Al-Qaeda and Islamic State cross swords in Sahel

BAMAKO (AFP) – Al-Qaeda and the Islamic state group have turned their guns on each other in the Sahel, according to experts, fracturing a period of cooperation that has held for years.

The rival extremist outfits have squared off in other theatres before, such as in Syria. But they have often worked in tandem in the Sahel, coordinating attacks, and even swapping fighters.

The semi-desert African region has seen years of conflict with militants, who first emerged in northern Mali in 2012 before sweeping into the centre of the country, and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed to date and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.

But since the beginning of the year, sporadic clashes between al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates appear to have escalated into full-blown combat in central Mali and Burkina Faso.

Few details have emerged from this internecine extremist struggle, with much of it taking place in volatile areas already beset by bandits and ethnic militias, and regular clashes with national armies.

Experts and local officials point to disputes over territorial expansion or access to fodder crops as some of the reasons behind the fighting.

The United Nations special representative in Mali Mahamat Saleh Annadif said that the extremist civil war is “no longer a secret”.

“We don’t know where it’s going to end, each one wants to get the upper hand over the other,” he said, explaining that the groups are fighting over land.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists – now grouped under an alliance named GSIM – first emerged in northern Mali in 2012 and then established themselves in central Mali in 2015.

The Islamic State group’s history in the region is shorter. Militant Abou Walid Al-Sahraoui founded the region’s franchise in 2015, and it is now active in the border regions linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Neither al-Qaeda nor the Islamic State group ever formally inked an alliance in the Sahel, according to a western diplomat in Mali’s capital Bamako.

But that did not stop them from working closely together, he said, pointing to joint raids and fighters who would pass from one group to another.

The diplomat added that a person’s reason for joining one or the other group is often tied to local circumstance, such as belonging to a marginalised ethnic group or not having a job.

Likewise, reasons for conflict are also often local, said Ibrahim Maiga, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Bamako.

“These conflicts should not only be understood through an ideological prism,” he said.