Tag Archives: Islamic State in the Greater Sahel

The Worst Murderer: Jihadists or Governments?

Sahel: West Africa’s most populous countries, along the Atlantic coast, have become vulnerable to the predations of jihadists spilling out of failing states farther north in the Sahel on the borders of the Sahara desert. Jihadists seized control of chunks of Mali in 2012 and were stopped from overrunning Bamako, its capital, only after thousands of French troops were hurriedly flown in. The insurgents have since pushed across the border into Niger and Burkina Faso. In those three countries alone, 4,800 people lost their lives in the conflict last year. Fully 1.7m people have been forced to flee their homes. Now the war is beginning to jump borders again, putting at risk some of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, including Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast.


This war in the Sahel has been growing rapidly. Ten times more people were killed last year than in 2014 (excluding deaths in north-eastern Nigeria, which faces its own jihadist insurgents). Two main jihadist groups are behind most of the fighting: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which is linked to al-Qaeda. These groups have extended their reach, even though thousands of international peacekeepers and local and Western soldiers have been deployed to stop them. France has sent some 5,100 troops to the Sahel, while the United States has provided another 1,200. In addition, the un has 15,000 blue helmets there, including about 350 Germans, plus 250 British soldiers who are soon to arrive. With American forces leaving Afghanistan, the Sahel will soon be the West’s biggest combat zone.

Worse, the jihadists are expanding in three directions at once. To the south they threaten Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo. To the west there has been a spate of attacks in Mali close to its border with Senegal; and to the east with Nigeria’s insurgent groups. The jihadists already have a “de facto safe haven in northern Mali”, says General Dagvin Anderson, in charge of America’s commandos in Africa. He frets that as they expand they will have more scope to plan attacks on American soil.

The weakness of governments and the feebleness of their public services are helping the jihadists. In the neglected hinterlands of the Sahel the rebels offer themselves as an alternate state, serving up sharia and medical aid. Moreover, the jihadists have been adept at exploiting ethnic faultlines, for instance between largely Muslim and seminomadic Fulani herders and more settled farming communities, which have their own armed groups of traditional hunters known as Dozos. =

Trade and commerce also provide an incentive for the jihadists to expand their reach. The migration corridor between Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast is the busiest in Africa. Jihadists cash in by taxing traders and smuggling stolen livestock, drugs and guns. The gold mines in Burkina Faso have become a target. Much of the gold is smuggled out through Togo, which officially exported seven tonnes of the metal to the United Arab Emirates in 2018, despite mining very little itself. Gold is also pulling jihadists towards Senegal…

But in 2020, more civilians in the Sahel have been killed by government soldiers than by jihadists, says José Luengo-Cabrera of the International Crisis Group (icg), a Brussels-based ngo. “When soldiers kill the head of the family, they almost throw his sons and nephews into the arms of bearded men in shorts hiding in the bush,” one villager told Human Rights Watch, a global monitor. It says in the town of Djibo alone, in Burkina Faso, evidence suggests government forces have murdered 180 men—many of them were blindfolded and had their hands bound before they were shot. In Burkina Faso… citizens may feel safer living among terrorists than with their own country’s security forces.

Governments in the region and some Western forces have made matters worse by supporting militias. In 2018 the French army allied itself with Tuareg militias from Mali to fight against ISGS. They clobbered the jihadists but also killed scores of civilians, aggravating ethnic tensions and fuelling recruitment by the insurgents….Above all, governments need to regain legitimacy by providing services and holding themselves to account. “It is not possible to win the war if there is not trust from the population,” says Niagale Bagayoko of the African Security Sector Network…But good governance and decent services in the region are scarce. At a meeting of Sahelian leaders with Mr hard. In Burkina Faso alone, the jihadists have forced about 2,500 schools to close.

Excerpts from Jihad in the Sahel: Fighting a Spreading Insurgency, Economist, July 11, 2020

The Jihadist Mafia: Controlling the Gold of Sahel

Burkina Faso is struggling to contain a fast-growing jihadist insurgency. Along with Mali and Niger, it has become the main front line against terrorists in the Sahel, a dry strip of land that runs along the edge of the Sahara. This year alone the conflict has killed more than 1,600 people and forced half a million from their homes in Burkina Faso….A worrying new trend is a battle by jihadists and other armed groups to take control of the region’s gold rush.

Although gold has long been mined in the region…it has boomed in recent years with the discovery of shallow deposits that stretch from Sudan to Mauritania. International mining companies have invested as much as $5bn in west African production over the past decade, but the rush has also lured hundreds of thousands of unsophisticated “artisanal” miners. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO, reckons that more than 2m people are involved in small-scale mining in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In total they dig up 40-95 tonnes of gold a year, worth some $1.9bn-4.5bn.

Artisanal Mining’s Claustrophobic Conditions

This rush—in a region where states are already weak and unable to provide security—has sucked in a variety of armed groups and jihadists, including the likes of Ansar Dine and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara…The jihadists probably have direct control of fewer than ten mines…But they have influence over many more. In some areas artisanal miners are forced to pay “taxes” to the jihadists. In others, such as Burkina Faso’s Soum province, the miners hire jihadists to provide security… Other armed groups such as ethnic militias are also in on the bonanza and collect cash to guard mines. International mining firms may also be funding the jihadists by paying ransoms for abducted employees or “protection” money to keep mining, according to a study published by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries.

For the moment much of Burkina Faso’s artisanal production is sneaked into Togo… Togo does not produce much gold domestically but it sent more than 12 tonnes of gold to Dubai in 2016. Gold is also taken out of the Sahel through major airports in hand luggage. 

The resource curse: How west Africa’s gold rush is funding jihadists, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

A Strategy of Fear: boko haram

In July 2011, the Nigerian government unveiled plans to make telecommunications companies dedicate toll-free phone lines so civilians could report Boko Haram activity. Months later, insurgent spokesman Abu Qaqa threatened to attack service providers and Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) offices.

Eight months later, Boko Haram made good on Qaqa’s threat. The militant group launched a two-day attack on telecommunications towers belonging to several providers in five cities: Bauchi, Gombe, Kano, Maiduguri and Potiskum…. Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researcher Omar S. Mahmood told ADF …’it’s a pretty powerful message if Boko Haram comes out and says, ‘I’m going to attack X because of this,’ and then they go out and they do it,” Mahmood said. “It just serves to make their next warning even more intimidating and effective.”

Mahmood, in his March 2017 paper for the ISS titled “More than propaganda: A review of Boko Haram’s public messages,” showed that a significant number of Boko Haram messages between 2010 and 2016 issued warnings and threatened violence. In fact, warnings and threats constitute the second-most-common theme of the group’s messaging out of the 145 messages studied…

Boko Haram demonstrated this tendency further in its threat against schools. In January 2012, Shekau complained publicly about alleged mistreatment of Islamic schools and students, and he threatened to launch attacks.  Again, Boko Haram followed through. From January to early March 2012, militants destroyed at least a dozen schools in the Maiduguri region of Borno State…

Ties between messaging and attacks also can be seen in Boko Haram’s assault on Nigerian media and the nation’s oil industry. As Qaqa complained that the media misrepresented Boko Haram, insurgents bombed This Daynewspaper offices in Abuja and Kaduna in April 2012…In June 2014, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb outside a Lagos oil refinery.

Boko Haram’s highest-profile action is the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014. On April 14, militants attacked a boarding school in Chibok, Borno State, in the middle of the night. Insurgents raided dormitories, loaded girls into trucks and drove away. Some girls jumped into bushes as trucks rushed away, leaving 219 children held captive. The atrocity drew worldwide condemnation and parallels a long-standing grievance of Boko Haram: the desire for the release of incarcerated members.

In October 2016, after months of negotiations, Boko Haram released 21 of the Chibok girls in exchange for a monetary ransom, Daily Trust reported. In May 2017, insurgents swapped another 82 of the girls for five militant leaders.

The 2015 ISIS alignment was the beginning of big changes in messaging for Boko Haram…Boko Haram’s most powerful period was from 2013 to 2015, when it was capturing and holding territory, and dealing setbacks to military forces.   By late 2015 and through 2017, Nigerian and regional military assaults began to take their toll on Boko Haram…

In August 2016, Boko Haram split into two factions: One is led by pugnacious spokesman Shekau; the other by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, ISIS’ choice for leader….The split also has left al-Barnawi’s ISIS-aligned faction the clear winner in terms of potential longevity and lethality, Mahmood said. Shekau’s wing is just trying to survive, but it still uses ISIS logos in messages.

Excerpts from From Message to Mayhem, A Study of Boko Haram’s Public Communications Can Offer Hints About Its Strategy, Africa Defense Forum, Mar. 2018

The Flourishing Jihadists and their Support Systems

U.S. special forces who accompanied Niger’s military at a meeting of village leaders in Tongo Tongo on Oct. 4, 2017were working in the country’s treacherous western borderlands, a region of shifting tribal allegiances, opaque motives and ethnic grudges going back decades, all feeding into a growing jihadi problem.  Four Americans and five Nigerien troops died after leaving Tongo Tongo and being ambushed and heavily outgunned by fighters armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The militants are believed to be from a Malian-led militia, Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, which declared allegiance to the overall militant organization in 2015.

One error appears to have been downplaying the danger. The Tillaberi and Tahoua regions in western Niger have been under a state of emergency since March 2017, as Niger has confronted the Islamic State offshoot, led by Malian extremist Abu Walid Sahrawi. U.S. forces have been present in the region to advise and assist Nigerien forces.

The United Nations has cataloged 46 attacks by extremists in western Niger since February 2016, including a February 2017 attack that killed 15 Nigerien soldiers and one a year ago that killed 22 Nigerien forces at a refugee camp.,,

Niger’s interior minister, Mohamed Bazoum, said intelligence failures were to blame for the nine deaths. He said Islamic State in the Greater Sahel is more entrenched in local communities than are government forces.

Adam Sandor, an analyst on violent extremism in the Sahel at the University of Ottawa, said….“Essentially, the attackers are believed to have been scoping out and planning the attack and must have a knowledge of local communities in the area. Local communities most likely shared with them the information regarding the Nigerien Armed Forces operating with foreigners or military advisors in this space,” he said.  Leaders of Tongo Tongo village have been arrested, amid suspicions they were delaying the departure of the Nigerien and U.S. forces to pave the way for the attackers.

America has 6,000 troops in 50 countries across the continent, according to the Department of Defense, although many of the missions are charged with guarding U.S. embassies. The counter-terrorism deployments include an estimated 1,000 special operations forces, many posted in high-risk locations such as Somalia, Mali and Nigeria. An estimated 800 troops are in Niger.  The U.S. also operates a string of drone bases throughout Africa, including one in Niger.

The Shabab is the deadliest of Africa’s terrorist groups and is believed to be responsible for the country’s worst terrorist attack: At least 358 people were killed Oct. 14, 2017 and 56 are still missing. The attack came weeks after a U.S. drone strike killed 10 civilians, including three children, in Bariire, west of Mogadishu.  The U.S. has carried out at least 60 drone strikes in Somalia since January 2017, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, killing up to 510 people, including at least 38 civilians. The Shabab has killed 2,745 people in 2017, carrying out 987 of the continent’s 1,827 incidents of violent extremism in the first nine months of the year, according to the analytical group African Center for Strategic Studies.

The Shabab also has a presence in Kenya, where it launches regular attacks, including the 2013 Westgate shopping mall massacre that killed at least 67 people, and the 2015 Garissa University College attack, where 147 people — mainly university students — were killed. The terrorist group is believed to have a presence across East Africa.

Boko Haram, operating in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and southeastern Niger, was responsible for 2,232 deaths in the first nine months of the year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In Mali, myriad armed extremists operate, including Islamic State in the Greater Sahel and its rival the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, formed in March 2017 from several Al Qaeda-linked extremist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In 2012, Islamist militias took over half of the country before the French military drove them out of major cities.

The militias range freely across rural areas, crossing borders at will, launching operations in Mauritania, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, including attacks on hotels and resorts popular with foreigners.   In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where myriad rebel groups vie for control over mineral resources, a new organization emerged recently declaring fealty to Islamic State.  By comparison, Niger is one of the more stable countries in the region, making it the U.S. choice for a drone base being built outside Agadez, in central Niger, that will launch strikes across the region.

The Tongo Tongo attack has focused attention on Sahel leader Sahrawi…. He has a history of swapping sides and financing his operations through kidnappings.  He has recruited fighters from among the Fulani nomads in western Niger, exploiting ethnic rivalries with the Daoussahak people in the region, some of whom have formed a militia called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Both Niger and France have used the group as a proxy force to fight Islamic State in the Great Sahel, deepening ethnic animosities.

Excerpts from After Niger attack, a look at clandestine jihadis posing a growing danger to U.S. forces in Africa, L.A. Times, Oct. 21, 2017