Counterterrorism and Rising State Fragility in the Post-Coup Sahel Region

Counterterrorism and Rising State Fragility in the Post-Coup Sahel Region

Since the 2012 Tuareg uprising, the level of violent extremist activity in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso has consistently risen. In 2022, 43 per cent of all terrorism-related deaths in the world were in the Sahel; in 2007, it was one per cent, a 2,000 per cent rise. Ten years, after the outbreak in Mali, there are Salafi-jihadi incidents in Togo, Benin, and Ghana, indicating that what had begun in the Sahel is spreading across coastal West Africa.

In December 2021, France announced the evacuation of its troops from its bases in Kidal and Tessalit in Northern Mali, ending a decade-long counter-insurgency operation. President Macron made the announcement in part because it has become obvious that the military activity has not ended Salafi-jihadi activity in Mali. In fact, it seems to have caused more instability. Soon afterward, Mali’s Interim Defence Minister, Sadio Camara, announced that the government signed an agreement with Russia for the delivery of four helicopters (aerial counterterrorism operations have proven effective against some groups, considering how hard it is to travel across Sahelian countries).

Russia gifted some weapons and ammunition. Visiting the country in February 2023, the Russian Foreign Secretary confirmed Russia’s commitment to support Mali. Woven into the Russo-Mali relationship is the Wagner Group. In January 2022, General Stephen Townsend, commander of US Africa Command, confirmed the group was operating in the country. Wagner’s presence allegedly began in December 2021. The willingness of the Malian government to turn the Wagner Group underlines how dangerous and desperate the situation has become, with the military junta facing sanctions from the European Union, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States. The Wagner Group allegedly receives $US10 million per month, but it has been responsible for several atrocities against civilians, which may explain why one-third of Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimeen’s (JNIM) propaganda statements in 2022 are targeted against the Group.

The announcements, and the Wagner Group’s presence, underline a failure of both hard and soft counterterrorism efforts in Mali, the Sahel, and West Africa. The JNIM, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGA), and others (this refers to unknown or unspecified groups, who have become a real menace in the region for instance in 2022 Burkina Faso saw over 1,000 terrorism-related deaths but 87 per cent of deaths and 88 per cent of attacks were attributed to either unknown groups or to unspecified Islamic extremists) has led to state fragility. Violent extremists were the main cause for the military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad, and an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau. For example, in Burkina Faso, the public supported the coup as it was felt that the civilian authorities were failing to protect the public. Fear over state collapse explains why in 2020, the Malian President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, said he was willing to talk with the Islamists though there is no evidence that they responded. A year later, President Keïta was overthrown by Colonel Assimi Goita and in October 2021, the new government indicated to the JNIM it was open to negotiating an end to the conflict. The French opposed the move, with President Macron making it clear that France would conduct joint operations with countries that “decide to negotiate with groups that … shoot at our children”. This position may also explain why the Malian government has asked the French to withdraw their forces from Mali, opening the door to the Russians and the Wagner Group.

To date, there is no public evidence of any negotiations (there are reports of unofficial talks), in part because of squabbles with the JNIM and the Malian government, and possibly because the military-led government seems to prefer hard counterterrorism measures (as they work with the Wagner Group whose presence became public in December 2021) to negotiation or reconciliation. There are also suggestions that JNIM is struggling against some of the other groups in the region. The situation in Burkina Faso seems to replicate what has been going on in Mali in that it was also poor security that led to a coup in Burkina Faso. The country recorded its first terrorist attack in 2015, but seven years later it was second on the Global Terrorism Index, with close to 1,200 terrorism-related deaths.

At one point there was some concern over the prospect of something akin to the Islamic Emirate of Azawad, an Islamic State province, remerging. The Emirate lasted around nine months. This Islamic State-type entity engage in a similar level of brutality as seen by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that included cutting the hands of those accused of theft and stoning adulterers. However, seasoned Islamists such as Iyad Ag Ghali, the JNIM’s leader, who was involved in the 2012 Emirates have realised that the region is not ready to recreate the Emirate.[1] This may explain why their strategy does not look to revisit the 2012 experiment, but rather to curve a presence that the government would tolerate and from that space grow.

Groups operating as part of the al-Qaeda-linked, Mali-based JNIM and the Islamic State-local affiliates (the ISWAP and the ISGA) have exploited socio-economic conditions and government-led ethnicization policies (governments in Burkina Faso and Mali have shown a preference to support one ethnic group over another, adding to rising anger) in their recruitment campaigns. Salafi-jihadi groups have looked to exploit localised grievances between pastoralists and farmers or between various tribal/ethnic groups by ramping up their attacks on the security services and painting their actions as “defending” local interests because of the large animosity that many have towards security services.

The groups seem to have a three-pillar strategy:

1. Spread their operation over the largest possible geographical area (albeit away from large urban centres and/or capitals). One reason for this tactic is that it requires the government (mainly the security forces) and international forces to exert more resources as they chase after the extremists.
2. Adopt the principle of guerrilla warfare while also using regular military tactics when possible. This tactic leads governments and security forces to adopt more aggressive counter-terrorism policies that tend to fundamentally harm local populations. The Wagner Group’s tactic in Mali is to engage in large-scale attacks against civilian populations, as they believe it discourages the extremists who come from the community – in reality, this tactic only fuels recruitment.
3. Gain popular support
– Through socio-economic services. The Sahel is one of the poorest areas on the globe and temperatures in the region are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, which impacts the herders and the farmers and the inhabitants of the region who face high rates of food insecurity.
– Through judicial (adjudication) services.
– Basic security (those who accept their remit are generally left to their own devices. For instance, it is known that Iyad Ag Ghaly allows commanders to have autonomy.

In the last few years, the Salafi-jihadi groups have intensified their attacks against local chiefs, mayors, council members, and religious leaders. Attacking these leaders is part of a strategy aimed at promoting lawlessness because these leaders serve multiple roles ranging from political leaders, judges, record keepers, etc. By attacking these individuals (according to ACLED, over 300 community leaders, state officials and family members have been targeted), the groups remind local communities that the central government is unable or unwilling to provide them with basic security. Their actions encourage local communities to form their own defence associations, which adds to the militarization of the region. For instance, violence between Peul and Dogon in the Macina delta of central Mali has boosted recruitment among violent extremist groups and self-defence groups. In the Soum and Centre North provinces in Burkina Faso, there have been clashes between Mossi (the country’s main ethnic group) and Fulani. In Southwest Niger, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has taken advantage of unregulated competition for natural resources and local power between (and among) Peul, Djerma, Tuareg, and Daosahak to entrench itself as an insurgent force.

For governments, such attacks call for more defence spending, which comes at the expense of socio-economic investments. For instance, in 2019, 22 per cent of Mali’s budget was allocated for defence, compared to one percent for the judiciary and around six percent for access to water.


Speaking in January 2022, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, declared that the EU wants to support and remain engaged in Mali “but not at any cost.” Borrell was making it clear that the EU had come to accept that there were limits to what it can do to roll back the tide of Salafist-jihadist activities. The 2022 GTI and regular news reporting show, the situation in the Sahel is dire. The military junta in Mali, and in Burkina Faso, are unable to successfully counter the Salafist-jihadist threat, which is why Mali turned to the Wagner Group, whose brutality is well documented, pushing the country further away from the path of reconciliation and development. What is worse, the violence is expanding from the Sahel to the coastal areas, threatening stability in Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Hard counterterrorism policies that centre on counter-insurgency tactics and the military only embolden the violent extremists.

Source » eeradicalization