Who is today the jihadist enemy who kills dozens in the Sahel and poses a formidable challenge to national and international forces? The Islamic State (IS) group, the region’s heads of state and their French ally replied on Monday.
Since the beginning of the conflict, groups based in Mali and grouped under the banner of Al Qaeda have been the figurehead of Sahelian jihadism. But now the « priority enemy » is IS, assured French President Emmanuel Macron.
« The priority is the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara » (EIGS), he declared before his Sahelian allies gathered at the summit in Pau (south-west of France).
The Islamic State for the Greater Sahara (EIGS) proves to be our main enemy, on which we must focus our fight more
The group was created in 2015 by Adnane Abou Walid al-Sahraoui, a former member of the Polisario Front, then of a jihadist group, the Mujao. Disowned by this last group from which it had split, its “katiba” was recognized by the EI group in 2016.
Since then, « there has been a significant rise in power for EIGS, » said Mahamoudou Savadogo, a Burkinabè researcher at the Carrefour d’udes et d’ action action pour la democratie et le développement.
“Until 2018, the group worked to set up in the three border area (Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali), to recruit and to finance itself. And in 2019 they were ready ”.
The deadliest attacks in recent months have taken place in the EIGS’s area of influence, which has claimed almost all of them. They were carried out within a radius of 200 km in the region of the three borders: Thursday in Chinégodar (Niger, 89 soldiers killed), end of December in Arbinda (Burkina, 42 dead, including 35 civilians), December 10 in Inates (Niger , 71 soldiers killed), and in November the fighting in Tabankort (Mali, 43 soldiers killed) and the attack on Indelimane (Mali, 49 soldiers killed).
Jihad and bracos
The operating mode remains the same: dozens of motorcycles base themselves on an isolated military camp, destroy the means of communication, pound it with mortar, and kill the soldiers on the spot, then escape into the bush before any response.
« The latest attacks seem to show that the group has acquired skills in + command and control + that it did not have before, with group leaders capable of mounting large-scale attacks », s worries a French military source.
The group – like the others in the Sahel – employs « circumstance combatants », estimates a security expert in Bamako. « For a trained and radicalized fighter, there are two or three proxies (allies) hired for the attack only, » he said.
According to connoisseurs of the context, the hard core of the group does not exceed “200 to 300” people.
“They appeal to poachers, criminals, traffickers,” explains Mr. Savadogo, citing their perfect knowledge of the terrain.
The group also receives technical support from the branch of the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP), assures Matteo Puxton, independent analyst who speaks under a pseudonym after being threatened.
According to Islamist propaganda, EIGS was incorporated in mid-2019 into ISWAP, which also includes a dissident faction from the Boko Haram group in Nigeria.
“The parent company of IS has taken over the reins of EIGS. It shows in propaganda, in technicality, « said Puxton, who has analyzed IS propaganda from the start.
“This is no longer the level of EIGS attacks in 2015, there is a sophistication of operations and, for the first time in propaganda, there are long videos edited by the central propaganda apparatus of the EI « .
The EI group released a video of 31 minutes of attacks it claims in the Sahel on Friday. « This kind of video is similar to that of the base attacks in the Levant in 2013/14, it is the most comprehensive and interesting IS video for months, » he said.
« Everyone may have underestimated EIGS, » said Savadogo.
Without denying this dynamic, Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, director of the Sahel project at the think-tank International Crisis Group, warns of the simplifications that would overshadow the complexities of the crisis. For French or Sahelian officials, the EI group is « an enemy easy to display as a villain by its reputation for violence, in terms of display we have an opponent there really repel », he judges.
« The Islamic State for the Greater Sahara (EIGS) is proving to be our main enemy, on which we must focus our struggle more, » said Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré on Facebook on Monday.