Armed jihadist groups have developed a dangerous new strategy after being chased out of most major towns they once held in Africa’s Sahel, the vast expanse of arid, sparsely populated brushland that crosses the continent along the southern edge of the Sahara desert.
Rather than trying to hold towns or urban districts, these groups – which include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) and al-Murabitoun – are using bases in the countryside to strike at provincial and district centres, often forcing national armies to retreat and local state authorities to abandon immense rural areas to jihadist control.
At the same time, increasing international support has inadvertently reinforced the historical tendency of Sahel countries – which include parts of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Libya and Chad – to focus relatively more on the political centre and neglect their vast territorial hinterlands. Unless these trends are reversed, efforts to minimise the threat from jihadist groups operating in this huge region will likely fail.
Jihadist armed groups have been operating in central and western Sahel since the 1990s. Over time, and despite limited efforts to block their rise, some groups grew and eventually took control of vast territories, as in northern Mali in 2012 and north-east Nigeria in 2014. The initial response was largely military and, with the help of regional and Western allies, Sahelian governments succeeded in chasing out jihadist groups from all the major towns that they had occupied and destroyed most of their heavy weapons.
But these military successes have not been accompanied by the return of government administration in “liberated” areas. African armies and their allies were often unable to restore security in the countryside, or even in the outskirts of some cities. Civil servants could or would not follow the military into still insecure zones, leaving vast areas run by skeleton administrations, and few, if any, public services. The state’s persistent absence from the region around Lake Chad, along the Mali-Niger border and in central Mali, has allowed jihadists to establish and expand their presence there.
Furthermore, increased international support has had the side effect of reinforcing Sahelian countries’ tendency to focus on the political centre, where governing elites and the bulk of voters live. This is because it is quicker, cheaper and more politically expedient to provide public services in cities and towns rather than to thinly populated and often nomadic rural settlements. The end result is the relative neglect of their vast territorial hinterlands. For example, access to public school varies dramatically between urban and rural areas and by region. According to Mali’s last Demographic and Health Survey (2013), the male literacy rate is 69 per cent and female 47 per cent in urban settings (72 and 51 per cent in the capital, Bamako), but only 27 and 12 per cent respectively in rural areas (only 20 and 10 per cent in the Mopti region, the lowest in Mali even before jihadist groups started to shut down public schools).
After withdrawing from urban areas and dispersing in order to escape attack, jihadist groups have consciously adapted to the new situation. As shown by internal AQIM correspondence discovered in the Malian city of Timbuktu in 2013 and the intra-Boko Haram discussions and splitting of the group in June-July 2016, mounting pressure from regional armies has not robbed these organisations of their capacity to evaluate past failures and develop new strategies.
The spectacular assaults on West African towns and capitals carried out since 2013 (Bamako in Mali, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and the beach resort at Grand Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire) are not, from this point of view, the most important change. More significant is the consistent attacks on local capitals and towns, which compel the armed forces to prioritise garrisons there and to abandon immense rural regions. For example, repeated jihadist attacks in and around Gao, Mopti and Timbuktu in Mali have forced government troops and peacekeepers to increase security in these cities and significantly limit the number of forward operating bases and patrols in rural areas. There are a few exceptions, like the Kidal region, where the French army’s presence and numerous patrols prevent groups such as Ansar Eddine and AQIM from exerting full control. Yet this requires mobile and capable military forces that cannot be deployed everywhere. The jihadists can consolidate their control in this security vacuum.
Setting aside, for the moment, their territorial ambitions, the jihadists have opted for a more discreet occupation of neglected rural areas. They are not alone. Other armed groups, including ethnic militias, self-defence groups, transnational criminal groups, armed bandits, renegades from national armies and even separatist and autonomist movements, are also emerging to fill the security vacuum left by central states. Not all are opposed to the state, but each of them tries to find a niche in a complex and shifting local network of alliances. Depending on local configurations of power and interests, these groups fight jihadist groups, simply ignore them to avoid trouble, or even make alliances with them.
All these armed movements demonstrate a genuine capacity to understand and adapt to local circumstances, and do so better than less-motivated capital-based elites or foreign “peacekeepers”. They are also unlike separatist groups that tend to downplay local tensions when they weaken their “nationalist cause”, or transnational criminal networks that are mostly interested in transporting goods through territories. Instead, jihadist groups are willing to settle down and are developing an expertise in manipulating local intra and intercommunal tensions.
Jihadist groups use a mix of threats and persuasion to consolidate their position, providing limited services to some communities, most notably security and some rough rule of law. In central Mali, jihadist groups now offer protection to pastoralists and their herds, and give local groups the chance to contest natural resource exploitation by government representatives or their partners in local elites. They also suspended the collection of taxes by chiefs and governments. Similarly, a Boko Haram faction has forged partnerships with the Buduma, indigenous to the Lake Chad area, by chasing out the Hausa migrants who had taken control of the flourishing fishing sector. This local alliance allowed Boko Haram elements to find refuge on Lake Chad islands while regional armies were hunting down insurgents elsewhere.
In exchange for protection or other services, jihadist groups extend their influence, develop local roots, and recruit new affiliates. For instance, some of the young perpetrators who attacked Grand Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire on March 2016 reportedly came from Mali’s rural Douentza district. State officials fled this area during the 2012 crisis and few have returned since, except for small military garrisons entrenched in towns along the only road connecting the region to Bamako. They are unable to prevent the FLM from developing its network in the vast and isolated rural countryside.
In areas where Crisis Group has conducted recent research, like central Mali, community leaders often noted they had long hesitated to turn their back on the state, unsuccessfully seeking protection and support from the capital before reaching agreement with jihadists. Unlike the region’s governments, which are not well disposed toward nomadic communities and struggle to integrate them, radical groups are often ready to consolidate their networks and acquire intelligence by recruiting local people. Boko Haram, for instance, takes the time to approach communities in the Lake Chad Basin. The group can visit repeatedly, asking those willing to collaborate for an often symbolic donation and enlisting a few local young men.
The jihadists are most successful at establishing themselves among rural communities that were only recently integrated into countries, have a weak attachment to the state and are poorly represented in parliament or local government. These include nomadic groups and communities living in border areas with supposedly doubtful loyalties, such as the Fulani nomads of Hayré, the Tolebe Fulani along the Mali-Niger border, communities living in the mountainous borders in the Gwoza Hills along the Nigeria-Cameroon border and those in the Lake Chad marshes.
However, jihadist attempts to consolidate a presence are not always successful. For example, Ansar Eddine failed to establish itself in southern Mali, on the border with Côte d’Ivoire. These areas were better integrated into the state through a solid network of elected representatives and chiefs than in central and northern rural areas, which enables Ivorian and Malian security services to arrest its members.
Rather than being satisfied with retaking control of towns, Sahelian governments and their partners must reflect on how best to respond to the new strategies used by the jihadists to establish themselves in rural areas and extend their influence. Governments must invest in neglected rural zones and communities that feel marginalised.
A single response or general strategy is inadequate when faced with determined groups that are constantly adapting their own strategy. The regional grand strategies formulated for the Sahel as a whole must be adapted to local circumstances. It is imperative for governments to reconstruct their capacities to protect population groups, to peacefully regulate tensions around access to natural resources and to limit local elite corruption and capture of state resources.
Central governments must also start a discussion about local government structures to ensure better governance and representation of the most marginalised groups. They must resist the temptation to stigmatise entire communities, such as the nomadic Fulani in Mali and the Buduma in Niger and Chad, on the grounds that they are “collectively” favourable to the jihadist project. In particular, they must resist the temptation to arm communities that are reputedly closer to the government, against others that seem to be less loyal. Sub-contracting the anti-terrorist struggle to some communities is particularly liable to help jihadists establish themselves with those who are excluded, and can create future security problems.
The current situation of jihadist groups in the Sahel is a good illustration of the dynamics highlighted by Crisis Group’s report Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Violent extremist groups tend not to create crises, but manipulate them. They ally with communities that feel the state is iniquitous and absent, or because they can help with conflicts about rights of access to critical resources.
Current programs aimed at preventing or countering “violent extremism” (P/CVE) lack clarity and too easily mask the complex dynamics of jihadist recruitment. Instead, local governments and their partners should focus on the classic problems of integration, political representation and the equitable sharing of natural resources. Such classic peacebuilding policies should not be framed as P/CVE, since it risks stigmatising communities and undermining the programs. To enable officials to return safely and rebuild the state, governments and their partners must invest politically and financially in neglected rural zones and give communities that feel sidelined a stake in society. If they don’t, jihadist groups will remain a real threat for the foreseeable future.
Based in Dakar, Vincent Foucher researches and writes Crisis Group reports on Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. Jean-Hervé Jezequel is the Deputy Project Director for West Africa.