Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Areas of concern for the future: The Sahel

Although this report is vast in its scope, there are still many parts of the world that have not been covered, either because there are fewer IED incidents there or because the groups examined in this report do not operate there to the same extent. This does not mean that these areas do not deserve more attention. Clearly, there is a need for further investigation in places where the IED networks we have discussed may get a foothold next.  We will consider here the prospects of this happening in a number of key areas.

The Sahel

If one region is to be hit by large scale terror in the future, it is likely to be the Sahel. This is something that the UN’s Special Envoy for the Sahel, Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, raised in late 2015. However, not enough attention has been paid to this region.

The Sahel spans the border areas between North and sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal in the east to Sudan in the west. Indeed, Sahel means ‘shore’ in Arabic, implying the dividing line between Arab and black Africa that the region represents. The Sahel is one of Africa’s most ethnically diverse regions, as well as one of its poorest and most underdeveloped. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in the region. Rather, it has organically evolved in the area since the end of the Algerian Civil War in the early 2000s. AQIM, for example, evolved out of the remains of the ultra-violent GIA that was active in the Algerian Civil War. However, attacks have become more frequent, especially since armed groups were able to take advantage of the chaos that followed the Malian insurgency of 2012. Although Mali’s conflict officially ended with the signing of a peace deal in July 2015, there are still French troops in the country, as well as UN’s special Mali peacekeeping force (MINUSMA). These personnel have become popular targets for IED attacks in the region.[i] Moreover, Mali’s peace has shown several signs of crumbling, most recently in July 2016 when fighting broke out between pro and anti-government Tuareg forces.

The Sahel states in general suffer from poor economic growth, leading to various problematic implications. Out of 188 countries listed in the UNDP Human Development Report, several Sahelian nations feature in the bottom 20 including Mali (179), Burkina Faso (183) Chad (185) and Niger (188). A common characteristic of these is that economic growth is largely concentrated in urban areas and major cities, neglecting rural areas, thus making these countries largely underdeveloped.

The region also faces major demographic challenges. Annual population growth in Africa is equivalent to 3.5% which doubles the population every 20 years; in the Sahel, these figures go as high as 7%. For example, the population of Niger is today 20 million, but could reach 40 million by 2035 and 89 million by 2050. To make matters worse, 85% of this population lives in 20% of the total territory. In total, the four landlocked Sahelian states’ population could triple from 67 million in 2015 to 200 million by 2050.

Climate change has also affected the Sahel, with many farmers struggling to grow their crops in the countryside, leading to both transnational and regional migration of rural populations seeking job opportunities in urban areas. This rural-to-urban migration further participates in the growing of slums in and around large cities, which in turn leads to xenophobia and animosity from their urban neighbours, increasing social unrest and internal instability. This phenomenon has only been exacerbated by recent flares of terror.

Moreover, Gulf countries have been buying up land in the Sahel due to their own food shortages, which has further diminished the amount of available arable land. The increased presence of Saudi and Qatari charities in the Sahel has also given rise to fears of growing levels of Salafism in the region, which in general traditionally practices a moderate form of Sufi Islam.

Mali has already seen several groups inspired by Salafi-jihadism, such as AQIM, Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun, MUJAO and the Macina Liberation Front. Many of these groups rely on smuggling routes for revenue. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of al-Mourabitoun, has established vital local contacts with the Tuareg population in northern Mali, which has allowed him to control important routes for drug trade. These smuggling routes have been easier to control due to the chaos in Libya. Similarly, Chad and Cameroon have experienced an increase in attacks from Boko Haram in 2015 and 2016. There is also the growing threat of the conflict in Libya spilling over into the Sahel, something which may be more likely given the alliance between Boko Haram and IS.

As a response to attacks by Boko Haram, the Chadian and Cameroonian governments have decided to ban the full veil (burqa) to quell IED attacks carried out by people hiding explosives in their clothing, or individuals cross-dressing in order to avoid attention. Chad’s Prime Minister Kalzeubi Pahimi Deubet stated in grand fashion that burqas sold in markets ‘would be burned’ if not removed. The ban may be embraced by other Sahelian countries, as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 2016 endorsed this policy.

Although the decision seems popular with local populations, it risks antagonising conservative Muslim communities. This would provide organisations such as Boko Haram with an opportunity to present their narrative of victimhood, particularly in Cameroon where Muslims only make up 25% of the population. Mali has also seen an occasionally violent exclusion of conservative and Salafi Muslims. In 2012, 16 conservative Dawa Muslims were killed by Malian troops since their long beards made security forces believe they were al-Qaeda members.

Most Sahelian countries are majority Muslim, which may prevent the sense of exclusion that restrictive measures (such as banning the burqa) have caused in France, Belgium and China. However, stigmatising an entire conservative community has proven to cause longstanding grievances in other Muslim countries, such as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt and the FIS in Algeria.

The Sahelian country that is perhaps most likely to experience terrorist violence in the future is Niger. Officially the poorest country in the world,[ii] it has seen increased activity from both Boko Haram and AQIM in recent years. It is also home to more than 40,000 Nigerian refugees, meaning there is a risk of Boko Haram recruiting from stigmatised refugee communities, as al-Shabaab has done in Kenya. However, it is likely that Boko Haram’s ambitions will remain primarily Nigerian, and that recent expansion into countries like Niger, Chad and Cameroon is mostly a result of being pushed back by Nigerian security forces.[iii] Niger remains, nonetheless, at risk given its border with Libya, as well as continued AQIM presence in the country. This, as well as its demographic challenges and poor economic opportunities, makes the country a hotbed for future terror.

It is Mali, however, which is the current epicentre of terrorism and explosive violence in the region. This is also where influential leaders such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar of al-Mourabitoun and Iyad Ag Ghaly of Ansar Dine reside. Most recorded IED attacks in the region have occurred against security forces in northern Mali. However, the November 2015 attack on the Radisson Hotel in Bamako, as well as the January 2016 attacks on Restaurant Cappucino and Hotel Splendid in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, and the March 2016 Grand Bassam resort attack in Côte d’Ivoire – all committed by AQIM and al-Mourabitoun – signify a shift in strategy. The attacks on larger targets by AQIM have been seen as a response to IS expansion.

Local Francophone media has also highlighted that AQIM and al-Mourabitoun, who are originally Algerian, used jihadis from all parts of West Africa in order to conduct the attacks. This indicates a widespread regional appeal and an ability to mobilise fighters that should worry local and foreign governments, and this grander scale of AQIM attacks is likely to lead to more deaths from IED violence.

There should also be concern over the occasional fluidity of regional alliances, such as the on-and-off relationship between AQIM and al-Mourabitoun. Something that has not been widely reported in Western media is the fact that AQIM operative Khaled Bernaoui trained Boko Haram fighters in Algeria back in 2006,[iv] and that there are suspicions that the 26 August 2011 bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja (for which Boko Haram was blamed) was in fact carried out by AQIM as a favour or potential trade-off.[v] Despite Boko Haram’s allegiance to IS, there are still fears that their relationship to AQIM is close enough to enable future cooperation between the groups.[vi]

Although Sahelian governments have expressed their concerns over regional terrorism, and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) announced in March 2016 that they are creating a coalition to fight terror, there are still concerns over states’ ability and willingness to efficiently mitigate the problem. According to Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, an expert on terrorism in the Sahel and North Africa, the tense relationship between Morocco and Algeria (largely due to disagreements over the Western Sahara issue), has hindered efficient security cooperation along the Mali and Mauritania borders. Moreover, Ghanem-Yazbeck stressed Algeria’s unwillingness to fully eradicate groups such as AQIM, as its fight against such groups gives them geostrategic importance in the global war on terror.[vii] This is significant, as Algeria oversaw the Mali peace agreement and is the regional state with the biggest ability to militarily fight terrorism in the Sahel.

The Sahel region possesses many of the traits identified as being conducive to terrorism: poverty, lack of political freedom, corruption as well as restriction and exclusion of conservative religious symbols. The French military intervened in Mali in 2012 and still has troops there, and the United States have since 9/11 implemented two different counter-terrorism efforts in the region. There is lack of political freedom as well, as all Sahel countries rank as ‘partly free’ in Freedom House’s 2015 Index.

This, again, adds weight to the narrative of corrupt regimes supported by the foreign powers that we have seen exploited by terrorist groups elsewhere. Mali and Niger have even been accused of provoking Tuareg tribes to take up arms in order to receive more funding for counter-terror programmes. Indeed, the various challenges faced by the Sahel countries are very difficult. The region may not face open war, but is likely to see a rise in armed insurgencies and explosive violence within the coming years.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] Interview with Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, Carnegie Endowment, 10 August 2016.

[ii] Alkire, S., Jindra, C., Robles, G.,Vaz, A. (2016). “Multidimensional Poverty Index 2016: Brief methodological note and results.” OPHI Briefing 42, University of Oxford.

[iii] Interview with Elizebeth Donnelly, Chatham House, 10 August 2016.

[iv] Interview with Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, 10 August 2016.

[v] Interview with Elizabeth Donnelly, Chatam House, 10 August 2016.

[vi] Interview with Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, 10 August 2016.

[vii] Interview with Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, 10 August 2016.