Echos of Afghanistan: Is France at Risk of ‘Losing’ the Sahel?
The second last week of September was a bad week for the Islamic State. In just three days, the organisation lost two leading figures: one in the Sinai, where key commander Abu Hamza Al-Qadi surrendered to Egyptian security forces, and one in the Sahel. On 16 September, Emmanuel Macron announced the death of Abu-Walid Al-Sahrawi, leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), confirming the rumours circulating about his death since last August. The killing of the ISGS chief is arguably the most important operation carried out by French forces and their allies in the Sahel since the killing of Adelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in June 2020. Al-Sahrawi’s death represents further evidence of IS’ global crisis: except for its branch in Afghanistan (ISKP), the military capabilities of the group seem to have scaled back, at least in the short term. The killing of Al-Sahrawi represents not only a serious blow for the IS leadership, but it also evidences how the organization is losing ground compared with JNIM’s, Al-Qaeda affiliated rivals. In the aftermath of the killing, the Islamic State will have to solve at least two conundrums in the Sahel.
Firstly, ISGS is at risk of losing its connections with other non-state actors in the region. Al-Sahrawi was a veteran of the jihadi movements in the region, he began his militancy in AQIM’s and later became the right-hand man of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of Al-Qaeda’s most powerful commanders in the region. During his long-time militancy, Sahrawi built strong relationships with local organized crime and militias and was also the mastermind behind the truce with Al-Qaeda that lasted until 2020. Consequently, it will be difficult to find a replacement with the same number of connections and the same degree of credibility. Secondly, despite some military successes, Sahrawi and his men were not able to implement any form of local governance in the region as Al-Qaeda did. Lack of strong ethnic credentials and, above all, the imposition of harsh punishments on civilians have undermined the group’s popular support. Put succinctly, al-Sharawi’s death arrived in a period of crisis for the ISGS: since 2020, it has been both the organization most severely hit by Barkhane and G5 Sahel members’ strikes and the most affected by a lack of legitimacy.
It is important to stress how Al-Sahrawi’s death comes at a time of remarkable geopolitical shifts in the Sahel. France, as well as members of the G5 Sahel alliance, have hailed the death of the Islamic State’s leader as a step forward in the fight against jihadi groups; however, even the elimination of such a high-level figure doesn’t bridge the gap between France and its allies, especially Mali. In the aftermath of Sahrawi’s death, France’s defence minister Florence Parly flew to Bamako to dissuade the members of the Malian transitional government from signing a deal with Russian private military contractors of the Wagner Group. After the May 2021 coup, Franco-Malian relations have reached their lowest point since the beginning of the civil war in 2012. In response to the second coup in less than a year led by the Malian army, Paris has decided to resize its military presence in the region and relocate the bulk of its armed forces to Niger.
Against this backdrop, the killing of Al-Sahrawi is being exploited by France to achieve a three-fold objective: a) to prove its army’s success in fighting terrorism to justify drastic operational changes before the 2022 presidential elections, b) to convince European allies of the need of a military presence in the region and so as to justify the creation of the new EU-backed task force Takuba c) to prevent the sliding of West African allies towards other security partners, most evidently Russia. Especially as regards this last point, in the aftermath of Sahrawi’s killing, Florence Parly and Emanuel Macron have claimed how the involvement of the Wagner group in Mali would represent a serious blow for future cooperation between the two countries. These claims were also echoed by high-level German officials and the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell. For the moment, all the apical figures of the military junta in Bamako have univocally reiterated Mali’s right to evaluate all potential partnerships to fight the insurgency. After losing its influence in the Central African Republic — in part because of the involvement of the Wagner Group itself — and the failed nuclear submarine deal with Australia, Paris currently faces serious damages to its reputation as a security provider at the global and regional levels.
Paradoxically, despite these relevant geopolitical consequences, the death of the ISGS leader will likely produce little to no consequences for the instability in the Sahel. Sahrawi, in fact, is not the first high-level target eliminated by France’s strategy of targeted killings in the region. Nonetheless, despite these successes, instability has now passed well beyond any safety limit. A war started in Mali’s far north in 2012 has metastasized to the rest of the region along ethnic and political lines and the last developments on the ground are not promising for the future. The military junta in Bamako doesn’t seem intentioned to move forward with the transition to democratic rule. On the contrary, officials in Bamako are more interested in power politics and the seizing of key roles: as such, the deal with Wagner Group might be functional to preserve the status quo. While new and old political figures are playing all the moves in their playbook to navigate through transition, climate change is hitting hard, food insecurity is growing, and the number of internally displaced persons in the region has reached 2 million.
Against this backdrop, conflicts afflicting Mali and its neighbouring countries (most evidently, Burkina Faso) are becoming more and more intertwined with feelings of dissatisfaction toward local governments and increasing mistrust of public institutions. As further proof of such sentiment, representatives of the local communities in central and northern Mali have decided to negotiate autonomous truces with the jihadists, occasionally with positive outcomes, even if, because of the lack of a proper institutional backing, some of these agreements have turned out to be short-lived. Jihadist groups in Mali are consequently able to capitalize on such discontent and, with the death of Al-Sahrawi, the JNIM is well-positioned to experience a remarkable shift of former ISGS fighters in its ranks. In a scenario marred by government inaction and the weakening of France and its allies, JNIM’s leader Ag Ghali and his men are ready to gain the upper hand in the conflict and impose their prerogatives during potential future negotiations. The possibility of holding peace talks with JNIM was ruled out by France, generating vocal resentments among Paris’ regional partners, but with a resized Barkhane and a possible deal with the Wagner Group on the table, negotiations with JNIM don’t seem as unrealistic anymore. It was a terrible week for the Islamic State and France, too.
‘Is France at Risk of ‘Losing’ the Sahel?’ — Policy Brief by Luciano Pollichieni — Italian Institute for International Political Studies / ISPI.