international analysis and commentary

Regional terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel connections


Long before Western colonization, it was merchants from the Maghreb that brought Islam to West Africa. Since the ninth century, it has spread widely and now the region is home to some of the largest concentrations of believers in the continent. In some countries, such as Mauritania and Mali, up to 90% of the population practices Islam. Strikingly, Islam survived the catholicization imposed by Western powers during their colonial empires. Recent terror attacks, including the one on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, that left 20 people dead in November 2015, have brought attention to the topic of violent extremism arising from Islam in the region.

Terrorist activity and Western presence

All recent attacks have naturally been followed by a renewed and burly Western presence, for example the French military forces in Mali that arrived following a call for help from the national government in 2013, after separatists in the North claimed secession. The conflict in Northern Mali saw the involvement of both traditionalist Tuareg clans (the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, MNLA), and modern pan-Islamist organizations (especially Ansar Dine, but also the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa – MUJAO in the French acronym – a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM).

The conflict has now reached a fragile truce, as the ceasefire agreement signed early in 2015 remains intact, notwithstanding sporadic terrorist attacks. These attacks fall out of the control imposed by the agreement, as they take place along porous borders (in particular with neighboring Mauritania and Burkina Faso) which are a serious threat to the success of counterterrorism measures.

Mali, for instance – a country sharing a long border with Algeria – has seen an upsurge in attacks and beneath the surface is an uncontrolled spreading of paramilitary Islamic organizations. In particular, since the attack on the Hotel in Bamako in November 2015, Mali has witnessed attacks directed to the EU training camp (which resulted in the attacker killed), to the UN peace-keeping mission (May, one peace-keeper lost his life), and to its military base (July, 17 casualties). These new waves of terrorism are indicative of the growing reach of AQIM and its affiliates in West Africa.

There is a unique element in these attacks that makes them stand out from other forms of Islamic terrorism, especially those witnessed in the Horn of Africa and in the Middle East: targets are foreign and particularly Western nationals. In the cases of Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, the incidents represented the first major Islamist attacks in those countries, while the attack on Ivory Coast beach resorts was also the furthest south Sahel-based militants have carried out an attack. Burkina Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries, the large part of its economy is financed by international aid, and the local government has recently claimed to have neutralized a coup; Ivory Coast, on the other hand, shows a fragile democracy that never fully recovered from the two last civil wars (2002-2007 and 2010-2011).

One can easily understand why those countries, with weak institutions on display, can unwillingly harvest terrorism. Armed police were deployed around major hotels in Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Ivory Coast, while a state of emergency imposed in Mali since late 2015 have been repeatedly renewed.

Rivalry with the Islamic State

AQIM claimed its share of responsibility for each attack alongside several other independent groups, raising solid suspicions of collaboration in the preparation and the execution of the attacks. In fact, other organizations also claimed to have had a central role in the attacks: the Sahel-based group Al-Mourabitoun, the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) and Ansar Dine, whose involvement risked jeopardizing the truce with the government in Bamako. Al-Mourabitoun, led by Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is well-known for targeting French nationals in the region, but the Bamako attack was the first on such a large scale; it also marked the beginning of an alliance with AQIM.

The MLF and Ansar Dine are both based in southern Mali and have ramifications (cells, weaponry trade, etc.) in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, respectively. Having several minds involved in attacks also proves the ability of AQIM to coopt-in and recruit from different ethnic groups in order to expand its activities and further advocate for the birth of a greater Islamic nation in the region. The most promising basin from which to draw is notably the marginalized Muslim community.

To this extent, there is the intra-organizational issue of rivalry. Analysts agree that the growing cooperation between the Islamist militant groups in the Sahel and their desire to conduct more spectacular attacks in West Africa is likely driven by a growing regional rivalry with the Islamic State (ISIS). The emergence of the Caliphate and its increasing influence among jihadist networks in the Sahel have intensified regional competition between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, pushing the latter to seek closer cooperation with other autonomous militants and expand into the countries where they operate.

Vulnerable countries

Meanwhile, the governments’ hands are tied. A crucial factor in the lack of regional security is that countries do not have the means to patrol the borders in the area. The desert and the lack of populated areas impede control of the borders between Mali and its neighboring states of Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The weak military presence mirrors a more structural problem: the lack of know-how on counterterrorism. American training programs are highly benefitting the national armies, but remain confined to capacity-building and are therefore ineffective when it comes to boosting regional security cooperation or intelligence-sharing – on a background of very poor interstate relations, especially on the matter of counterterrorism. On top of that, French forces are committed to securing areas in Mali rather than actually building on what they have learned during the conflict (despite having recently announced an additional €42 million in military aid, including weaponry).

Another problematic issue is that actions taken by national actors are largely responsive and rarely preventive. In recent months, the governments of Ghana, Togo and especially Senegal have all increased security measures in response to reports of expanding jihadist networks in their countries. Reportedly, this resulted from former fighters arrested in Mali admitting the worrisome intention of setting up a Boko Haram cell in Senegal, with the latter being a target of both ISIS and Al-Qaeda allies.

But military campaigns alone are deemed insufficient in bringing long-lasting solutions to terrorism in the Sahel. As foreseeable, violent jihad has taken on a regional dimension and therefore should be countered through a regional solution. The ideology they stem from has a regional – and perhaps even global – scope; cooperation amongst groups is transnational as well, and should be treated as such. This ideology does not stem from the consequences of internal problems and grievances, but is instead linked to a foreign presence, remarkably addressed as a target, and to transnational plans. If the attacks on Mali were payback for Western military intervention in the country, as many analysts had unanimously agreed, it is also true that the Burkinabe strikes are more linked to regional dynamics, shifting the ground from strategic military actions to blatant attacks on foreign nationals.

Transnational issues need transnational solutions

Despite isolated efforts by local and international governments to expand counterterrorism capabilities, training standards remain a concern, while the porous borders make nations vulnerable to infiltration of both fighters and weapons. A first sign of leadership towards cooperation between nations on intelligence-sharing was shown by Nigeria in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – an organization that has long been dormant on policing issues, but that was now repeatedly called upon to increase collaboration and cut economic means on terrorist organizations.

But despite isolated efforts, scenarios of all kinds are still open. The key issue that could eventually shift the picture is the willingness of countries to invest in and cooperate on border security and transnational policing, bearing in mind that regional phenomena are to be fought through regional strategies.