Violence is tearing Mali and the Sahel apart. But who are the armed groups behind the bloodshed? Where are international actors stationed in the region? And what motivates them all? This project maps jihadist and non-jihadist groups and pinpoints the presence of external actors in the region as of May 2019.

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)

This local branch of the Islamic State group (ISIS) was at first self-proclaimed, the outgrowth of a schism within MUJAO. The group’s leader, the former MUJAO commander Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, declared his adherence to the Islamic State in May 2015, although ISIS only recognised the pledge of allegiance (bay’a) to its leader Abubakr al-Baghdadi in October 2016. ISGS began receiving regular attention from formal ISIS media outlets in spring 2019. The group operated first in western Niger and Ménaka, in north-eastern Mali, while also conducting several attacks in Burkina Faso near the border with Mali and an attack on a high-security prison near Niger’s capital Niamey in October 2016. ISGS fighters fought a battle in June 2015 with al-Mourabitoun fighters loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, but subsequently the groups have avoided clashes. At times, ISGS has operated in proximity – and possibly even cooperation – with fighters from JNIM.

According to interviews with local observers as well as regional and international sources, ISGS has drawn many of its fighters from those native to the areas in which it operates, especially Nigerien Peul as well as Dawsahak fighters whose origins are in Ménaka and the Malian city of Gao. ISGS fighters were responsible for the deadly attack that killed four American soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers at Tongo Tongo in the province of Tillabéry, as well as dozens of attacks against Nigerien, Malian, and Burkinabe troops, militias like the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad (MSA), and Groupe d’Autodéfense Tuareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA). It has in recent months expanded its territorial operations along the Niger-Burkina Faso border, as well as into the Gourma region south of Timbuktu in Mali.