Islamic State claims killing French aid workers, clashes with al Qaeda in the Sahel

Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) fighters seen clashing with al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) near Talataye in northern Mali on Aug. 11.

In a new issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Al-Naba newsletter, the jihadist group said its men were responsible for the Aug. 9 massacre of six French aid workers and two Nigeriens. Additionally, it reported a series of new clashes with al Qaeda across the Sahel.

On Aug 9, eight French and Niger nationals were attacked by armed gunmen outside of Koure, Niger, just around 40 miles southeast of Niger’s capital Niamey. The workers were captured and later summarily executed by gunshot, while one woman was found with her throat slit.

Initially reported as French tourists, local aid organizations, ACTED and IMPACT, later confirmed the death of their staff in the ambush.

For over a month the murders went unclaimed by any armed group in the region, though suspicion quickly fell on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the Islamic State’s local branch.

Other groups, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, even denied responsibility. The Islamic State previously mentioned the event in an earlier issue of Al-Naba, but did not actually claim the incident.

But in this week’s issue of the newsletter, it finally owned up to the massacre. It is unclear why the jihadist group decided to wait over a month to official claim the operation. However, it is possible it delayed a statement to gauge the reaction of both international media and the French government.

Perpetrated by ISGS and claimed under its West African Province moniker, the Islamic State justified the killings as part of its war against France. The group said its men “conducted a swift attack with automatic gunfire upon a number of French Crusader subjects in the Koure region southeast of Niamey.”

Speaking to the significance of the ambush, it adds “the apostates and crusaders have acknowledged the strike and have shown their fear that this will impact their military campaign. This operation created a media sensation due to the nationalities of those killed.”

Little other information was provided regarding the raid. Though a photo of some of the victims, apparently from a video of the executions, was provided in the newsletter.

In addition to the ambush on the aid workers, the Islamic State also reported a number of other smaller operations across the Sahel. For instance, it continued to advertise its war against the various armed groups in northern Mali.

The newsletter stated that on Aug. 3, Islamic State gunmen assassinated a commander within the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) south of Menaka.

While in a claim dated for Sept. 6, the newsletter reported that the jihadists captured a commander within the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) also in Menaka. The commander was later executed after being accused of acting as a spy for both France and Algeria against ISGS.

ISGS has long been at war with MSA, as well as its ally the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (GATIA), in Mali’s northern Menaka region. MSA and GATIA conducted a series of campaigns against ISGS in the region in 2018.

However, this week’s Al-Naba marks the first time that the Islamic State’s central media apparatus has advertised attacks against MAA in Mali.

Renewed Clashes with Al Qaeda

The Islamic State’s newsletter also dedicated a significant amount of space to discuss a renewed series of clashes with al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) across the Sahel.

Beginning on July 25, the Islamic State claims its men killed 50 JNIM fighters east of Menaka. A day later, it reported a clash near N’Daki close to the Burkinabe borders. While on July 31, it said another clash took place in Kerboule in Burkina’s Soum Province.

On Aug. 2 and 4, two additional battles reportedly occurred in the Mali-Burkina Faso borderlands. Three days later on Aug. 7, a skirmish was reported near In-Tillit in Mali’s Gao Region. And on Aug. 9, the Islamic State alleges 60 JNIM members were killed near Deou in Burkina Faso’s Oudalan Province.

Then on Aug. 11, the Islamic State says its men killed at least 52 JNIM members in a battle near Talataye in Mali’s Gao Region. While details were scarce on this event in the newsletter, the Islamic State released a video yesterday of this skirmish through its Amaq News Agency.

The short clip also marks the first time either side has released a video from the infighting.

The brief video details ISGS fighters using mobilized infantry tactics with motorcycles, including motorcycles mounted with heavy machine guns. The jihadists are then seen pursuing al Qaeda’s men across the nearby shrubland before several corpses are shown.

More photos were then released through the Islamic State’s central media apparatus that also detailed several dead al Qaeda fighters, though a significantly lesser amount than what the Islamic State has claimed.

Additionally, Al-Naba reports three final clashes with al Qaeda’s men in the Mali-Burkina Faso borderlands between Aug. 20 and Aug. 22.

The Islamic State’s chronology of recent events paints the group as having dealt a heavy blow to al Qaeda’s ranks. According to the Islamic State, these clashes have killed 500 members of JNIM since earlier this year.

While this number may be an exaggeration, it is clear that hundreds of jihadists on both sides have been killed in the infighting. As a result, Al-Naba alleges that this has caused JNIM to begin “compulsory conscription” of men living under its control or influence.

The newsletter further argues that JNIM has had to field new fighting groups in the areas near the borders between Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, the Mali and Burkina Faso border area, and in central Mali. Though the Islamic State says, “this has not changed the equation on the ground.”

Much of this version of events, however, has been disputed by al Qaeda’s men online. While official al Qaeda propaganda outlets have been silent regarding the clashes, more unofficial al Qaeda social media channels have often chimed in on the events.

Earlier this week, al Qaeda’s Thabat News Agency, which operates similar to Islamic State’s Amaq News, released a statement alleging that over the last month JNIM drove ISGS fighters from a series of villages in Mali’s Gao region.

According to Thabat, JNIM kicked ISGS out of 13 villages along the Niger River from Bourem in northern Gao to Ouattagouna near the borders with Niger.

Though specific details in these claims remain unclear, JNIM has indeed been able to push ISGS out of other areas of northern Mali. And clashes between the two in the Gao Region have been reported in the past.

Stemming from a series of local and international factors, the two jihadist heavyweights, formerly cooperative in the Sahel, have been clashing in the region since last summer.

This conflict expanded rapidly earlier this year after both sides began a propaganda battle and internal disagreements spilled over into intense clashes. While JNIM is believed to have the upper hand, ISGS has been able to deal significant casualties within JNIM’s ranks.

Screenshots from the Islamic State’s video of the Aug. 11 clash with JNIM near Talataye, Mali:

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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