27 January 2020

Sahel - The 2020 African crisis?

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Sahel is one of the most vulnerable areas in the world, affected by drought and small economic development. People and governances of countries in the area are going through a regional crisis, whose regional dynamic is overlapping tribal, ethnical and religious local tensions, risking to lead to internal or regional conflicts. From this point of view, Sahel is an area that deserves the attention of analysts in 2020.

Image source: Mediafax

Regional view

Usually, illegal armed groups are taking advantage on local opportunities and they start or transfer their operations and recruit sympathizers from countries or regions affected by poverty, corruption, religious or ethnical conflicts, where security forces cannot provide a security environment by keeping the situation under control. A relevant example to that end is the emergence and development of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant in Middle East area.

Sahel countries are experiencing many political, economic and humanitarian issues, but terrorism was not a significant threat until 2015. Since then, however, different Al-Qaida or ISIL affiliated groups have cashed in government’s inability to control areas largely inhabited. Combining the “hit and run” tactic with improvised explosive devices and kamikaze attacks, members of AQ and ISIL groups have killed hundreds of people and managed to recruit young people who were desperately seeking a way out of unemployment, poverty and uncertainty.   

More recently, we can state that, despite the so-called ISIL “caliphate”, the terrorist organization remains a continuously evolving threat in other parts of the world, especially in Africa, Sahel. The affiliated ISIL “Islamic State in Western Africa Province” strengthens its stance, harshly competing with another Al-Qaida affiliated terrorist group (AQIM-Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb).

At the same time, besides terrorist threats, Sahel continues to be a favourite hall for many types of illegal commerce. The migratory waves decrease (probably at a smaller extent than official statistics) led to “local economies” loses, which were based on the human traffic, but also an increase of differences between different criminal groups, given that organized groups which were having political protection have strengthened their positions.  Significant recent drugs collars show that cocaine traffic is back in the region, concurrently with the increase of synthetic drugs demanded on the North African continent market.

Also, the gold deposits from the entire region has created a prosperous mining which, unfortunately, is artisanal and informal and one that terrorist organizations and other armed groups in the region take advantage of, since 2016. A Crisis Group report shows that almost 2 million people from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are involved in the illegal gold exploitation and sell. The same report claims that, in Mali, between 20 and 50 tons of gold are annually exploited informally and in an artisanal manner, in Burkina Faso between 10 and 30 tons and between 10 and 15 tons in Niger. The entire quantity is worth between 1,9 and 4,5 million dollars per year.

On the other hand, region’s quick demographic increase has got the attention of countries interested on getting the economic and ideological market. China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are promoting different visions of the relation between Islam and the political environment but, at the same time, they are “on the first line” in terms of infrastructure development, financial services and cultural and religious promotion centres. India joins also these states, by opening the conferences facility “Mahatma Ghandi” in Niger.

Russia’s strategic ambitions in the region are highlighted in the organization of the first Russia-Africa summit, in Sochi, October 2019, when Russia showed its interest in consolidating the cooperation with African partners, particularly on the military field, given that Moscow already has a significant presence on the African continent. Not least, region’s countries are experiencing democratic standards’ decrease, given that 2020 is a “hot” year: getting over the post-electoral crisis in Mali, presidential and legislative election in Burkina Faso (November) and Niger (December).

Such political, economic, social and security dynamics have already raised concerns among European foreign affairs ministries, which want to transform Sahel in a “buffer” zone, able to diminish or even stop emigrants’ wave. Considering the Salafist-Jihadist activity’s increase, the organized crime groups and China, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s geostrategic competition, this European Union objective is difficult to reach.

A Groups... photography

The  Salafist-jihadist groups activities in Western Africa, especially Sahel (which includes Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) are growing. Both Al-Qaida and ISIL affiliate groups are increasingly lethal and active, aiming to control a larger area in this region that provides them with both shelter and funding sources.

The greater activity was seen in Northern and Central Mali, Northern Burkina Faso and Western Niger. The many attacks, carried out at the end of 2019 and earlier this year, have created a huge humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso. According to a UN report, if the current upward continues, the crisis in Burkina Faso could be similar to Syria’s.

AQIM-affiliated Jama'a Nusrat of Islam wa al Muslimeen group (JNIM) capitalizes on increasing violence in Northern Burkina Faso by promoting it as nation’s defender. JNIM supports one’s media campaign through protecting the population and installing its own government structure in the area. Security abuses support this campaign theme encouraged by JNIM in Northern Burkina Faso.

The Islamic State of Western Africa Province (ISWAP) has increased attacks’ lethality and brutality, while reaffirming its connection with ISIL leadership. This group’s brutal attacks resulted in the deaths of over 300 people, in less than two months (December 2019 and January 2020), and "pushed" ISWAP / ISGS to the top spot in terms of Sahel terrorist attacks, dwarfing Al- Qaida affiliated groups. "The priority (counter-terrorism) ​​is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)", said French President Emmanuel Macron, at the G5 Sahel summit, held in France, and attended by France’s five allies in the region - Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

ISWAP/ISGS and JNIM strategies are divergent in Northern Burkina Faso, and JNIM's focus on civilian defence is used to attract people’s sympathy and differentiate the group from ISWAP/ISGS. The two groups are also disputing in Northern Mali, where each is trying to impose its influence and recruit as many sympathizers as possible.

Both groups exploit population’s basic needs, trying to get as much popular support or, at least, as little resistance as possible. This effort is motivated religiously and ideologically, as Salafist-jihadist groups are making sure that all obligations of "state’s" functioning are ensured through their fundamentalist Islam option. The population which these groups interact with and who suffer from instability, lack of prosperity and insecurity effects is "saved" by "Islam defenders" promoted by the respective group. From this perspective, JNIM and ISWAP/ISGS are involved in local communities through concrete actions in education, health, nutrition, taxes and reduction of criminal activities fields.

As stated earlier, compared to JNIM, ISWAP / ISGS relies more on punishing the population that does not comply with rules imposed by the group, which can bring JNIM an advantage in relation with the population.

The "Camp Castor" base in Gao, where the "Carpathian Pumas" Detachment is located, is in al-Mourabitoun group’s action area, led by Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The group is known for the attack on the Radisson hotel, in Mali (2015), which resulted with 20 people who got killed and for the attack on a hotel and a cafe (2016), which ended with 30 death people, in 2016. During the last year, there have been no attacks against this base.


Chaos and an attempt to retaliate chaos, manifested through the will to take....failed state’s responsibilities, to ensure nation’s security and prosperity. This is the picture Defence and Security Monitor’s article was shaping for this regional and international context which raises crises: “The identified geopolitical risks are the national governance failure, the global governance failure, inter-state conflict, terrorist attacks, state collapse and mass destruction guns proliferation”.

As for Sahel, we can state that the campaign theme developed by JNIM, in Northern Burkina Faso, is taken over by Talibans, who have promoted it as well. The Taliban did not establish a government, but "emerged" taking the place of a government that was supposed to provide the necessary physical, economic and social security to the population. The "Taliban government" can be viewed as a response to chaos. And no military grouping could replace this chaos with normality, as long as population’s demands are not met by the state / states that are responsible with it. Although not used in the region, the "failed state" concept does not seem to be reality in the region, but a status quo that starts to be spread affecting more and more states.

Therefore, we expect, during this year, for the Salafist - jihadist groups active in the region to set up "government institutions" in the cross-border area of ​​ Sahel. ISWAP/ISGS attacks on civilians will provide greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. But regardless of group’s success, such governance form is not normal, as it replaces state’s authorities.

In order to prevent a crisis escalation in the region, it is necessary for all world states to stop the proliferation of Salafist-jihadist orientation groups in the region. Firstly, they must do their utmost to support G5 Sahel that brings Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger together to jointly combat Salafi-jihadist groups and organized crime (drug, weapons and human trafficking). Also, these states should get help to get back the control over gold mines and institutionalize its exploitation and capitalization.  

If the effective measures, related not only to terrorist actions, but also to population’s basic problems, those that provided the fertile ground for these Salafist-jihadist groups’ emergence, are not immediately implemented, more material destruction, human loss and suffering caused by ISIL in Syria and Iraq will get repeated in Sahel. Many people will try to escape the precarious security and financial situation in the area and will move to more prosperous areas, such as Europe. Some will end up on the European continent, while tens of thousands will die on the sea or end up in refugee camps in Africa.

Translated by Andreea Soare