Local Conflicts Submerged by Jihadist Insurgencies
The Sahel is one of the most active conflict theatres on the African continent and has become a major node in the "Global War on Terror'' over the past twenty years. After nearly a decade of foreign military intervention through overlapping counterterrorism, stabilization, and military and security training missions, the conflict is often referred to as a ''Forever War'' alongside other Western-led military interventions in the Middle East and Africa. As military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan draw to a close, attention is increasingly shifting to Africa as the next battlefront— where the Sahel remains a key geopolitical dilemma.
The crisis is primarily affecting some of the world's least developed countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, where more than 6,200 deaths were reported in 2020 — the deadliest year since the conflict erupted in 2012. This year followed the same escalation curve as previous years, a trajectory of multidirectional conflict(s) that continues to transform and whose progress no actor involved controls. In the first eight months of 2021, more than 3800 people have been killed as the result of acts of political violence in the Central Sahel, according to data compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Attacks by jihadist groups dominate the headlines, although the conflict is profoundly characterized by the violent interplay of multiple competing security visions espoused by external interveners, jihadist groups, local state forces, and self-defense groups and militias. While violent deaths are an important indicator for conflict analysis, it is the non-violent or low-profile activities that often go unreported that tell us more about the control or influence of jihadist militant groups in this particular context - as the violence is largely concentrated in contested areas. The ways in which militant groups use psychological operations in the form of proselytizing and intimidation to gain obedience, extract resources, including taxes, engage in artisanal mining, pillage schools (for supplies they make use of), or move in platoon or company-sized convoys through the hinterlands between their various areas of operation paints an even bleaker picture of the expanding militancy in the region.
Attention to the Sahel crisis within the international community at large, is to a significant extent driven by the strategic threat posed by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). JNIM and ISGS emerged from pre-existing, predominantly local militant groups. For years, the relationship between the two groups was characterized by collusion, coexistence, and tacit territorial arrangements within an ambiguous insurgency ecosystem.
However, as JNIM and ISGS evolved and strategized since their inception, focusing on processes of alliance building and expanding their geographic reach to evade counterinsurgency efforts, competition soared. They have become engaged in duelling campaigns targeting their common enemies which have escalated into a full-fledged turf war between the two groups as they vie for influence.
There was no ideological coherence behind the outbreak of this crisis which was triggered by the 2012 Tuareg rebellion. Nor was the matrix of political violence in the region predominantly jihadist. Yet in many ways the regional insurgency has submerged a set of hyperlocalized conflicts as both JNIM and ISGS skillfully exploit local disputes, militarize identities, localize global narratives, and form complex alliances.
Both JNIM and ISGS took a similar overarching approach of effectively tailoring a global narrative to local conditions in order to recruit members and attract allied groups. However, the two groups exhibit different patterns of violence and differ in how they invoke similar global narratives and navigate and exploit local conflict environments. JNIM offers what could be described as a "big tent" alliance by appealing to a broader base of local communal and ethnic groups, while ISGS presents itself as a hardcore and unwavering alternative. What both groups have in common is that they utilize strategies to exacerbate the situation, making the environment conducive to the insurgency. The tactics are becoming increasingly malicious and more widespread as these groups carry out mass atrocities, forcibly displace populations, and impose embargoes to suffocate villages and towns.
In response to this threat, self-defense organizations, vigilante groups, and community-based militias have become increasingly involved in counterterrorism operations. This has triggered cyclical episodes of localized inter-communal violence characterized by tit-for-tat killings between jihadist militant groups on one side and militias and self-defense groups on the other. Heavy-handed tactics deployed by state forces and the arming of local communities have significantly exacerbated the crisis, fuelling militant recruitment and contributing to a sharp increase in attacks on civilians.
Sahelian countries have taken different approaches regarding the use of irregular forces (militias and self-defense groups), usually to supplement the numerical and operational weaknesses of regular state forces. Mali has a history of using militias dating back to the Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s, with Ganda Koy's formation consisting mainly of sedentary ethnic groups, as part of a broader divide-and-rule strategy.
The emergence of Katiba Macina (part of the JNIM alliance) in Central Mali was accompanied by the proliferation of ethnic and community-based armed groups, primarily to protect sedentary Bambara and Dogon farming communities from the jihadist threat. Oscillating between a jihadist and a Fulani identity, Katiba Macina has exploited and 'ethnicized' local conflicts to gain trust and expand ties to local communities in the central regions of Mali. Fraternities of traditional Dozo (or Donso) hunters form the nuclei of Bambara and Dogon militias. The Dogon-majority Dan Na Ambassagou movement has indiscriminately targeted the Fulani population and is believed to have perpetrated some of the deadliest attacks recorded during the crisis, including the Ogossagou massacre in which at least 157 Fulani were killed.
The emergence of self-defense groups in Burkina Faso is more recent than in Mali, but Koglweogo and Dozos are increasingly involved in counterinsurgency operations. In January 2019, Koglweogo militiamen reportedly killed about 200 members of the Fulani community in Yirgou and surrounding areas, in what was believed to be retaliation for a militant attack. Burkinabe authorities announced the creation of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP), to train and arm civilians under the pretext of countering growing numbers of jihadist militants.
The creation of volunteer fighter units also provided the state with a timely opportunity to incorporate community-led security and self-defense militias into state structures and co-opt networks of patronage for electoral benefits. Fulani organizations, however, say their community is, with a few exceptions, excluded from the recruitment process. Instead, volunteer fighters are accused of extortion, summary executions, and cattle rustling, which are directed against the Fulani community. The exclusion of the Fulani represent a prime example of a counterinsurgency failure through the demonization of local enemies.
Niger has largely avoided the internal "militarization" that has plagued its neighbors, except for an episode in 2018 when the government decided to outsource security along its borders to Malian pro-government militias. However, the arming of civilians for self-defense purposes is gaining momentum due to the disproportionate violence of ISGS. Burgeoning militias have emerged among ethnic Arab, Djerma and Tuareg communities in many villages in the Tillaberi and Tahoua regions.
The common denominator in all three countries is that the proliferation of militias and self-defense groups is symptomatic of the inability of states to adequately protect their populations. The proliferation of ethnic and community-based militias exacerbates ethnic rivalries more than it meaningfully contributes to counterinsurgency. Inter-communal violence has also become one of the deadliest forms of violence, amid vicious cycles of tit-for-tat killings between armed groups and revenge attacks against the perceived constituencies of those armed groups.
No Coherent Strategy?
External and domestic military forces have exerted little influence on how the conflicts are evolving. Sahelian states receive massive support and military assistance from the international community, but have limited absorption capacity, referred to as the "fragility dilemma". Thus, assistance is provided on terms dictated by corrupt regimes that fail to provide the most basic services to their citizens. The presence of many international and local troops has failed to contain the insurgency.
Local forces deploy heavy-handed approaches, and allegations of abuses, arbitrary mass arrests, and extrajudicial executions are widespread, fuelling militant recruitment and instability. Local forces embrace Western concepts of counterterrorism, heavily geared toward counterguerrilla operations but pay little attention to alleviating the conditions that drive insurgencies. As a result, political components such as negotiations, amnesty, disarmament and demobilization programs, support for local mediation, and administration of justice and rule of law are either missing or not adequately addressed.
In addition, considerable political instability in the Sahel appears to have added to the difficulties of building a coherent and holistic counterinsurgency strategy: Mali experienced two military coups within the nine months between August 2020 and May 2021; Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno-considered a key ally in the fight against Sahelian jihadists-was killed amid a rebel incursion into Chad from neighboring Libya in April 2021; and disputed elections and an alleged coup attempt took place in Niger in March 2021. These developments underscore the centrality of state fragility and political instability in Sahel’s unabated crisis.
Slow responsiveness to or neglect of emerging threats represents another critical dimension that should not be overlooked. For example, the inability of Malian authorities to deal with the emergence of Katiba Macina in early 2015 came to have implications far beyond Central Mali, including along the borders between Burkina Faso and Niger. Another example is Burkina Faso's slow reaction to the security situation in the country´s southwestern regions, which also affected neighboring Ivory Coast, now transforming from mere spillover to a domestic threat. Similarly, Burkina Faso's southeastern regions remains a major concern for neighboring West African littoral states such as Benin, Ghana, and Togo, which are particularly exposed to the effects of jihadi violence amid the lingering threat along their northernmost borders.
Despite the fact that local governments and armed forces are ill-equipped to confront irregular armed groups, they adapt, gain experience, and formulate responses they deem necessary to deal with the perceived threat. Militancy has hit Burkina Faso hard in recent years, although the situation in Mali still remains more complex and unpredictable. While Burkina Faso has been shown to be particularly vulnerable to jihadist violence, the Burkinabes have displayed a degree of innovation in finding solutions and minimizing dependency on outside sources by making efforts to shore up their air force through the acquisition of aircraft and training of pilots. Both are essential for conducting counter-militancy operations over wide areas, providing air support, surveillance, and medical evacuations. Another aspect is the creation of specialized units, such as the motorcycle-borne Escadron Porté (mobile squad) and the pseudo-terrorist unit of the Special Unit of the National Gendarmerie (USIGN) in the style of the Rhodesian Army's Selous Scouts, which mimic insurgents and operate deep in enemy territory.
A 'Sahelization' dynamic of the larger effort is gradually shaping, with Sahel states taking more responsibility and cooperating for their own security. For instance, in June this year, a series of simultaneous joint operations were conducted over large areas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger with an unprecedented level of coordination, involving troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, France, Mali, Niger, and the Ivory Coast. Efforts are being made to manage the jihadist threat in the Sahel, but the complexity of the social and tribal landscape and the limited resources and capabilities of the governments involved threaten to overwhelm those efforts. It is a rapidly evolving crisis which requires more attention and concrete action.