Analysis - Unrest in West Africa: A new arena for terrorists

Karam Saied, Tuesday 25 Oct 2022

For several years, turmoil and unrest in West African countries has resulted from security breakdowns, political vacuums, domestic conflicts and deteriorating economic conditions.

A new arena
Capitaine Ibrahim Traore, Burkina Faso s new president October 15, 2022 (photo: AFP)


The most recent example of this took place in Burkina Faso where Captain Ibrahim Traore ousted the government of Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba and was officially declared president on 2 October.

The state of upheaval creates a fertile soil for the spread of terrorism. Conditions in West Africa have worsened since the withdrawal of the European Takuba Task Force, the end of the French-led Barkhane counter-terrorist operation in Mali, and the departure of French forces from Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso. Terrorist groups seized on the political and military vacuums to go on the rampage in the African Sahel, invading defenceless villages and slaughtering civilians, spreading fear and anarchy.

The rampant chaos is marked by escalating competition between rival groups and the emergence of new or sleeping terrorist cells, all capitalising on their newfound freedom of movement following the French military departure. In Burkina Faso, organised crime and violence, in general, are likely to rise following the coup and the army’s preoccupation with the political crisis.

Together with its affiliates, the Islamic State-West Africa (ISIS-WA), a faction of Boko Haram, is foremost among the terrorist and extremist organisations surging again against the backdrop of political tension, economic hardship and the fragility of the state in the region. In his briefing to the UN Security Council in August on threats to international peace and security posed by IS, Vladimir Voronkov, UN under-secretary general for Counter Terrorism, warned of “the expansion of IS in Central, Southern and West Africa”.

A IS affiliate in Uganda has widened its area of operations into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) while another affiliate has intensified attacks in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, he said, adding: “The potential impact of climate-related challenges and global food insecurity are of particular concern in West Africa, notably the Sahel, where they may exacerbate fragilities and further fuel local conflict dynamics that could catalyse the spread of terrorism and violent extremism conducive to terrorism.”

Other IS affiliates began to strengthen their presence in Burkina Faso since the coup in October. Since 2015, the country has suffered frequent attacks from both IS and Al-Qaeda, killing thousands and displacing some two million people.

The expansion of terrorism in West Africa is the product of numerous interrelated factors. In addition to worsening economic hardship, foreign interventions in African affairs, instability, widespread poverty, and chronically porous borders have all helped shape an environment that facilitates the movement of extremist groups across the Sahel. A complex ethnic and tribal fabric and the rivalries it reflects have also contributed to the proliferation of terrorist entities or, at least, to the existence of safe havens for jihadist organisations.

International reports have observed a significant increase in terrorist activities and attacks in West African countries during the past year as a result of their greater mobility and access to more sophisticated weapons, enabling them to carry out precision strikes. According to the Cairo-based Maat Foundation for Peace, Development and Human Rights, West Africa has suffered more deaths from terrorism than other regions since it is a locus of the accelerated activity and spread of operations of IS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.

Whereas terrorist organisations were once ensconced in remote and far-flung pockets in West Africa, developments such as the breakdown of security in Libya have facilitated their expansion across large stretches of land in Subsaharan Africa. As a result, terrorist lairs in West Africa, which are relatively old, have expanded eastward, becoming contiguous with relatively new hotspots in the Lake Chad Basin, a phenomenon that now threatens to spread southwards to the Gulf of Guinea.

Similarly, the Institute for African Security Studies reported that IS is spreading extensively in North and West Africa, using southern Libya as its most important staging grounds for the deployment of its fighters. According to the report, IS established four “provinces” in the Lake Chad area and these are subordinate to a central command in Borno in northeastern Nigeria.

To move its personnel, the organisation relies on a complex network of communications and transit routes that stretch across West and North Africa, passing through Libya, Algeria, Mali, Niger and Nigeria. This vast geographic dissemination poses a major trans-border threat to all West African countries.

Terrorist activity in West Africa has spread to previously safe places, as was evidenced by the multiple terrorist attacks in Mali in August 2022, leaving 21 dead. Blaming the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Bamako said the attacks were well-coordinated and planned, and involved the use of drones. The ISGS is one of IS’s main franchises.

Burkina Faso has also sustained numerous attacks recently. The most recent occurred on 28 September when 11 soldiers were found dead and around 50 civilians went missing after an armed assault on Gaskindé in the north of the country. The province, Soum, where Gaskindé is located, has seen a marked rise in the presence of militant radicals associated with Al-Qaeda and IS.

The nature of the terrorist operations themselves points to an alarming phenomenon, which is their ability to establish a mode of “sovereignty” in some parts of the continent. Boko Haram’s control over large tracts of territory in Nigeria is a case in point.

The Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) had controlled large chunks of Mali before the French launched Operation Serval in 2013. While these two organisations have since receded, the current conditions in the Sahel are enabling like-minded groups that had once been on the defensive to go onto the offensive again.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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