The Competition between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel and Sahara

Issued by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in January 2017, The Competition between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel and Sahara seeks to examine the competition between the two major jihadi organisations, its dynamics and outcomes, and the primary and secondary players involved.
20 November 2017

This book explores the jihadi competition between the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda in the Sahel and Sahara. It traces the history of armed jihadi Salafi activity in the region, its inception and development, and the factionalism that plagued some jihadi organisations before the major schism divided them into two warring camps. While the conflict between IS and al-Qaeda over the legitimate representation of the global jihadi movement began in the Arab Levant, as they competed for followers, soldiers, and believers in their ideology and the legitimacy of their combat, the conflict and competition spread to the Sahara and North and West Africa.

For the past two decades, the Sahel and Sahara region has been a crucial arena for the development and growth of jihadi movements that see themselves as part of al-Qaeda and pledge allegiance to it, until the great schism occurred when the IS emerged in 2013 and began competing with al-Qaeda for leadership of the global jihadi movement. IS’s declaration of a caliphate rocked jihadi circles and redrew the map of Salafi-oriented armed groups. The aftershocks of the tremor soon reached the Sahel and Sahara, where some organisations, such as al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria, were wracked by internal divisions based on the question of allegiance. Other groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria (now calling itself Islamic State West Africa Province), split from al-Qaeda entirely and swore allegiance to IS. The divisions escalated to clashes in Libya, mutual public recriminations in Tunisia, and a cautious break in northern Mali.

This book, The Competition between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel and Sahara, issued by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in January 2017, seeks to examine the competition between the two major jihadi organisations, its dynamics and outcomes, and the primary and secondary players involved. In large part, the book relies on information gathered by author Mohammed Mahmoud Abu al-Maali through seven years of research, which included a research trip to the Azawad Desert in northern Mali in April–May 2012, during which he was able to collect data through interviews, meetings and discussions with leaders, members of jihadi groups and area residents.

The author offers a detailed narrative of the history of these regional jihadi groups, seeking to understand the context, both the time and place, of the events discussed by the book, as well as the points of concord and antagonism between the parties involved in shaping the events that gave rise to the major issues raised by the book. This approach also attempts to present the relationship of jihadi groups of divergent loyalties to their social and geographic environment, the relationships between their different factions, and the shifting dynamics between them. The book required several years of research and investigation in order to overcome various obstacles, first and foremost the near complete lack of sources and references. The author thus engaged in a tireless endeavour to investigate events on the ground and question witnesses and actors in the field, including the leaders and members of these groups and their partners on the ground.

The second part of the book offers a revision of the author’s previous work, al-Qaeda and Its Allies in Azawad: Emergence and the Secrets of Expansion, published in 2014 by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies. Subsequent events in the region spurred him to rewrite and update that work to account for recent developments. This chapter includes an entirely new section on Boko Haram and incorporates other developments pertinent to various aspects of the previous book. It also adds information related to the history of the events discussed by the older work, but that were not included in the original edition due to the need for additional research and fact-checking.

The book is composed of two parts. The first, titled “The Islamic State and the Opening of Africa,” contains three chapters that discuss IS. The first chapter traces the birth of IS before its break with al-Qaeda and its declaration of the caliphate. This chapter looks at the formation of the organisation, the reasons for its dispute with the leadership of al-Qaeda in Khorasan, and its armed engagements with Jabhat al-Nusra before the latter split from al-Qaeda.

Chapter two of the first part turns to the conditions and context for the extension of IS to North Africa and the Sahara. It examines IS branches in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and the Azawad Desert in northern Mali. Chapter three focuses on Ahl al-Sunna lil-Dawa wal Jihad, aka Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to IS in 2015. Here the author details the history of the group, the circumstances of its birth, and its evolution and internal schisms before it declared its affiliation with IS. It then looks at the internal disputes that ensued from the decision of the IS leadership to remove Abubakar Shekau from the group’s command. This chapter also discusses Ansar al-Muslimin in Sudan, known as Ansar, a splinter group of Boko Haram.

The second part of the book, titled “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Roots and Allies,” discusses al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and its allied movements in the region in three chapters. The first chapter examines the circumstances of the emergence of the organisation in Algeria, the vagaries of its development, the causes of its expansion and spread into northern Mali, its gradual evolution, conflicts between its commanders and leaders in the area, and its expansionary strategy for the region. It also discusses its ties with al-Qaeda in Khorasan and the history and evolution of this relationship from 1992 and the eruption of armed action in Algeria to 2007, when the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Chapter two of this section examines the structure of the Imarat al-Sahra, the AQIM branch in the Sahel and Sahara, discussing its formation into brigades and squadrons, its spread across the region, and the role of each faction in the war that ultimately gave armed movements control of the Azawad province in 2012. It also discusses the relationship of these brigades with various events in the region, as well as their current role in the confrontation with French and international troops in northern Mali.

The third chapter turns to the jihadi movements allied with AQIM in Azawad. The author discusses four of these movements in detail—Ansar al-Din, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar al-Sharia, and the Movement of Sons of the Sahara for Islamic Justice—looking at the rise of each one, the causes of their establishments, their relationships to the other movements, and their most prominent leaders.

The Competition between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel and Sahara narrates the most significant events in which these groups played a role, offering a reading of the strategic dimensions of the al-Qaeda-IS competition in the region. It does so by describing various movements’ competing activities, their modes of thought and planning, the interconnections between various jihadi organisations and the salient tribal, ethnic and regional aspects of some of these groups.

Publication details

Title: Competition between al-Qaeda and IS in the Sahel and Sahara

Author: Mohammed Mahmoud Abu al-Maali

Publisher: Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and al-Dar al-Arabi lil-Ulum

Date: 2017