Those who knew him at that time recall him as the intellectual, “the thinking head” of Mujao. But in 2015, he broke away and threw in his lot with the Islamic State.
As Mr. al-Sahraoui recruited from Fulani communities, exploiting their grievances against the state, the group quickly grew in strength.
When his troops ambushed a patrol of U.S. and Nigerien soldiers in Tongo Tongo, in the Tillabéri region of Niger, the group captured global attention.
Typically, hordes of fighters on motorcycles used to swarm in and overwhelm military targets, killing dozens of soldiers at a time, stealing their weapons and then disappearing back into the desert.
But in 2020, the group’s fortunes fell.
Over that year, an estimated 400 to 500 of its fighters were killed by French strikes and in battles with a group aligned with Al Qaeda, Jama’at Nusratul Islam wal Muslimin. The following year, they increasingly turned their guns on civilians, killing over 100 villagers in an attack in January and 58 men returning from a trade fair in March.
“These massacres should be seen as a sign of weakness, not strength,” Ms. Armstrong said. “They’re killing farmers, not soldiers.”