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Growing Threat: Terrorism in the Sahel Amid Uncoordinated Efforts

During the workshop held by the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) with the Sahel countries on 21 March 2022, the head of the IOM mission in Mauritania, Boubacar Saibo, declared that terrorism and violent extremism have spilled over beyond Sahel states’ borders, hitting hard many countries in the region. Saibo called for joint work among actors to limit the infiltration of terrorist groups into the region.

Saibo’s statements raised questions about the significance of counter-terrorism efforts of Western actors engaged in West Africa, particularly with terrorism expanding out of the control of Sahel states, posing security threats to several West African countries. There are several indications of the failure and vulnerability of the strategies adopted by Sahel countries and their Western partners in confronting the expansion of extremist groups in West Africa, to the extent that some of these groups are now using drones to attack international government forces, in a qualitative development that speaks volumes of the significant threat they pose to the security and stability of the region and the possibility of their expansion to other geographical areas.   

Coping Mechanisms and Law Enforcement Strategy

The G5 Sahel group, which comprises Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso, is a regional grouping for coordination, cooperation, and confronting security and economic challenges by attracting foreign investments to achieve development, create job opportunities in hinterland areas, and build the infrastructure to ensure prosperity of the people of the region.

At the collective level, the IOM works through a strategy specifically designed to promote a common vision and strategy to counter terrorism in the Sahel, towards addressing cross-border security threats through ongoing dialogue with these countries, international partners, involved actors, and the international community, with the broader objective of promoting dialogue on security, development, the rule of law, and strengthening the security capabilities of the Sahel region.

Additionally, the IOM works with the Sahel countries on law enforcement, combating terrorist threats, organized crime, and radical extremism, and addressing the negative impacts of terrorism on local communities in the Sahel more efficiently, in order to enhance the community’s resilience in the face of terrorism and extremism, by providing basic and economic services to marginalized groups, identifying groups of youth most vulnerable to extremism, and developing concrete activities for all tracks of the process through supporting organizations and non-state actors in developing and implementing strategies and activities aimed at countering terrorism in the Sahel.

At the state level, we find that Mali has developed a national policy to combat insecurity and terrorism. Mauritania implemented a comprehensive national strategy to combat terrorism, in line with the ideological, religious, cultural, and academic constituents of the society and adopted a holistic legal framework to fight against terrorism and extremism in general. Likewise, Niger has implemented a defined strategy to combat insecurity and terrorism, through reforming the justice system and the establishment of a chamber to deal with terrorism, after the establishment of the country’s first Supreme Court to combat terrorism. Burkina Faso, too, has achieved relative success in this respect by focusing on economic development and the fight against poverty, to reduce the polarization of youth by extremist groups.

Challenges of Countering Terrorism and Extremism in the Sahel

Terrorism and extremism has become a characteristic feature of most turbulent regions in Africa and it has begun to take on various dimensions and pose several threats, requiring a quick plan that takes into consideration the impacts arising from this terrorist danger, as has been evident by the targeting of unarmed citizens in these regions. Despite the strenuous counter-terrorism efforts of international actors in the Sahel, all of these efforts proved fruitless, particularly with the withdrawal of France and its European allies from Mali. Since 2012, several terrorist and extremist organizations have carried out attacks targeting foreigners in the Sahel and the military barracks of foreign anti-terrorism forces in West Africa.

Currently, Sahel states are facing many challenges, most notably cooperation and coordination among terrorist groups, which has contributed to the proliferation of extremist groups that have found a breeding ground to grow, capitalizing on the greater cooperation they get from the residents of remote villages.

Therefore, despite the attempts by Sahel states to combat terrorism and extremism within local communities, their efforts proved ineffective so far due to the coordination and cooperation between local communities and terrorist groups on the one hand and vulnerability of the security infrastructure of the vast majority of the Sahel countries and failure of the Sahel governments to take measures to the respond to the crisis and avoid the expansion of extremist groups in West Africa on the other.

Decentralization in most of the Sahel states has played a major role in the polarization of the local population by terrorist groups, along with the unequitable sharing of economic resources in these countries that denied many people education and employment opportunities and made their recruitment by terrorist organizations much easier, giving rise to more tensions. Moreover, the significant rise in internal conflicts and the recurrent insurgencies in the areas affected by insecurity has made the Sahel states and their populations vulnerable to danger and infiltration by organized crime networks and extremist organizations. There is also corruption that impede the effectiveness of anti-terrorism efforts, particularly at the political and economic levels.

The Multiplicity of Actors and Lack of Coordination

The unilateral action by many Western actors in the Sahel, the proliferation of the proposed initiatives, and the uncoordinated action between Sahel states and the international community (including France, the European Union and the United States) caused these efforts to be of limited effectiveness and waning credibility, confined to the political and security aspects of those countries, and distant from economic development.

Furthermore, the Sahel states haven’t availed themselves of the Western actors’ strategic operations in the region, particularly at the police, justice, law enforcement and judiciary, border management, and customs points levels, to control lands, ensuring human security and preventing the various security threats of terrorist and extremist groups, particularly since Western actors adopt dual strategies with the Sahel countries. Not all Sahel countries were provided with modern technologies and methods and equipment of collecting, transferring, and exchanging information. On the other hand, poverty, social exclusion, the economic needs, and radical preaching in remote areas increase the danger of the rapid development of extremism and terrorism in the Sahel.

Overall, in the absence of coordination among all the active forces in the face of terrorism and extremism and with a breeding ground for the spread of extremism and terrorism and the vulnerability of local governments and collective action mechanisms, terrorism in the Sahel is likely to threaten the stability of countries of the region, particularly with the regimes of these countries acting in isolation from the local community, which is a critical factor in the recruitment process by terrorist groups. In many respects, Sahel regimes have become isolated from their people and lacked sufficient legitimacy, particularly following the severe crises that hit these countries due to repercussions of Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Salah Khalil
A researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Social and Historical Studies

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