Trend Assessment: Islamist militants expand their operations in the Sahel

Islamist militants in the Sahel are staging increasingly sophisticated attacks, posing a risk in ostensibly secure areas, including the regional capitals. This is occurring amid an influx of financial and material support which could pose additional risks to Western interests in the region.

A destabilised region: the morphing terrorist threat

The increasingly volatile security environment in Mali’s northern and central parts, with attacks spreading southward over the past year, is also spilling over to Burkina Faso and Niger. Islamist terrorists affiliated with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, have staged three major attacks in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou over the past two years, and the number of attacks in the country’s north have grown at an alarming rate. The groups are also demonstrating growing ambitions and kinetic capabilities.

  • 2 March 2017: Sahelian Islamist militant groups join in the JNIM coalition
  • 13 August 2017: JNIM militants open fire on restaurant popular with foreign visitors, killing at least 18 individuals
  • 4 October 2017: Islamic State affiliate ambushes U.S. special forces in Niger
  • Winter 2018: Several countries pledge financial support to Sahelian states
  • 2 March 2018: JNIM launched VBIED and MTFA in the Burkinabe capital, killing almost 30 people

On 2 March, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat ul Islam wa’al-Muslimeen (JNIM) – a coalition of non-state armed groups – used a combination of a vehicle-borne IED, semi-automatic rifles mounted on the back of pick-up trucks and eight heavily armed marauding gunmen to target the French embassy as well as the French cultural centre (Institut français) and military headquarters in the Burkinabe capital, Ouagadougou. The attacks occurred within a few minutes’ interval at around 1000 local time. The assailants killed at least 30 people, wounded over 85 more and caused significant structural damage to several buildings. The attack was symbolic as it occurred on JNIM’s one-year anniversary, but also highlighted the group’s growing ambitions and operational capacity.

Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), another NSAG active in the region, gained global relevance in October 2017 after ambushing a contingent of U.S. Green Berets and Nigerien soldiers in the border village of Tongo Tongo, about 10km from the Malian border. While the group has been somewhat dormant since its leader, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, in October 2016 pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the apex leader of the Islamic State terrorist network – ISGS has intensified its attacks in the region over the past six months. The pace and sophistication of attacks indicate the groups’ growing ambitions, perhaps due to competition with each other but also in response to increased international attention. Both groups have expressed their intention to target Western interests, and some intelligence sources have also said there are signs of co-operation between the two groups. The assumptions are plausible as al-Sahrawi is a former spokesperson for al-Mourabitoun, a JNIM faction.

The growing international engagement: too little, too late?

The international community is increasingly attentive to the deteriorating security environment in the Sahel. Over the past three months, several countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have pledged their financial support to the G5 Sahel mission, a joint operation between five Sahelian states which was officially launched last July; it has since launched two cross-border operations in the areas between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, which will be the mission’s main operational focus over the next year. It includes a total of 5,000 troops with contingents from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Despite its growing financial and political support, the G5 Sahel mission remains under-funded; so far, the promised funds will only cover the mission’s first year of operations and the setting up of its permanent office in Mali’s Sévaré, a town in the central Mopti region.

The U.S. has also increased its financial commitments in the region, but on a bilateral basis. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of State in February designated the Burkinabe NSAG Ansarul Islam, which is linked to JNIM and to some extent also ISGS, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, underscoring Washington’s growing concerns. The group is primarily active in northern Burkina Faso’s Soum province, which borders Mali.

In addition, Ghana announced on 3 March that it would host a U.S. military base in its capital, Accra. Countries like Canada or Germany, which were hitherto inactive in the region, have also recently announced their support to governments or multilateral missions; Canada confirmed on 19 March that it would supply the U.N.’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma) with two Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters and four Bell CH-146 Griffon helicopters for reconnaissance and armed escorts. In March, the IMF also approved a USD157 million extended credit facility to Burkina Faso to help it fund services to improve security in the country.

Deteriorating social dynamics and security threats

While the growing influx of financial and material support is likely to provide some respite to the governments in the region, growing Western presence also serves to destabilise pre-existing and complex social contracts between communities in the Sahel, which have found themselves in the midst of fighting and competition between Islamist and other non-state armed groups, as well as foreign military forces. For instance, Fulani communities in Niger’s western region of Tillabéri have said in interviews that they have been ostracized by the Nigerien authorities and Arab tribes, who often accuse them of sympathising with Islamist militants.

growing Western presence also serves to destabilise pre-existing and complex social contracts between communities in the Sahel

Although Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger will see GDP grow between 5-8 per cent this year, the three countries continue to be underdeveloped and face fiscal challenges due to low prices of key commodities such as gold or uranium. Along with strong population growth, this means that local communities will continue to face economic hardship, while competition over natural resources, such as mining, farmland or livestock, will remain high. This competition is likely to increase in the coming months, as the region experiences its ‘hungry gap’ season when food stocks significantly decline and competition over resources will grow.

That in turn is providing a ripe recruitment ground for Islamist NSAGs in the region who are either coercing local populations into their power circles or attracting them through the improved opportunities that fighting ‘Western crusaders’ might present, particularly to local dispossessed youths. While JNIM’s different factions, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), al-Mourabitoun, and Ansar Dine, have historically been dominated by Tuareg Imghad and Arab tribesmen, the recent attacks in Burkina Faso have indicated a higher prevalence of sub-Saharan African members, particularly from various Bambara and Fulani communities living in the Sahel.

The assailants behind the attacks on Côte d’Ivoire’s Grand Bassam tourist resort presented similar ethnic traits; Aqim confirmed that one of them was Hamza al-Fulani, likely a nom de guerre to designate his Fulani heritage. Recent attacks and videos released by JNIM also suggest that its members are younger – typically in their mid-20s. Last year’s formation of JNIM and suspected co-operation between Ansarul Islam and ISGS, also indicate a morphing security set-up. French newspaper Le Figaro also reported last year that ISGS was attempting to strengthen its links with Islamic State in West Africa, a splinter group of Nigerian Islamist NSAG Boko Haram.

Why does this matter?

The combination of underdevelopment, increased fiduciary competition, and the use of local communities by local and foreign military actors is producing an explosive cocktail that will continue to damage the regional security environment. High-value commercial operations are very limited, and the potential to develop industrial activities, such as mining, will continue to be impeded so long as NSAGs continue to be active in the region. Both northern Burkina Faso and western Niger hold some commercially viable mining deposits, including gold. In recent years, Niger’s western department of Téra, Tillabéri region, has seen an intense influx of informal miners from across the country since the early 2000s and artisanal gold mining is booming.

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