A Tuareg man holds a bullet near a destroyed vehicle belonging to Islamist rebels on the road between Diabaly and Timbuktu in Mali / REUTERS

West Africa Analysis: Islamic State recognizes ISGS as West African affiliate following increased attacks in recent months, despite 17 month silence

Executive Summary:

  • The Islamic State-linked Amaq News Agency issued a statement on October 30, recognizing Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’s (ISGS) pledge of allegiance to Islamic State (IS) following 17 months of silence after the group’s initial pledge in May 2015. The initial silence, which is not characteristic of IS, appears to illustrate lack of coordination between ISGS leader, Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, and IS, as well as doubts in ISGS’s capabilities.
  • Islamic State’s decision to accept ISGS was likely influenced by recent spate of ISGS attacks in border area between Niger and Burkina Faso, through which the latter illustrated some level of capabilities, whereas this was previously in question. The acceptance of ISGS was also connected to Islamic State losses in other theaters, such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria, and the need for the organization to illustrate continued strength and expanding geographical scope.
  • IS’s recognition will likely bolster ISGS’s standing in region, likely enhancing recruitment capabilities. ISGS to carry out further attacks in coming months, in effort to build regional status, both along Burkina Faso-Niger-Mali border areas. Furthermore, while their capabilities remain to be seen, they may seek to carry out more high-profile attacks in West Africa for similar purposes. However, ISGS is not likely to emerge as considerable rival to al-Qaeda linked groups in the area due to latter’s entrenchment.
  • Those operating in or traveling to the West Africa region are advised to contact us for itinerary-based consultations and ground support options.
Islamic State acknowledgement of ISGS and accompanying video of al-Sahraoui pledging allegiance
Islamic State acknowledgement of ISGS and accompanying video of al-Sahraoui pledging allegiance

Current Situation:

  • Islamic State (IS)-linked Amaq News Agency released a statement on October 30, in which they acknowledge the pledge of allegiance from Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui and his Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) militant group. Amaq also published an accompanying video, dated to October 30, in which al-Sahraoui and his men  pledge their allegiance to IS and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Sahraoui previously pledged allegiance to IS in May 2015 on behalf of al-Mourabitoun, when he was the disputed leader of the group, which was a merger between Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathameen Brigade and Movement for Oneness [Tawhid] and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), where al-Sahraoui was previously a spokesperson.
  • The 2015 statement by al-Sahraoui was denied by Belmokhtar, who reaffirmed al-Mourabitoun’s allegiance to al-Qaeda and leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Belmokhtar emphasized that al-Sahraoui was speaking on his own behalf. This led to infighting between supporters of the rival factions of al-Mourabitoun, during which al-Sahraoui and his supporters lost considerably, with reports that al-Sahraoui was severely wounded, and afterwards, the group was inactive.
  • While not being active following their May 2015 pledge, ISGS has claimed responsibility for a handful of attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger in recent months. ISGS first claimed responsibility for an attack on a border post in the Oudalan Province of Burkina Faso that killed two during the overnight hours of September 1-2. Later on, the group claimed responsibility for attacking a security outpost in the town of Intagom, Burkina Faso, 5 km from the Malian border on October 12, killing three policemen. Furthermore, on October 17, the group claimed responsibility for an attempted prison break attack on the Koutoukale Prison in Niger, located 50 km northwest of Niamey. The Koutoukale Prison is a high-security prison that holds many suspected Boko Haram members, as well as jihadist militants of other groups. Additionally, there have been numerous attacks that have went unclaimed in Burkina Faso and Niger, which may have been conducted by ISGS.

Attacks in Tri-Border Area


Click here to see map legend

Assessments & Forecast:

  1. The nature of Islamic State’s acknowledgement of ISGS is notable due to numerous factors. For one, the extended silence by IS is not characteristic of the group, which is often quick to acknowledge pledges of allegiance even from smaller groups, similar to ISGS, often devoting considerable coverage to such affiliations, such as the Skikda Brigade and Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria, and al-Mumin’s al-Shabaab breakaway in Somalia. It was also presented in a much vaguer and low profile manner when compared to other groups pledging allegiance to IS in the past. Previous claims are also often preceded by “teaser” publications stating that an important announcement is coming soon. We assess that the silence was indicative of a lack of communication between al-Sahraoui and official IS networks, whereas pledges were often made following a period of direct communication with IS leadership. Additionally, IS likely had doubts regarding the capabilities of al-Sahraoui and his faction, especially following the fighting with Belmokhtar’s men. Al-Sahraoui’s credibility may have also been a source of concern for IS in light of the fact that his pledge, made on behalf of al-Mourabitoun, was rejected soon after by Belmokhtar.
  2. In this context, recent months have seen several attacks claimed by al-Sahraoui via al-Akhbar, a Mauritanian news outlet, while other attacks suspected to have been carried out by ISGS have gone unclaimed. The timing of the spate of attacks ahead of the announcement leads us to assess that this was either done to prove to IS that ISGS is a capable group, or because IS demanded such actions ahead of the acceptance of the pledge as a means to draw greater attention to the announcement. Additionally, the statement comes amid considerable IS territorial losses in the Middle East, including the almost complete loss of its strongholds in Libya, the loss of the symbolic city of Dabiq in Syria, the namesake of their monthly magazine, and  the ongoing battle being waged by various armed forces to recapture  Mosul, Iraq from IS.  With this in mind, the affirmation of an affiliate group in the western Sahel, especially one that has been carrying out more attacks in recent months, is likely an attempt by IS to bolster perceptions of its strength and global reach in an effort to maintain relevance and appeal.
  3. FORECAST: Going forward, we assess that the affiliation is likely to bolster ISGS’ status in the region, possibly assisting in their recruitment efforts. Additionally, ISGS will be able to claim responsibility through official IS and IS-linked publications, giving them wider recognition, under a larger umbrella, rather than through al-Akhbar, as was the case in the past. Regarding its operations, ISGS will likely continue carrying out attacks along the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso borders in coming months, with an expected focus on security forces. The majority of these attacks will likely continue to be small-scale ones, but ones such as the attempted Koutoukale Prison break are also anticipated. At the same time, the group may also attempt a more high profile attack, in urban centers within these countries, and possibly others in West Africa, in order to announce their presence in the region in a “louder” manner.
  4. FORECAST: Nevertheless, al Qaeda and its regional affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine are expected to remain the prominent jihadist militant groups in the western Sahel, and are deeply entrenched and influential in the region, in part due to the local and popular focus of their activities and messaging. ISGS remains a small group, with limited resources and capabilities, which is unlikely to see an exceptional shift at this time, even after the official affiliation to IS.
  5. This is due to al-Qaeda’s strength in the region, as well as the fact that IS is currently struggling in the Middle East, and at this stage it appears that the group has limited resources to disperse to its affiliates such as ISGS. FORECAST: Instead, IS will likely seek to divert efforts to other more established and priority locations, such as Libya and even, to a lesser extent Nigeria. This was highlighted by recent the recent statement from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for IS supporters who can not reach Syria or Iraq to instead go to Libya. At the same time, with IS losses in Libya, there is a distinct possibility for some militants from there, especially ones from West Africa, to join ISGS.


Those operating in or traveling to the West Africa region are advised to contact us for itinerary-based consultations and ground support options.