There has been a substantial increase in violent extremist activity in the Sahel. The 2022 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) lays out the tenfold increase between 2007 and 2021, with Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger recording 732, 572 and 554 more deaths in 2021 than in 2007, respectively. Moreover, the GTI highlights that deaths from terrorism in the Sahel in 2021 accounted for 35 percent of global deaths from terrorism compared to one percent in 2007. The first seven months of 2022 have underlined the persistence of violence across the region, with more incidents taking place in Western African countries, particularly northern Ghana, Benin and Togo.
Several factors explain this increase: weak militaries, poor governance, low trust in political institutions, limited employment opportunities, and environmental changes. However, there is also the incorporation of al-Qaedaism — a theological-ideological strategy that has three elements: strict interpretation of Islam (Salafism), the appointment of jihad as the sixth pillar, and glocalism, the infusion of local issues with transnational ideas.
The presence of violent extremist groups across the Sahel and their slow move towards West Africa’s coastal states have sown widespread instability as these groups look to escape security forces and other heavy-handed counterterrorism measures. In other words, once the security services establish a foothold, the extremists move somewhere else because borders are porous. As these groups move to new areas, they bring death, destruction, and fear. The spread of these groups, which also form sub-groups (katibas), explains why some emphasize a need to focus on the Sahel and West Africa. However, it is important to avoid the same counterterrorism strategy that was pursued in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. In fact, the region needs a systemic response, one aimed to counter al-Qaedaism.
The Rise of Al-Qaedaism in the Sahel
By all lay accounts, al-Qaeda appears irrelevant in the transnational terrorist landscape, as the group seems to have given up on carrying out terror attacks. Nevertheless, a recent report by the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which draws on intelligence from UN member states, determined that al-Qaeda “intends to be recognized again as the leader of global jihad.” The team added, “Al-Qaeda propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL as the key actor in inspiring the international threat environment, and it may ultimately become a greater source of directed threat.”
The reason why some scholars argue al-Qaeda has lost its relevance is that, over the last decade, the group has lost its founder, Osama bin Laden, and countless other leading figures including his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, which may explain why it has not carried out any major operations. In fact, al-Zawahiri’s relevance to the global Salafi-jihadist movement was often debated during his 11-year reign. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda and the ideology behind it, have remained a source of concern. The 2022 Annual Threat Assessment found that al-Qaeda “has increasingly devolved operational responsibility to regional affiliates as it has shifted away from centrally-directed plotting.” Such a statement explains why Dr. Avril Haines, the US Director of National Intelligence, warned in the same assessment: “Terrorism remains a persistent threat to US persons and interests at home and abroad.”, adding that al-Qaeda is likely to continue to strive to “conduct attacks in the United States.”
Moving beyond the actual group and the danger it, its affiliates, supporters and sympathizers pose, is the propagation of al-Qaedaism — a powerful ideology-cum-strategy that calls for patience and even political compromise in the pursuit of the goal of turning the Muslim Community (umma) away from syncretic cultural, tribal and popular rituals that have come to pollute Islam. The al-Qaeda ideology-strategy looks to infuse local issues — primarily policies and actions that will engage with, and motivate, aggrieved young men to action — with al-Qaeda’s transnational Salafi-jihadist ideology. Al-Qaeda’s recruitment campaign recognizes that many young men are angry at the lack of employment opportunities and the widespread malfeasance, corruption and foreign presence in their countries.
When it comes to strategy, al-Qaeda seems to reject a competitive escalation with the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda ideologist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi highlights this when he emphasized the need for a truce between the two movements. Meanwhile, Abu Qatada maintained the groups were not in an ideological dispute, but rather an organizational one. The views expounded upon by al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada suggest, at least from the perspective of al-Qaeda Central, a recognition of the dangers of demanding doctrinal purity, leading some to call for pragmatism and to avoid competitive escalation. On its part however, Islamic State, through its Wilayat Yemen Media Bureau, has made it clear that it does not wish to engage in a truce, condemning al-Qaeda Central for its apostasy.
The Rise of Affiliates
Al-Qaeda Central has encouraged the development of powerful and dangerous branches and franchisees. In the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, there is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, (AQAP); in Africa, there is al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and Jamaat Ansar al Muslimeen fi Bilad al Sudan; and in South Asia, there is al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
Groups connected or affiliated with al-Qaeda Central carry out effective terror campaigns — some even against US targets such as the 2019 shooting at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida by Saudi national Mohammed Alshamrani, thus keeping the al-Qaeda Salafi-jihadist ideology alive. Others, mainly in the Sahel and North Africa, seem more temperate in their militancy, as they look to win over locals, weaken national governments, intimidate and drive away foreign intervention and prepare the ground for the Islamization of the region. In other words, it would appear that al-Qaeda has found a way to integrate the knowledge and experience of the old guard with the enthusiastic zest of the younger generation, as new leaders look to establish themselves in new spheres of jihad.
The Islamic State strategy remains a bit unclear. One suspects that the group recognizes that its ability to recreate the Caliphate in 2022 in Iraq and Syria is near impossible, which explains why it has looked to Africa as key to its globalized insurgency. The Islamic State strategy in such places such as West Africa, the Sahel, the eastern Congo, and northern Mozambique, is to engage in an insurgency. The intention is to carry out hit-and-run attacks aimed at causing widespread instability, while also reminding local communities that the military cannot protect them, so that they turn to the Islamic State.
Various Groups and Approaches
There appears to be three types of terrorist groups in the Sahel. There are transnational jihadist groups with official or semi-official links to al-Qaeda Central. The groups that best typify this are AQIM and JNIM. On the other end, there are groups with ties to the Islamic State such as Islamic State in the Western Africa Province and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. These groups adopt a glocalist approach whereby they look to infuse local issues, such as socio-economic-political grievances, with a Salafi-jihadist agenda. JNIM’s leader, at one point, stated:
“Our aim is to mobilize the umma … to lift the injustice from it and fight the French occupier and its associates and agents who occupy our land, corrupt our religion … and plunder our wealth … until they leave our country … and to implement justice and shura, and govern our land with the law of our Lord.”
Islamic State affiliates in West Africa and the Sahel have sworn allegiance to the Iraqi self-proclaimed leader of Islamic State, Abu Hasan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, thus building on previous engagement between Sahelian groups and Islamic State Central. They probably hope that Islamic State Central will continue to send physical and religious education materials and financial support to them if they carry out their jihadist insurgency. However, the distance also means that the local affiliates could pick and choose how to work with Islamic State Central, particularly when it comes to theology, which is far too rigid and puritanical for the Sahel.
The second type of group seems more focused on local issues, and its commitment to Salafi-jihadism appears to be more tenuous. These groups frame their actions through an ethnic-nationalist-religious-economic paradigm. Ansar al-Dine — a Salafi-jihadist group in Mali which recruited members from the Ifoghas (the tribe of its leader, Iyad ag Ghaly) — is a prime example. Even though it had Ghaly and many Tuareg jihadists, the group seemed more focused on the liberation of the Azawad region and fulfilling Ghaly’s ambitions.
Also in Mali, the Katiba Macina, a militant Islamist group made up of mainly Fulani — a nomadic people and one of the largest ethnic groups in the Sahel — is another such example. Initially, what probably drove many Fulani to join the group was anger against the Bambara and Dogon ethnic groups, whom they felt received preferential treatment from the government. Tor A. Benjaminsen and Boubacar Ba, political researchers with expertise on Malian issues, persuasively demonstrate the allure of these groups in that they project an anti-state, anti-elite and pro-pastoral narrative infused with jihadist language.
These groups look to exploit local frustration with persistent corruption and under-investment. However, Intelligence Analysis lecturer Lawrence Cline shows, with respect to the Fulani, that the group and the messaging appeal to the younger generation because of deteriorating ecological factors, worsening socio-economic-political conditions, including rising food insecurity, and the infusion of more Middle Eastern Islamic practices and ideas. These messages resonate with a largely unemployed and angry young generation that feels neglected and ignored. In Cameroon for example, Boko Haram has looked to exploit the lack of recruitment, offering a female the promise of a house cleaning job only to make her carry out a suicide attack. Recognizing that lack of employment could be a recruiting tool, the government responded by distributing thousands of goats and sheep to young Cameroonians living near the border with Nigeria, in the hope of generating income and employment. In other words, the change in the ecology, the narrowing of socio-economic opportunities, increased political marginalization, and rising religiosity stemming in part from Da’wa activity, all serve as pull and push factors.
The third type of group emerges as a response to specific situations and events. Entities such as the Dan Nan Ambassagou Association (“those who put their trust in God”) — a militia from the ethnic Bambaras people in Mali — appeared around 2016, as a self-defense force. This specific group represents Bambaras who have a grudge against the Fulani. The Association claims they provide self-defense to Bambara. Its founder, Youssouf Tolob, has confirmed that the former Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga supported its formation. Another example of such a group is the Koglweogo (Mooré: kogle ‘to protect’; weogo ‘territory’) operating mainly in Burkina Faso of which there are around 50. It is challenging to define these groups because they provide security to many local communities from thieves and corrupt security personnel. In return for the security that they provide, the group will make certain political and socio-economic demands.
Systemic governance failures and reliance by local governments on heavy-handed counterterrorism measures, which have forced some groups to relocate, have meant that the Salafi-jihadist problem has now spread across the region. As a result, the problem, which as of 2012, was mainly in Northern Mali, has now spread across several Sahelian countries.
A Revised Strategy
There has been a general assumption that Salafi-jihadist groups want to overthrow the existing status quo and install their own governance systems, giving rise to proto-jihadist states. However, the region has already experienced such a state, with the Islamic Emirate of Azawad, which lasted around nine months. Looking at the current strategy of groups such as JNIM, it seems more likely that these groups are looking to adopt a different model — one based on the Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan. In October 2020, the group released a statement calling on the French to withdraw from Mali, “just as the Americans departed from Afghanistan.”
JNIM draws influence from al-Qaeda’s new strategy that calls for the glocalization of al-Qaedaism — the infusion of local issues with global Salafi-jihadist goals. Thus, in early 2020, possibly because of rising insecurity, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta indicated he was ready to speak with the insurgents. However, he was unable to develop the initiative as he was overthrown by the military. Of the terrorist groups operating in Mali, the JNIM seems more open to negotiate with the government as it recognizes that the government in Bamako is facing regional and international condemnation and sanctions following the August 18, 2020 and May 24, 2021 coups.
Nevertheless, the rise in violence across the Sahel suggests that the JNIM and other Sahelian Salafi-jihadist groups have overplayed their hand, as their relentless campaigns coupled with increased banditry have undermined local peace and security. The rising insecurity has meant that, in the case of Mali, there have been several coups, which, in turn, has led to the imposition of sanctions and general opprobrium. Tense relations between Bamako and Paris, coupled with French president Emmanuel Macron’s campaign for a second presidential term, has meant Malians can no longer rely on France, and by extension Europe, for support as both recognize that their ability to defeat the insurgency is limited.
This has left Malians and the African Union with no choice but to figure out a solution on their own. The military, which has refused to relinquish power without recourse to weapons or support, has reached out to such entities as the Wagner Group to help it counter the Salafi-jihadist insurgency in the hope that by defeating the insurgents, those who had committed the coup would be forgiven. However, entities such as the Wagner Group are exceptionally ruthless, and have faced allegations of gross human rights violations, which plays into the Salafi-jihadist hands as they assert that the government cannot provide security to the population, which the groups tend to provide in areas they control. Secondly, the Salafi-jihadists show that the government is beholden to foreigners who carried out atrocities against Malians.
Sahelian Salafi-jihadists have adopted a flexible strategy — one that draws on al-Qaeda’s glocalist strategy, which calls on local groups to assess conditions on the ground and link them to transnational issues. These groups know that local militaries cannot defeat them because, if necessary, they retreat into the bush, gather resources, and reinitiate their campaigns. Currently, their campaigns focus on attracting new members and winning over people through judicial support and the provision of basic security. They do not appear interested in holding territory as they did in the 2010s. Therefore, they look to absorb fighters into key groups. JNIM offers a good example of this strategy, as it took in Ansar al-Dine and al-Mourabitoun members. In Nigeria, once Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, JAS (Boko Haram) died, ISWAP absorbed JAS fighters. This strategy does not prevent IS-affiliates and al-Qaeda affiliates from fighting each other, but because the territory is so vast, they are able to move to a different area and launch campaigns against government and military forces, aimed to spread insecurity, which, in turn, leads locals to join their ranks if only to gain some measure of security.
The other interesting development in the region is the unfolding crisis in northeast Nigeria, including in the Borno State. A combination of bandits (criminals) and terrorist groups (mainly from the Islamic State West Africa Province, whose fighters were responsible for the death of Abubakar Shekau, have paralyzed the region. The incessant attacks, including one on the 190km Abuja-Kaduna train, remind Nigerians — and many across the region who look to Nigeria — of just how little security people have, encouraging them to think about forming relations with either bandits or terrorists groups to protect them. The security forces patrol areas and engage the insurgents, but they generally do not live among the local communities, which means that once they leave the area, the local community must fend for itself.
The government responded by declaring bandits as terrorists and initiated a large military campaign aimed at restoring peace and security as Nigeria gears up for another election. It would seem that the military is again determined to defeat the insurgents through a tough and bloody military campaign. However, as was the case with previous campaigns, the ability of the military to permanently end the insurgency is unlikely because of cultural, historical, and socio-economic reasons that propel those that have nothing to join these entities.
The prospects of further European or American intervention in the Sahel and West Africa in the near future is unlikely, giving these groups the breathing space to solidify and cement the gains they have made over the last few years. Europe’s securitization of irregular migration has served to create more instability, as local actors will only stem the flow of irregular migrants as long as they are paid to do so. It has also meant that local communities become reliant on European largess in countering the movement of people, instead of developing their local economies.
If the international community is serious about stemming the flow of irregular migrants and addressing the rising threat of Salafi-jihadism, it needs to address the root problems in the Sahel. This begins with an understanding that borders in the region are largely fictitious, created over a century ago in Europe, which do not reflect the realities on the ground. These porous borders empower criminals to engage in smuggling as tariffs vary across the region. There are only 14 posts along Mali’s 7,561 kilometers of border; 23 border posts along Niger’s 5,688 kilometer border, 16 of which are located along the 2,000 kilometer border that Niger shares with Nigeria. Burkina Faso has 3,611 kilometers of border and 21 border posts, with evidence that those staffing the posts use their authority to extract tax from traders, thus encouraging informal crossings and trade, which occurs in areas controlled by bandits and terrorists.
A serious conversation about the political systems in Sahelian countries must take place. Democracy is a laudable system, but where there are disconnects between the center and the periphery, mass abject poverty, illiteracy, and widespread ethnic discrimination, simply voting for a political party or leader cannot fix the issue. This is why Western fixation with a political system that, by all accounts, does not represent the majority of the population is redundant. Thirdly, there is a desperate need to engage in development projects that empower local communities. In areas such as the Sahel, everything is local and ecological as the region is seeing its water sources disappearing and temperatures rising.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.