Why Al-Qaeda wants to join its forces in Sahara-Sahel

The Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), formed last March 2 by the fusion of the main Sahel jihadists groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has claimed a new attack touching the security forces in Mali.

Malian Militant fighters in Mali. Credit Photo: Le Pays
Malian Militant fighters in Mali. Credit Photo: Le Pays

The attempt was carried out last March 29 against a Malian gendarmerie post in Boulikessi, in Douentza region, near the border with Burkina Faso, where two policemen and a civilian were killed. This is the second action undertaken by the new jihadist alliance, which in the same area on March 5, had killed 11 Malian soldiers.

The two actions demonstrate that the newly merged organization from the union of Ansar Dine, Macina Liberation Front, Sahara Emirate of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Katibah Al-Mourabitoun, is trying to impose his presence on the territory.

All this leaves room for the prediction of a further potential increase in attacks in the country and in neighbouring regions. It is also possible that the GSIM can launch attacks against the Malian army bases and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as has happened several times in the past two years.

The new alliance is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, current Ansar Dine guide and a major player in the second Tuareg rebellion consumed between 1990 and 1995, which renewed his allegiance to the emir of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM ), the Algerian Abu Musab Abdelwadoud, whose real name is Abdelmalek Droukdel.

The latter, on March 14, approved the merger and invited all the jihadist groups in the region to follow the example of Ghaly group to unite under the Al-Qaeda's banner. Then, on March 19, the central base of Al-Qaeda has issued an official statement blessing the union.

Some analysts have read the will to come together in a single sign of pro-Al-Qaeda groups active in the Sahel as an AQIM response to the gradual weakening of the influence of the Islamic state in the region. Others, however, believe it was specially conceived to formalize the ties and relationships that exist between these groups, and date back to the height of Mali crisis, between April 2012 and January 2013.

It was during those nine months that AQIM, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) marginalized the Tuareg rebels of National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, who had occupied the north of Mali. The jihadists took full power for the military operations and headed on Bamako to spread itself all over the country, causing the French military response.

It is still possible interpret the grouping of the four Islamist formations in the light of the competition between the Islamic State and al Qaeda in West Africa. The motivation that may have led to the merger may be moved by the fact that although AQIM continues to be a central player in regional jihad, its supremacy is opposed by neighbours or small groups officially affiliated to the Islamic State.

Among these Jihadi forces emerges the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and operating in the Liptako-Gourma Region, between the border areas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

The widespread opinion that the Islamic State, forced to withdraw from its strongholds in Syria, Iraq and Libya, would reduce its attraction was debunked by a recent report citing sources of the French military intelligence.

According to the reporting, both the ISGS that the Islamic state in West Africa Province (Boko Haram) would intensify the connections to extend the influence of the Caliphate in Mali and Burkina Faso.

A strategy that would effectively reduce the influence of AQIM in the region, which has long pursued the primary goal of joining militant groups active in North-West Africa and the Sahel. Therefore, to achieve a higher level of integration is in line with Droukdel's regional ambitions.

From an operational point of view, the two main jihadist organizations in the region, AQIM and al-Mourabitoun, since December 2015 had put aside their differences and reunited the ranks to facilitate the sharing of means and resources, with the aim to prevent further defections in favour of the Islamic State.

For this, the GSIM must be seen as the end result of a long dynamic coordination in which AQIM has definitely engaged. Representatives of AQIM and Al Mourabitoun who finalized GSIM are Algerian, while the leaders of Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front are Malians belonging Tuareg and Fulani communities. Such diversity reflects ethnic and geographical mixtures in a command and control structure dominated by Algerians.

The opening towards Sahel's fighters with the consequent assumption by the latter in positions of greater responsibility, outlines the will of the organization expansion towards south of the Sahara and its potential interest in putting roots between local Muslim populations.

However, the ideological motivations, strategic approaches and paramilitary capacity of armed groups who have given birth to GSIM differ much between them and it is very difficult that such diversity may be remedied on the basis of common loyalty commitments.

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