The interconnected terrorist threats in North Africa and the Sahel

Poverty and the lack of economic opportunity in West Africa drive recruitment of Sahel extremist groups.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Malian soldiers stand guard in a military vehicle outside the presidential palace in Bamako. (AFP)
Malian soldiers stand guard in a military vehicle outside the presidential palace in Bamako. (AFP)

The activities of resurgent al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated groups in North Africa and the Sahel region should be a cause for concern.

The so-called Uqba Ibn Nafi brigade, a terrorist group linked with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the July 8 attack on Tunisian security forces on the Tunisian-Algeria border. Six national guards were killed in the ambush.

The week before, Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, an al-Qaeda-linked extremist group in Mali, claimed responsibility for attacks on French troops in the northern Malian town of Gao.

The Gao attacks, right about the time of an African summit in Mauritania with French President Emmanuel Macron in attendance, were meant to send a message of defiance to African leaders fighting Islamic extremism, more particularly, the G5 Sahel regional force made up of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

The G5 force receives funding from France and the United States as well as from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The African Sahel, one of the world’s poorest regions, faces a jihadist threat from groups including Mali-based extremists and other formations such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement.

Terrorist activities in North Africa and the Sahel are not unconnected. The large swaths of sand of the Sahara are not an impenetrable barrier.

Armed militancy in Mali was fuelled by the return of Tuareg fighters from Libya after Muammar Qaddafi’s 2011 fall. The porous state of Libya’s southern borders and the absence of a strong central government have encouraged human traffickers as well as extremist elements to cross the desert to the North African littoral.

The trial of 29 terrorism suspects in Senegal revealed that Boko Haram-trained extremists had ties to terrorist groups in Libya and Mali.

The Washington Post reported that Senegalese authorities began to investigate after a 2015 Facebook post showed images of Senegal fighters killed in Libya.

Poverty and the lack of economic opportunity in West Africa are crucial factors in the recruitment drive by Sahel extremist groups. During a meeting in Niger on July 10, agriculture ministers from the West African Economic and Monetary Union warned that approximately 3.5 million people in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Senegal face a serious problem of “food insecurity.”

Such dire economic conditions are a catalyst for illegal migration to Europe and pose a grave threat to the interconnected security of West and North Africa.

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