How the Sahel became a breeding ground for terrorists

A huge belt of land dividing the dry Sahara from the tropical savannah has become a playground for mercenaries. An absence of state security, poverty, and a lack of education create the perfect storm.

Hundreds of newly trained al-Shabab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18 km south of Mogadishu, in Somalia on Feb. 17, 2011.
Hundreds of newly trained al-Shabab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18 km south of Mogadishu, in Somalia on Feb. 17, 2011.

How the Sahel became a breeding ground for terrorists

The Islamic State (IS) group has been the focus of intense global scrutiny since 2014 when it started taking territory in northwest Iraq and northeast Syria.

After concerted and successful international efforts to curtail its growth in the Levant, IS has found a new and dangerous breeding ground in Africa, specifically the Sahel.

Any expansion of IS – with its vision of a cross-border caliphate and rejection of international law – poses a significant threat to the Islamic world and beyond.

Yet the origins of IS pre-date 2014 by at least a decade, meaning that security analysts in Africa need to not only look at the conditions of the Sahel but understand the genesis of IS as well to assess today’s battleground better.

Taking shape

IS first emerged from Iraq’s sectarian tensions and built on the legacy of al-Qaeda and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party following his downfall in 2003.

By 2006, it was calling itself Islamic State in Iraq, seeking to legitimise what it called its resistance to occupation.

It took advantage of the civil conflict in Syria in 2011 to expand its geographical ambitions. It borrowed the Arabic term for the Levant – ‘Sham’ – for its name, becoming Islamic State in Iraq and Sham. This let it claim territory in both countries.

That came with deliberately manipulating Islamic history, particularly since Syria and Iraq were once the epicentres of previous caliphates, the Umayyad and Abbasid.

IS set itself up as the Islamic Caliphate, imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia to support its claim, portrayed its struggle as “the Way of Allah,” fearless of any criticism (a reference to Quran 5-54), and warned that opposition would be punished harshly.

Its approach underlined its ideological stance and instilled fear and obedience among its followers and subjects. Yet it wanted to establish a unified Caliphate state well beyond Iraq and the Levant.

IS set up eight wilayahs (provinces) in regions such as Khorasan (which includes parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan), Algeria, the Caucasus, Egypt, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula (including Saudi Arabia), Yemen, and the Sahel.

ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) militants gathered near the central Iraqi city of Tikrit on June 8, 2014.

A generation later

Today, its presence and threat are mostly in the Khorasan, where it challenges the Taliban with its extreme ideology, and in the Sahel — the vast semi-arid region separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south.

Owing to the instability of the region, the threat of Islamic State is arguably worse in the Sahel, which is IS’s West African wilayah.

Reports of its extreme brutality there have reached the United Nations Security Council (although coverage in the Arab media has been limited).

IS terrorism is worse than that of other groups, including Boko Haram, which was previously considered the most extremist of groups in this part of the continent.

Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS in 2015, as have other groups and dissident members from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. IS took time to recognise one – the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – in March 2022.

The rise of IS in Africa has prompted interventions by European Union countries, led by France, as well as Russia via its affiliated Wagner Group of mercenaries.

Given that Russia and the West are at odds in several other spheres, the fact that both are gunning for IS shows the level of concern within the international community.

African borderlands

The term Sahel, which means ‘shore’ or ‘border’, refers to a vast 5,900km belt between the Sahara Desert to the north and Sudan’s Savanna to the south, extending from Eritrea in the east to Senegal in the west.

Five countries – Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Chad – comprise the majority, while the Sahel also incorporates parts of six others, including Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Algeria, Somalia, and Djibouti.

Characterised by a series of isolated plateaus and mountain ranges, the region represents a transitional zone where desert vegetation forms a natural boundary between the arid desert to the north and more fertile land to the south.

After international efforts to curtail its growth in the Levant, IS has found a new and dangerous breeding ground in the African Sahel.

Its climate is harsh, with limited rainfall, frequent droughts, and consistently high temperatures throughout the year.

Yet from the 13th to the 17th centuries, it was home to stable kingdoms, with a thriving gold mining industry, well-established desert trade routes, and locals adept at navigating them.

When the interests of outside powers were piqued, a battle for control of the Sahel's gold resources brought significant change and disruption to the region.

There were invasions, first from northern Africa, then from Europe. Political shifts brought economic decline and enslavement for the people, who were shipped abroad as forced labour. Like much of Africa, the Sahel remained under European colonial rule from the 18th century to the 20th.

Eventually, independence for many of the region's nations arrived in the 1960s, but governments were often weak. They lacked legitimacy and struggled to meet the basic needs of the people.

That let extremist movements flourish, a pattern perpetuated first by economic crises and then by problems wrought by climate change.

As elites competed for power, civil wars erupted and the people suffered. Unrest, violence, crime, poverty, and corruption became endemic.

From Libya to Mali

Over the past two decades, the situation has deteriorated. Conflict and crime now stretch beyond national borders. Severe violence has contributed to a humanitarian crisis in Liptako-Gourma and the Lake Chad sub-region.

The collapse of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya rippled through the Sahel. The power vacuum led to the proliferation of weapons. Arms trickled out, rekindling old conflicts and igniting new ones, including the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali.

The Tuaregs, comprising about 10% of Mali's population, formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad for their long-sought independent state. Their rebellion in Mali was stoked by an influx of extremists to the region.

A vehicle allegedly belonging to the Islamic State group in West Africa (ISWAP) is seen in Baga on August 2, 2019.

They established alliances with various Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and another known as Ansar al-Din. This let them expel government forces from the north.

In March 2012, Mali's President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted in a military coup sparked by perceived government ineffectiveness in quelling the Tuareg rebellion.

The ensuing collapse of state institutions in the north allowed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad to capture key regional cities, including Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu, and declare Azawad's independence in northern Mali by April 2012.

Branding strategy

Analysis from the Quincy Institute in Washington, published in 2021, described the Sahel and West Africa as "currently the most active fields of jihad". It said that violent groups in these regions often affiliate with al-Qaeda or IS "as a branding strategy".

In Nigeria, Boko Haram — which has been active since 2002 — pledged allegiance to IS in 2015, renaming itself the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP).

In 2021, ISWAP eliminated the leader of a rival faction, gained more territory, and drove its opponents toward remote areas near Lake Chad.

This left IS as the dominant force in north-eastern Nigeria and parts of Niger. A UN report in January 2021 said ISWAP attacks were more brutal than those by Boko Haram.

In August 2021, the Brookings Institute showed a rise in activity among jihadist organisations, including Ansar al-Din and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. Both rose to prominence during the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali.

The report identified factors behind the rise of such groups, including a desire to belong to a movement with global ambitions among marginalised and disaffected youth and the disintegration of traditional family values.

In The New York Times in September 2021, senior journalist Mark Landler wrote that some American operations, like those in Burkina Faso, not only failed to eliminate extremism but may have inadvertently exacerbated it.

The collapse of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya rippled through the Sahel. The power vacuum led to the proliferation of weapons.

This may explain the United States' caution toward taking direct military action against extremist groups in the Sahel. However, US restraint may be allowing these groups to develop their combat capabilities.

Threatening Europe

In November 2021, The Independent reported on the rapid growth of the Islamic insurgency in the Sahel, describing it as the fastest in the world, with implications for Europe's security.

The increasing turmoil in Africa and its impact on developing societies there is seen as a potential factor in the increased extremism to Europe's east, including in Bosnia, a popular destination for fighters from Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The European Union's growing concern over the dangers posed by extremists in Africa comes in part due to the long history of illegal migration to the bloc from the continent.

The geographical proximity helps explain why there is more concern about extremism in the Sahel in European capitals than in Washington, where it is seen as more of a strategic concern.

Nonetheless, US President Joe Biden deployed special forces to Somalia in May 2022, showing that it took the situation in Africa seriously. Some linked it to the escalating threat from Al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate that had threatened Mogadishu.

Others liken the threat of IS in countries like Uganda and Congo to the situation in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops. Reports of public beheadings in some rural areas suggest that IS may now control towns and villages.

Western retreat

In early 2022, France withdrew its forces from Mali after a nine-year deployment, citing the deterioration of bilateral relations since military coups in 2022 and 2021.

The French said the threat from extremists had waned with the demise of Yahya Djouadi, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb responsible for financial and logistical operations, also known as Abu Ammar Al-Jazairi.  

It was further influenced by the escalating presence of the Wagner Group in Mali, a Russian-backed militia known for its close ties to Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Wagner was brought in after Mali's military coup by its coup leaders.

After France withdrew, other European nations followed suit. Denmark pulled its special forces out after the coup leaders said they were unwelcome.

This collective European retreat impacted the operations of the UN's peacekeeping presence in Mali, known as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission, and led many to predict escalating violence.

An Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) soldier takes part in a foot patrol in the village of Manzalaho near Beni on February 18, 2020.

Islamist terrorist groups are not the only perpetrators. Governments whose leaders seek to settle grudges in a power vacuum can be just as bad. Government forces from Mali and Burkina Faso have both been implicated in civilian massacres.

In one particularly egregious case, the UN accused Mali's army of executing 500 civilians in the village of Maura over five days in March 2022, reportedly with support from unidentified fighters.

The West's withdrawal provides an opportunity for extremists to seize military sites, especially in areas where troops from African governments are not fully trained. This has already happened in Burkina Faso and may happen in Mali.

Splits and break-ups

Relations between factions of extremists can be turbulent, as shown when the Islamic State in West Africa and the ISGS merged in 2019.

ISGS was back as an independent outfit three years later, pledging allegiance to the Greater Caliphate. They seem to have fallen out.

Divisions can track the wider cultural-political context in Africa, where territorial struggles are common. The dynamics at play within extremist groups are similar to those shaping wider regional politics.

Al-Qaeda continues its activities in Africa under various names, including Ansaru in northern Nigeria, advocating for the protection of Muslims on the continent.

Formed initially as a kidnapping specialist faction affiliated with Boko Haram, it separated out in 2012, and its operations extend beyond Nigeria, reaching into Benin.

There are a range of such groups scattered across the continent, operating independently within countries.

They include Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Support Group for Islam and Muslims), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Liwa Al-Mulathameen.

The presence of two wilayahs within IS does not imply coordination between them as much as it signifies a division of influence.

IS in West Africa dominates the part of the region along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Guinea, while ISGS has a much bigger area along the rest of the coast, making its position more perilous.

Harsh living conditions in both areas can give extremists an allure, and IS remains flexible in collaborating with like-minded groups, including those affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The West's withdrawal provides an opportunity for extremists to seize military sites, especially where government troops are poorly trained.

Local extremists

Leaders and members of Islamic extremist groups in the Sahel usually come from the area in which they operate, in contrast to other wilayahs within IS, which concentrate foreign fighters in specific areas.

IS in the Sahel has combatants from the communities it controls to foster a feeling of social legitimacy, which can translate into sympathy for it from locals.

Owing to the area's deprivation, many locals lack education and are therefore more susceptible to extremists' narrow interpretations of Sharia law concerning concepts like allegiance, innocence, and justice, which they circulate in the form of videos.

One shows Al-Shabaab in Somalia punishing impoverished people for theft, with locals appearing to approve of corporal punishment for violating Sharia laws.

Poverty and corruption create an ideal breeding ground for extremism. Leaders of IS-style groups often lure them in by convincing them that they can offer justice by punishing petty thieves.

Where proper education is absent, such simplicity finds resonance, even though Sharia is much more complex than just amputating the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, or executing apostates.

Into the void

While they cannot provide a path to prosperity, extremists can convince people that the path to justice starts with purifying society from moral corruption. That is harder for IS elsewhere, where foreign leaders and personnel dominate. 

As violent extremism increases in the Sahel, it threatens to increase both the prevalence of humanitarian crises and the spread of instability. This, in turn, poses threats to the wider world, both financial and otherwise.

Obolus Javelin Commandos and US Special Operations Forces practice tactics, training and procedures before boarding an MV-22 Osprey to conduct an operation at Kismayo, Somalia, June 12, 2023.

The withdrawal of support for counter-terrorism and the weakening of regional leadership creates a void exploited by extremists and mercenaries. Russia's Wagner Group is already conducting operations in Mali and Central African Republic.

This convergence of extremists and mercenaries in the Sahel offers the opportunity for collaboration between terrorist outfits and organised crime groups in areas like drug smuggling and people trafficking.

The UN has called for an investigation into allegations of crimes committed by government forces and Wagner mercenaries in Mali, citing a climate of "complete impunity" which led to the Moura massacre in March 2022.

Exporting terror

More violence will likely lead to increased displacement and migration, which will add pressure on states in North and East Africa. The effects will reach the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia, the Mediterranean, and Europe.

The Sahel region has always held strategic significance, including as a transit route. Further deterioration could lead to more illegal migration to Saudi Arabia, which potentially exports extremism, too.

The Sahel has become a hotspot for ideological violence in part because it has a plentiful supply of recruits facing limited prospects otherwise.

The danger now is that it becomes a global centre for the distribution of terror, where combatants are trained and indoctrinated before being posted abroad as migrants. Something similar has been seen before in Somalia and Eritrea.

The world would do well to watch closely, even as the geopolitical tension shaping a new political order elsewhere takes up so much of its attention.

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