As Attacks Rise, is the Islamic State Tightening its Grip on the Sahel?

ISGS fighters clash with al-Qaeda-affiliated JNIM near Talataye, Gao Region, Mali. Photo from IS al-Naba publication

Since 2018, the Liptako-Gourma region on the borders between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso has seen a rise in violence from jihadist groups, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Although ISGS is expanding its geographical reach throughout the Liptako-Gourma region, it does not appear to exert full control over the territories it occupies and has not established organized governance structures. Nevertheless, its mobility and ability to conduct attacks across a large region means that ISGS will continue to pose a threat to Sahelian states even if it cannot fortify its presence and maintain governance in these regions.

ISGS has increased its violence in the Sahel since 2017, demonstrating its ability and willingness to intimidate and coerce the population. ISGS emerged as an offshoot of al-Qaeda affiliated al-Mourabitoun, and the Islamic State (IS) recognized it as an affiliate in October 2016 under its West Africa Province. Despite this affiliation, ISGS is considered to operate independently of central IS leadership.[i] Since 2017, the number of recorded violent incidents attributed to the group has increased sevenfold.[ii] These attacks have also become more lethal: fatalities (both civilian and military) have increased from 372 in 2017-2018 to 2970 in 2019-2020.[iii] ISGS’ area of operation has also expanded steadily, in part due to its small and mobile force.[iv]  Whereas Mali previously bore the brunt of violent attacks, eastern Burkina Faso has seen an increase in jihadist activity, with violence spilling across the Nigerien borders.[v]

In the regions where it operates, ISGS exercises some control over local populations, but falls short of establishing effective governance structures. ISGS implements Islamic regulations, collects zakat taxes,[vi] exploits local issues to garner popular support, and has embarked on a campaign of intimidation and coercion.[vii] It has also begun to win support amongst local populations, namely through recruitment of marginalized ethnic groups such as the Fulani, and by offering protection from cattle rustling in exchange for payment of zakat.[viii] However, ISGS does not maintain a consistent presence or state-like structures, likely due to intense pressure from military operations conducted by Sahelian states and France’s Operation Barkhane.

Despite gains in northern Niger and eastern Burkina Faso, competition with proximate jihadist groups complicates ISGS’ efforts to maintain control. Fighting between ISGS and al-Qaeda affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) broke out in July 2019 and has since intensified.[ix] IS media has to compete with al-Qaeda affiliated media, both of which tend to report on their own regional victories in order to advance their narratives. On September 13, al-Qaeda claimed in its Al Thabat publication that JNIM successfully expelled ISGS from a number of towns in central Mali, illustrating ISGS’ difficulty in exerting territorial control.[x]

The threat of ISGS expansion has resurged, but government countermeasures may be overestimating the territorial control the group maintains. Immediately following the August 9 ISGS attack at a giraffe reserve in Koure, Niger, which killed six French humanitarian workers, their Nigerien colleague, and Nigerien guide, the French government declared all of Niger a red zone, with the exception of Niamey, and the Nigerien government expanded the state of emergency to all of the Tillaberi region.[xi][xii][xiii] Some have criticized these moves as an overreaction. France may have felt the need to protect its citizens, but the move implies that ISGS has spread to wide swaths of the country. Yet it is not clear that this isolated attack indicates a shift in ISGS’s territory or capabilities, and its belated claim of the attack gave no indication of support from IS.[xiv] Nevertheless, even if ISGS does not have the structures in place to formally expand, its fighters are able and motivated to conduct isolated attacks throughout the region.

ISGS is not presently able to assert full control over areas of the Sahel, but it does not necessarily need to do so in order to be effective in its mission. As long as it maintains a consistent pace of attacks and a fertile recruiting ground, it will continue to pose a significant threat to the region.


[i] Pauline LaRoux, “Exploiting Borders in the Sahel: The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara” (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, June 10, 2019),

[ii] ACLED data for Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, covering the periods of 1 September – 31 August 2017-2018, 2018-2019, and 2019-2020. From September 2017 through August 2018 there were 95 recorded incidents, including 71 incidents attributed exclusively to ISGS (remaining incidents were attributed to Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and/or ISGS). In the same period from 2018-2019 this increased to 417 incidents including 127 directly attributed to ISGS. From September 2019 through August 2020 there have been 700 recorded incidents including 394 attributed to ISGS alone.

[iii] Clionadh Raleigh et al., “Introducing ACLED: An Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset,” Journal of Peace Research 47, no. 5 (2010): 651–60.

[iv] Pauline LaRoux, “Exploiting Borders in the Sahel: The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.”

[v] Pauline LaRoux, “Exploiting Borders in the Sahel: The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.”

[vi] Anassa Maiga, “Gao : Sous La Loi Des Djihadistes, Enlèvements de Bétail et Prélèvement de La Zakat,” Benbere, March 13, 2020,

[vii] “Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery,” International Crisis Group, June 3, 2020,

[viii] “Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery.”

[ix] Heny Nsaibia and Caleb Weiss, “The End of the Sahelian Anomaly: How the Global Conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida Finally Came to West Africa,” CTC Sentinel – Combating Terrorism Center at West Point 13, no. 7 (July 2020),

[x] MENASTREAM. Twitter Post. September 13, 2020, 10:30pm.

[xi] “Six French Aid Workers and Two Locals Killed in Ambush in Niger Wildlife Park,” The Guardian, August 9, 2020,

[xii] “Niger – Sécurité,” France Diplomatie (Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères, August 12, 2020),

[xiii] “COMMUNIQUE DU CONSEIL DES MINISTRES DU VENDREDI 14 AOÛT 2020,” Présidence de la République du Niger, August 14, 2020,

[xiv] Original: “New Issue of The Islamic State’s Newsletter: “al-Nabā’ #252″,” Jihadology, September 17, 2020,

Translation: Alex Thurston, “Translation and Brief Commentary on the Islamic State’s Claim of Responsibility for the August 9 Attack in Kouré, Niger,” Sahel Blog, September 18, 2020,

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