Instability and Terrorism in Africa’s Sahel: A Primer

Africa’s Sahel region has been in the international news a lot since 2012, largely because of its increasing political instability and insecurity. More recently, the region has gained attention because of a terrorist attack on the Radisson Blue Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, on November 20, 2015 — the attack killed 22 people, including two attackers — and a similar attack on the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, on January 15 of this year, which left a death toll of 30.

At least four militant jihadist groups have claimed responsibility for one or both of the attacks. These include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Murabitoune, Ansar al-Dine, and the Macina Liberation Front (FLM). Members of MUJAO (Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest), now mostly dispersed amongst these other four groups, were also probably involved.

Following the Ouagadougou attack, the BBC called the Sahel a “new frontier” in the war on terror. But it has been a “new” front for some time now. Similar words were used by Washington in 2003 when the Bush administration referred to the Sahel, which had just experienced its first encounter with post-9/11 terrorism, as “a second front in the global war on terror.” The response of President Bush was to launch the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) in 2004, followed by the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) in 2005. Both programs were based largely on fabricated, “false-flag” and exaggerated incidents of “terrorism.” (I discusses this at greater length in my books on terrorism in the Sahara, The Dark Sahara and The Dying Sahara.)

The Sahel is possibly Africa’s least known region. The word “sahel” in Arabic means “shore” and refers literally to the southern “shore” of the Sahara; a semi-arid zone roughly 600 miles wide between the desert and the savannah and about 3,500 miles long from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

Today, the term is used increasingly in a geopolitical context to refer to the countries of the western Sahel, namely Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad, and now, as a result of the January 15 attack, Burkina Faso. These countries have become increasingly destabilized politically — first, as a result of Washington’s PSI and TSCTI, and more recently (since 2011), by the fall-out from Muammar Qadhafi’s overthrow in Libya.

The Sahel is Africa’s most ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse region, being the interface between Islamic and non-Islamic Africa, and between “white-skinned” (Arabs and Berbers) and “black-skinned” Africans, racial designations that are still used in the region today. The Sahel is home to Muslims, Christians, and animists; nomads and farmers; Arabs, Berbers, and African tribes alike. Its extraordinarily rich ethnic diversity and power structures are rooted in the ancient kingdoms and empires of Ghana, Kanem-Bornu, Mali, Wolof, Songhai, and Fulani that emerged between the 8th and 19th centuries.

The region was under French colonial rule from the late 19th century until 1960. Since then, its countries have remained linked by their shared historical and colonial experiences, their predominant Islamic “sufi” religion, and their shared problems of recurring drought, underdevelopment, poverty, and now terrorism.

The post-colonial era has seen a painful, drought-driven, and often conflict-ridden shift from the predominance of nomadism and herding (especially in the north) to subsistence and commercial agriculture. In the last decade-and-a-half, the region has also added the contemporary lifestyles of the digitalized world: cell phones and the social media.

The population of these four Sahel countries is estimated at 50 million people, plus a further 17 million if Burkina Faso is included. Racial divisions were prominent in both pre-colonial and colonial times, and are still socially and politically relevant today. In 2014, for example, the Mali government urged the killing of “white-skinned” Arabs and Berbers whom it designated as “terrorists,” while in Mauritania, slavery and the mentality of slavery are still the country’s most defining social characteristic.

Even though almost wholly Muslim, the region is riven by different Islamic movements, many of which have come to the fore and been the cause of serious conflict in the last few years. The main tension is now between the region’s traditionally more moderate Sufi beliefs and more fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrines, with the last four years seeing the rise of violent “salafist-jihadism.”

In Mali and Niger especially, independence in 1960 resulted in political power being vested in the African peoples of the more densely populated southern regions. The previously dominant Tuareg and Arab tribes of the north became ethnic minorities. Post-colonial Mali and Niger have both been characterized by a series of unsuccessful revolts by Tuareg groups against their southern rulers in Bamako (Mali) and Niamey (Niger).

Following the US’s launch of its global war on terror into the Sahel in 2003, corrupt governments in Bamako and Niamey provoked Tuareg rebels to take up arms in order to portray them as “terrorists” and so gain further military and financial support from Washington.

The overthrow of the Qadhafi regime in Libya in 2011 further destabilized much of the Sahel — notably Mali and Niger — and triggered a further Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali, known to Tuareg as “Azawad.” By April 2012, the Tuareg rebels had put the ill-equipped and ill-led Mali army to flight. However, the rebels, having declared an independent Azawad, were themselves soon sidelined by “salafist-jihadist” insurgents covertly backed by Algeria’s secret intelligence serve. A military coup d’état in Bamako and the collapse of Mali into a state of crisis left southern Mali on the brink of falling to the insurgents. With regional and international organizations dithering, France took it upon itself to intervene militarily in Mali in January 2013 in what was known as Operation Serval.

However, far from destroying the jihadists, the French military intervention merely dispersed them to Tunisia and Libya, and across the Sahel. In mid-2014, France expanded its military “counterterrorism” operation throughout the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, the successor to Operation Serval. However, in spite of a UN peacekeeping force of some 10,000 in Mali, at least 3,800 French troops spread across the Sahel, and contingents of several hundreds of Dutch, Swedish, and German troops aided by US “specialists,” radical violent extremism has taken a deeper hold of the Sahel. 2015 saw Boko Haram spreading from Nigeria into Niger and Chad, while Mali suffered an average of about two jihadist attacks per month. Jihadist ideology in the region is being couched increasingly in language that is opposed to the weak, ineffective, and corrupt local governments, as well as the West and especially France, whose military presence in the region would appear to be exacerbating rather than diminishing extremist militancy. Spokespersons for the jihadist groups are now even talking about the creation of a Saharan caliphate.

This historical and political context points toward the greater need to understand the Sahel before rashly developing another round of military missions in the area. While the Sahel isn’t a “new” front in the war on terror, it is certainly one deserving closer attention. Decades of division and instability — and years of counterproductive Western counterterror operations — mean the region is a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist organizations. 

About the Author(s)

Jeremy H. Keenan

Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, Visiting Professor at the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London