War of Narratives: The Struggle for Jihadist Legitimacy
The conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in West Africa and the Sahel has not been confined to the battlefield, but has also been manifested in a fierce war of propaganda and rhetoric. Careful examination of both groups’ propaganda shows a concerted effort to not only refute attacks by their opponent but more importantly to paint themselves as a more legitimate alternative. To capture instances of reported inter-jihadist fighting and delegitimization, the sections that follow offer an in-depth analysis of how each group seeks to advance its narrative.
Al-Qaeda’s Bid to Delegitimize the Islamic State
Al-Qaeda utilized its al-Thabat newsletter not only to report on its military operations around the globe but also as an ideological mouthpiece to advance the group’s strategic goals and objectives. On multiple occasions since its launch, al-Thabat newsletter featured special issues and front-page reports with the clear goal of delegitimizing the Islamic State in West Africa and the Sahel. These instances have been coded under two main categories: 1) Delegitimizing the Islamic State as a defender of Muslims through condemning the crimes they commit against civilians and casting doubt on their true allegiances; and 2) Discrediting ISIS as a potent jihadist force in West Africa and the Sahel by questioning its military capabilities and leadership and shedding light on the group’s persistent attempts to fight fellow mujahidin.
Delegitimizing ISIS as a Defender of Muslims
Al-Qaeda is keen to draw a sharp contrast between how JNIM mujahidin protect local Muslims in areas they occupy and the serious atrocities they say ISWAP/ISGS commit, including killing women and children, forcibly displacing Muslim villagers, carrying out road banditry, prohibiting the entry of aid and trade convoys, and coercively imposing taxes on locals after seizing control of their areas.
In a video released by al-Thabat News Agency in August 2020, titled: “A Qualitative Campaign to Expel Remnants of the Khawarij in West Africa,” al-Qaeda sheds light on the atrocities committed by Islamic State fighters against local populations in Mali, opening with a Muslim mother holding the body of a child and cursing the Islamic State fighters. The video then shows graphic footage of injured and dead children who were victims of indiscriminate ISGS violence in Mali, followed by footage of widespread military operations by JNIM soldiers to expel Islamic State “Khawarij” from central and western Mali.
It is important to unpack the significance of referring to the Islamic States as “Khawarij” or “Kharijites,” and the origins of this label in Islamic history and nomenclature. The term literally translates as “those who left” and refers to a subgroup of the followers of Ali (the fourth caliph) who later rebelled against him. They accused Ali of apostasy when the then-caliph agreed to arbitration during the civil war in Siffin, Syria in the year 658 CE to spare the spilling of Muslim blood — contravening what the khawarij deemed as God’s will. Whereas Ali initially tolerated them and allowed them to coexist in the Muslim community, their barbaric acts propelled Ali to later fight against them, ultimately culminating in the death of Ali in 661 CE at the hands of a member of the Kharijite community. The “khawarij” are deemed the first extremist group in Islamic history and are generally characterized by their strict and uncompromising views of Islam, indiscriminate violence, and a lack of rigorous Islamic scholarship and understanding.21
This characterization of the Islamic State as barbaric hardliners and Khawarij is evident in JNIM’s propaganda, which goes to great lengths to document and expose the Islamic State’s indiscriminate violence against local populations. On Nov. 15, 2020, the al-Thabat Weekly Newsletter featured a frontpage exposé of Islamic State crimes in the West Africa Province with a headline reading: “The Islamic State Conceals its Crimes in Mali, and Deputy Emir of Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyya Personally Commits Atrocities.” The issue included a detailed report of Islamic State atrocities against civilians in northeast Mali, most notably the murder of eight local shepherds who were falsely accused of apostasy. It also included a strong condemnation of ISGS Deputy Emir Abdul-Hakim al-Sahrawy for brutally murdering an innocent local falsely accused of apostasy and spying; the article emphasized how the deputy emir killed the local in a manner that violated shari’a, by mutilating his body after his death.
Through this type of propaganda, al-Qaeda Central and JNIM strive to expose the Islamic State in the eyes of local populations, refuting their claims to be community defenders and painting them as a hardline faction that exhibits no regard for the communities they occupy. Furthermore, JNIM frames and justifies its military campaigns against the Islamic State as an effort to seek vengeance and justice for local communities — effectively positioning itself as the true community defender against the Islamic State’s indiscriminate violence.
Discredit Islamic State as a Potent Jihadist Force in West Africa and the Sahel
In addition to exposing the Islamic State’s incessant targeting of civilians in West Africa and the Sahel, al-Qaeda propaganda also demonstrates a concerted effort to discredit ISWAP/ISGS as a legitimate jihadist group, painting them as fragmented and casting doubt on their true loyalties and allegiances. This is sharply contrasted with JNIM mujahidin’s unrelenting commitment to fighting regional militaries and foreign forces in West Africa and the Sahel.
In the second issue of al-Thabat Weekly Newsletter, published on Oct. 31, 2020, al-Qaeda framed JNIM as the strongest opponent of the “crusader” French Army and its national allies in West Africa and the Sahel; the group managed to breach the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, with steady encroachment on the borders of Ivory Coast and Ghana. According to the group, the period between April and October 2020 witnessed the highest number of attacks on enemy forces: 51 military operations that left 287 dead and 187 injured.
In contrast, al-Thabat Newsletter issued a harsh critique of ISWAP/ISGS in November 2020 for spending months “without a single bullet fired against the Burkinabe and Malian governments, despite easy access by IS mujahidin to their barracks and outposts,” contrasting the Islamic State’s lack of jihad with an upsurge of JNIM operations targeting French “crusader” forces and government forces in the Sahel. The issue further highlighted that, against this backdrop of increasing JNIM operations in the Sahel to expel Islamic State fighters, ISGS followers have fled and surrendered themselves to the “crusader” Burkinabe government.
Al-Qaeda propaganda also explicitly sheds light on the challenge faced by JNIM in fighting on multiple fronts — not only the “crusader” French army and the national governments of the region, but also the Islamic State. In a December 2020 issue of al-Thabat Weekly Newsletter, al-Qaeda reported a raid by Islamic State cells on a group of JNIM mujahidin returning from clashes with French forces in Gao Province in Mali, leading to the murder of 10 JNIM mujahidin. The issue emphasized how the Islamic State had halted all operations targeting the Malian government, and instead chose to expend its limited resources fighting fellow mujahidin rather than the true enemy. Al-Qaeda has also highlighted internal challenges faced by the Islamic State leadership in asserting control over its ranks in Nigeria and Somalia, as a result of internal splits and defections of fighters to Boko Haram and al-Shabaab.
This dual approach employed by al-Qaeda propaganda of delegitimizing the Islamic State in the eyes of local populations while casting doubt on its military capacities and allegiances shows that the group is not only concerned with driving a wedge between the Islamic State and its local constituents, but also with dissuading potential fighters from joining their ranks by painting them as militarily inferior and less capable compared to JNIM.
Despite JNIM Delegitimization Attempts, Islamic State Paints itself as Representative of Jihadist Movement in West Africa and the Sahel
Prior to examining the Islamic State’s response to al-Qaeda’s delegitimization campaigns, it is important to highlight the growing importance of the West Africa and Sahel region for the Islamic State’s bid to reassert itself as a global jihadist movement after the diminishing of its territorial strongholds in Iraq and Syria. West Africa and the Sahel are key to its quest to reestablish a caliphate elsewhere. This is evident not only in the group’s general narrative and reporting, but more recently in key statements by Islamic State leadership.
Upon close examination of “Harvest of Soldiers” infographics released by al-Nabaa Weekly newsletters, it is clear that the Islamic State has intensified its military operations in West Africa. Out of 40 weekly newsletters in the dataset published between October 2020 and August 2021, West Africa ranked in the top three provinces in terms of number of attacks and casualties in approximately 80% of the issues (32 out of 40).
Caliph of the Islamic State Appeals to Local Populations in West Africa and the Sahel
In addition to heightened military operations in West Africa and the Sahel, the Islamic State has repeatedly affirmed its intention to expand into the region, with propaganda prominently featuring direct pleas by the group caliph calling on local populations in the region to join the caliphate and the cause of jihad. In October 2020, the Islamic State al-Furqan Media Foundation released an audio message by Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, titled: “So Relate the Stories That Perhaps They Will Give Thought.”22 In the statement, the group leader refutes claims that the caliphate had been defeated and urges Muslims around the globe to remain resilient and continue on the path of jihad. He sends a strong message to fighters around the globe who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, assuring them that their pledge is accepted and commending their jihad. The group leader also sent a targeted message to Muslim populations in the Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger) urging them to end their silence against their oppressive governments and wage war against the “crusaders” who usurp Muslim lands and commit atrocities against Muslim people.
In another audio message by Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, titled: “And You Will be Superior If You Are True Believers” (June 2021),23 the leader applauds the soldiers of the caliphate in West Africa for answering their caliph’s call to wage war against the disbelievers and defend Muslim lands and peoples. Once again, the leader sends a message to Muslim populations of the region to show their support to the soldiers of the caliphate and reiterates the call for them to join the caliphate and the ultimate cause of jihad.
Islamic State Positions itself as Ideologically Superior to Fragmented Al-Qaeda Movements in the Sahel
Now, turning to the attempts by al-Qaeda propaganda to delegitimize ISWAP/ISGS, it is quite interesting to examine how the Islamic State pushes back against such claims — whether directly or indirectly — and paints itself as a legitimate representative of the jihadist movement and Muslim populations in the region.
With regards to the split with JNIM, the Islamic State tackled the issue explicitly in multiple statements, most notably through an interview with Sheikh Abu Walid al-Sahrawy, emir of ISGS, published in al-Nabaa Weekly Newsletter in November 2020.24 The interview covered many areas of contention including al-Qaeda’s — through JNIM — declaration of war against the Islamic State in the Sahel region and how JNIM viewed the establishment of ISGS; the relationship between al-Qaeda and other jihadist factions in the Sahel; and the origin of the latest episode of inter-jihadist fighting between ISGS and JNIM. Throughout the interview, Abu Walid al-Sahrawy was keen on providing a historical account of al-Qaeda’s presence in the Sahel region, painting it as a conglomeration of various fragmented movements, driven by personal interests and fluid loyalties.
When asked about how al-Qaeda and other jihadist factions reacted to the establishment of ISGS, al-Sahrawy claimed that the news was met within widespread joy from fellow mujahidin, and deep-rooted fear by JNIM:
“With the blessing of Allah, many mujahidin in the region were happy on the occasion of their brothers pledging allegiance — first to Caliph Abu Bakr al-Qurayshi followed by Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi — and viewed it as an opportunity for renewed hope to end the fragmentation and splits that have characterized the region’s jihadist scene for almost two decades. … As for al-Qaeda factions, they have all expressed animosity and opposition against the brothers who have joined us, during the same time they were showing their loyalty to apostate nationalistic factions — even when it came at an expense of their religion. … The basis of their opposition was a fear that their followers will desert them and join our ranks, ultimately leading to the dissolution of their emirates, which they have long fought to maintain.”
Al-Sahrawy even claimed that JNIM leadership prohibited their followers from viewing any Islamic State propaganda so as to not be faced with al-Qaeda’s failure on multiple jihad landscapes including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Khorasan, and Libya.
Furthermore, and when asked about what sparked the latest episodes of fighting between JNIM and ISGS, al-Sahrawy explained that:
“JNIM leadership could not withstand the continuous fragmentation of their ranks after hundreds pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and the Caliph. … After they failed to convince them due to their lack of reason and evidence, they rushed to issue arrest orders, which propelled even more brothers to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.”
Al Sahrawy concluded the interview by stating that:
“Today their misguidance and arrogance has propelled them to follow in the apostate ‘Taliban’s’ footsteps, fighting the monotheists and chasing the mirage of negotiations with the apostates, seeking the approval of idol worshippers, even if it means fighting the people of Islam.”
This type of rhetoric and defense of group motives by ISGS, paired with discounting the threat of JNIM and painting the group as fragmented and interest-driven, shows that the group leadership felt pressure to clarify its position and justify its motives in the region. Whether or not this emerged in direct response to JNIM’s smear campaigns against ISGS is difficult to tell. Still, it clearly proves that the group does not take its competition with JNIM over fighters and resources lightly, and is adamant about painting its opponent as a less worthy competitor.
Islamic State Framing vis-à-vis Local Populations
Islamic State propaganda also reflects a recognition that securing the support of local communities is as important to its bid to expand its reach in the region as attracting military recruits. In contrast with JNIM claims of atrocities committed by the ISWAP/ISGS against local populations, the Islamic State propaganda is eager to frame its relationship with its local constituents in a positive light. A key element of this effort is framing Islamic State efforts as a direct response to local needs — primarily security needs, a pressing issue for populations in West Africa and the Sahel in light of weak or limited state presence.
In May 2021, al-Nabaa Weekly Newsletter featured a frontpage report on the implementation of hudud punishments25 against road bandits by ISGS, after incessant local complaints of banditry operations taking place on the route linking between the Gao and Ménaka regions in northern Mali.26 Another al-Nabaa issue published during the same month featured a report by the emir of the Zakat Diwan in West Africa Province highlighting how local zakat givers welcome zakat collectors with grace and generosity, happy to implement their religious duty to give alms: “Whereas the disbeliever regimes impose fraudulent taxes that usurp Muslim money, Muslims living under Islamic State rule earn their living without the fear of their money being usurped under manmade laws, and instead implement the duty dictated by God to give zakat to be distributed amongst their Muslim brethren in need.”27
This process of aligning group narrative and operations with local differences and grievances is a critical aspect of the Islamic State’s framing techniques, achieved through signaling to local constituents that the group is actively working to address their daily needs and concerns. Jihadist groups’ twin interests of staying true to their ideological beliefs while ensuring civilian compliance are not always compatible, and groups often find themselves faced with the pressure of reconciling the gap between retaining their ideological identity and maximizing civilian compliance through service provision and other governance tools.
The Sahel: A New Theater for Inter-Jihadist Contestation?
It is important to note that episodes of inter-jihadist contestation between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State such as in the Sahel region are not a new phenomenon; they do not emerge in a vacuum and have also occurred in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
In Syria, this scenario played out quite vigorously between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The 2011 political upheaval following the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East provided both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State with an unparalleled opportunity for growth and expansion. With both groups adopting divergent models of jihadist militancy — the first following a softer gradualist approach and the latter espousing a more hardline, ultra-violent model of jihadist extremism — the 2011 political upheavals also created the space for both groups to assert their power to emerge as the dominant representative of global jihadism. This ultimately resulted in an intensive dynamic of enmity and contestation manifesting in acute in-fighting between the two groups in Syria since 2014.28
This dynamic of intense contestation also further played out between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic State. Previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, this former al-Qaeda affiliate has rebranded itself twice — first as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016, and later as HTS in January 2017 — in a relentless effort to expand its power and present itself as a sustainable model capable of continuing the fight against the Assad regime. As part of its bid to expand its local roots and embed itself within the broader Syrian revolutionary movement, HTS positioned itself as one of the staunchest opponents of the Islamic State within Syria, launching multiple security operations and arrest campaigns aimed at tracking down Islamic State sleeper cells, confiscating their weapons, and arresting and killing their fighters and key leaders and commanders. This conflict between the two groups also manifested in the propaganda sphere, with vicious campaigns through which HTS portrayed itself as a legitimate non-terrorist actor, especially in the eyes of local populations.29
In Yemen, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have gone head-to-head through the two groups’ regional affiliates: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State’s Yemen Province, exacerbating an already-precarious humanitarian situation and causing further destabilization and an escalation of violence at the local level. As both groups battled for territorial control and recruits, they engaged in fierce competition both on the physical and virtual fronts, by launching attacks and martyrdom operations in addition to propaganda campaigns designed to showcase each group’s strength and relative power and delegitimize its opponent. Central to both AQAP and the Islamic State’s tactics in their bid for control in Yemen was a deliberate exploitation of ungoverned spaces and an entrenchment in local power rivalries.30
Most recently, in Afghanistan, the two groups have also been engaged in serious contestation, most noticeably against the backdrop of the peace deal between the Afghan Taliban and the United States, and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. With al-Qaeda closely bound with the Taliban due to ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle, and intermarriage, the Islamic State Afghan affiliate, Wilayat al-Khorasan, stands as their avowed opponent. After a considerable rise in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangahar between 2014 and 2016, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) has since suffered a series of military setbacks at the hands of U.S. and Afghan military operations, in addition to a separate military campaign by the Afghan Taliban targeting the group.31 Since June 2020, however, the group has increased its attacks and is targeting disenchanted al-Qaeda and Taliban recruits by positioning itself as the sole rejectionist group unwilling to negotiate with the West.32 The Islamic State propaganda has also on multiple occasions denounced the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and has criticized al-Qaeda’s alliance with the “heathenistic” Taliban despite its “clear deviations and apostasy.”33
Indeed, since the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, ISKP has been taking concerted steps to undermine the Taliban’s takeover of the country. On Aug. 26, ISKP claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans.34 This attack, which was featured on the front page of the Islamic State’s weekly al-Nabaa Newsletter released a few days later, was highlighted by the group as a definitive blow to the U.S. and its collaborators.35 More recently, on Sept. 18 and 19, ISKP has also claimed a series of IED attacks carried out in Jalalabad against the Taliban, allegedly killing and wounding over 35 Taliban members.36 With mounting fears surrounding Afghanistan becoming the new safe haven for global jihadists, and against the backdrop of the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, ISKP could stand to benefit from the rapidly unravelling situation to bolster its stature and act as a spoiler to the peace agreement, attracting more followers and boosting its operations.
Together, evidence presented in this section clearly demonstrates that the schism between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State did not emerge in isolation, but rather is part of a broader trend of enmity and contestation as the two groups battle to paint themselves as the dominant and legitimate representative of the jihadist movement worldwide. This, in itself, is a lesson learned and should be factored in when devising counterterrorism responses to curb their expansion and neutralize the threat they pose.