West Africa’s Sahel struggles to contain deadly jihadist groups that’ve infiltrated communities

Soldiers training in Diffa, Niger
Soldiers training in Diffa, Niger
Image: REUTERS/Joe Penney
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Leaders of G5 Sahel countries gathered for emergency talks in Niamey on Sunday after Niger faced the most spectacular military attack on its soil since jihadists gained a foothold in the region.

Reportedly executed by dozens of men on motorcycles, on a base just 124 miles outside of the capital, near the border with Mali, the attack that killed 71 soldiers was claimed by the Islamic State and is being read as a warning that group is fast expanding its territory throughout the region.

“These endless attacks carried out by terrorist groups in our region remind us not only of the gravity of the situation, but also the urgency for us to work more closely together,” said Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, the president of Burkina Faso, a nation that has now become the epicenter of the security crisis that has its roots in neighboring Mali’s conflict that began in 2012.

Burkina Faso and Niger are part of the G5 Sahel, a regional military initiative that includes Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger, that was formed in 2014 to rout out jihadist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The body is backed the United States, the United Nations and the former colonial power France, who some activists in Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso blame for the escalating violence.

While leaders of G5 countries made strong statements about the growing threat, the rapid expansion of jihadist groups and the increasing sophistication of military attacks has long been cause for alarm. In the last four months alone, attacks on military bases have claimed the lives of 230 soldiers, mainly in Mali and Burkina Faso, but also in Niger.

“The past couple of years has seen an exponential militant expansion in the subregion: in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger and the past three and a half months has seen the scope and characteristics change significantly,” said Héni Nsaibia, a researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. “It’s like each and every base is being overrun.”

“The three armies in the region are overstretched,” said Marc-André Boisvert, a Canadian PhD researcher who has spent years researching the Malian military. “The level of complexity of these attacks has increased in the Liptako-Gourma region since 2013. The number of casualties is getting higher,” he said.

Nsaibia told Quartz that data gathered by ACLED shows there has been a fourfold increase in attacks attributed to jihadist groups in Niger alone. “In 2019 we’ve recorded 210 attacks—armed assaults, abductions, pillaging and arson attributed to jihadi militant groups resulting in 367 fatalities,” said Nsaiba. Thirty-eight of these attacks targeted defense and security forces resulting in the killing of 132 members of defense and security forces. Overall civilians still make up the largest amount of casualties of armed attacked throughout the region.

However, the reasons jihadist groups have gained ground throughout the Sahel are complex and not just a result  of military strategy. These groups have become an integral part of local and illicit economies and are gathering materials for attacks through complex trade networks, according to a recent report from the South African-based research group the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

“They are deeply rooted in the population, they have a good knowledge of the environment and how to operate within it and they also have information about the military camps,” said William Assanvo, a lead researcher on the project. He added that the connection of armed groups to local economies, conflicts and communities means these groups “will be more difficult to get rid of.”

In research that spanned over two years, involved interviews with 800 people, among them those imprisoned for affiliation with jihadist groups, and the majority living on border areas, the ISS found these armed groups are playing a role as regulators in legal and illegal markets and have been generating revenues through selling stolen livestock, and artisanal gold-mining and poaching. They also impose taxes on trade and mining sites operating in their areas of control, which enables them to but supplies for attacks such as weapons, motorcycles and communications equipment.

In large swathes of territory where the state lacks a presence, jihadist groups also play the role of mediator in local conflicts. In previously published research that was part of this larger body of research, the ISS challenged the radicalization narrative and found young members of jihadist groups in Mali were more influenced by local conflicts, economics and environmental concerns, that ideology in their decision to join armed groups.

Many of the growing number of displaced people in Burkina Faso, use the word “terrorist” to describe those who stole their cattle, killed their neighbors and drove them out of their homes, rather than men who are driven by a radical ideology. The vast majority of attacks throughout Burkina Faso have not been claimed by jihadist or armed groups, and many displaced people know little about Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and their goals.

Boureima Gassambé, a 52-year-old farmer, who fled his village in the province of Bam in the Centre-Nord region of the country, after armed men came on motorcycles, shot dead eight young men from the community and stole their cattle. Gassambé plunged into a field of maize that he would leave unharvested as he fled with members of the village to a community just outside of Ouagadougou in late September.

He now sleeps in a mosque with dozens of other men in a community that now hosts them. While the women and children rest packed into the corners of the dark classrooms of a madrassa.

“We don’t even know who they are,” said Gassambé of the men who attacked his village. “For us they are just terrorists, because robbers and terrorists act the same. They came in, started killing people and ran away with our wealth.”

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