A soldier stands guard in front of burned cars across the street from Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, January 17, 2016, a day after security forces retook the hotel from al Qaeda fighters who seized it in an assault that killed two dozen people from at least 18 countries and marked a major escalation of Islamist militancy in West Africa. REUTERS/Joe Penney

April 22, 2020

Salafi-jihadi ecosystem in the Sahel

Key Points

  • Sahel-based Salafi-jihadi groups including al Qaeda and the Islamic State coordinate and cooperate across organizational divides united by common objectives, shared histories, and ethnic ties, creating a unique ecosystem of ideology and terror.
  • The Salafi-jihadi ecosystem in the Sahel is strengthening rapidly. The number of attacks will continue to rise and will become deadlier as groups’ capabilities improve.
  • The groups’ coordinated effort to transform Sahelian society and governance into their vision under Islam has helped destabilize the region and has created additional opportunities for Salafi-jihadi growth.

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The land that stretches across western Africa hosts a network of Salafi-jihadi groups that is expanding as local conditions deteriorate. Porous borders, weak and resource-strapped governments, and rising insecurity driven by both poorly equipped militaries and intra-communal conflict create opportunities for al Qaeda– and Islamic State–linked groups to strengthen in West Africa’s Sahel region, which includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.1 Over the past decade, the number of groups operating in the Sahel has increased, and in the past year, the number of terror attacks has doubled.2 These Sahel-based Salafi-jihadi groups coordinate and cooperate across organizational divides united by common objectives, shared histories, and ethnic ties, creating a unique ecosystem of ideology and terror.

Conditions in the Sahel region make the operating environment complex, even without the presence of Salafi-jihadi groups. The Sahel borders the Sahara desert, and the population is seminomadic. Trade and migration routes connect the region, and communal identities—especially ethnic identities today—and relationships are crucial. Desertification has led to increased conflicts between farmer and herder communities over access to water and arable land.3

The states themselves are fragile. State institutions play a marginal, if any, role in the daily lives of most. The governments are effectively absent from the peripheries of their countries. This is where the Salafi-jihadi groups are growing.

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  1. Stephen J. Townsend, “A Secure and Stable Africa Is an Enduring American Interest,” testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, January 30, 2020, https://www.africom.mil/about-the-command/2020-posture-statement-to-congress.
  2. Jessica Donati and Courtney McBride, “Terrorist Attacks Increase in Africa’s Sahel, U.S. Warns,” Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/terrorist-attacks-increase-in-africas-sahel-u-s-warns-11572636479.
  3. UN Economic and Social Council, “Deadlier Conflicts, Climate Change Threaten Cross-Border Herding in West Africa, Delegates Tell Economic and Social Council, Peacebuilding Commission,” press release, December 3, 2019, https://www.un.org/ press/en/2019/ecosoc7015.doc.htm; and Michael W. Baca, “My Land, Not Your Land: Farmer-Herder Wars in the Sahel,” Foreign Affairs, August 21, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-08-21/my-land-not-your-land.