The Growth of violent extremist groups and militias in Mali and Burkina Faso’s cross-border region.

by | Sep 21, 2023

Context analysis of violent extremism in Mali and Burkina Faso

The Sahel region of West Africa has been the epicenter of terrorism for over a decade due to the occupation of al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated organizations, non-state armed groups, auto-defense militias, and organized crime actors. This has rendered the Sahel a no man’s land with a high level of global violence.

The growth of terrorism in the border area of Mali and Burkina Faso has become a major threat to the Sahel regions of West Africa and a global threat to international peace and security.

The root causes of the development of violence, violent Extremism, ethnic base militia, and organized crime can also be traced to urban violent extremism in parts of the region. The urban connection has impacted inequitable access to justice, exacerbating corruption, illiteracy, and poverty in rural areas. The ineffectiveness of regular security forces has raised the need for a genuine population stabilization and protection strategy. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and violence continues to escalate. All of these grievances are exploited by violent extremist organizations, who seek to reestablish a new form of governance based on Islamic Sharia law.

According to the global terrorism index report “ The Sahel region in sub-Saharan Africa is now the epicenter of terrorism, with the Sahel accounting for more terrorism deaths in 2022 than both South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) combined. Deaths in the Sahel constituted 43 percent of the global total in 2022, compared to just one percent in 2007. Of particular concern are two countries, Burkina Faso and Mali, which accounted for 73 percent of terrorism deaths in the Sahel in 2022 and 52 percent of all deaths from terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa. Both countries recorded substantial increases in terrorism, with deaths in Burkina Faso increasing by 50 percent to 1,135 and in Mali by 56 percent to 944. Attacks in these countries are also becoming more deadly, with the number of people killed per attack increasing by 48 percent from 2021. Most attacks in these countries are attributed to unknown jihadists though both IS and JNIM operate in these countries. The escalation in violence in Burkina Faso has also spread to neighboring countries, with Togo and Benin recording their worst GTI scores on record.”

In Mali:

Central Mali, particularly the region of Mopti and Bandiagara, the government of Mali and international partners like Minusma, struggle to protect civilians in both central Mali and the north. Despite all these efforts—of MINUSMA, the French army, and the Malian army—ethnic base militias groups and violence escalating in the center of Mali and making today the center of Mali the new epicenter of terrorists organizations up to the border area of Mali and Burkina Faso.

The presence of the Russian Wagner Group private mercenary army has exacerbated the problems and added to human rights abuses, including the March 2022 killings of more than 500 civilians in the central Malian village of Moura. A May 2023 United Nations human rights report on the involvement of Russian mercenaries and Malian troops in the Moura killings condemned the killings and cited evidence of culpability by Russian mercenaries and Malian troops. The United States Department of State has called for more accountability from the Malian government.

A United Nations press release on the report noted: “According to witnesses, a military helicopter flew over the village, opening fire on people, while four other helicopters landed and troops disembarked. The soldiers corralled people into the center of the village, shooting randomly at those trying to escape. Some Katiba Macina militants in the crowd fired back at the troops. At least 20 civilians and a dozen alleged members of Katiba Macina were killed.”

The root causes of the growth of terrorism in these areas can be traced back to  Inter-community conflicts,  conflicts over access to natural resources, a lack of access to equitable justice and security, and youth involvement in various forms of violence through ethnic base militias. These issues push people to join terrorist movements. 

Terrorist organizations use the grievances of lack of basic services and ethnic conflict to recruit. arid poor but a powerhouse of natural resources. According to the book of Adam Tiam, Central Mali: The Challenges and Dangers of a Neglected Crisis,  published by the Center for humanitarian dialogue, 2017, Malian government officials are accused of being on the payroll of local chieftainships. This racket was facilitated by large cattle owners from Seeno and the Boucle du Niger.

They exploit the lack of government legitimacy to recruit from local grassroots communities and bring a new form of governance based on Islamic Sharia laws.  Today most of these rural remote villages are controlled by terrorist groups, there is no government administration and basic social services are now in safer areas like the region of Mopti or the province of Koro. Rural villages are left behind in the hand of terrorist groups who preach fundamentalist Islam to the local populations.

Regarding local solutions, some local political and elites founded ethnically based self-defense militias like the Dan Na Ambassagou and the Dan Na Atem of the Dogon ethnic group, which were supposed to resolve the security demand but changed to inter-ethnic conflicts wherein thousands of people from both the Fulani and the Dogon peoples have been killed in the inter-ethnic conflict. These militias cannot constitute a lasting solution to the real problem of local insecurity, and even less as a means to reverse the way the state has been discredited in the central regions. The Dogon ad Fulani communities used to live together peacefully from generation to generation but now hunt each other for control of land and natural resources. While the Dogon people join the self-defense militias, the Fulani people join the organizations like Katiba Macina and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), meaning Group for Support of Islam and Muslims.

Katiba Macina’s leader Amadou Koufa uses a narrative of injustice and discrimination to recruit marginalized groups, including Fulani youth, motivated by a desire for social advancement.  These Fulani youth have been long-time herders and know every corner and route in the rural grassland areas they have used for generations as grassland for the animals. Today, in terms of route knowledge in the Liptako Gourma’s forest border between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, they know all the routes, places to find water, or the deep forest to hide and prepare attacks using that local knowledge.

Moreover, all of the Malian villages along the Mali-Burkina border are under terrorist threat. These include Koro, Dinangourou, Dioungani, Bondo, Diankabou, Dougouténé I, Dougouténé II (Circle of Koro), Baye, Sokoura, Ouenkoro, Dimbal, Koulogon, Diallassagou, Lessagou, Segué are the communes affected in Mali (Circle of Bankass).

Several villages in these communes are under the control of jihadists, who come to preach, collect tithes, and buy food and fuel regularly.

In Burkina Faso:

In 2015, the Katiba Macina terror group, (run by the Fulani Islamist preacher, Ahmadou Kouffa), established its base in central Mali and worked across the border in the northern Burkinabe province of Soum. Katiba Macina is the Fulani terrorist group affiliated with the former Malian diplomat turned terrorist, Iyad Ag Ghaly. Ag Ghaly is also linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula. Another Islamist preacher Ibrahim Malam Dicko was fighting with Ag Ghaly in northern Mali with about forty fighters under Ahmadou Kouffa’s command before he broke off and started his group, Ansarul Islam, in Burkina Faso.

These two groups have had a devastating impact on the border region. According to the global terrorism index report “Burkina Faso had the largest increase in terrorism deaths, increasing from 759 to 1,135 deaths” in 2022. This was followed by Pakistan where terrorism deaths increased from 292 in 2021 to 643 in 2022.”

Burkina Faso, like other countries in West Africa’s Sahel region, such as Mali, struggles to address good governance that meets the needs of grassroots communities and rural masses.  There are numerous grievances against political systems set up on family and ethnic patronage. There are complaints that political elites are more interested in maintaining power and distributing resources within their clientele networks than in dealing with the demands and needs of the population—needs that include a lack of access to basic social services, difficulty accessing justice, and dealing with terrorist and government human rights violations.

Terrorist groups have long understood the challenges of grassroots rural remote communities, such as inter-community conflicts and the deterioration of relationships between the government and citizens. Terror groups have used these grievances to gain population support and envision a new form of governance based on Sharia law.

Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed during terrorist attacks in various regions of Burkina Faso.  The act of terrorism and the killing of civilians are driving people to demand security and protection from the government. This contributed to the military coups in Mali in 2012 and again in 2020 and 2021. Civilian dissatisfaction also was a factor in the military coup that overthrew Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, on January 24, 2022. At the time, the socio-political context was fragile, and civil society actors and security forces had long expressed their lack of buy-in and discontent with Kaboré’s leadership and security strategy.  This demonstrates how political systems fail to meet the needs of the people.  Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba masterminded the military coup.

On 30 September 2022, Capt Ibrahim Traoré overthrew Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba after just a few months of rule. Traoréaccused Damiba of failing to fulfill his promise to put an end to the Islamist insurgency that has gripped Burkina Faso since 2015.  Since then, Capt Ibrahim Traoré, Burkina Faso’s new military ruler, has vowed to fight terrorist organizations without negotiating. 

During my research trip through central Mali, from the province of Koro to Thiou, the first department of Burkina Faso, I saw how the army, gendarmerie, and police bases, as well as public institutions such as schools and municipal administrations, have been repeatedly attacked by non-state armed groups, Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. 

After attacking regular forces position, Islamist militants use explosive devices to destroy regular forces’ camps or checkpoints along the roads, and they sometimes set fire to schools or local infrastructure.

Who are the terrorist actors? and what are the political demands in Mali and Burkina Faso?

In Mali, one of the main active terrorist organizations is JNIM, a grassroots coalition of Salafist-jihadist terrorist insurgent jihadist groups operating across the Sahel region of West Africa.

The history of the formation of the JNIM traces back to March 2017 through the merger of four rural and local terrorists groups in the Sahel: Ansar Dine, Katibat Macina, al-Mourabitoun, and the Sahara branch of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Since 2017, JNIM has recruited many youths from rural local grassroots communities and expanded its control and operating territory across the Sahel region of West Africa. They are most active in the three border areas Liptako Gourma, where Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso all meet. 

Most of the areas of terrorist control have long been abandoned by Sahelian states and social services or development infrastructures. JNIM exploits these local grievances and gets some local populations to buy in and recruit from the youth in each territory they occupied.

JNIM militias practice a form of governance over local populations by prohibiting traditional and cultural celebrations such as weddings, baptisms, and even funerals, and by imposing a highly conservative form of Islam.

The Political demand of the JINIM is that they envision restoring an ultra-conservative practice and interpretation of Islam on both populations and the state to have an Islamic state, a caliphate, in the Sahel regions of West Africa. Regarding their approach and practice, they acknowledge the traditional legitimacy of leaders where local community leaders and traditional chefs play a role in the community.

In Burkina Faso,the main terror actor isAnsarul Islam, founded in November 2016 in the Foulsaré forest, following the Séguéré operation and the Nassoumbou attack. The Burkina Faso government learned about the birth of this terrorist organization through a statement authored by Imam Ibrahim Malam Dicko. As a result, the security situation in Burkina Faso, particularly in the Liptako Gourma. Administrative services are non-functional, and many administrative and Burkina Faso regular forces and defense agents are victims of violent extremist militias.

The Sahel region of West Africa is a region of influence and competition for the two most influential jihadist organizations: The al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’a Nasrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) operates in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, respectively. The source of their tension is the control of territories and their influence in the tri-border area.

Terrorists in Mali and Burkina Faso, with support from the Macina Katiba (it should be noted that Amadou KOUFFA stayed in Koro on several occasions as a traveling Islamist preacher before the civil war). Their demands are centered on the implementation of Sharia law. However, their deepest desire is to establish an Islamic state in the image of ancient Macina (the 19th-century Fulani jihadist empire that was destroyed by French colonial troops). They also want to use the Gondo and Samori plains (towards Baye, Sokoura te Ouenkoro) as a breeding area, reducing agriculture.

Cross-Border Cooperation Between Mali and Burkina Faso in the Fight Against Terrorism

Cross-border cooperation between Mali and Burkina Faso is now restricted to an alert and information system on non-states armed groups’ movements. The system is entirely dependent on the community a human intelligence strategy. Between Mali and Burkina Faso, there is no formal anti-terrorism mechanism. Nonetheless, officials in both nations are increasingly collaborating on counterterrorism.

The Sahel region of West Africa is mostly landlocked, arid, and poor when it comes to natural resources and human capital, yet now the tri-border area between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger has become an epicenter of terrorism as various counter-insurgency and military measures have failed to combat the proliferation of terrorist groups. The Videos take advantage of the failure of international, national, and regional measures to combat them, and now win new terrorists such as coastal states. They overflow into the Gulf of Guinea, mainly in Togo, Benin, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana.

The West African coastal states, such as the Sahel region of West Africa, face a lack of decent administration, access to justice, a lack of sharing of natural resources, basic social services for grassroots communities, and an increase in inter-ethnic and communal tensions. Terrorist organizations make use of these issues to recruit at the grassroots level of local communities and promote their ideas, particularly among adolescents.

The military approach to terrorism in the Sahel opens the door to local recruitment for jihadists and strengthens them in the Sahel and coastal states.

A Journey Through the Occupied Areas of Central Mali and Northern Burkina Faso

During my most recent field research trip in Mali and Burkina Faso, end of February 2023,  I traveled from the province of Koro in Mali across the border to Burkina Faso’s first northern region of the Yatenga and the towns of Thiou and Ouahigouya. Along the road from Koro, the way was controlled by Ansarul Islam violent extremist groups. Their fighters occupied routes, axes, towns, and established checkpoints every 15 to 20 kilometers. The journey was long and dangerous across this vast, green territory that has long been used as grassland by herders and nomadic communities, Fulani and Tuareg, who rely on agriculture and livestock. In some villages, I travel by bus, bike, and on foot from one to another. 

First and foremost, it was one of the most dangerous field trips for research purposes. from the district of Koro to the district of Thiou, the entire area is controlled by terrorist militants. The terrorists were very young around 17 years to 23 years old, and they are armed with Kalashnikovs. They use bikes as modes of transportation, and radio for communication with each other. They are dressed in traditional attire and wear turbans, and the checkpoints are hidden behind large trees so that air reconnaissance cannot identify them.  At each checkpoint, militants inquired about our names and the purpose of our journey.

They took the time to have some preachers explain their mission and vision of Islam to passengers. They emphasized that civilians are not their target, but governments, national forces, and international forces. The road from Koro to Ouhigouya is one of the most dangerous routes controlled by violent extremist organizations. Terrorist groups have frequently attacked Malian and Burkina Faso forces on the road. They also dynamited the bridge. Some areas are mined with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in case regular or international forces attempt to take their positions.

Terrorist groups were able to recruit locally. All of the militants I encountered during my trips were local youth native to these villages, and they knew every corner in the Liptako Gourma areas. They are very active, moving in groups of five to ten on bikes. They are not the traditional bikes known in the West, but they use bikes to move from one point to another and conduct patrols to alert other checkpoints on the movements of people and control anything in the areas they control. The checkpoints are not well-organized, and the youth in charge lack the necessary skills to deal with military operations. The primary goal of these checkpoints is to control population movement and assess taxes on agricultural goods and people who pass through their checkpoints.

It is important to note that the majority of the inhabitants of the villages along the border areas of Mali and Burkina Faso have fled their homeland and are now internally displaced populations. During my field trip, the mayors of Thiou and Koro negotiated a local agreement with terrorist groups, which led to some inhabitants returning to their villages under a new rule based on Sharia law imposed by terrorist groups.

The civilians I encountered on my journey were extremely vulnerable, and they explained to me that they were living in an open-sky prison. Some explain that the government abandoned them. The atmosphere was calm and under the pressure of the terrorists’ new way of life. Men were required to cut their pants short at the ankle in the simple style believed to have been worn by the prophet Mohammed in the 6th century AD. Women were required to wear burkas and hijabs. Regarding social-cultural activities such as marriage, birth, or death, the new rulers forbid any celebration, and the populace is obligated to follow these new rules. This makes it difficult for populations to express their cultural celebrations or gatherings.

In the absence of a government, terrorist organizations use inter-community conflicts and government grievances to gain support from the general population. Local populations who refuse to obey the terrorist mode of governance have fled to safer areas such as the Burkinabe town of Ouahigouya and the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou, which are under army control.

Terrorist groups have imposed strict Sharia law across the rural areas as well as zakat (a tax, comprising percentages of personal income of every kind, levied as almsgiving for the relief of the poor: the third of the Pillars of Islam) on people, cereals, and cattle. They have developed an illicit economy based on cattle rustling and providing gas for the local population by smuggling it from Algeria and Mauritania. Populations rely on this smuggled gas because Mali and Burkina Faso block access to gas to try to deprive the terrorist groups of gas supplies.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, local authorities and customary leaders have made local agreements with terrorist groups Ansar ul Islam and the JENIM for the population to cross the border of Mali and Burkina Faso and sell goods in the open markets which is vital for both communities. Every Saturday is the province of Koro’s fair, where merchants from Ouahigouya and other villages in Burkina Faso come to Mali to buy and sell merchandise with Koro merchants and the local populations of Malil.

Those local agreements with terrorist groups assist villages and internally displaced populations, to return and begin a new life with the Islamic Sharia law imposed by the new masters. Local agreements have made it possible for farmers to cultivate their farms and herders to keep their herds. Some of the inter-ethnic violence and displacement from villages have decreased.

Local agreements have played an important role in border stabilization. These agreements allow people to go about their daily lives a little more freely. The grassroots communities helped negotiate the local agreements in the Koro enclave. The idea for the agreement did not come from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or outsiders. Some village chiefs risked their lives to go to the terrorist groups and negotiate and compromise with them to save their villages. Finally, the Monobem Association intervened to facilitate a global agreement for the Cercle, which is the sum of the various local agreements.

The best mechanism for cross-border joint action for eradicating violent extremism.

Today, the military solution is gaining traction, but it will not be able to end the current situation. Community dialogue and large-scale sensitization of local populations can help achieve long-term peace. There is also a need for job creation and income-generating activities to keep young people busy and prevent them from becoming extremists.

Both in Mali and Burkina Faso, there is a need to reinforce cross-border cooperation in terms of defense strategies and joint security actions to counter terrorist attacks and take over provinces and villages controlled by terrorist groups. Other cross-border cooperation frameworks must be developed by national authorities to bring communities closer together and promote social cohesion and cooperation between populations and security forces to better use the populations’ knowledge of security solutions.

The establishment of local cattle-movement monitoring committees can help local communities keep control of their herds. This also assists states in controlling the flow of the illicit economy of cattle rustling, which is one of the sources of funding for terrorism in the Sahel.

Finally, the cross-border initiative must include the restoration of state authority through the restoration of public services, the reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure, increased access to basic social services, and the revitalization of local economies.

Policy Recommendations

After ten years of international stabilization and internal forces operations in the Sahel to combat violent extremism, it is clear that the military solution will never definitively address violent extremism or bring long-term peace to the Sahel. This policy recommendation examines grassroots and community-based solutions for long-term peace and better policy guidance for policymakers and international partners working to stabilize West Africa’s Sahel region.

  • It is necessary to organize dialogues and consultative frameworks to understand the true aspirations of all parties to arrive at well-thought-out, definitive, and long-term solutions. Now that the jihadists from other countries (the ones who led the initial military operations from 2012 to 2016) have left, the only fighters left are the locals, who have always coexisted with the locals. There are individuals within these populations who are capable of dealing with them. These are useful for conveying messages and organizing meetings.
  • Effectively combating the effects of climate change creates inter-community conflicts and encourages recruiting young people into terrorist groups.
  • Fight against youth unemployment. The communities of the border zone are the human capital that has neither the infrastructure nor the professional capacity to survive, so they are easy to recruit into self-defense groups, terrorist organizations, or organized crime.
  • Establish a good border control system with a border guard agency,
  • Strengthen the socio-economic structures in rural areas
  • Fight effectively against illiteracy by educating the people who are left behind.
  • The inclusion of grassroots traditional leaders is required to better identify and address inter-ethnic tensions, which have significant implications for how counter-terrorism operates in the Sahel.
  • Cross-border cooperation among Sahelian countries like Mali and Burkina Faso is required to stabilize the border area and control the movement of terrorist organizations.

El Hadj Djitteye

President & Executive Director of the Timbuktu Center| Conflict Security Stabilization Violent Extremism Researcher| Sahel Expert| Policy Analyst| International Consultant| Obama Leader| Peace Ambassador|MW Fellow| View El Hadj's Full Profile

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