Quick Notes on Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi’s Interview with al-Naba’

In the latest issue (#260) of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba’, there is an interview with Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). As MENASTREAM points out, the appearance of the interview temporarily settles the question of whether his deputy Abd al-Hakim al-Sahrawi is now in charge.

The interview is two pages (pp. 10-11) and as I commented on Twitter yesterday, over three-quarters of it concerns the deep background to current events. Prompted by the interviewer, al-Sahrawi gives his version/narration of the history of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism from just after the formation of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC) in the late 1990s until the formation of the al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) in 2017. Only in the last quarter of the interview or so does al-Sahrawi turn to discussing the recent fighting between JNIM and ISGS, which has received recurring coverage in al-Naba’ (see here for my annotated translation of a June 2020 al-Naba’ article on that topic).

Al-Sahrawi’s narration of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism emphasizes the infighting among the Saharan battalion commanders of the GSPC (which was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM in 2007). Al-Sahrawi points to the failure of various efforts to reconcile these battalion commanders (notably Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom al-Sahrawi names several times, and ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, whom al-Sahrawi indirectly names by referring to Abu Zayd’s Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion). Al-Sahrawi also emphasizes that the Saharan battalion commanders were very difficult for AQIM’s Algeria-based leadership to control. “The organization, in reality, was an image with no reality to it. What existed on the ground was a number of battalions with different orientations and multiple loyalties, all of them linked with the leadership of al-Qaida in Algeria.” Notably, while Belmokhtar is often portrayed as the recalcitrant one in other accounts of these internal GSPC/AQIM spats, in al-Sahrawi’s telling, it was Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion (i.e., Abu Zayd) that was resistant to at least one major unity initiative, the effort by central leadership to impose Nabil Abu Alqama as the central leadership’s unquestioned deputy in the Sahara.

Al-Sahrawi goes on to review developments between 2011 and 2013 in detail, starting with the Libyan revolution and its impact (in his view) on the northern Malian rebellion of 2012; then discussing the relationships among AQIM, the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), AQIM’s ally Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA); then discussing the impact of the French-led military intervention in Mali in 2013. The thought of going over all those events here on the blog for the millionth time kind of fatigues me, to be honest, so I would suggest reading a summary of those developments if you’re not familiar.

One point of interest here concerns the relationship between AQIM and the Malian-led Ansar al-Din. Those who consider Ansar al-Din a front group for AQIM will find support for their argument in part of what al-Sahrawi says, to wit: “The al-Qaida organization [here meaning AQIM], in its different groupings, entered into that framework [of Ansar al-Din’s vision of an Islamic state in Mali], even though its leadership [the pronoun “its” goes to AQIM, if my reading is correct] remained independent of it [the pronoun “it” goes to Ansar al-Din’s framework, if my reading is correct].” Later he talks about AQIM “working under cover of [Ansar al-Din].” Yet those, like me, who find the “front group” description simplistic will find support in al-Sahrawi’s descriptions of Ansar al-Din circa 2012 as a collection of opponents to the MNLA’s separatist vision, opponents motivated “either by ethnic, racial reasons or by creedal, religious reasons.” Al-Sahrawi later briefly mentions the 2013 split among Ansar al-Din’s leadership that remains, I think, fundamental to understanding the hybridity of the movement itself during 2012. Anyways, it’s a long discussion; YMMV.

Moving on, when discussing his unit’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, al-Sahrawi is conspicuously silent on Belmokhtar. He has no shortage of criticisms for the AQIM leadership in general, accusing them of a criminal level of self-interest and self-preservation in the face of what he sees as a groundswell of interest in the Islamic State project from the among AQIM’s own rank-and-file. He repeatedly slams AQIM leaders for their approach to the 2012 rebellion, to the MNLA, etc. Yet al-Sahrawi does not name any names here, nor does he criticize Belmokhtar – who, when he and al-Sahrawi were both part of the then-estranged AQIM unit al-Murabitun in 2015, publicly rejected al-Sahrawi’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, a pledge al-Sahrawi made in the name of al-Murabitun. It makes me wonder whether there is a vestigial admiration for Belmokhtar among Islamic State audiences (despite the Islamic State in Libya and elsewhere having publicly called for Belmokhtar’s death at points). Belmokhtar did, after all, cut a larger-than-life figure in the Sahara and even in Libya for a time, and perhaps al-Sahrawi is shying away here from directly taking on that legacy. Belmokhtar, as a reminder, has been either dead or at least publicly absent from the Saharan scene since 2016. In any event, al-Sahrawi presents JNIM’s formation in 2017 as a response to the formation and growth of ISGS.

Al-Sahrawi then turns to the ISGS-JNIM conflict, saying that for a time, ISGS focused on fighting “crusaders and apostates” while making outreach to JNIM’s cadres. According to al-Sahrawi, this outreach attracted a lot of fighters from Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam), a northern Burkina Faso-based jihadist outfit that was/is in JNIM’s orbit, as well as from JNIM units in what he refers to as “Konna,” “Macina,” and “Nampala” (localities in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of central Mali). Al-Sahrawi then quickly runs through a complicated series of events that, in his telling, involved JNIM fighters from Nampala (but not physically in Nampala at the time) pledging allegiance to ISGS/Islamic State, then JNIM leaders giving orders for that pro-ISGS unit to be blocked from returning to Nampala, then fighters in Macina refusing to carry out the orders and instead pledging allegiance to ISGS/IS themselves, then the leader of the ISGS-aligned group from Nampala, Miqdad al-Ansari, being killed in a “crusader air raid…under obscure circumstances!” I have not yet had time to triangulate between this and other accounts. As in other al-Naba’ articles, al-Sahrawi argues that JNIM leadership coordinates with non-jihadists. He then presents JNIM’s negotiations with successive Malian authorities as the culmination of a process where the group has de facto lost its jihadist credentials – and, of course, he refers to them as “apostates” throughout the article.

Big takeaways? I’m not sure. The desire to shape perceptions of history stands out – it’s not just scholars and analysts who are still chewing over the events of 2011-2013 in Mali. And the sense of the JNIM-ISGS conflict as a competition for the loyalties of discrete units of fighters in Mali is also notable. The account of how a dispute over Nampala escalated into a wider conflict will be worth revisiting. Another point is that, at least on this first reading, I saw no references to Nigeria, Boko Haram, ISWAP (in the sense of a specific organization based around Lake Chad), etc. Finally, I can’t help but sigh at the Islamic State’s ascription of the title “Al-Shaykh” to al-Sahrawi – not everybody has to be a shaykh, guys. Pretty clear that al-Sahrawi’s not, even by jihadi standards.