Northwestern Sahel represents one of the most unstable areas in sub-Saharan Africa. Seven years after the outbreak of the conflict in Mali, violent extremism has spread across the region, together with community conflicts over the access to natural resources and inter-ethnic violence. Trans-border activities of non-state armed actors – insurgents, jihadist groups and ethnic-based militias – as well as illicit trafficking networks feed the regional insecurity.
In recent years, the evolution of instability scenarios in Mali and the ongoing regionalization of the jihadist-armed groups’ threat gave impulse to activating security cooperation dynamics among Sahelian states. In February 2014, the governments of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – which are characterized by comparable levels of development, the presence of similar elements of structural fragility and a significant geographical, geopolitical and cultural coherence – announced the constitution of the G5 Sahel.
Despite the presence of multiple military actors in West Africa’s Sahel region, a steady growth in jihadi activity seems to thrive in the presence of foreign military operations. With their focus on fighting cross-border terrorism and reconstructing ‘failed states’, while failing to adequately address local grievances, these military operations risk producing the danger they aim to abate.
Security in Burkina Faso has steadily deteriorated since 2015. Seeking to address the spiraling violence, the Burkinabé government enacted a state of emergency in nearly one third of all provinces in the country by the end of 2018. Yet, so far, 2019 in Burkina Faso is on track to be the most violent and deadliest year on record, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
The heinous terrorist attacks against churches and hotels that killed 258 people and injured at least 500 in Sri Lanka on Easter Day, caused political turmoil and confirmed a worrying trend already on the rise in the last years: for Islamic State (IS), South and Southeast Asia are the next hotbeds of jihadism, and are an area where the terrorist organisation can sponsor local groups and merge its brand with local guerrillas.
When groups are described as monoliths it is typically the result of lacking information on the true internal dynamics within the group. The same goes for the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and likeminded Jihadi groups. The general impression of the Islamic State is that of an ideologically stringent, organizationally coherent and hierarchically centralized group. As information slowly drops from the inside a less rosy picture is emerging though.
In June 2018, I co-authored an Op-Ed in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant appealing to the Dutch government to take back the children of Dutch Islamic State (IS) fighters for legal and long-term security considerations.
The Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) expanded rapidly in Afghanistan in 2015-17, but during 2018 the crisis of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq started eventually to affect it. Although the number of IS members moving to Khorasan from Syria and Pakistan was at this stage still small, news of the state of near terminal crisis inevitably spread to the ranks of IS-K, affecting morale negatively. Even greater was the inability of the Caliphate to transfer funds to IS-K.
The military defeats of Islamic State’s (IS) fighters in Iraq and Syria led many to believe that the threat represented by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization was on the verge of extinction. The video-message by the “Caliph” in April 2019, however, denied the persistent rumors that circulated about his death and proved above all his growing attention to sub-Saharan Africa.
Five years ago, speaking from the pulpit of the ancient al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the rise of the “Islamic State” (IS). Under his personal guidance, the group was set to take control and expand its territories across Iraq and Syria, to establish a transnational “Caliphate” that was meant to be the home for all Muslims in the region and beyond. IS thus spread like wildfire all over the Middle East attracting foreign fighters from all over the world.