The Battle for the Sahel: Confronting Islamist terror groups throughout the region

By Conway Waddington

Sahel insecurity is the product of vulnerabilities inherent to the geography of the region, while other security challenges arise from political and demographic factors. Militant Islamist groups have increasingly exploited these vulnerabilities, necessitating joint regional cooperation from regional powers if they hope to effectively combat the militant threat.

AQIM militants in northern Mali. Screenshot of AQIM video hosted by Aaron Y. Zelin/jihadology.net

The Sahel region, a geographic belt separating desert from savannah, stretching from the west coast of Africa to the east coast, faces numerous security and stability threats. Non-state actor groups consisting of militants, rebels and terrorists are a particular source of instability and violence. These groups include: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its various affiliates and offshoots who are concentrated in north-western Africa; Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad area; and al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya. To a limited but increasing extent, groups or factions within pre-existing militant movements, aligned with the Islamic State (ISIS), are also making their presence felt across the region.

Counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism efforts across the Sahel region take on many forms, with various countries’ security forces seeking to contain the threat posed by militants who either reside in their territory, or cross over the poorly designated and largely unsecured borders to launch attacks. Such containment efforts have met with mixed success. Multilateral or joint cooperative efforts are rare, and have similarly met with limited success. Arguably, interventions by regional or international forces acting as UN- or African Union-mandated peacekeepers have been the most effective option for countering regional militant threats. In West Africa, conflicts centred in northern Mali and north-eastern Nigeria provide illustrations of both the effective and the counter-productive aspects of joint and unilateral efforts to defeat militant insurgencies. The battle for the Sahel could ultimately rest on whether regional powers are able to cooperate for their collective security.

This article is extracted from the January 2016 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM) –. The essential +70 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

The Sahel region is vulnerable to insecurity

To an extent, the geographic nature of the Sahel belt, and perhaps especially in West Africa, lends itself to insurgencies and insurrections. Within many of the countries crowding the Sahel region, that geographic meeting point of desert and savannah also equates to a meeting of different and occasionally hostile creeds and ideologies. Nomadic pastoralists come into contact with agrarians, while predominantly Muslim northerners meet with Christian and animist southerners. Arabs, Berbers and Tuareg meet black Africans. While this meeting of different peoples can result in instability or even incidents of violence by itself (as in clashes between nomadic herders and agrarian farmers in Niger, or sectarian violence in Nigeria’s middle belt), the north-south polarisation of the Sahel plays out in another manner.

Taking the examples of Mali and Nigeria, the north-south split in each country has defined the political landscapes of each. In Mali, government resides in Bamako in the far south of the country, while the north, which has a large Tuareg population, has historically been economically and politically sidelined, resulting in deep discord and prompting repeated uprisings by the Tuareg. The most recent such uprising was in 2012 and resulted in a political collapse and civil war. In Nigeria, there was an agreement of sorts within the previous ruling party that the presidency should rotate between a northerner and a southerner every two terms to maintain a balance in political representation.

In both the examples of Mali and of Nigeria, Islamist militant groups have sought to leverage and exploit those socio-political features to their own ends. Weak governments and militaries, hamstrung by the political challenges of balancing often deeply opposed ethno-ideological constituencies, provide a security void in which militants can establish themselves. Fractured societies present opportunities that insurgents can exploit, whether by intentionally attempting to stir up underlying conflicts, such as Boko Haram stoking sectarian tensions in Nigeria, or by piggy-backing on pre-existing grievances, as when Islamists hijacked the 2012 Tuareg uprising in Mali.

In addition to demographics and political histories, geography itself plays a major role in shaping the security environment in the Sahel region. Vast tracts of open or hostile terrain make for extremely difficult operational environments for security forces seeking to control borders. Without effective border control, militants seeking rest, resupply or operational space can move freely from one country to the next. Containment is then a vital aspect of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency doctrine, and the sheer scale of the borders of Sahel countries makes this a taxing, if not impossible, task.

Good reasons to expect a more unsettled Sahel region

On 9 December, the UN requested a record US$ 2 billion in funding for the Sahel region to alleviate issues caused by anticipated migration and refugees arising from crises of poverty, climate change and general insecurity. The UN’s position on Sahel insecurity going into 2016 is clear: the instability there will worsen.

Economics and environmental factors could also spark further violence in the Sahel region. With the ongoing fragility of the global economy, investment in the region has been, and will remain, muted. A lack of development means limited economic growth, which in turn creates resentment and opportunities for radicalisation and recruitment. Slow burning dissatisfaction could similarly spark violence going into 2016. Both Niger and Chad have major elections set for 2016, which, given the instability and insecurity in the region, could cause substantial tensions, and may also present a target for militant groups seeking to exploit that tension and international attention.

Other factors are similarly expected to contribute to worsening security and instability in the region. A competition of sorts between al-Qaeda and ISIS has taken shape, with various militant Islamist groups across the Sahel subsequently pledging allegiance to one group or the other. Boko Haram has attempted to rebrand itself as the West African branch of ISIS, and has received telling support for its propaganda campaign, which now regularly releases highly stylised videos of their exploits. In East Africa, al-Shabaab has officially retained its allegiance to al-Qaeda – specifically to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), although some elements have, in the final quarter of 2015, begun to fracture off the main group and are now aligned with ISIS.

Islamist militant groups aligned with AQIM conducted a brazen attack on a hotel in Bamako in Mali in November 2015, within days of the ISIS attacks in Paris, but it appears that the timing was a coincidence. Nonetheless, it is possible that regional militant groups could seek to conduct more high profile attacks (the kind that target Westerners or otherwise garner substantial international media attention), specifically in order to emulate and ingratiate themselves with their respective affiliate bodies.

Cooperation and intervention remain politically and logistically challenging

With the above-mentioned difficulties facing securitisation efforts in the Sahel region, cooperation between regional neighbours is vital. Joint military operations are critical to effectively contain foes and reduce their ability to dictate the strategic tempo and locations of attacks. The Boko Haram insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria is illustrative of this: insurgents were at times able to exploit porous borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger for logistical purposes and to infiltrate, attack and exfiltrate. It is worth noting that unsecured borders are just one aspect of that conflict that has allowed Boko Haram to conduct its insurgency in the way that it has since 2009, but since the intervention and heightened cooperation among those regional neighbouring states, the group has been under significantly greater military pressure.

Border security is just one matter compelling regional cooperation. Intelligence sharing and general military cooperation in the form of, for instance, the facilitation of ‘hot pursuits’ of militants across borders, are also crucial tools for counter-insurgency efforts.

Full joint military cooperation is an additional step up in operational and political complexity from shared border security. A crucial West African security initiative is the multinational joint task force (MNJTF) created between Lake Chad Basin Commission members (Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria) to fight Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area. Other examples include multilaterally mandated intervention or peacekeeping forces, such as the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). That mission began as an Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) supported intervention spearheaded by France in 2013, before transitioning into an African Union mission that eventually received a full UN mandate. Both the MNJTF and MINUSMA raise other difficult aspects of cooperation, such as logistical and operational incompatibilities or language barriers.

Difficult and frequently belligerent relationships between several key regional players characterise foreign relations in West Africa. Nigeria, for example, as something of a regional hegemon, has a history of ‘bullying’ regional cooperation initiatives, such as the highly criticised peacekeeping force, the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), which was dominated by Nigerian leadership and accused of numerous human rights violations, mismanagement and looting by non-government organisations and rights groups. To an extent, Nigeria’s insistence on dictating the scope of operations and the leadership structure of the MNJTF played a role in the time it took that project to reach operational status.

With regard to logistics, countries in the Sahel region have limited, if any, airlift capability, meaning that the movement of large numbers of troops to conflict areas is difficult, requiring private outsourcing, foreign aid, or resorting to slow and cumbersome land-based travel. Regional militaries also suffer for constrained budgets and limitations on the numbers of ‘operations capable’ forces (frontline combat troops who can be spared for extended deployments). Moreover, the actual logistical provisioning of a force in the field provides a significant challenge to the region. Poor infrastructure, where roads and bridges are inadequate, creates difficulties in keeping necessary food/water/ammunition/spares/replacements moving. For instance, Chadian troops have been pledged or committed to several conflicts in the region over the past half-decade, including costly frontline combat in Mali, and have subsequently suffered from overstretch. That overstretch has led to troops being recalled to bolster security against growing Boko Haram attacks, to the detriment of, for instance, the MNJTF.

With these logistical challenges in mind, international support is often sorely needed, but is no less politically challenging than regional cooperation. France, for instance, spearheaded the intervention in Mali in 2013 and retains a significant military presence throughout the Western Sahel through the regional counter-terrorism effort, Operation Barkhane. France’s strong historical ties to the region give it a useful edge in intelligence gathering and hint at its economic interest in securing the region (for instance, the French nuclear energy company AREVA has uranium mining facilities in Niger that have been targeted by AQIM-affiliated groups in 2013). There has, however, also been backlash to international efforts in the region, with France accused by detractors of seeking to revive its colonial Françafrique. US efforts in the region have been similarly controversial, with US Africa Command (AFRICOM) training missions in Mali prior to the collapse of that country’s military in 2012 and the subsequent coup d’état having been roundly criticized.

This article is extracted from the January 2016 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM) –. The essential +70 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

Multilateral effort needed to counter rising insecurity in Sahel

The militant groups conducting insurgencies and terror campaigns throughout the Sahel will, in the immediate future, continue to exploit the geographic, social and political vulnerabilities that characterise the region’s security landscape. What is needed to combat that danger is a concerted, joint regional effort – with international support to bolster gaps in the capabilities and capacities of those regional militaries.

The numerous challenges facing effective cooperative defence can be overcome with a civil and practical approach by various regional actors, in the West African portion of Sahel and across the geographic band in its entirety. In particular, the MNJTF could serve as an example for further cooperative initiatives to more effectively contain transnational insurgent forces, and better degrade their ability to conduct violent attacks.

Conway Waddington, a Regional Analyst with ACM, has contributed papers, reviews and con­ference material to the Institute for Security Studies (Pretoria, South Africa) and has acted as a peer-review­er for Scientia Militaria.