The New York Times, citing U.S. military sources, identifies the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara as responsible for the October ambush that killed four American soldiers in western Niger. The U.S. Department of State has already designated it to be a “foreign terrorist organization.” The name of the organization conjures association with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but caution is required. Evidence that the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara is somehow an extension of the Islamic State in the Middle East or even in Libya is sparse.
The leader of the ambush is identified as Doundoun Cheffou, allegedly a “lieutenant” of Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui. (The spelling of names is variable.) Cheffou is, among other things, a cattle herder and a member of a largely marginalized ethnic group. Al-Sahraoui was deeply involved in the 2013 temporary Islamist take-over of northern Mali. He merged his group with Mokhtar Belmokhtar to form al-Murabitoun. He pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s al-Baghdadi in 2015, thereby splitting al-Murabitoun. In addition to being an Islamist terrorist, Belmokhtar is also known as Mr. Marlboro for smuggling, among other things, cigarettes.
Cheffou appears to be part of a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of personalities, ethnic grievances, and criminal activities that uses Islamic rhetoric in a largely lawless region. This “ungoverned space” includes the disputed Western Sahara, southern Algeria, Mali, Niger, and even parts of Nigeria. These groups are deeply hostile to government authority and economic enterprises supported by France or the United States. Hence, they will attack the U.S. military whenever they can. But, it is unclear whether the pledges of allegiance to ISIS and al-Baghdadi have any meaning beyond the aspiration of association with an organization that for a time dominated large parts of Syria and Iraq.
The Times cites Nigerien and French security sources who estimate that ISIS in the Greater Sahara has forty to sixty core members but can draw on villagers sympathetic to it in part because of unresolved ethnic and other grievances. This estimate fits a pattern of constantly shifting criminal groups that exploit local grievances and use Islamist rhetoric, but less is known about these groups than, for example, Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria.