Terrorism in the Sahel: flourishing in the desert chaos

By Jacob Lindelöw Berntson

The attacks on the Radisson hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako in November 2015, in which 20 people were killed, once again put the country’s instability into the headlines of international news. With neighbouring Burkina Faso experiencing an attack on its capital Ouagadougou in January this year, where 30 people lost their lives, many fear a spread of terrorism in the Sahel, with analysts and politicians talking about the region as a new frontier against terror.

But terrorism is not a new phenomenon in the Sahel. Rather, it has organically grown a firm foothold in the region over the last decade, and traces its roots back to the end of the Algerian Civil War. If not properly addressed, terrorism in the Sahel poses a threat not only to West Africa but potentially even Europe.

The reason you may not have heard of terrorism in the Sahel may have two explanations. One, you’ve never heard of the Sahel, and two, ISIS are doing a good job of stealing the limelight in terms of transnational terror.

The region known as the Sahel is made up of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. In more generous definitions, countries such as Senegal, Algeria (southern part), Sudan and South Sudan are also included. These countries are all situated in the semi-arid area between the Sahara desert and the more fertile sub-Saharan Africa region, hence the name Sahel, which means ‘shore’ in Arabic. It is one of the most culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse areas in Africa.


The origins of terror

Many of the terror groups active in this area today operate out of northern Mali, and trace their ancestry back to the Algerian Civil War (1992-2002). During what Algerians call ‘the Black Decade’, several Islamist guerilla groups rose up against the Algerian state after the military suspended elections that the Islamists were about to win. The most extreme of these groups was the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), a group that many now see as a predecessor to ISIS due to their reckless brutality and indiscriminate killings.

As the GIA was decimated over the course of the war, some members started their own faction, known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). This group did not, unlike many GIA fighters, lay down their arms under protection of the amnesty laws introduced in 1999. The GSPC later evolved into what we today know as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) after a convergence of interests with Osama bin Laden’s group.

One branch of AQIM is the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a branch of which in turn merged with the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar to create Al-Mourabitoun. This group carried out the attack and following hostage crisis in the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria in 2013, and has together with AQIM claimed responsibility for the aforementioned attacks in Bamako and Ouagadougou.

Belmokhtar is an infamous character. Known as ‘the one-eyed sheikh of the Sahara’, he has eluded Western and African intelligence services for years. Like many of those who partook in the Algerian Civil War, Belmokhtar fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. During the Civil War, he fought for the GIA and later became a commander in AQIM, before eventually breaking off and creating various movements that would later evolve into today’s al-Mourabitoun.

Belmokhtar has been dubbed ‘the uncatchable’, and has been pronounced dead several times only to reappear in video messages days later. Although he moves around in the Sahara, he has ties to the deserts of northern Mali where he has married into Tuareg tribes, thus cementing his local network.

Descent into chaos

In order to understand the increase of attacks in the Sahel in recent years, one needs to look at Mali, a huge country that functions as home to many of these organisations. In particular, the crisis of 2012 has benefitted many of the terror groups operating in the Sahel.

In brief, the Mali crisis of 2012 was an insurgency initiated by Tuareg militias in northern Mali’s Azawad region. The Tuareg communities see themselves as marginalised by the south, were most of the power is concentrated (this is a topic that Malian Tuareg rock band Tinariwen often address in their music). However, this uprising was hijacked by jihadi forces and destabilised the entire region, resulting in the entry of French forces to counter terrorist gains. Despite this, Tuareg rebel forces have continued their struggle, with the ultimate aim of independence for the Azawad region.

Fighting between rebels and government forces only came to an end with a peace agreement, brokered by Algeria, in June 2015. Besides French forces, the UN has sent in their peacekeeping MINUSMA force in order to stabilise the country, and their mandate was extended after the peace agreement was announced. Moreover, the peace deal stipulated that power would be moved to a more local level, thus addressing the grievances many northerners have towards the south. Importantly, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has also been established, with the goal of recognising post-independence injustices.

However, Mali is in no way a stable country, and organisations such as Ansar Eddine, which was set up during the Tuareg rebellion, seem to have grown since the French intervention in Mali. Moreover, terrorist groups still control many of the smuggling routes, both in Mali and in the Sahel as a whole.

For example, the links that Belmokhtar has made with local Tuareg groups in Mali has allowed him to control important trade routes, often used for drug smuggling. In 2012, it was estimated that 18 tons of cocaine was smuggled through the Sahel for a value of $1.25 billion, and many terror groups have this as their prime income. Kidnappings and subsequent ransom payments are further means of revenue for these groups, with AQIM’s estimated revenue at between $60-175 million. Moreover, the turmoil in Libya has facilitated drug trade across the border into Algeria, Niger and Chad, thus giving many of these groups unprecedented income opportunities.


From bad to worse

It is in this chaos and seeming lawlessness that Sahelian terrorist groups operate. But what explains the recent escalation of violence with the spectacular attacks in Bamako and Ouagadougou? Some see the attacks as a result of ISIS expansion, and as a way of drawing attention back to the Sahelian organisations and their aims.

Although we now know that Al-Mourabitoun carried out the Bamako attack together with AQIM, both Ansar Eddine and the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) – according to one French intelligence officer “the biggest problem in Mali today” – claimed responsibility for the attacks shortly after it was perpetrated. The latter group has been under pressure after one of its commanders were arrested by Malian security forces, whereas as Ansar Eddine are struggling to remain at the centre of attention after being marginalised by the Malian peace deal. Although these two groups did not perpetrate the Bamako or Ouagadougou attacks, a reaction is to be expected in order to draw attention back to their objectives.

Why the Sahel?

The attacks do not only, however, represent a desperate desire for attention, but are a tragic result of several factors that have permitted terrorism to grow in the Sahel. The first reason could be seen as ideological, as Salafism (a fundamentalist approach to Islam aiming to emulate the Prophet’s way of life) has grown in the region along with the increase of Gulf influence. For example, Saudi international aid organisations are accused of spreading Wahhabism (the state-sanctioned Saudi branch of Salafism), that allegedly is gradually replacing the traditionally local interpretation of Islam.

However, the terrorism problem can, as usual, not be explained by religion or ideology alone, as a conservative religious idea alone almost never motivates violence. One also needs to look the socio-economic conditions of the region, which in turn affects basic necessities and food security. Apart from their alleged ideological influence, Gulf nations are also purchasing or renting vast amounts of land in many Sahel countries where they grow crops for use back in their own countries. Inevitably, this has hurt local peasantry and economic conditions for many.

Climate change has also hurt small-scale agriculture. Besides the direct impact this has on peasantry, it also provokes several other developments. For example, it provokes rapid urbanisation, where migrants from rural areas often form slum areas around cities and are being met with hostility and xenophobia by their urban neighbours, which in turn lead to social unrest.

Furthermore, looking at the Sahel countries, it is no surprise that there is social unrest. Niger, for example, is officially the poorest country in the world and is currently facing a food crisis whilst simultaneously having had to organise a national election. Although the elections passed by peacefully, with incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou poised to win (the votes are still being counted), the country still needs to fight off the increase in homegrown jihadism. This is exacerbated by developments in Libya, unrest in Mali and, to make things even worse, Boko Haram expansion in northern Nigeria. It is no wonder analysts speak of Niger as the next country to explode, regardless of the reason being terrorist violence of social unrest.

The Nigerien trend is something that can be seen in Senegal as well, a country that has been put on high alert ever since the attacks in Burkina Faso. Another country potentially plunging into trouble is Chad, as many northern Chadian Toubous are increasingly taking on ISIS across the Libyan border. Not only could this have repercussions in terms of ISIS expansion into Chad, but it could also export the conflict taking place between Tuaregs and Tobous into Chad. This, along with the fact that the Sahel nations all rank at the bottom of the UNDP’s Human Development Index, means we could face an increase of unrest and terror in the region in the foreseeable future.

Neglect, deprivation and counter-terrorism

What unite many of the Sahel countries are the traditional divisions between north and south, as in the case of Mali mentioned above. Power has been concentrated in the urban parts of the south, whereas the north has been neglected. This, along with the inability of several Sahelian governments to address the socio-economic problems facing their country has created grievances among the population, which is itself one explanation of the turn to radicalisation and terrorism.

Moreover, many of the Sahel governments are backed by Western nations in their effort to fight terrorism. This only seems to strengthen terrorism, as local terror commanders can point to the fact that corrupt leaders are being held in power by the West, which has been a motto for terrorist organisations both outside and inside Africa for decades.

Western counter-terrorism efforts have been in effect since the Bush and post-9/11 era, with the US implementing two different anti-terror programs in the mid-2000s. However, these have been criticised for exacerbating the situation, as they have simply given money to (and consequently reinforced the rule of) unpopular and corrupt regimes. According to one observer, the regimes in Mali and Niger have deliberately provoked Tuareg rebels to take up arms in order to receive more funding for their anti-terror initiatives.


Why the recent attacks are alarming

So despite terror in the Sahel not being a new problem, the attacks in Ouagadougou, where a hotel and a restaurant was targeted, signify an alarming shift in recent trends. The attacks were supposedly planned by an AQIM-affiliated Egyptian named Seif al Adel, who was recently released from Iranian custody in a prisoner swap for an Iranian diplomat. He was then able to move across the Sahel without being detected by security forces, and able to coordinate the attacks together with Al-Mourabitoun’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the ‘uncatchable’. The inability to detain these two demonstrates the general failure of the counter-terrorism struggle in the Sahel: despite huge amounts of money being spent, the results are yet to be seen.

Although AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun have long had a close relationship, there is reason to worry about the fact that they now have planned and carried out two big attacks on Sahelian capitals, as attacks have previously mainly hit military checkpoints in rural areas. According to one analyst at the International Crisis Group, this reflects a change of tactics for the groups as they want to show that they can hold areas larger than their traditional strongholds in northern Mali.

The attacks in Burkina Faso were partially possible due to the instability following the ousting of President Blaise Compaoré in a 2014 popular uprising. However, as mentioned above, ‘stability’ in the shape of leaders unable to address their countries’ problems does not ensure protection from terror either. What is needed is not only an efficient counter-terrorism program, which often equates despotic spying measures and discrimination, but recognition of the deeper underlying problems facing the Sahel. Unless the poverty, food insecurity, discrimination and deprivation faced by many Sahelians are addressed and dealt with, terrorism is likely to grow in the region, with the attacks on Bamako and Ouagadougou only being a sign of things to come.




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