Dine) and the AQIM Sahara branch. Ag Ghaly, who leads JNIM, pledged his allegiance to the leaders of Al Qaeda, Ayman Al Zawahiri, and AQIM, Abdelmalek Droukdel.
The creation of AQIM’s new branch is a sign both of strength and weakness. The new formation has already started an offensive in Mali targeting mainly security forces. This has increased the level of risk due to AQIM, since there is much more coordination between the different AQIM cells now. But JNIM’s creation is the consequence of a strategic shift decided by AQIM’s leadership. And this shift is due to the fact that AQIM has gradually been thrown out from its birthplace, Algeria, by security forces. The terrorist network was forced to move southward and settled in those areas where there is no strong government control, like the Northern regions of Mali.
JNIM’s different components show that AQIM is now apparently able to draw together militants from different ethnic groups and use them in coordinated attacks. Iyad Ag Ghaly is a Tuareg and Ahmadou Koufa is a Peul. Even if Jihadists share (on a general level) the same ideology, in the past there were profound rifts within AQIM due to the different ethnic origin of its militants. AQIM leadership is still composed mainly by Algerians of Arabic origin (like Droukdel and Belmokhtar), and this was not tolerated by those who came from different areas. This malaise led to a split and the birth of the ‘Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa’ (MOJWA) in 2011.
It is important to notice that this group of former members of AQIM intended to spread Jihad from North Africa to West Africa. In 2013 a faction of MOJWA blended with ‘Those Who Sign with Blood’, a group created by Belmokhtar after he left AQIM due to a power struggle with Droukdel. The result of this blend was Al Murabitoun, which in 2017 joined JNIM. Some former members of MOJWA (led by Abu Walid al-Sahrawi) in 2015 quit Al Murabitoun to join the Islamic State (IS) and created in 2016 the Islamic State in Greater Sahara.
AQIM versus IS
The creation of JNIM shows that in the first months of 2017, AQIM has the upper hand in its race with IS in North Africa. IS is basically an AQIM offspring, as its former denomination (Al Qaeda in Iraq, AQI) shows. It was created by people who pleaded allegiance to the Al Qaeda leadership, while their successors chose to split. The two groups still share the same extremist platform but they differ on some core issues. The main one of these issues is the creation (or re-creation) of a caliphate, a state ruled by sharia law. AQIM considers the caliphate a long term goal, while IS tried to realize the caliphate now. In the Sahel region IS succeeded in attracting single militants (especially form Tunisia and Morocco) or entire cells from AQIM or autonomous groups, like Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis in Egypt and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
In 2014 a cell, split from AQIM in Algeria, joined IS and renamed itself Jund Al Kalifah and tried to impose its presence on the jihadist scene by killing a French citizen (Herve Gourdel) it had kidnapped. Jund al Khalifa was crushed by a counter offensive, but IS cells are still active in Algeria, especially in the Constantine area. In 2016 IS seemed in the position to beat their rival, especially after it conquered the Libyan city of Sirte. In fact, it took advantage of the crisis in this country, but it was chased by an offensive by militias aligned with the government of Tripoli which were supported by the US air force.
Another sign of IS influence was the pledge of allegiance made in March 2015 by Boko Haram, one of the most effective African terrorist groups. Previously, Boko Haram had been loosely linked to AQIM. But in 2016 the Nigerian branch, which had renamed itself ‘Wilāyat al-Islāmiyya Gharb Afrīqiyyah’, got into a crisis due to a power struggle within its leadership between its former leader Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab Al Barnawi, a new chief named by IS. Shekau and his supporters restarted to use the original name of their group ‘Jamaa Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad’ (Boko Haram is a nickname which the population of Borno state in Nigeria gave them). But they still recognize the authority of IS emir Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi.
In Egypt ‘Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis’ became ‘Wilayat Sinai’ and survived the different offensives launched by Egyptian security forces. Between 2016 and 2017 ‘Wilayat Sinai’ organized different attacks targeting the Copts living in Egypt. One of its goals is to widen the religious rift within Egyptian society. Notwithstanding the media frenzy caused by IS operations in North Africa, AQIM never lost its traction both in Algeria and in other states, like Mali. The competition from IS pushed AQIM’s to close ranks to counterattack. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the world’s most famous terrorists, decided to bury the hatchet with Droukdel and to join AQIM again in December 2015.
Neither AQIM nor IS can create an autonomous territory in North Africa, as proven by the battle of Sirte. And this is true also in those countries where the power of the state is extremely weak, like Mali. But in some areas (like Northern Mali), they have the power to disrupt the activities of the institutions blocking all public services.
The rivalry between the two groups will continue in the short to medium term. The weakening of IS will give AQIM the possibility to regain traction in places like Libya. Due to the ideological differences, at this moment it is unlikely that the two organizations will make peace or act in a coordinated way. But agreements on a local plan are possible, also because in several areas the members of the two groups know each other. Both groups will target primarily the foreign citizens present in North Africa, both civilians and soldiers involved in military operations. These will be the target both of terrorist attacks (against hotels, resorts, military bases, etc.) and kidnappings.