The widespread concern among the global intellectual community cannot even be denied. Conflicts in some African Sahel countries create a geopolitical vacuum, allowing for the revival of ethnic, sectarian or religious projects that are repeatedly brought to the international scene in the form of direct wars, proxy wars or ideological radical wars incurred by after generations. History has witnessed many tragedies of wars that arose for similar reasons despite their beginnings, such as the Somalia-Ethiopia conflict of 1977-1978, the Eritrea-Ethiopian war, and other wars in which thousands of innocent people were killed, leaving behind tainted and wrong ideology that even today, reflects painful and wrenching memories in the history of the continent.
Internal conflicts, such as those currently taking place in Mali, Burkina Faso or those related to generally unstable situations in the Middle East, are over the sovereignty of these countries in achieving goals that conflict with intellectual security, as well as the attempts to threaten stability (as in Mali). All of these things provide extremist groups and their ideology with greater opportunities to spread, and provide them with tools to level up their performance.
UN Secretary General’s Representative and head of the UN’s office in West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, expressed these concerns in a report to the Security Council at the end of July 2020. He emphasized what he described as “very fragile situations” in West Africa and the Sahel countries, revealing in his report that more than 921,000 citizens of Burkina Faso alone, were forced to flee their homes and cities by June 2020, which represents a 92% increase compared to the number of fugitives in 2019. The number of people internally deported in Mali is about 240,000, of whom 54% are women, while the number of those forced to flee their homeland in Niger is about 489,000, including internally displaced Nigerian and Malian refugees. In addition, there are nearly 7.7 million people in need of urgent aid, warning of the increasing links between terrorist groups, organized crime and those involved in internal violence. Terrorists continue to exploit anonymous ethnic elements to develop and expand their agenda in light of the absence of the state in remote areas and outskirt cities. In this study, the map of terrorist thoughts and organizations in the Sahel countries, and the impact of the conflict on the intellectual security of the group’s countries, is briefly reviewed.
The instability in some Asian and Africa countries, between 2011-2020, revived opportunities for extremist organizations to find a new base for their group’s activities, after suffering successive defeats at all security and ideological levels in previous decades. The fragile social, security, and economic state of these countries in both continents was very appealing to terrorists. The group of Sahel countries - Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mali – matched the needs of terrorist groups the best, and even new alliances have sought and continue to seek to exploit the countries’ political, security, and economic crises, in order to establish bases and incubators that are ideologically and doctrinally compatible with their goals of expansion and centralization, or building geopolitical blocs as new alliances that serve their interests and goals. This has increased the level of religiosity in these countries, and the resultant amount of violent and radical behavior.
It is important to go back in time to the period between 1991-2002 in some countries of the North African region, when extremist groups began to try to impose their ideologies by force and the so-called “Jihad Group” began to emerge as a radical party in some of these countries. This was followed by the emergence of terrorist groups that carried out acts of violence - including kidnappings and killings, during which tens of thousands of military and civilian victims were killed - to impose a new base according to the visions and goals of each group.
At this stage, the members of the Organization of African Unity began to pay attention to the dangers of these groups, so on July 14 1999, they hastened to adopt an agreement known as the “Algeris Agreement to Prevent and Combat Terrorism”, which came into force in December 2002, and included several clauses, the most important of which were: the agreement of the countries of the organization (Later the African Union) on a specific definition of terrorism:
“It is a violation of the criminal law of a state party, any act that endangers the life of individuals or poses a danger to natural integrity or liberty, or causes serious injury or death to any person, or any number or group of persons, or may cause loss of public and private property, or natural resources, environmental or cultural heritage, or whose aim is to intimidate or put any government into a state of fear, or coerce or compel it, or tempt any government, authority, institution, or any sector to do or refrain from doing any act or adopt any point of view or give up about it or to act according to certain principles or to support any public body, or to obstruct the provision of any essential services to the public, or to create a state of public emergency, or to create a state of public insurrection in a country, or to promote, sponsor, or contribute to any order, or aid, incitement, encouragement, attempt or threat or treason, or organizing or plotting by any person with the aim of committing any of the aforementioned acts”.
In addition, the member states of the African Union agreed, during their meeting in Algeria from 11-14 September 2000, on a “governmental action plan to confront terrorism”, which included additional new clauses, such as a defining mechanism for police work, controlling borders between member states, combating terrorist financing, and exchanging information regionally and internationally. This was followed in 2003 by the emergence of new formations of organizations and groups, which continue to afflict a number of deep African countries, due to the continuing appeal of extremist ideology.
Many studies indicate that extremism and terrorism have historically spread throughout the Sahel countries between 1991-2002. In 1992, what is known as the “Jihad Group” began its operational activities on the ground, such as kidnapping, and encouraging its members to carry out suicide operations in different places and times. In light of the increased number of terrorist groups operating in those areas, their rivalry and attempts to vanquish one another, the leaders of these organizations agreed in May 1994 on a particular strategy for merging.
Many of them were forced to flee to Mali after 2003 - due to the increased security operations against these groups - to form organizations, some of them supporting al-Qaeda and others supporting ISIS (discussed later).
The Sahel countries have taken several initiatives to counter the expansion of terrorist organization in their region. To combat their attempts to spread extremist ideas, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali established the G5 group in February 2014, with the aim of boosting security and advancing the construction and development of security operations as one of the main tools in combating extremism. France supported the initiative with Operation Barkhane, which it launched on August 1 2014, after the end of Operation Serval, which was launched in January 2013 to address the instability in northern Mali. In 2015, the group announced the establishment of a joint specialized team on combating terrorism. The work began effectively in 2017, in addition to other initiatives of the European Union training missions in Mali and elsewhere that work to implement long–term strategies to restore security and stability in the G5 countries. On February 25, 2020, the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, hosted the sixth summit of the heads of the G5 countries, then a high-level summit attended by the leaders of the five Sahel countries and attended by French President Emanuel Macron, on the theme of combating terrorism and development. France supported its forces in Operation Barkhane with 600 soldiers, bringing the number of participating forces to more than 5000 soldiers. In June 2020, it announced the killing of Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib. An article by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) explained that counter-terrorism operations at the regional level have contributed to changing the political situation in the five Sahel countries, since some of those countries - such as Chad - have managed to overcome their political isolation. French President Francois Hollande’s July 2014 visit and the establishment of the Barkhane headquarters in N’Djamena, marked Chad’s return to the international community, as it contributed to the forces deployed in northern Mali during Operation Serval, the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, as well as in the fight against Boko Haram along the eastern borders.
Based on field research results on combating violence in the G5 countries, conducted by SIPRI and announced on May 18 2020, the drivers of extremism still exist, such as instability and bad socio-economic conditions, like the absence of good education and healthcare. The research concluded that “countering extremism requires implementing targeted development strategies, as the population suffers from their geographical isolation consequences such as lack of public services and low level of security, and they are highly vulnerable to external shocks such as drought, these consequences in which increase their vulnerability and expose them not only to kidnapping and illegal trafficking, but also to recruitment by armed groups”. However, the research also showed that Sahel societies also demanded more inclusive and equitable policies geared toward providing public services.
Demographics is a major factor in determining the form and nature of violence in the Sahel countries. Sometimes, a specific ethnicity in the region seeks to impose its hegemony over the rest of the ethnicities. This requires dismantling and understanding the nature of the population in the states of the Sahel.
The Sahel region is characterized by its ethnic diversity, where groups of ethnicities gather in one place. Climate change affects the movement and relocation of these tribes, or the density of refugees fleeing droughts or desertification that has hit their countries. This is what makes it difficult to locate them, not to mention the lack of homogeneity among them. Terrorist organizations use this to their advantage, whether expanding their operations or recruiting new elements.
The Sahel countries are rich with oil and minerals such as gold, diamonds, and uranium, in addition to agricultural products that generate substantial proceeds, such as cotton and cocoa. Hence, terrorist organizations have been drawn to these countries and view them as ideal places to obtain large gains without much resistance, especially in light of the low population density, severe poverty and raging conflicts between tribes and population groups.
The spread of violence in some areas of the Sahel group has negatively affected the security and stability of the rest. The spread of violence in northern Mali extended to the regions of Ségou, Mopti, Burkina Faso and Niger. This prompted the UN Special Representative Chambas, to confirm in a session before the United Nations on January 8 2020, that the number of victims increased five-fold in 2019, compared to what it was in 2016, with 4000 deaths reported, compared to 770 in 2016.
Although the events that took place in Mali on August 18 2020 did not have a clear impact on the scene of terrorist organizations in the Sahel countries, the fact that news about the killing of the ISIS leader near the Nigerian border on August 17th of the same year was trending, indicates that the tide of the conflict is going to favor groups loyal to Al-Qaeda, especially in the border triangle between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
Meanwhile, pro-ISIS groups circulated news of the organization’s intense activity in Mozambique and its imposition of control over the northern port of the country. However, the monitoring and follow-up of ISIS data and releases on August 20 2020 did not address any of such news.
Some Sahel countries have recently witnessed developments affecting many of their leaders, which will negatively affect the efforts of combating extremism and terrorism in the Sahel group. On April 20 2021, the Chadian army announced the killing of President Idriss Deby, the day after he announced his victory in the presidential elections for the sixth time, after he was wounded in confrontations with rebels.
On June 2 2021, the African Union issued a decision to immediately suspend the membership of Mali, following its internal political turmoil described as coups. This led a number of active countries in the region, especially France, to warn of the dangers of these situations and their effects on countering security and economic challenges in their countries.
In an interview with President Macron, the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, quoted him saying that he had "told regional leaders that France has no intention of keeping its forces in Africa forever”, pointing to "the possibility of withdrawing French forces from Mali if the political turmoil leads to more extremism". If this happened, it would trigger serious warnings about terrorist organizations exploiting these events to expand and spread in the countries of the Sahel, especially since France has 5,100 soldiers in the region, among other international forces fighting terrorism.
The Sahel region is an example of the extent to which terrorists are able to exploit all forms of vulnerability and find for themselves a logistical base at the expense of the instability in these countries. Terrorist organizations have been able to take advantage of the geographical fragility of the region, which consists of both vast desert areas and tropical areas dominated by forests. This allows them to find strategic escapes and hideouts easily, making it difficult to control or combat them.
These groups have also taken advantage of the prevailing social and economic vulnerabilities, as the region is one of the poorest parts of the world and an open smuggling area where local borders are not secured. Therefore, a large part of the exchanges takes place in an unstructured framework, offering a suitable environment for financial corruption, which only enhances the complexity of combating terrorism, given that the latter finds it easier to finance its operations as well as to avoid the rule of law, which does not seem to have strict and decisive power in the region.
All this has encouraged terrorists to present themselves as an alternative to the state in these countries. Therefore, they have started to collect tax-like payouts from the population in the name of zakat, and promoted themselves as better guarantors security better than the state’s security apparatus, through their propaganda.
Finally, all this indicates that confronting extremism and terrorism requires a holistic approach, which is not limited to the security aspect only, but rather, extends to the developmental and intellectual aspect as well. Fighting terrorism is linked to fighting instability and under-development as a whole.