- By Edoardo Baldaro
- Original article available here
The 16th of September 2021 the French president Macron officially announced “a major success in the fight we wage against terrorist groups in the Sahel”: after weeks of unconfirmed rumors in fact, the French Presidency confirmed that Adnan Abu Walid al-Saharawi, leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the man considered the “public enemy number one” in the Sahel since 2020, had been killed by an armed drone belonging to France’s Opération Barkhane in Mali’s Dangalous Forest on 22 August 2021.
The death of al-Saharawi represents a potential game changer for the future developments of the jihadist insurgencies in the Sahel. Since the end of the “Sahelian exception” in the early 2020, when violent clashes involving supporters of Al-Qaeda and those affiliated with the Islamic State were recorded in central Mali, Abu Walid had been able to reorganize his troops and to strengthen the presence of ISGS in the tri-frontier zone between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Under his leadership, ISGS has become the deadliest group in the Sahel, multiplying its attacks against both local security forces and civilians, and against the numerous international interveners engaged in the area. Moreover, and notwithstanding the different counterterrorism tactical successes that have allowed to the Barkhane forces to eliminate most of ISGS’ leadership during the last two years, al-Saharawi successfully furthered the process of “Sahelization” of his group. Following a strategy of local settlement and “social anchoring” that characterizes almost all the jihadist groups in the region, ISGS intercepted and furthered pre-existing local grievances and intercommunity tensions – most of the time connected to dysfunctional models of governance and land management favored by the predatory behaviors of states’ institutions – finally creating strong linkages with specific constituencies. Accordingly, various experts are now suggesting that the next leader of ISGS could be chosen among the new generation of chiefs recruited among the Fulani community of the Nigerien region of Tillabéry. The long-term effects of the death of al-Saharawi will depend on this decision. The choice of the successor of Abu Walid will probably determine the ability of ISGS to maintain and reinforce its rule on the populations leaving in the area under the group’s control.
At the same time, the impact of the elimination of al-Saharawi could be more symbolic than effective. Insurgencies in the area in fact, have already demonstrated their ability to survive to the death of their leaders by forming new generations of chiefs, less experienced in the conduction of an insurgency, but with stronger ties with the surrounding communities. This is one of the major limits of the counterterrorism initiatives carried out in the area, which have so far failed in tackling the roots causes of the insurgencies, allowing these groups to resist and reinforce their presence in the region. In this sense, the triumphant tones employed by French decision-makers for announcing the death of the jihadist leader must be understood mostly in connection with another major event which took place few days before. On September 13th Reuters news agency made public the ongoing negotiation between the Malian government and the Russian private military company Wagner Group, concerning the possible deployment of around 1000 Wagner contractors in the country.
Far from being only a private security company, during the last years Wagner Group has become one of the main tools employed by Russia, for expanding its influence in Africa. The choice made by the Malian government, to look for the support of Russia, seems to be due to two main factors. On the one hand, after that in May 2021 Mali knew its second military coup d’état in less than one year, France and the other international partners announced their will to reorganize their presence in the region, partially withdrawing from Mali and redirecting their efforts towards Niger. Unable to manage the jihadist insurgencies in the center and the north of the country, fearing the partial “abandon” by its Western allies, and still affected by tensions and divisions at his head, the Malian military regime is trying to bet on Russia for saving its grip on power in Bamako. On the other hand, the regime has failed in implementing the political and constitutional reforms agreed with the international community after the first coup d’état of August 2020. According to the compromise negotiated with ECOWAS, the militaries should have guaranteed a transitional period of 18 months, after which new presidential and legislative elections should be organized in March 2022. On these days, almost all the observers are excluding that the transitional period will effectively end at the beginning of the next year, and that the regime will accept to hold new elections.
Considering both the weak and divided position of the regime, and the partial retreat announced by France in June, the agreement with Wagner Group looks first and foremost as a tentative implemented by the transitional government, for reinforcing its power and being prepared if protests and violence would start to spread in Bamako. Confirming a well-established tradition then, Russian contractors should play the role of the guarantors of the regime in power, rather than that of new elite troops to be deployed against the jihadist groups.
Taken together, the death of al-Saharawi and the Mali-Wagner affair suggest that a further destabilization of the Sahel can be expected. On the one hand, the fact that after years of limited and undercover operations, Russian interests in the Sahel are now becoming explicit, could open a new phase of international competition and new potential lines of conflict. On the other hand, the forced reorganization that ISGS is now facing could imply the need for the group, to reassess its power and its internal cohesion through an upsurge of violence and attacks.
Edoardo Baldaro, PhD
FNRS Postdoc Research Fellow,
REPI - Recherche et études en Politique Internationale
Université Libre de Bruxelles