Nouakchott — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's call for all jihadists to swear allegiance to his so-called caliphate is dividing al-Qaeda's Maghreb branch.
Sahel security may now hinge on whether regional terror groups shift their loyalty from al-Qaeda to the self-declared "Islamic State" (ISIS).
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is split between those who see al-Baghdadi as their new leader and those who remain under the banner of the parent al-Qaeda organisation led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The infighting started in mid-July, when AQIM chief Abdelmalek Droukdel (alias Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud) decided not to ally his group with al-Baghdadi's terror organisation in the Levant.
He refused to recognise the Islamic State and instead renewed his allegiance to al-Zawahiri.
AQIM's rejection of the Islamic caliphate was reported by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors radical Islamists' internet activities.
The AQIM statement said: "We confirm we still adhere to our allegiance to our sheikh and emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. This is a sharia-based bay'ah, which we are committed to, and we haven't seen anything that would make us revoke it."
But deep disagreements within AQIM following the renewed pledge may lead to the removal of Droukdel.
According to Algerian daily El Khabar, several members of the al-Qaeda Council of Elders have already backed ISIS. Other Droukdel defectors were reportedly preparing to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi and establish a branch of the Islamic State in the Maghreb.
"It's natural that Droukdel would reject that caliphate, given that he heads an organisation that has its own way of planning and setting goals," says Sid Ahmed Ould Tfeil, an analyst of salafist ideology.
"Droukdel receives his legitimacy from his loyalty to the parent al-Qaeda, which Osama Bin Laden established and which still has affiliates in the Maghreb," the analyst adds.
Another cause for disagreements is the behaviour of al-Baghdadi's terror group.
"The Islamic State uses harsher, crazier, more heinous and aggressive ways; something that is causing much harm to the image of jihad adopted by most other groups, which focus on specific targets, such as soldiers, military leaders, barracks, etc.," Ould Tfeil says.
"ISIS' methods tarnish Islam by targeting various Muslim and non-Muslim sects," he adds.
According to some observers, Droukdel's refusal to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi sets AQIM apart from other jihadi groups in the Maghreb and Sahel. ISIS allies now include Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Maghreb countries have stepped up security measures around embassies and western interests to protect them against possible attacks by ISIS-affiliated elements.
ISIS will not easily find sympathisers in the Maghreb region because of its methods and violence, analysts suggest. But those terrorist groups that support al-Baghdadi could decide to unify their efforts.
Several countries have increased their aerial and satellite surveys of Sahel skies to identify the location of an expected summit of top Sahel jihadist groups, El Khabar reported.
Indeed, ISIS' declaration of the caliphate might have been made to precede the declaration of the Islamic state in Africa, the paper quoted a security source as saying.
There is another factor at play: the return of ISIS jihadists from Syria and Iraq to their homeland in the Maghreb.
Jamal Laribi, an Algerian media observer of security issues in the Sahel, says that the returnees "are many and security forces in the Maghreb countries do not possess accurate databases about them".
"They are more dangerous than AQIM because they have experience fighting in the ranks of the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and they have experience in the use of various types of weapons," he says.
Libya in particular is seeing a remarkable flow of ex-combatants of ISIS and those loyal to its ideology, he adds.
"Most of the supporters of ISIS in Libya are active in the ranks of Ansar al-Sharia. If these components meet, they can form the human and geographical factor, which can threaten the Sahel and even directly threaten Europe."
The Algerian media specialist warns that the idea of terrorist organisations in the region pledging allegiance to ISIS was not far-fetched. He cites the meeting in the Libyan port city of Derna between Abou Iyadh, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, and jihadi returnees from Syria.
The purpose of the talks was to establish a new organisation allied to ISIS.
It was to be called ISIM, or the "Islamic State in the Islamic Maghreb".
These jihadist organisations "are fighting and competing with each other", the Algerian analyst says.
"These disagreements began to intensity with the return of some elements from Syria, especially since some of the returnees dared to criticise the policies of AQIM, and have come to see it as not committed to the teachings of jihad adopted by ISIS. They are saying that it will not win because it is not committed to the Sharia," Laribi adds.
"Since terrorist organisations are always looking for a powerful umbrella to give them any kind of legitimacy, it was natural that they declared allegiance to al-Baghdadi and ISIS," Mauritanian analyst Abdallah Ould Sidi Mohamed tells Magharebia.
"This constitutes moral support after the tremors they suffered lately, whether in the form of military strikes or internal erosion and struggles for leadership," the analyst adds.
Still, Jérôme Pigné of the Institute of International Relations and Diplomacy in Paris finds it unlikely that AQIM would ever decide to declare an "Islamic State in the Sahel", because such a move would only draw greater attention from national and international security forces.