In the Sahel, the conflict between JNIM (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin) and ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) has been escalating since the beginning of 2020, whereas the local jihadist movements had tended to coexist peacefully since 2015. As a reminder, the JNIM is linked to al-Qaeda, and the ISGS has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). While the struggle between these terrorist groups is accentuated by the global rivalry between the two parent organizations, it is also based on local issues.
In late 2019, the defection of JNIM fighters to the ISGS caused tensions between the two groups. In early 2020, open warfare broke out in eastern Mali, near the border with Burkina Faso, before spreading geographically to the tri-border area (Mali-Burkina-Niger).
According to “African center” the violence related to Islamist groups in the Sahel almost doubled in one year, from 1180 violent events in 2020 to 2005 events in 2021. Since the first clashes in 2019 until January 2, 2021, the two groups have clashed at least 125 times, resulting in the death of approximately 731 fighters on both sides and causing the death of thousands of civilians. The conflict between JNIM and ISGS continues to this day: in February 2022, the fighting caused the inhabitants of Tessit and its surroundings to flee to Ansongo, Gao, and Niamey. Several factors can explain the clashes between these two terrorist groups. In the case of Tessit, one possible reason is the control of major roads for the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and livestock, and the installation of checkpoints.
The JNIM has opened itself to negotiations with the Malian government, something the ISGS considers a betrayal of jihadist values, calling them apostates.
The objectives of the two entities are clearly different. Originally, the ISGS has a regional and territorial project which is the establishment of the Caliphate, proclaimed in June 2014. For its part, the JNIM allied with al-Qaeda is a transnational movement, turned both against Arab regimes and against the Western alliance led by the United States.
For Dr. Aly Tounkara, an expert at the Center for Security and Strategic Studies in the Sahel (CE3S), the Islamic State is a terrorist group that is in the “territorialization” business, seeking to occupy, and keep control of, different occupied areas by applying Sharia law. The JNIM, on the other hand, does not systematically seek to occupy territory, but rather to establish a certain proximity with the local chieftains.
Another reason for the conflict between the JNIM and the ISGS is that the two groups approach jihad in different ways. While both groups support armed action and the application of sharia law, there are differences of opinion, for example, about targeting civilians.
The issue of using the trafficking of products not permitted by Islam to finance its activities, such as drugs, is permitted by al-Qaeda, but prohibited by the Islamic state. These differences have been expressed publicly through communiqués or preaching by JNIM cadres or media outlets such as “Al Naba” for the ISGS or “Az zallaqa” for the JNIM.
These differences are also reflected in their communication. To denounce its opponents, al-Qaeda relies on argued Islamic texts, using the method of adversarial debate. The way ISGS interpret religious texts probably reflects a lower level of Islamic theology’s knowledge. While its discourse is easily audible and mobilizing, its content is regularly criticized by the ISGS’ critics, including religious figures and institutions such as Al-Azhar.
The Islamic State frequently boasts of the ISGS’s alleged victories against the JNIM in its propaganda. This reflects the central Islamic State’s demand that its regional affiliate adopt a more hostile posture toward its al-Qaeda rival.
Another reason for armed conflict between these two terrorist groups is the numerous desertions of JNIM members to join the ISGS, and vice versa. A recent example is the clash in 2020 between the Macina Katiba, led by Amadou Kouffa, and former members of that same Katiba who joined the ISGS.
The reluctance of the JNIM in recent years to share its territory in some of its areas of operation, as well as the constant desertions of its members to the ISGS, or vice versa, have generated mutual perceptions of betrayal. The opening of dialogue between the JNIM and the Malian government, and the signing of agreements, have generated distrust among its fighters, but also among its rival. One day’s brother-in-arms can turn into an enemy the next. The two eternally rival groups regularly need to purge their ranks of spies and traitors at all levels of command.