Africa’s Sahel Region: The New Cradle Of Jihadism

With ISIS severely enfeebled since the killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, another geographical zone has become the new base of Islamic fundamentalism: Africa’s Sahel region.

Where Is The Sahel?

The Sahel extends across 5,400 kilometers, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and crossing North Sahara up to the South of the Sudanese savanna. It is a vast transitional zone that includes the countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.

Drought and famine throughout the years have impoverished the area which is deeply economically depressed and deficient in its primary industrial sector. However, the Sahel is one of the richest regions in the world in terms of natural resources. Mali is Africa’s third-largest gold producer, while Niger is the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium and also has a significant amount of gold, coal and oil production. Chad’s oil fields have drawn the attention of many multi-national corporations including ESSO and China National Petroleum Company, while Burkina Faso’s gold production ranked the country as the fourth biggest gold producer of the African continent. Nevertheless, the extractive industry in the Sahel is not as profitable as it should be due to multiple factors such as taxing company profits and the impossibility for the natural resources sector to create new jobs nationwide.

Security Challenges Facing The Sahel

Currently, the most worrisome problems facing the Sahel region are terrorism and weapons smuggling. The latter is highly connected with Islamic jihadist activity, as it involves the main crossroads of the region. In 2005, the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative was launched with the backing of the United States. The Trans-Saharan partnershipcomprising the Maghreb and the Sahel countriesfocused on fighting terrorism by enabling local governments to gain significant control over the deserted Trans-Saharan territory, otherwise easily used as a clever and efficient hideout for jihadist groups. The United States also engaged the Sahel issue ahead of time by promoting the Pan Sahel Initiative in November 2002 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom within the context of the wider Global War on Terror. Another initial attempt at combating the danger of terrorism in the region was the Resolution 2071 that the UN adopted in October 2012, along with the sending of NATO troops to put an end to human rights abuses and violations in Mali.

The G5 Sahel

Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad formed the G5 Sahel in February 2014. It is an institutional cooperative organization aimed at guaranteeing the region’s long-term stability with several developmental projects in the member countries. Among the G5 Sahel countries, only Chad and Niger seem to have reached any noticeable semblance of improvement in political stability. However, Chad’s President, Idriss Déby, has been in power for 30 years, and a new constitution was approved in April 2018 to expand his powers and leave him in charge until 2033. Moreover, from an economic perspective, Chad is the seventh most impoverished country in the world, according to The United Human’s Nations Development Index. Fully 80 percent of the population lives in miserable conditions as per the Internatioal Monetary Fund.

Like all former French colonies, Niger also experienced periods of turmoil following independence from the Hexagon, turning into a stable country only in 2010, in the wake of a coupe d’état carried out by its army. Niger adjoins with Mali, Burkina Faso, Libya, Chad, and Nigeria, and its geographical location places it in a hotspot as a transit zone for armed and terrorist groups. Indeed, Niger is currently engaged on a twofold front: first, at the border zones with Burkina Faso and Mali where it has to deal with the terrorist group Boko Haram’s ongoing forays and attacks; second in its attempt to reassert control over the transit route most widely used by criminal couriers.

Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Mali also went through enduring political upheaval due to their independence from France, achieved in 1958 and 1960, respectively. Years of continuous coups d’état, together with fragile economies, have affected security at the cross-border areas of all countries, paving the way for the proliferation of terrorist activity in the whole Sahel. Although Mauritania and Chad also contend with the scourge of terrorism, international observers locate the most critical situation in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

Proliferation Of Jihadist Groups In The Sahel

A number of armed extremist Salafist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS), Ansar Dine (AAD), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa’ (MUJAO), the Macina Liberation Front and Boko Haram operate in the Sahel. The latter started its activity in 2002 for no reason other than to supposedly purify Islam in Nigeria, turning into an armed group later. The most influential group among these, AQIM, burst upon the scene back in 2007 as a Salafist militia focused on unseating the Algerian government.

Mali’s Civil War

AQIM drew international attention in 2013 because of its role in the In Amenas hostage crisis, in which 67 people were killed. However, it must be said that safety across the Sahel first sharply and noticeably deteriorated following the Libyan Civil War in 2011, which greatly contributed to destabilizing the area. Tuareg mercenaries, who fought on the frontline by the side of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, returned to Mali provided with new weapons to conduct their longed-for irredentist clash, building an alliance with the Islamic terrorist militias. The outbreak of civil war in Mali, which led the north of the country being under the control of Ansar Dine and AQIM, triggered the swift intervention of France with Operation Serval in 2013. This operation was unavoidably bound to financial interests in Mali, but it was through Operation Barkhane (2014) that France hoped to fully eradicate jihadism from the entire Sahel by employing over 3,000 service members.

Jihadist Modus Operandi

The hurdle international forces are encountering in vanquishing Islamic terrorism is most likely connected to the layered network that the armed groups have established beyond borders and countries. It is widely understood that AQIM has woven beneficial linkages with al-Murabitun, MUJAO, and the Nigerian terrorist groups Boko Haram and Ansaru. As members of AQIM left the group to merge into other Salafist projects, new connections were established. For instance, AQIM former leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, merged his newly moulded group with MUJAO to form al-Murabitun in August 2013. Abdelmalek Droukdel’s statements about AQIM supporting Boko Haram with training and weapons corroborates the thesis of a multilateral affiliation between manifold Sahel terrorist groups. In addition, the capacity of self-financing demonstrated a clear similarity among different Islamic armed groups with regards to the kidnapping of civilians, showing some commonality and falling within the same modus operandi.

Jihadist Kidnappings On The Rise

Borderless abduction is a common practice for terrorist groups given that the targeted hostages are foreign citizens aid workers, diplomats, or touristswhose governments have shown themselves willing to pay ransom. The Algerian, US, and UK governments have never acquiesced to ransom payments in order to prevent Salafi-jihadist groups from enriching themselves, in contrast to the decisions of European governments regarding payments throughout the years. The 2003 Sahara hostage crisis, for example, yielded $6 million to AQIM. Despite European governments never having admitted to having paid such sums of money, AQIM’s kidnapping industry revenue has been estimated at between $50 and $90 million from 2003 to 2013. France’s Operation Serval not only undermined Salafi terrorist activity but also had the effect of spurring the armed groups’ determination in hitting Western countries by persisting in kidnappings.

Counterterrorism Strategy For The Sahel

In June 2017, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2359, deploying 10,000 soldiers as The Sahel Group of Five Sahel Joint Force. The resolution also performed the functions of supporting French forces as well as the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The EU participated in the multilateral coalition by donating €50 million in financial support. The United Nations harbored a certain concern over the threat of terrorism, organized crime, and human trafficking across the Sahel. It also observed a dramatic upturn in Jihadist activity, registering a five-fold increase in terrorist attacks between 2016 and 2019 in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, with 4,000 deaths reported in 2019. Almost 1,800 people died in Burkina Faso in 2019 due to continuing attacks perpetrated by terrorist groups. The beginning of terrorist incidents dates back to 2015 in Mali with the Hotel Bamako attack and the November shooting at the Hippodrome district, causing the overall death of 25 people. Ansar Dine was responsible for the 2016 Nampala attack, in which 17 Malian soldiers died.

Persisting attacks are plaguing the Sahel region, spreading from Mali to Burkina Faso and Niger, making 2019 the most catastrophic year for the whole area in decades. On 20 January 2020, an unspecified terrorist group killed 36 people in Sanmatenga Province in Burkina Faso. Even though it is not yet clear who the perpetrators are, it is sure that this new attack adds a surge of desperation over the renewed bloodshed. The January attack reached a new spike of atrocity, previously reached only by the 2016 Ouagadougou attacks, in which 30 people perished at the hands of AQIM.

The Security Situation In The Sahel Is Extremely Serious

The Sahel issue is so dire that it has required a new summit between France and the heads of the G5 Sahel countries. The meeting was held in Pau on Monday January 13, 2020 with a dual purpose: the first was associated with Macron’s desire to be reassured about the G5 Sahel countries’ endorsement of France’s entanglement in the conflict as a sentiment of disinclination toward the foreign troops has arisen among Sahel populations. The second objective was to strengthen the alliance’s commitment to facing terrorism whereby both parties called for a more systematic use of joint programming and for reciprocal delegation mechanisms. Although it is not possible to make any predictions about the forthcoming developments of France’s engagement in the region or its relationships with the Sahel countries, it is quite certain that this huge area of the African continent drew the heightened attention of major international political actors as soon as its extractive sector was jeopardized by the rise of the new flourishing industry of jihadist terrorism.