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The Schism of Jihadism in the Sahel: How Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are Battling for Legitimacy

As the Sahel region becomes the latest scene for jihadist infighting, this has serious implications for jihadist operations against local civilian populations.

In the last few years, the Islamic State has ramped up its operations in West Africa, rapidly fortifying its presence through its regional affiliates: Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). West Africa is particularly vulnerable to extremism and provides fertile ground for jihadist groups to expand, given the combination of weak governance institutions, limited state capacity, corruption, widespread poverty, and ethnic tensions. As the Islamic State has expanded, it has come into conflict with other jihadist actors, especially al-Qaeda’s Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), turning the region into a battleground for fierce contestation between competing extremist groups striving to assert their dominance.

As the Sahel region becomes the latest scene for jihadist infighting, this has serious implications not just for jihadist operations against local and foreign troops, but more importantly for local civilian populations. In neglected areas of the Sahel, with weak or non-existent government presence and feeble public services, groups like ISGS and JNIM are offering themselves as a strong alternative to the state, providing local constituents with essential goods and services.

Against this backdrop, this paper examines the prospects of jihadist expansion in the region and its implications for security actors and civilian populations alike. More specifically, the report investigates the role of propaganda and public discourse narratives in bolstering jihadist group legitimacy and advancing attempts by groups seeking to generate local embeddedness and mass support. In doing so, the article offers a nuanced perspective of inter-jihadist contestation, one that goes beyond mere focusing on security operations and clashes and delves more deeply into group framing and identity.

Read the paper at the Middle East Institute

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