For the first time, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) referred to its affiliates in Africa’s Sahel as “Wilayat al-Sahel” (Sahel Province), which formally was referred to as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Wikipedia explains the “Sahel” as a borrowed name from its Arabic origin, الساحل al-sāḥil meaning “coast, shore”.
ISIL’s weekly infographic al-Naba also pays attention to the Sahel Province, detailing clashes with members of the Tuareg armed group, the Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad (MSA) which translates to Movement for the Salvation of Azawad, which killed 250 members in a series of clashes across the Menaka Region, and an attack on a Malian military base in the Tessit area of Gao Region, Mali on 22 March 2022 that killed 40 people (soldiers allegedly). These claims emanate from occurrences between 21 – 25 March 2022.
This new arrangement means that ISGS, which was previously a component of the “West Africa Province” (albeit not operationally), is now an independent provincial entity known as “Sahel Province,” which stretches from Western Niger to Burkina Faso, along the coasts of Mauritania, Senegal, and Northern Mali.
This is the latest evolution of the group, which was previously known as Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO) in English translates to Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), a then breakaway from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and then Al-Mourabitoun, would later come to be known and dreaded as État islamique dans le Grand Sahara (EIGS) in English translates to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara on 15 May 2015 and then in 2019, becomes a part of ISWA accordingly.
ISGS activities were always recognized by IS core (Daesh), which pushed for its inclusion in IS Wilayat propaganda in West Africa, given that ISWAP’s influence in the grand utopian Islamic Global Caliphate expansionist agenda in Africa was gaining traction. However, the group maintained its operational independence from the Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP) in Nigeria.
This progression coincides with the official announcement of the new Islamic State leader, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, on 10 March 2022, which prompted IS branches and members to officially pledge their loyalty to him.
Ironically, this development comes just a month after France announced its troop withdrawal from Mali on February 17, 2022, following tensions with the Malian Junta, although it plans to continue operations from the neighbouring Niger Republic. This has undoubtedly provided an opening for IS militants to exploit. ISGS opposes foreign engagement in the Sahel and has carried out and continues to carry out attacks on foreign government security personnel as well as France-led Operation Barkhane, which combats numerous jihadist groups.
JNIM is the fastest-growing group in the Sahel, making it the most formidable adversary to ISGS, according to incident mapping analysis, having registered the highest increase in the number of attacks and deaths in 2021. In 2020, the organization was responsible for 507 attacks, which then recorded a 69.42 per cent increase to 859 attacks in 2021. Between January and February 2022, 392 attacks were registered, which is 6 times greater than the 65 attacks recorded in 2021 and 5 times higher than the 67 attacks recorded in 2020 within the same periods in focus. The number of deaths linked to JNIM was down 3.03% in 2021 with 1,245 fatalities from 1,284 in 2020.
ISGS, on the other hand, claims to be the most lethal group in the Sahel, and was responsible for 381 attacks in 2020, with 398 attacks in 2021, a 4.46% rise. Between January and February of 2022, 88 attacks were recorded, a 54.38% increase from 57 incidents in 2021 and a 10% increase from 80 incidents in 2020. 1,208 persons have been killed because of ISGS in 2020, with 1,427 deaths in 2021, a rise of 18.12%.
Most Sahel countries, including Coastal states in the West African zone such as Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Ivory Coast, will see an increase in terrorism as Islamic State (IS) affiliates spread. The security system in the Sahel continues to deteriorate because of political instability, with military participation in politics leading to coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, and Chad. Climate change, land degradation, population increase, and weak governments in Niger, Mali, and Sudan, among others, all contribute to the continuation of terrorist-related operations across borders, highlighting places where government authority is weakest.
ISGS-SP will continue to operate as usual for the time being, as there has been no shakeup in the Sahel jihadist environment since the Wilayat restructure. The separation of the Sahel Province from its West African counterparts is part of a larger effort to bolster its capabilities and demonstrate its might as a global terror organization, notably in dealing with Al-Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) rivals in the Sahel region. It is difficult to predict whether the Islamic State Sahel province will remain unified without a split due to its continuing evolution; nevertheless, what is clear is that conflict will continue in the region as increasing criminal interests and agendas worsen the struggle in search of domination.