The area along the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, known as Liptako Gourma, has become the epicentre of Jihadism in the Sahel. The terrorist groups involved in this violence are the Jamaat Al-Nusra Al-Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM) network in Mali, formed by Al-Qaeda of the Maghreb (AQIM), Katiba Macina, Al-Mourabitoun and Ansar Dine; the Islamic State of the Great Sahara (ISGS) in Niger, linked to Daesh, and Ansaraoul Islam in Burkina Faso, which has a close relationship with JNIM.
Less than 15 years ago the threat of Jihadist terrorism did not exist in this area and one of the main reasons is that the Muslim trend followed is mainly Sufism rather than Salafism. Although neither of the two currents is more predisposed to violence than the other, the Sufist tradition develops a personal relationship with God and is considered more mystical than the Salafist. The latter is more conservative and focuses on re-establishing the vision of Islam practised by the early Muslims. In Liptako Gourma's heterogeneous societies, the Sufist current is capable of coexisting with and even assuming some practices of traditional African religions. Those who have now become Jihadist leaders were Sufist Muslims, leaders of their communities and traditional religious leaders. Although some researchers attribute the arrival of Jihadism to the fall of Gaddafi in Libya and the influence of AQIM in Algeria, the fact is that the process of radicalisation of Jihadist leaders began at the end of the 2000s after joining the radical Salafist Indo-Pakistani sect Dawa Tabligh (also called Jamaat' Tabligh).
Iyad Ag Ghali is a Malian Tuareg leader of the Ifogha tribe. In the 1970s he fought in Colonel Gaddafi's troops, and in the 1990s he became the head of the Tuareg group Mouvement pour la libération de l'Azawad (MPA), which signed the peace agreements with the Malian state. In the early 2000s, he met the missionaries of the Dawa Tabligh movement, an ultraconservative and proselytising sect originating in India. The sect was founded in 1927 with the aim of re-Islamising Indian Muslims, expanding very quickly in Pakistan and around the world through its missionaries. Although no direct links have been demonstrated between al-Qaeda and the Dawa Tabligh, Jihadist groups take advantage of the similarity in the teachings and beliefs of the radical sect to recruit members. After years of belonging to the sect, Ag Ghali became more radical by converting to Islamic fundamentalism. Thanks to his power of influence in his Tuareg community, the Malian government used him as a mediator between Algerian Jihadist groups such as GSPC for the release of hostages. In 2007 he was appointed consular adviser in Saudi Arabia by the former president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré, although after three years in the post, owing to his alleged links with al-Qaeda, the Saudi Arabian government expelled him from the country. After a brief stay in Paris, he returned to Mali in 2012, after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, to become the leader of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), but the Tuareg leaders consider him too radicalised to be involved in the revolution. It was then that Ag Ghali decided to form his own Jihadist group, Ansar Dine, with the help of his nephew Abdelkrim al-Targui, leader of AQIM in Mali. Ansar Dine opposed the independence of the Azawad for which Ag Ghali had fought so hard in the past, in order to form an Islamic republic in its place with the establishment of the Sharia.
Amadou Koufa was born in 1960 in Mopti, in the centre of Mali. Koufa during his childhood is an example of the path followed by a Peul Muslim child, being educated only in Koranic schools. Having a prodigious memory, he studied with all the great masters of the region. Later, he devoted himself to composition as a poet and singer. In the 1990s he continued his training in Mopti, learning to become one of the great preachers of Mali. In his speeches, Koufa criticised the wealth with which certain families lived, such as those of the descendants of Sekou Amadou. These elites then began to consider Koufa's speeches to be too radical, especially because of his references to the lack of social justice in the caste system and the criticism of the wealth these families possessed, so they stopped subsidising his preaching. On one of his trips to Mauritania, he met the Dawa Tabligh, which he joined in 2009. In this group, Koufa found a space where his message was appreciated and supported. The members of the Dawa Tabligh supported him financially and provided him with a network when the elites of the region gave up on him, allowing him to continue to spread his message throughout the central region of Mali. After returning from a trip to Pakistan, the Malian government asked him in 2012 to negotiate with Ag Ghali, whom he already knew from the Dawa Tabligh, for the release of 60 soldiers captured by Ansar Dine. Following this incident, Koufa established a closer relationship with Ag Ghali, joining his Jihadist group and becoming Ansar Dine's emissary in the region of central Mali from which he came. From 2015 onwards he would split off from Ansar Dine to form Katiba Macina, although he would maintain a very good relationship with this group, coordinating joint attacks. In 2017 Koufa and Ag Ghali formed the terrorist network Jamaat Al-Nusra Al-Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM), together with the leader of AQIM-Mali and the leader of Al-Mourabitoun, becoming the biggest terrorist network in the Sahel.
The radicalisation process of the founder of Ansaroul Islam, Ibrahim Malam Dicko, is very similar to that of Koufa, the latter being his mentor. Before becoming the leader of a terrorist movement, Dicko was Imam of Sorum, a town on the border with Mali, and studied in Koranic schools in Mali and Niger. During the 2000s, he gained a large following, being a great speaker, with an 'anti-establishment' speech that he broadcast on the two local radio programmes he had. His complaints are similar to those of Koufa in Mali: the system established by the traditional Peul structures is unfair. As his followers grew in number, Dicko decided to form a religious organisation called Al-Irchad. This organisation is presumed to be linked to and financed by the Dawa Tabligh. During the 2010 decade, he began to establish a friendly relationship with Koufa, who became his mentor. In 2015, Dicko was arrested by the Malian authorities on charges of having links with Ansar Dine. Alleged members of the Dawa Tabligh and Al-Irchad raised funds to pay the bail of one million FCFA (Central African francs) for his release in Bamako. After returning to Burkina Faso, Dicko returned to Soum where he mobilised his supporters for the creation of the new jihadist group Ansaroul Islam. According to a former member of the terrorist group, it was the denigration that his capture in Mali and the fact that he was treated as a terrorist just because he was a Peul that led him to set up this new Jihadist group, inspired by Katiba Macina of Koufa.
Koufa, Dicko and Ag Ghali are three stories of community leaders who should not have been radicalised. Although the Dawa Tabligh cannot be held entirely responsible for the emergence of Jihadism in Liptako Gourma, it is clear that this religious group has played an important role in transforming a Muslim social justice discourse into a fundamentalist one, whether in the Tuaregs like Ag Ghali or in the Peuls like Dicko and Koufa. Just as the Dawa Tabligh has had an influence on Jihadist radicalisation in the Sahel, Izala, a Nigerian Salafist reformist movement also from the 1920s, has been the forerunner of Boko Haram's Jihadist group. Despite being known to the intelligence services, by masquerading as missionaries they have great freedom of action. Control and surveillance of this type of religious movement is crucial to prevent the radicalisation of community leaders.