The Weaponry of IS West Africa: Raiders in the Sahel (Pt 3)
Whilst media outlets and the public at large usually associate the Islamic State with the Middle East and to a lesser extent it's branches in countries such as Afghanistan or Pakistan, one of the main areas of ISIS activity recently is in Africa.
For detailed information as to the equipment, exploits and captures of Islamic State West Africa, please read Part One and Part Two of this ongoing series, which attempts to break down the developments of this fascinating branch of IS as it attempts to move towards Institutional and territorial consolidation.
Whilst media outlets and the public at large usually associate the Islamic State with the Middle East and to a lesser extent it's branches in countries such as Afghanistan or Pakistan, one of the main areas of ISIS activity in recent months is in Africa. This includes the former IS "Greater Sahara" branch in the Sahel, which is now folded into the more established Wilayah West Africa for media and possibly administrational purposes. The latter has been displacing media and physical space from Boko Haram, and been increasing the level of attacks against regional countries in the Lake Chad area in recent years, in particular Nigeria.
ISWA's propaganda is based around fighting it's enemies- mainly the Nigerian Army in media from West Africa proper, and other regional militaries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in the former Greater Sahara area. Despite that, one of the only areas globally in which IS WA can claim to be the dominant authority is in some parts of the Lake Chad Area, and is likely the only area where conditions locally in terms of governance compare to IS-held parts of Iraq/Syria in the group's heyday a few years ago. ISGS does not yet have a clear hold over a defined area to such a degree.
The former ISGS has expanded in activity recently, with numerous examples of large military bases completely overrun by groups of Motorcycle-borne fighters with their occupants brutally killed and equipment stripped. This has caused considerable consternation in some European & American circles (In particular the local colonial power, France, which has launched an intervention in the area, also supported by other European states such as the UK as well as the United States) but at present has not abated. IS GS has suffered multiple significant casualties but it's attacks continue.
ISGS has shown itself to be willing to conduct attacks against Western forces, but causes by far the most casualties to regional states. The Al Qaeda affilated JNIM, interelated to ISGS though sometimes-strained tribal and tactical alliances, also is a very dangerous force. JNIM and ISGS sometimes coordinate for major attacks or for logistical purposes, but cannot be regarded as the same organisation. (Local conditions typically have a overrarching influence on IS branches' willingness to co-ordinate or subsume rival groups, even ones which clearly do not retain loyalty to IS Leadership.) They also operate in mainly separate areas, though during 2019 competition for particular regions has increased.
In January 2020, ISWA released the first official propaganda video that solely covered it's affiliate's operations in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. IS in the Sahel is still colloquially referred to as ISGS, although speeches and pledges of allegience (Bay'ah) from ISGS figures have featured in ISWA media in 2019.
ISGS has historically maintained lesser media discipline than most IS branches, with unofficial low quality video appearing online often. Nontheless, some of this footage made it's way into a release entitled "Then It Will Be For Them A Source Of Regret", a reference to Qur’anic verse 8:36. This included footage from attacks against military targets that caused high numbers of casulties, as well as an overview of IS activities earlier, such as the Tongo Tongo ambush of October 2017 against US SOF and their Nigerien Army (FAN) partner force, which lead to several SOF & multiple FAN personnel killed, their weapons pilfered as status symbols.
The essential operational tactic of IS in the Sahel, just like it's local Al Qaeda-affiliated counterparts such as JNIM, is to utilise fast moving, motorbike-borne, raiders to quickly overrun isolated bases in the bush. It appears that such raids are formed by multiple smaller convoys of fighters joining forces to form a large group that can achieve a numerical match (Or overmatch) against the local defenders.
Hence, the focus is on lightly armed fighters, with a few HMG and RPG available. The humble AKM and Chinese Type 56 is by far the most common, with a few AK-103 (Either capture from Malian soldiers, who received around 3,000 in 2013, or via smuggling from Libya, which had massive stocks of Gaddafi-purchased AK-103-2) and FN FAL also used. This is broadly representative of local weapons stocks and the black market availability of arms.
It is always curious, however to spot possible evidence of the oft-quoted Libyan arms flow, which is claimed to sustain multiple conflicts across Africa after the Libyan civil war lead to the release of the contents Colonel Gaddafi's massive depots to be pilfered and sold. Whilst this flow has reportedly slowed in recent years- the renewal of the conflict there generating a domestic demand likely to be one factor, along with increased security in border areas.
An excellent example of this is the RPG warhead on the centre-left of the image below, which is the DPRK-made F-7 HE-FRAG (High Explosive Fragmentation). Although it resembles a standard PG-7 round, the fuze, distinctive red band, and blue-grey appearance sets this out as a round made in North Korea.
Whilst it's possible that DPRK sales to local countries could lead to the F-7 ending up in IS hands, this has not yet been noted in open source information, whilst the F-7 is known to have been sold to Libya in the 1980s. Their appearance is identical to the F-7 shown above. DPRK-made hardware is rarely seen, so this appearance in Burkina Faso is notable. The AK-103 seen in the fighter's hands is also possibly obtained from Libya.
By way of heavier weapons, IS has access to very little, and likely chooses to not to use them. However, IS video did show a single 122mm Grad-type (9M22U-type) rocket launch in Niger. This would be likely to be rather ineffective unless the militants scored a lucky hit, but signals both the ability to use captured Grads, and the intent to use them against larger targets. These rockets are known to have been obtained from regional stockpiles, although in this case it is impossible to identify their exact origin.
Captured equipment does appear to be significant. This includes modern Russian Kord heavy machine guns in In-Delimane, Mali, along with other small arms and ammunition. This is a significant upgrade in weight and reliability from the typical DShK HMG, and would further the ability of ISGS to continue it's tactics of very mobile strike teams- the Kord can be fired from a bipod mount and is said to be generally easier to deploy.
Another large capture was in Tongo Tongo, Niger, May 2019. It included:
- W85 HMG with quantities of 12.7x108mm ammunition
- Night Vision equipment (AN/PVS-7 pattern)
- Two SVD-pattern DMR
- Around 10 Chinese Type 56-2 AKs (Covered in cheap "tactical" accessories, red dots)
- Chinese QLZ-87 grenade launcher, with drum magazine and ammunition
- Hundreds of rounds of small arms ammunition
- Toyota technicals were also captured.
From this list, the Night Vision equipment and QLZ-87 was by far the most significant- both were later used. The original AN/PVS-7 is an 1980s vintage single tube night vision device, and hence would be regarded as obsolete in Western usage.
However, it is a significant asset for ISGS which appear to have been used to film a January 2020 night-time rocket lauch in Burkina Faso- prior to this, NV use by ISGS hadn't yet been observed. It's unknown what precise type the NV goggles captured were, and who produced them- multiple Western, Russian and Chinese companies have produced NV equipment that is similar in appearance to the classical AN/PVS-7.
Whilst the capture of any Automatic Grenade Launcher by a terrorist group is of concern, the QLZ-78 is of particular interest. This 35x32mm launcher was specifically designed to provide lightweight fire support, and can be carried and fired by just one individual in it's "light" configuration- it is much lighter than the Russian AGS-17 or American Mk 19, both of which have been used to deadly effect by ISIS in the Middle East. The 35x32mm round is comparable to the NATO-standard 40x46mm and hence represents a real step up in mobile firepower for the fast-moving militants compared to motorcycle mounted HMGs. Indeed, it appears to have been put into action already to destroy military and infrastructure targets.
It is concerning to observe the proliferation of both modern lightweight AGS systems and NV equipment into the hands of IS GS, although the former is likely to be limited by ammunition availability.
ISGS captured a variety of other equipment in raids across 2019 such as boxes of ammunition and ZPU-2 equipped technical(s) in Inates, Niger, and numerous other HMG-armed technicals. Whilst technicals aren't as widely used by ISGS as motorbikes, they could still be an effective assset for the group.
Whilst ISGS, like other militant groups, is undoubtably armed via regional weapons flows such as those from Libya, the bulk of their weapons are likely captured from regional actors, in particular the Niger army. Given the recent sharp uptick in deaths caused by ISGS and it's ability to draw men and attention away from JNIM (Which is a wide-reaching and dangerous organisation in it's own right), we're likely to see more captured equipment put into use. Equipment flow between JNIM and ISGS is also likely.
Like ISWA proper, ISGS has not yet developed a significant capacity to use longer-ranged small arms, such as captured SVD Dragunov, effectively. Dedicated equipment training classes for sniping, mortar use etc, as seen in other areas, hasn't been shown. So far ISGS hasn't demonstrated use of the "full spectrum" of equipment or weapons as seen in Syria or Iraq- RCL, ATGM, precision rifles, VBIED, thermal optics etc. It's likely that this is mainly due to the lack of such systems in regional inventories, as much as a lack of knowlege or intent on behalf of the insurgents. There is less visible evidence of direct "IS Central" influence in terms of equipment and tactics compared to IS WA proper, which benefited in particular from leadship direction and training from IS in Libya. However, this does exist, and tactics such as pre-Assault VBIED have been used. Given the lightweight nature of typical ISGS attacks, heavy weapons beyond HMG are unneeded, and instead reliable small arms are of primary importance, along with RPG.
Regional states and Western powers operating in the area, including most notably France and the United States, have achieved successes against IS GS and other groups such as JNIM. Despite this it doesn't appear that violence locally will abate any time soon, and ISGS' overrunning of multiple military bases will ensure a steady supply of arms going forward.
Part 4 of this series will cover the equipment, capture and operations of IS West Africa as they continue their attacks in Nigeria. Coming soon!