The Death of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’s Leader: An Opportunity for Dialogue?
The Death of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’s Leader: An Opportunity for Dialogue?
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
A screenshot of Abou Walid Al Sahraoui speaking in photograph from an undated propaganda aired by France24 television.
Q&A / Africa

The Death of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’s Leader: An Opportunity for Dialogue?

French authorities have announced the death of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, founder of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Jean-Hervé Jezequel explain how his demise could open space for dialogue among militants and Sahelian governments.

Who was Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui?

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui was the nom de guerre of a prominent jihadist leader in the Sahel, Lehbib Ould Ali Ould Said Ould Yumani, who was born in 1973 in Laâyoune, Western Sahara. He spent part of his youth in Algeria, notably in the Tindouf refugee camps and at the University of Constantine, where he studied the social sciences. He was also reportedly a member of the Polisario Front, the political paramilitary movement that campaigns for Western Sahara’s independence, before joining jihadist insurgents in northern Mali around 2010.

As a high-ranking member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), in 2012 he took part in the conquest of vast territories in northern Mali, including several major towns, in particular Gao, where he was among the most important leaders during the city’s occupation. Driven away from Gao in 2013 as part of France’s Operation Serval, Abu Walid then founded the al-Mourabitoun group together with other MUJAO fighters. Initially affiliated with al-Qaeda, al-Mourabitoun split off in May 2015 when Abu Walid pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on his movement’s behalf. In October 2016, Islamic State leaders officially recognised his group as an affiliate. Since then, al-Sahraoui’s franchise in the Sahelo-Saharan strip has commonly been referred to as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

Mainly active in the area known as the “three borders”, linking Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, ISGS experienced a meteoric rise in power under al-Sahraoui’s leadership. Between early 2018 and late 2020, ISGS organised several large-scale attacks on military bases and convoys, killing more than 500 members of the Sahelian defence and security forces (including 283 Nigeriens, 124 Malians and 98 Burkinabé, according to the ACLED database). More recently, as Crisis Group has shown, ISGS intensified its civilian massacres on both sides of the Mali-Niger border.

According to the French version of events, Abu Walid was killed by a drone strike carried out during a joint operation, on 17 August 2021, by French and Malian forces in the heart of an ISGS sanctuary in the Dangarous forest, located south east of Gao near the border with Niger. French authorities waited until 16 September to make an official announcement, explaining the delay by saying they had to confirm his death. In the 14 October edition of its weekly newsletter Al-Naba, the Islamic State published an interview with Abu Walid, in which the jihadist group asked that “he be accepted as a martyr by God”, a formula that indirectly acknowledged his death.

What consequences will Abu Walid’s death have for ISGS?

ISGS is experiencing a difficult period. The demise of Abu Walid adds to the pressure exerted on the group for over a year by the coalition of anti-jihadist forces in the Sahel. In January 2020, the heads of the G5 Sahel member countries and French President Emmanuel Macron met in Pau, France, where they designated ISGS as their prime enemy and decided to step up operations against the group. Subsequently, several French military actions, often conducted jointly with national forces, led to the killing or capture of many ISGS members, including several senior leaders. In parallel, since 2019, ISGS has been confronting a major rival, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM), a coalition of al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups. ISGS attempts to encroach on JNIM strongholds in northern and central Mali have exacerbated growing discord over ideological divisions between the two movements. This conflict has weakened ISGS.

It is not certain, however, that Abu Walid’s death will contribute to the decline of ISGS or that the violence he propagated will diminish. In the short term, his death could certainly disrupt the group and cause internal divisions. But, in the long term, his killing could also rouse a desire for vengeance among his fighters and lead to escalating violence. In a May report, Crisis Group deemed that the massive violence already perpetrated against civilians by ISGS was partly related to the relative weakening of the organisation, which had stepped up its brutality to keep control of its strongholds. The death of Abu Walid could reinforce this trend.

The recent history of jihadist groups in the Sahel has shown that eliminating their leader often – though not always – leads to the emergence of even more radical leaders.

Moreover, the recent history of jihadist groups in the Sahel has shown that eliminating their leader often – though not always – leads to the emergence of even more radical leaders. Abu Walid himself ostensibly became leader after the death of Ahmed al-Tilemsi, a Malian who headed or financed al-Mourabitoun’s operations in the region and who was killed in a French operation in December 2014. The succession was a main reason for the 2015 split within al-Mourabitoun, which led some of the group’s members to adopt the highly radical discourse and methods preferred by ISGS.

Who will succeed Abu Walid?

It is difficult to predict who will replace Abu Walid as head of ISGS. But, for two reasons, it is likely that his successor will be from the Sahel. First, when the ISGS second-in-command, Abdelhakim al-Sahraoui, reportedly succumbed to illness in May 2021, he was replaced by Sadou Idrissa Tamboura, a Burkinabé from the province of Soum. Secondly, the neighbouring branch of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), which operates in the Lake Chad area and to which the ISGS is in theory linked – even if ties thus far seem tenuous – systematically appoints locals to command positions.

Nonetheless, the appointment of a foreigner from outside the Sahel to replace Abu Walid cannot be ruled out. Credible but unconfirmed rumours are already circulating that the Islamic State’s central command has sent two envoys to the region, possibly in order to facilitate the transition or to take over the leadership themselves.

The national origin of Abu Walid’s successor will undoubtedly affect the group’s cohesion and local perceptions of the movement. It will likely matter little, however, to the group’s overarching strategy, in particular its reluctance and even outright refusal to talk with state authorities. Islamic State ideologues have openly rejected any suggestion of dialogue with Sahelian leaders, whom they consider infidels. In May 2020, a spokesperson for the movement, the Iraqi Hamza al-Quraishi, gave an interview to Al-Naba, claiming that in West Africa “apostates from al-Qaeda substitute themselves” for international forces “to fight the soldiers of the caliphate by accepting negotiations with infidel tyrants”. In his October interview in Al-Naba, Abu Walid also vehemently denounces al-Qaeda for its dialogue with regional states, as well as its commitment not to attack states such as Algeria and Mauritania.

How, then, does Abu Walid’s death present an opportunity for dialogue?

Abu Walid’s death certainly will not alter the ISGS position on dialogue, but it could influence certain individuals who command its units on the ground. Sahelian authorities should seize this window of opportunity before it shuts. Whether native or foreign, the next ISGS leader will have less control over the movement, at least at first, than Abu Walid did. During his ten years in the region, the latter had successfully extended his influence over local commanders and forged strong links with certain border communities. A new leader will undoubtedly need time before he can regain such a firm foothold in the region. Local commanders might be willing to negotiate with the state, when they were previously held back from doing so by the intransigence of Abu Walid and other foreign leaders.

These local commanders are under pressure to engage in dialogue from their own communities, which bear the brunt of the conflict between the state and jihadists. Furthermore, unlike foreign leaders who appear locked into pursuing jihad with no way out other than victory, death or surrender, local commanders can consider alternative exit strategies. Even if negotiations may be difficult, local commanders can try to negotiate amnesties or even reintegration into society for themselves and the combatants they lead.

There were other things, however, besides the fervent opposition of foreign leaders holding Sahelian ISGS commanders back from engaging in dialogue. One is what they have done during the conflict. It will be hard to engage in dialogue with the commanders responsible for the mass killings of civilians, or with those who organised the 2017 attack on Tongo Tongo in Niger, in which four U.S. soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers lost their lives. These are less likely to benefit from an amnesty. States could make an agreement at their expense, leading to their imprisonment or deportation to countries that seek them out. It would hence be in their interest to oppose dialogue with the state and discourage their companions from engaging in it. In addition, after many years in the ISGS fold, some commanders have now become hardliners whom compromise will not persuade to lay down their arms.

For the Sahelian authorities, Abu Walid’s death removes a major obstacle to dialogue with jihadists.

As for the Sahelian authorities, Abu Walid’s death removes a major obstacle to dialogue with jihadists, at least for the time being. Until now, the governments of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have all three rejected dialogue with the foreign leaders of ISGS. In March, Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum – who for a time in 2016-2017 explored the possibility of dialogue with jihadists – affirmed his country’s current position: “We cannot have a discussion with people who are not Nigeriens. And as there are no Nigeriens with whom to discuss, for us the question does not arise”. 

These Sahelian leaders view the heads of ISGS as foreign criminals who have come to sow terror on their home turf and with whom it is simply impossible to find common ground. They do not consider foreign ISGS leaders to be legitimate interlocutors with whom they can discuss the grievances that fuel insurgencies, such as those related to rural governance, economic neglect and intercommunal tensions. Moreover, the influence of foreign leaders tends to push these local dimensions of the jihadist insurrection into the background, making the ideological facet more salient instead. The foreign leaders tend to be insistent, for example, on imposing Sharia, or Islamic law, a matter on which Sahelian authorities find it particularly difficult to envisage any form of compromise.

How can this potential opportunity for dialogue be seized?

Central Sahelian governments could reach out to local ISGS interlocutors to convince them that they will have better life prospects if they side with the state rather than remain in a weakened movement, trapped in a never-ending war. As a first step, Sahelian leaders could quietly intensify contacts with local jihadist commanders, and then later publicly express their position in favour of dialogue. The discreet initial overture would help win over wary jihadists who doubt that the state’s offer is genuine.

In particular, the government of Niger, the country worst affected by war with ISGS and whose leaders have tried in the past to establish contacts with members of this group, could make concrete proposals that may be of interest to at least some local ISGS commanders. As Crisis Group has pointed out in prior publications, one problem behind the current crisis is the lack of political representation of border communities that many insurgents hail from – in particular, the Fulani living along the Mali-Niger border. Nigerien officials could launch development programs in pastoral areas, improve access to health care, recruit more young Fulani into the army and police, and even suggest that some jihadists may qualify for amnesty.


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