This article will analyze two exceptions. The first is the long absence of confrontation between al Qaeda and Islamic state offshoots in the Sahel area. The second is an elected official conducting negotiations with an al Qaeda offshoot. Both constitute the “Sahel exception.” The first factor has ended, but the second still holds. Al Qaeda and ISIS will continue to evolve despite the heavy French involvement in the Sahel region. The absence of policies addressing local grievances and the looming U.S. disengagement from Africa will most definitely embolden both groups and enlarge the scope of their actions in the Sahel and on the continent.
In October 2015, Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, a jihadist operative from Morocco, along with several of his men from the Murabitun, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s former “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS had set foot in the Sahel – the geographic belt running south of the Sahara Desert – and went almost unnoticed. At the same time, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was planning a comeback through the unification of several scattered groups in northern and central Mali, culminating in the formation of Jamaat Noussrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) in early March 2017. Between the time of al-Sahrawi’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS and the creation of JNIM, AQIM had claimed attacks as far away as Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and Grand Bassam in Cote d’Ivoire.