Three leaders have been left dominating the jihadist insurgency in the Sahel, following the death of a top al-Qaeda commander in the West African state of Mali last week.
French forces killed Algerian national Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in a raid in northern Mali on Wednesday. The move will strike a blow to the organization, but other powerful al-Qaeda-linked leaders already operate in the semi-desert Sahel.
Droukdel’s death also comes at a time of increasing jihadist infighting, between al-Qaeda affiliates and Islamic-State-aligned militants.
Three jihadist leaders now loom large over the central Sahel: Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Kouffa — who are both linked to al-Qaeda — and Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui, who leads the region’s Islamic State group franchise.
Iyad Ag Ghaly
Iyad Ag Ghaly, who heads the powerful GSIM jihadist alliance, is a veteran of Mali’s internecine conflicts. An ethnic Tuareg from northern Mali, he first leapt onto the stage during a Tuareg rebellion during the 1990s.
After it subsided he went into business, before publically returning to militancy again in 2012, with a newly created group called Ansar Dine. That year, Tuareg separatists launched a rebellion in northern Mali, which was quickly commandeered by jihadists.
The event triggered a bloody conflict, which has now spread to the center of the country, and neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
At first allied to the separatists, Ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine split from them and, alongside other jihadist groups, took control of several towns in northern Mali, until French forces drove Islamist fighters out in 2013.
Ansar Dine is a member of the jihadist alliance the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which also includes Amadou Koufa’s Katiba Macina and AQIM. Iyad Ag Ghaly leads this alliance.
Jean-Pierre Filiu, a historian at Paris’ Science Po university, said the jihadist leader is now “the sole Sahel representative of the al-Qaeda’s supreme chief, Ayman Zawahiri.”
Amadou Kouffa, another leader within GSIM, is subordinate to Ag Ghaly, according to Filiu.
A firebrand Islamic preacher, Koufa’s influence has nonetheless continued to grow since founding the Katiba Macina militia in 2015. He has been accused of exploiting tensions between herders and sedentary farmers, and of inflaming ethnic tensions in central Mali — where Katina Macina has staged its attacks.
Central Mali has now become one of the main theatres for jihadist attacks in the Sahel. Massacres with an apparent ethnic motive are also common.
On Friday, some 30 people were killed in an ethnic Fulani village. A Fulani association has blamed the army for the killing, and on Saturday, Mali’s defense minister promised an investigation.
The pastoralist Fulani people are often accused of being close to jihadists, a perception which has led to tit-for-tat massacres between them and other ethnic groups.
Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui
For former colonial power France, Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui, is the most wanted jihadist in the Sahel. He heads a branch of the Islamic State group, which is highly active in the border region linking Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
A former member of the Polisario Front, a Western-Sahara movement, Sahraoui rose to prominence when Mali’s north fell to rebels in 2012.
He was at that time a member of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) jihadist group, which was one of the militias that took control in the north. But Sahraoui declared his allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2015.
His militia has been highly active and has been blamed for a string of attacks in 2019 and this year.
In a first for the Sahel, it has also begun to fight al-Qaeda-linked groups, with several instances of inter-jihadist warfare occurring this year.