The impact of COVID-19 on the development of terrorist organizations in the Sahel

by | Jul 19, 2021

The West African Sahel region is land locked, arid, and poor. In the past ten years, this region—which includes Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and northern Nigeria—has become home to one of Africa’s most violent and successful Islamist extremism movements. Now, the Covid-19 crisis that has shaken the world has also harmed efforts to build peace and stability in the Sahel. Today, some of the worst violence in the Sahel centers in a region called Liptako-Gourma, which is where the borders of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso meet.

Before the Islamist insurgencies, the West African Sahel region already suffered from drought and food security problems brought on by climate change. This has contributed to irregular migration to Europe and to wetter, more economically stable parts of Africa. Governments and international stakeholders must continue efforts on countering violent extremism organizations in the Sahel regions of West Africa.

COVID-19 has added a new and dangerous layer to the Sahel crisis and will deeply affect the region’s stability in the long term. Extremist groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State and others have begun to take advantage of decisions by government and international development organizations to cut back their food security and peace-building operations as the virus has spread.

This crisis is mostly strongly felt in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, the Sahelian countries  violent Islamist extremist organizations have had the most success. The Liptako-Gourma region has become an issue because its vast, complex landscape is an easy place to hide. This area is also rich in grassland and farmland and has for centuries supported herding cultures of the Fulani, Tuargeg and Arab ethnic groups. But ethnic groups more dependent on sedentary farming, such as the Dogon, have also long settled in this region. This has made Liptako- Gourma a flashpoint for conflict over land between different nomad groups, and between nomad groups and sedentary farmers. Extremist groups have taken advantage of this conflict.

Security dynamics in the West African Sahel

In Mali, Islamist extremists concentrate operations in the country’s center and northern parts, where the grasslands of the Sahel meet the Sahara. This broad area includes Liptako Gourma. The broader area is deeply rural and terrain very rugged, mountainous in places, and difficult for the Malian and international security forces to operate. The international forces include the French army’s Operation Barkhane and United Nations peace-keeping operations.

The proliferation of weapons from conflicts in nearby Libya, dating back to 2011, has further exacerbated the conflict in Mali,  in Burkina Faso and in Niger. Moreover, the growth of ethnic militias, which have sprung up to protect their communities against jihadists, has opened the floodgates to unprecedented inter-ethnic violence across the region, especially where farmers and herders compete for access to land. This conflict is most prevalent in central Mali, where violence between traditional herding communities, such as the Fulani, and sedentary farming communities, such as the Dogon, have become especially intense. But in Burkina Faso, the country’s northern and eastern areas have in the past three years become operation centers for jihadists groups linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State. Niger has been draw into the conflict along its shared borders with Mali and Burkina Faso in the west, and along its south western border with Nigeria, where Boko Haram is active.

The ethnic conflict in Mali alone has taken the lives of thousands of villagers and soldiers in the last three years alone. Since 2015, terrorist attacks in the Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger border region have left 600,000 people internally displaced within their own countries. In 2019 alone, according to the UN, jihadist attacks killed 4,000 people in these three countries.

Complications with COVID-19

Urban and capital cities of the Sahel are the epicenters of the virus. The virus’s spread in the Sahel does not prevent jihadists group from doing their network. In fact, they have used it to their advantage by claiming that COVID-19 is a divine punishment targeting the unbelievers in the western countries.

Despite attempts by the United Nations Secretary General to declare a cease fire– the Islamist coalition in the Sahel (including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara)  has continued to carry out attacks in their respective areas of operations against military positions, United Nations peacekeepers, international forces  and civilian populations. This coalition operates under the name Jamaat Nasr al-Islam, known by the acronym JNIM. Translated from the Arabic the name means “Group to Support Islam and Muslims.” The jihadists have taken huge advantage of the security disorganization, and the weakening of regional government to strengthen themselves and expand their networks in rural areas across West Africa.

French, United Nations, and Africa security forces across the Sahel have been treading water in their fight with Islamist extremists. They have systematically killed or captured several major leaders, including the killing in early June 2020 of the al Qaeda leader, Abdel Malek Droukdel, in northern Mali. Jihadist forces have lost hundreds of fighters in battles over the last six months, but these successes seem to have made little difference in efforts to stabilize the region. With each leader lost in battle or to assassination, a new one steps forward. In attacks on Malian army camps in central Mali on April 6 and April 11, JNIM forces killed least 25 Malian soldiers, according to army officials.

With Abdelmalek Droukdel out of the picture, it appears that overall leadership of JNIM has fallen upon the shoulders of Amadou Koufa, a Malian national and member of the Fulani ethnic group. Koufa is an Islamist scholar and preacher who operates from the Liptako Gourma area. He rose to prominence in 2011 and 2012 when he proved his ability to deliver child soldiers to the jihadist movement, mostly teenage boys he recruited from the Quranic schools he founded across central Mali. Koufa is the self-appointed “sultan” of Macina and has survived numerous assassination attempts, including two situations in which France publicly announced his death only to see him emerge later in video interviews. Macina is the name of the 19th century jihadist empire that existed in central Mali from 1818 to 1862, when French colonial forces crushed it. Koufa has used this history to try and energize his movement. As a political tool, and means for raising money, JNIM, the group Koufa now heads, has been behind the kidnappings of many Europeans and Africans in recent years, including the president of Mali’s leading opposition political party of Soumeila Cisse. He was kidnapped in March in the north during a campaign sweep to promote candidates for Mali’s legislative elections. Until Now the opposition leader remains in the hands of the Amadou Koufa.

The Liptako-Gourma, a nest for the terrorist organizations 

The Liptako-Gourma area become the nest of violent extremist organizations who are attracted to the region’s remoteness. Despite the presence of the African G5 Sahel joint forces and the 4000 French Operation Barkhane soldiers, and United Nations peace-keepers, there has been no success in dislodging the jihadists. These groups successfully use their superior knowledge of the geography and landscape.

The deteriorating security situation in the Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso border regions perfectly illustrates how terrorist groups use a local conflict to boost their numbers and their causes. Insecurity has worsened long-standing land conflicts between communities like the Tuareg and Fulani, which are traditional herding groups, and sedentary farming cultures such as the Bambara and Dogon.

There are also intense rivalries among the violent extremist organizations. Last April 16, for example, in the border of Mali and Burkina Faso, there were clashes between fighters of the Islamic State in the Sahara and fighters of JNIM. JNIM suffered the most, losing 50 militants in the fight while the Islamic State captured a further 40. As the overall violence continues, Sahelian leaders must reinforce the presence of security forces and development programs in the Liptako-Gourma while tackling COVID-19.

The long-term vision to tackle violent extremism in the sahel regions

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger must put grassroots communities in the heart of their development programs to address the current situation. Furthermore, it’s important that policy makers design programs to tackle violence by investing in agricultural and cattle farming programs to assist farmers and pastoralists. Programs must also address issues of education and health care to deal with the root causes of youth radicalization. Many young people, particularly young men, have become disaffected as economic opportunities have collapsed first with the impacts of climate change, then with the rise of violent extremism, and now with the added problem of COVID-19.

Most of these rural and nomad areas are far from urban centers. In these areas, smugglers have long established routes for human trafficking and other criminal activities. Locals are compelled to adapt to this state of affairs.  In the long-term, leaders in the Sahel regions must rethink the social contract between grassroots communities and the state by improving basic social services such as education and health services, as well as infrastructures development. For the region to establish a healthy stability, small rural communities need to feel a sense of belonging to state.

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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