Terrorist groups are fighting for control of the Sahel

Daesh, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram clash to gain influence in the region
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AFP PHOTO/AGENCIA DE NOTICIAS AAMAQ  -   Daesh members in Niger, daesh claimed responsibility on 16 May 2019 for an ambush on an army patrol in Niger in which at least 28 troops were killed

Power struggles accentuate humanitarian crisis and influx of displaced people

Since Daesh was defeated in Syria and Iraq, many of the terrorists who managed to escape have fled to places like Libya, and from there moved to the Sahel. However, jihadist groups are still active in the Middle East, albeit with less influence than years ago.

The arrival of these Daesh terrorist cells in the Sahel led to the rise of jihadist organisations in the region, where groups such as Nigeria's Boko Haram and other Al-Qaeda affiliates were already operating in the area. The Islam and Muslim Support Front, one of the terrorist organisations loyal to Al-Qaeda, is one of Daesh's main rivals.

Boko Haram came into the media spotlight in 2014 after kidnapping 276 girls in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. However, the group was founded in 2002 under the leadership of Mohammed Yusuf, a Salafist preacher. In its early days, it denounced corruption and inequality, which it blamed squarely on British colonialism. Over the years, however, he began to fight for the imposition of Shari'a, or Islamic law, in Nigeria. Abubakar Shekau succeeded Yusuf after his death, and with him began the organisation's bloodiest and most violent period. "I enjoy killing anyone God orders me to kill, just as I enjoy killing chickens and rams," he said in a 2012 video, two years before the kidnapping that mobilised the entire international community. Under the slogan 'Bring Back Our Girls', actors, singers and influential figures such as Michelle Obama began to denounce Boko Haram's infamous acts against children, especially girls. Actions justified by Shekau; "girls should not be schooled, but serve as wives," she said in a video claiming the abduction.

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PHOTO/REUTERS - An official accompanies a girl who was abducted from a boarding school in Nigeria's northwestern Zamfara state as she goes for a medical check-up after her release in Zamfara, Nigeria 2 March 2021

In addition to abducting children for indoctrination and turning them into child soldiers or sex slaves, Boko Haram carried out attacks and massacres throughout the country. According to the United Nations, more than 35,000 people have been killed by the terrorist group. In addition, they are responsible for 40% of the terrorist attacks in the Sahel region. These killings have also led to a high number of displaced people. Médecins Sans Frontières warns that the northern Nigerian province of Zamfara, on the border with Niger, is suffering a humanitarian crisis. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there were more than 124,000 refugees in the region in February, a figure that has risen sharply since the summer of 2020.

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AFP/AFP - Map showing locations of major mass abductions in Nigeria and other regions threatened by conflict, insurgency or criminal groups.

"Our teams in Zamfara have witnessed an alarming increase in preventable diseases associated with the lack of food, clean water, food and vaccines," warned Godwin Emudanohwo, a doctor at a hospital run by MFS. Another major problem among displaced women is the sexual assaults they have suffered at the hands of the jihadist group. "They usually arrive at the clinics too late to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, with severe trauma and in desperate need of protection," explains Noble Nma, an MSF doctor. "We are told that there are more survivors who are afraid to travel here, so what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg," he added.

In 2014, Boko Haram proclaimed a caliphate on the African continent and a year later swore allegiance to Daesh. However, in 2016, religious and strategic disagreements led to a split within the terrorist organisation, giving rise to ISWAP (Islamic State in the West African Province). Shekau's part of Boko Haram distanced itself from Daesh in the Middle East, while ISWAP had its backing.

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AFP/MARCO LONGARI - In this file photo taken on July 6, 2019, a group of Fulani militiamen stand ready with their weapons, at an informal demobilisation camp in Sevare run by Sekou Bolly, a local Fulani businessman whose aim is to steer young Fulani men away from jihadist morse
Shekau's assassination gives ISWAP a free hand to increase its influence

Finally, after years of disputes, Shekau was killed in an ambush last May organised by Daesh leaders from Syria. The Boko Haram leader was too violent for Daesh, which they accused of "indiscriminately attacking believers". The mission to kill him was entrusted to ISWAP, led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf. According to Nigerian media outlet HumAngle, Shekau died after weeks of fighting between the rival groups in the Sambisa forest in the northeast of the country and Boko Haram's main safe haven. Before being caught, Shekau set off a bomb waistcoat, killing him on the spot and some of his enemies. "Shekau preferred to be humiliated in the afterlife than to be humiliated on earth," Al-Barnawi said in a message confirming the death of the Boko Haram leader. The ISWAP leader criticised Shekau for "committing unimaginable terrorism".

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AFP PHOTO/BOKO HARAM - This archive screenshot taken on October 2, 2014, of a video released by the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram and obtained by AFP shows the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau at an undisclosed location in Nigeria.

The Nigerian authorities, as well as other countries, have been trying to kill Shekau for years. In the last decade, he has been presumed dead at least five times. For Washington, the jihadist leader was on a list of most-wanted international terrorists, even offering compensation for his arrest. "Hey, Daesh people. To clarify: no, you are not eligible for the reward in exchange for information about his identity or location. That's not how the programme works," the US Justice Department announced on Twitter.

Experts and analysts point to future struggles within Boko Haram for the leadership of the group, as Shekau has not prepared a successor. But what is more worrying is the increasing power of ISWAP, which will gain influence in areas previously controlled by Boko Haram. "Since a few months ago, ISWAP's propaganda organ has been devoting more than 70 per cent of its publications to Africa, which has become a very important positioning place for this group, as we see what is happening in Mozambique, Lake Chad and elsewhere," explains Bakary Sambé, director of the Timbuktu Institute think tank.

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AFP PHOTO / BOUREIMA HAMA - Koutoukale Prison, Koutoukale Prison is considered the most secure prison in Niger, as it holds the country's most dangerous detainees, mainly jihadists from groups active in the Sahel desert area and the Nigeria-based Islamist group Boko Haram.

Sambé also warns of ISWAP's possible expansion after gaining power in the area. "The African coastal countries are the target. The jihadists are expanding southwards and are now looking to weaken Burkina Faso to gain access to coastal countries like Benin, Togo, or Ivory Coast. They will not stop," he says.

Shekau's death has caused divisions among his followers. As Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor notes, Boko Haram members are arguing over whether to join or fight ISWAP. "It looks like there is going to be a chaotic period now," he says.

Al-Barnawi's group will take advantage of the chaos within its rival group to increase its influence. ISWAP could establish itself as an even greater threat to the Nigerian authorities because they do not cause as much terror as Boko Haram among the country's population. "They provide a degree of law and order in Lake Chad, and civilians go there to do business or to live because there are natural resources such as highly productive agricultural land," says Vincent Foucher, an analyst at the French Centre for Scientific Research.

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AFP/AFP -Map of armed groups' zones of influence in the Sahel

Unlike Boko Haram, which killed those who did not join its ranks, ISWAP prefers to gain the trust of civilians and has not been involved in large-scale massacres or looting like its rival. "ISWAP's effectiveness so far has been in creating an ecosystem in which they exert control and strong influence over the economy, justice, education and security. The organisation has total control and can rule with very limited opposition," explains Yan Saint-Pierre, an analyst at a security consultancy.

Links between terrorist groups and drug trafficking

On the other hand, ISWAP has to deal with Al-Qaeda-related militias in the region, such as the Islamist and Muslim Support Front. This group is also assisted by other jihadist organisations in the Maghreb. Both sides, Daesh and Al-Qaeda, are looking for new sources of funding, which is why they are fighting for areas with large reserves of natural resources or strategically important geographical locations. Some of these key sites are located along illegal trade routes such as drug or human trafficking. As was the case from the 1990s onwards in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where opium circulation was linked to the Al-Qaeda Taliban, terrorists in the Sahel may have links to the drug trade.

In 2009, three Malians were arrested for narco-terrorism in the US, claiming links between FARC and cocaine cartels and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. However, jihadist groups have criticised drug trafficking, going so far as to burn cigarette and hashish shipments.

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AFP/ISSOUF SANOGO - A photo taken on 21 September 2012 shows a group of armed Islamists gathered in Gao, the largest city in northern Mali.

In the 1980s, as a result of instability, drug trafficking increased in the Gulf of Guinea and spread to nearby areas over time. In 2009, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that 60% of cocaine entering Europe passed through routes in the Sahel. Routes that are still used today according to various analysts. According to a 2018 UNODC report, traffickers pay terrorist groups to protect their shipments when crossing the Sahel and the Sahara. In addition to drug trafficking, we should not forget the trade in human beings, one of the ways in which terrorist groups are financed.

Paris ends Operation Barkhane as it awaits more international presence

France has been one of the countries most involved in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly urged his European partners and international allies to increase their presence in the African region. Operation Barkhane is one of his main instruments for tackling jihadism, although Paris has recently announced a troop reduction. The French government has called this measure an "evolution" and not a withdrawal, leaving the way open for an "international force" to become involved in the area. For the moment, Greece, Serbia and Italy have pledged to send troops.

At the recent G7 summit in the UK, Macron held bilateral talks with his US counterpart, Joe Biden, to discuss issues of common interest. One of the issues discussed was the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, and Washington may decide to become involved in the region in the future.

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PHOTO/FRANCOIS MORI - French President Emmanuel Macron in a videoconference meeting with the leaders of the G5 West African Sahel nations in Paris, France 16 February 2021.

This decision follows the military coup in Mali, now ruled by Assimi Goïta. France currently has 5,100 troops deployed in the Sahel, cooperating with the weakened national forces in each country.

"Obviously France is not going to stay in the Sahel forever. It was known from the beginning," said Jean-Yves Le Drian. The French foreign minister also asserted that it should be "the Africans who have to guarantee the security of African countries".

The most anti-French sectors of the continent have welcomed the decision by Paris, which they continue to see as a colonialist power. However, other countries such as Chad, where insurgent groups assassinated their president, may feel insecure about Macron's initiative.

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AP/JEROME DELAY - French soldiers from the Barkhane force who concluded their four-month tour of duty in the Sahel board a U.S. Air Force C130 transport plane and leave their base in Gao, Mali, Wednesday, June 9, 2021.

Defence Minister Florence Parly has declared that this withdrawal aims to "Europeanise and internationalise the fight against terrorism in the Sahel". However, the ministry assured that "France's military commitment will continue to be very significant" in order to stop this scourge. In fact, the French armed forces have reported the capture of a high-ranking member of the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara. Also, this Friday, French troops in the region announced the death of the man responsible for the murder of two journalists in 2013.

Political instability, the influence of terrorist groups and their own power struggles make the Sahel one of the most insecure regions in the world. The population in the region is facing a humanitarian crisis that is becoming increasingly acute due to the difficult climate. According to a report by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) on the global peace index presented on Friday, new conflicts in the Sahel together with those in the Horn of Africa and sub-Saharan Africa account for more than 65% of all violent conflicts in the world.

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AFP/ ANNIE RISEMBERG - A man looks at headlines announcing a major reduction of France's military presence in the Sahel, where forces have been fighting jihadist insurgents for nearly a decade, in Bamako on June 11, 2021.

The rise of jihadism and insecurity can directly affect North Africa. Once in the Maghreb, this threat would become increasingly real for Europe. For this reason, European countries should become more involved in the region, otherwise this instability may end up affecting the old continent, although we should not forget that thousands of people are already suffering from it.