The Sahel’s uphill battle to halt the expansion of Islamist extremism in 2020 – Part I

Islamist extremist groups expanded in the Sahel and West Africa at an unprecedented rate in 2019. What began as an Islamist insurgency in Mali in 2012 has gradually expanded out of that country and into others in the region, first into Niger and, more recently, into Burkina Faso.

According to the UN, for example, at least 4,000 people died in terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in 2019, a five-fold increase since 2016 when 770 people lost their lives in the violence. Moreover, while 306 people were killed in extremist violence in Burkina Faso in 2018, 1,853 died in 2019, marking an increase of 506 percent on the previous year.

The end of 2019 saw a particularly deadly spate of attacks in the Sahel. An assault on a military base in Inates, Niger, in December, left more than 70 dead, while an ambush on a mining convoy in Burkina Faso in November saw 39 gold miners lose their lives and an attack on a military base in Mali the same month killed 49 people. 

What is the outlook for these states and others in the region for 2020? In Part I of this essay series, the Africa Portal looks at the changing nature of the threat, what it means for political stability in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and whether West African coastal states are now at risk. Part II looks at the opportunities and challenges facing regional and international security forces to contain the threat.

Increasingly complex assaults 

While there are numerous of militant groups operating in the Sahel, the two primary perpetrators of attacks over the past few years have been the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). 

The attacks that were conducted towards the end of 2019 demonstrated that these Islamist extremist groups have not simply expanded, but they have also become more sophisticated. Early attacks perpetrated by JNIM, ISGS or its affiliates in the Sahel comprised hit-and-run assaults carried out by several fighters with Kalashnikovs. They mounted attacks on soft targets like hotels and restaurants, including in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital in 2016, and 2017, as well as a beachside hotel in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire in 2016.

However, the attacks at the end of 2019 appear to confirm a trend towards more complex assaults on targets like military bases. The groups are now launching operations involving hundreds of fighters such as those on the military bases in Niger and Mali at the end of 2019, while they are also armed with mortars and use vehicles for suicide attacks. Some previous assaults, such as that launched on the Raddison Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in 2015, saw the militants take hundreds of hostages and required extensive planning. But attacking difficult targets like military bases with the frequency of recent months is unprecedented, with large-scale attacks on army camps towards the end of last year occurring just weeks apart. 

This tactic is likely to continue into 2020 as the insurgents reap the benefits of military defeats over the weak armed forces in the region. Such assaults allow the groups to gain new resources from the bases they attack, while also diminishing the morale of the soldiers fighting them. These militaries are often poorly-equipped and being repeatedly defeated has an inevitable impact on their willingness to continue fighting.

The threat of political instability

The frustration with the situation has already been demonstrated in Burkina Faso. After an Islamist militant assault on a military base in the north of that country in August, army officers fired shots in the air at a military barracks in Ouagadougou. Negotiations with the unhappy troops were able to restore order, but such discontent is likely to persist as attacks continue. A few weeks after that incident, police forces temporarily left their posts and withdrew from Djibo, in the northern province of Soum.

This dynamic raises the risk of a major security crisis in the region in the coming months. Civilians and soldiers alike are growing weary of the incessant attacks by Islamist militant groups and the seeming inability of the government and the armed forces to prevent it. Protests against the violence took place in both Ouagadougou and Bamako in September, October and November. As legislative elections are held in Mali in May, and presidential polls take place in Burkina Faso in November, there is a risk that popular discontent will coalesce against the government.

“The worsening situation in the Sahel could have significant ramifications for countries on the coast of West Africa. “

Both nations have ahd military uprisings in the past 10 years and rising anger among both the population and the military may facilitate further attempted coups or mutinies in 2020. After attacks in September, a former Malian general who was involved in the 2012 coup in that country, called for an end to the “incompetent regime”, triggering rumours of a coup that the president was forced to deny.

In the event that such a decisive putsch was undertaken there would almost certainly be a rapid foreign intervention, as there was in Mali in 2012, when France thought it necessary to intervene to prevent the total collapse of the Malian state. Thus, complete destabilisation is unlikely because of the foreign interest in preventing this from occurring. Nonetheless, a severe deterioration of the situation as armed forces and civilians lose faith in their governments to deal with the crisis and take matters into their own hands is possible in the next 12 months.

Establishing new zones of influence

The worsening situation in the Sahel could have significant ramifications for countries on the coast of West Africa. Islamist extremist groups operating in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are likely to establish an increasing number of cells in neighbouring countries in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin. The threat was demonstrated in May 2019 when tourists visiting Benin, a country hitherto untouched by Islamist extremist violence, were kidnapped and their guide was murdered while they were visiting the Pendjari national park on the border with Burkina Faso. Once abducted the victims were taken into Burkina Faso, where they were later released in a French special forces’ operation. French authorities said they suspected Ansarul Islam, a group that operates mainly in northern Burkina Faso and has links to the Front de Liberation du Macina (FLM) in central Mali was responsible; however, the involvement of ISGS cannot be discounted. 

The incident demonstrated the capacity of the Islamist extremist groups in the Sahel to strike outside of their traditional zones of influence, and this is a tactic that should be expected more and more in 2020. The attack in Benin followed reports in April that several suspected terrorist cells had been found in northern Togo, while in June Ivoirian officials reported that they had foiled a series of attacks planned in Abidjan. Authorities also said they had located a militant Islamist cell suspected to be affiliated to the FLM in Comoe forest in northeastern Côte d’Ivoire, bordering Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Governments in these coastal countries have increasingly sought to mobilise more resources to prevent the expansion of the Islamist extremist threat. Côte d’Ivoire, for example, has launched a series of patrols and increased its troop presence along the northern border with Burkina Faso. However, even with augmented security, the borders in the region remain under-policed and porous, and Islamist extremists are likely to continue to penetrate them. Another hit-and-run attack, as in Benin in May, or an assault on a soft target, such as that on a beach resort in Grand Bassam, in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016, are likely in 2020 as the insurgents seek to establish greater capabilities along the coast. Establishing more significant bases in coastal West Africa will give the extremists access to a larger pool of recruits and to ports, which would facilitate clearer trafficking routes for weapons and drugs.

The mining sector may also be a target of such an expansion. Illegal gold mining in Burkina Faso and Mali has been a key source of recruits for militants there, as they have been able to take over such sites and overrule laws against illegal mining, gaining the support of local populations. Such initiatives have allowed them to train new recruits and to finance their operations. Massive illegal gold mining sites in northern Côte d’Ivoire and southeastern Ghana offer similar opportunities for the insurgent groups. The legal mining sector may also be a target, as Burkina Faso bore witness in late 2019 when Canadian-owned Semafo mine workers were ambushed.

The Sahel and west Africa remains ill-equipped to deal with this wealth of security risks amid the ongoing expansion of Islamist extremist groups. Evidence from 2019 suggests there is unlikely to be significant progress in the forthcoming year, and the likelihood of defeating the insurgents in 2020 is negligible. However, the arrival of more foreign troops may assist in stabilising the situation, as we explore in Part II.

(Militants of The Movement for the Salvation of Azawad listen to instructions at a waypoint while patrolling along the Mali-Niger border in the deserted area in the Meneka region in Mali during an anti jihadist patrol on 5 Februaary 2018 – SOULEYMANE AG ANARA/AFP via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.

14 January 2020