By Jacob Lindelöw Berntson
More than one and a half years ago, a faction of the Sahel-based terror group al-Mourabitoun pledged allegiance to IS. Why did IS only accept their pledge now?
The faction in question is a cadre led by Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, who in May 2015 announced his pledge of allegiance (baya) to the Islamic State, thereby creating the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). By doing so, Sahrawi broke away from the group known as al-Mourabitoun, which is led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar. However, some confusion seems to remain regarding the pledge of allegiance. IS’ Amaq News Agency, which announced that IS had accepted the pledge, continued to refer to Sahrawi’s faction as al-Mourabitoun.
We have previously written about both Belmokhtar and al-Mourabitoun, highlighting how the group originally was an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but since at least late 2015 seems to have joined forces with them again. Both groups have their strongholds in northern Mali, and together, they carried out attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and the Grand Bassam resort attack in Côte d’Ivoire in late 2015 and early 2016.
Sahrawi’s pledge, therefore led some to believe that al-Mourabitoun had switched allegiances, but a statement that was allegedly written by Belmokhtar appears to show his intentions to remain with AQIM. Quite apparently, there is a rift within al-Mourabitoun. More confusingly, given IS’ and al-Qaeda’s rivalry, it seems remarkable that IS central did not throw their support behind a group that operates in their enemy’s heartland at an earlier stage.
A screengrab from IS’ Naba publication from a few days ago, announcing that ‘al-Mourabitoun’ has pledged allegiance to IS.
It gets more confusing. Although the initial pledge of allegiance by al-Sahrawi to ‘the Commander of the Faithful’, as he calls IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was uttered in an audio recording in May 2015, IS are treating the pledge as if it is new, and seem to have encouraged Sahrawi and some his men to record a slickly produced video in which the allegiance is pledged yet again.
Surely, the timing is in part about opportunism. Few people have escaped the news of IS being pushed back in Iraq and Syria, as well as getting kicked out of their Libyan stronghold of Sirte. Moreover, their West African affiliate, Boko Haram, has suffered big territorial losses throughout this year. Having a fairly well-known jihadi group joining is as good PR for a group that desperately needs it.
Another factor to consider, although a bit more far-fetched, is the potential links between Sahrawi’s group and Boko Haram. As we have previously written about, Boko Haram enjoyed well-established connections, even cooperating at times, with other West African and Sahelian groups (such as AQIM) before joining IS. The Boko Haram commanders that have strengthened their positions in the recent leadership shuffle, such as leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur, were previously among those most well connected with groups in the Sahel. Could it be that IS only now realised the opportunity presented to them and that their recent PR stunt serves as an indication of future cooperation between Boko Haram and Sahrawi’s faction of the Islamic State?
At this point, it is too early to tell, and we are left with more questions than answers. Certainly, only time can tell what this ‘new’ alliance means.
The top photo is a screengrab from a video produced by IS’ Amaq News Agency, in which Sahrawi repeats his pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.