MS Risk Blog

Three Jihadist Groups Operating in Sahel Region Announce Merger

Posted on in al-Qaeda, West Africa title_rule

Mauritania’s private news agency ANI announced on 2 March that three jihadist groups which operate in the African Sahel region, have merged to form one single organization. The private news agency cited a video that was distributed by the Islamists.

The new group will operate under the name the Group to Support Islam and Muslims. The group is composed of Mali’s al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun, which is led by Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and the Macina Brigades group, which is active in central Mali. It will be led by Ansar Dine’s Iyad Ag Ghaly. The three groups already have ties to al-Qaeda.

ANI distributed a screenshot of the video, which it said it received on 1 March. The screenshot depicts five jihadist leaders seated together, with Iyad Ag Ghaly in the centre. The four others are identified as the “emirs” of the new movement. In an audio excerpt, Iyad Ag Ghaly can be heard swearing allegiance to slain Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zaraqi, whose al-Qaeda in Iraq group later evolved in to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is al-Qaeda’s current leader. He is also heard praising al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan in may 2011. It is not clear when the video was recorded, although ANI notes that it was “recent.”

The announcement of the merger comes at a time when jihadist groups in northern Mali are increasingly threatening the greater West African region, as they move southwards towards the border with Burkina Faso and Niger. It also comes with the development of a new militant group in northern Burkina Faso, which in recent weeks, has launched attacks and threatened teachers in the northern region of the country. An emerging extremist group in Burkina Faso, Ansaroul Islam (Ansar al-Islam lil-ichad wal jihad, or IRSAD), is believed to be the franchise of the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) in Burkina Faso. The group is thought to be operating in the border regions of Mali and Burkina Faso, particularly in the province of Soum (Burkina Faso). The group claimed responsibility for the 16 December 2016 attack on a Burkinabe military position in Nassoumbou (province of Soum) and attacking to “hypocrite collaborators” in Djibo and Sibe, all of which are located in northern Burkina Faso. The group at the time warned of further attacks. In late January 2017, reports emerged of armed men arriving on motorcycles in villages in northern Burkina Faso before entering packed classrooms and demanding that the teachers review their curriculum. It is believed that this new jihadist group was behind this. Ibrahim “Malam” Dicko is believed to be the leader of this new group. He is a close associate of Amadou Koufa, leader of the MLF. In 2012, Dicko began preaching on local radio in Djibo, the Soum Province capital, 125 miles north of Ouagadougou, near the border with Mali. His family is from a village in the Togol department, in the Soum province.


Ansar Dine

Militant group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, one of the most prominent leaders of the Tuareg rebellion. Formed in 2012, they are based in northern Mali and their primary operations are against the Malian military and opposing rebel groups. The group’s objective is to impose Islamic law across Mali.



Also known as: Al-Mulathamun Brigade; Al-Mulathamun Masked Ones Brigade; Al-Murabitoon-al-Qaeda in West Africa; Al-Muwaqqi’un bil-Dimal Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade; Masked Men Brigade; Signatories in Blood; Signed-in-Blood Battalion; The Sentinels; Those Signed in Blood Battalion; Those who Sign in Blood; Witnesses in Blood

The group is based in the Sahara desert in northern Mali and contains fighters who are loyal to veteran Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar. It was formed in 2013 from a merger between al-Mulathamun (“The Masked Men”) Battalion (AMB) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Both groups were offshoots of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Al-Mourabitoun aims to implement sharia law. The US State Department has reported that the group is likely funding its operations through kidnapping ransoms and criminal groups. It is also likely that it receives funding through its connections to other terrorist organizations.


Macina Brigades Group

Also known as Macina Liberation Movement / La Force de Libération du Macina, ML Movement, Massina Liberation Movement, Ansar al-Din Macina brigade, Katibat Macina.

It is an extremist organisation based largely around the town of Macina in southern Mali. It is an arm for Ansar Dine to coordinate actions and operations in central and southern Mali. The group has risen in prominence, carrying out a number of attacks since January 2015. The MLF is believed to have around 4,000 members, recruiting largely from the Fulani (also called Peul or Fulbe) ethnic group, which has scattered populations across West Africa. It is thought that MLF is Ansar Dine’s official branch in southern Mali.

MLF exploits grievances from ethnic Fulani, which are spread across the Sahel Region of Africa. The Fulani have traditionally been cattle herders, and have been engaged in a struggle with farmers across the Sahel as pasture-land and resources in the region have diminished. The violence between the groups can easily be moulded into a religious dimension; the majority of Fulani are Muslim, while their farming rivals are commonly Christian.