Religious terrorism in the Sahel. Causes, means and impact

Terrorismo religioso en el Sahel. Causas, medios e impacto

June 15, 2021

ESSAYPaula Mora Brito  [Spanish version]

Terrorism in the Sahel is an ignored reality that affects millions of people. Unsurprisingly, the region is one of the most affected by this practice; the political instability that these nations suffer. Their complex geographical features make it difficult to control borders (especially those in the Sahara Dessert), and the lack of cultural homogeneity and beliefs, coupled with ongoing economic and social challenges, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, makes the region a fragile and convenient scenario for terrorist groups. Furthermore, Western countries (mainly France) are present in the area, which has led to some challenges regarding their intervention in the eyes of the Sahelian population. An analysis of the role of these countries will be developed. Although data on this problem is scarce, making it difficult to study it, this article will try to broaden the concepts and knowledge about terrorism in the Sahel, extending its geographical spectrum, to show the daily life of its inhabitants since several years from now. The focus of the analysis will be on Western intervention in the fight against terrorism.

The terrorist phenomenon

Terrorism is a controversial concept because it is subject to individual interpretation: while some condemn a group for the use of indiscriminate violence with a political/social/economic objective, others consider that its militants are freedom fighters. Only its purpose defines this activity: to coerce and intimidate the general public on an issue. It takes different forms, and it can be classified by geographical scope (regional, national or international) or by its target (ethno-nationalist, political and/or economic ideology, religious or specific issues). This is why each has different characteristics.[1]

Religious terrorism, as highlighted by Charles Townshend in his book Terrorism: A very short introduction,[2] has its own characteristics. Quoting Hoffman, he explains that the terrorist’s objective transcends politics because it is considered a theological demand. Although no religion holds the monopoly of this kind of terrorism, today, it has an Islamist base. In its interpretation of Islam, there is no difference between the political and theological postulates.

In the Sahel, religiously motivated terrorists often follow a political objective: establishing a regime based on Islam, defined in religious terms. It is a bilateral relationship between fervent religious believers and God, in which there is no possibility of dialogue or understanding with others, only the establishment of the demand for righteous combat. This concept explains why religious terrorism has an international scope, because even if it starts at a regional or national level, the group of “enemies” encompasses all those who are distinct from the terrorist group. Messianism is the engine of this activity, and martyrdom its most potent weapon. Death from fighting is presented as a sacred act and reflects the certainty of the members of these groups of the truth to their ideology.

The West has difficulties in dealing with these threats because it understands the world in a secular way. However, in the states in which these groups develop, religion represents the nation, holding firm its central values and lifestyle: the individual is religion and vice versa. As Edward Said stated, “The entrenched West is blind to nuance and changes in the Islamic world”.[3] Islamic religious terrorism arises as a response to colonialism and the practice of soft power by Western countries in Arab and Islamic cultures, which has been reinforced through the current of Islamic fundamentalism.

Terrorism in the Sahel

The Sahel (“edge, coast” in Arabic) is a geopolitical region that cuts across the north and south of the African continent as well as from west to east, with a total area of 3,053,200 km2, constituting a belt 5,000 km long. It is composed of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Burkina-Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is a strategic area, as the Sahara Dessert is understood as a means of communication.[4]

The area has 150 million inhabitants, 64% of whom are under 25 years of age and mostly Sunni Muslims. In 2018, the latest year for which there is data on these countries, the annual mortality rate per 1,000 people averages 8,05, a high value when compared with the 2,59 of Spain in 2019.[5] The adult (15+) literacy rate, for which data is only available for seven of the ten countries previously mentioned, averages 56,06%. However, in reality it is very unequal, ranging between Algeria’s 81,40% and Niger or Mali’s 35%. The poverty incidence rate based on the national poverty line is on average 41,15% (only four countries have 2018 data). Life expectancy is 63 years.[6]

The territory faces a numerous economic, political and social crisis. The Sahel is one of the poorest regions in the world. In fact, northern Nigeria is one of the territories with the largest number of extremely poor population on the planet.[7] The situation in the region worsened this year, due to the pandemic, with a historic fall in the price of raw materials by more than 20%,[8] which account for 89% of the region exports.[9]

The environmental crisis hinders economic development. Climate change has caused temperatures to rise 1.5 times faster than the global average, which has increased the frequency of droughts (from one every ten years to one every two). Political instability in some countries, such as the 2012 coup d'état in Mali, hampers their development.

In this context, insecurity has increased since the 2004 attacks in Borno, a Nigerian state bordering Cameroon and Chad, by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. Terrorist activity has spread in the Sahel through the leadership of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), present in northern Mali, eastern Mauritania, Niger and western Chad. This has led to a demographic crisis, with 4.2 million displaced persons and more than a million unable to find work. The United Nations Development Program estimates that between now and 2050, more than 85 million Sahelians will be forced to migrate.[10]

Most attacks take place in the triple borders of Mali, Burkina-Faso and Niger, and that of Niger, Nigeria and Chad. Since the 1885 Treaty of Berlin, African borders have posed a serious problem for ensuring stability in the region, as their creation by European powers did not take into account for pre-existing tribal and ethnic groups spread across the region, ultimately forcing and creating nations with little common cultural affinity. This reality was reflected with the case of Mali, showing the pre-existing fragility of the region.[11]

AQIM has divided the Sahel into katibas (branches): the Yahia Abou Ammar Abid Hammadu, which is established between southern Algeria and Tunisia and northern Niger, and Tarik Ben Ziyad, active in Mauritania, southern Algeria and northern Mali. The former is known to be more “terrorist”, while the latter is more “criminal”. This is due to the greater degree of cruelty employed by the Hammadu, as they follow the takfirism (war against “infidel” Muslims) of Zarqawi (ISIS).[12]

They take over territories through negotiations, in which they establish an illegal trafficking market to finance their activities. Once they have acquired an area, they establish their settlements, their training camps and prepare their next attacks. Another means of financing is kidnapping. It is a way to subjugate, humiliate and get revenue from the West. The need for money, unlike a criminal organization, is not for the personal enrichment of the components, but to continue financing the activity: to buy loyalty, weapons, etc.[13] Regarding recruitment, there is no data on its development, conditions, or objectives by age, class or sex.

The geographical and socio-political characteristics of the ecoregion have forced AQIM to develop its capacity to adapt, as it can be appreciated through the subdivision of the group (Boko Haram), which shows that they no longer need a fixed physical base as in the 1990s (Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan). In addition, there has been a change in strategy, as these groups are increasing their attacks on international organizations or government infrastructure by 250% and decreasing attacks on civilians. This may be a new way to attract locals as they promote themselves as protectors against state abuse.[14]

In 2019 there was an average of 69.5 attacks per month in the Sahel and Maghreb[15], and last March 2021, there were 438 fatalities.[16] Since 2020, the terrorist activity has decreased due to COVID-19. For Spain, the most recent and impactful event took place last April 28th 2021, when journalists David Beriain and Roberto Fraile where assassinated in Burkina-Faso by the Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, Support Group for Islam and Muslims in English; a terrorist group linked to Al-Qaeda.[17] Furthermore, terrorism also brings political and social insecurity, as well as economic, as investors are not attracted to do business in an unstable area, causing the maintenance of precariousness. This causes and/or maintains the underdevelopment of a state, causing a large flow of migration. A vicious circle of underdevelopment and poverty then ensues.[18]

Moreover, the recent and sudden death of the Chadian President Idris Déby Itno, on April 19, 2021, at the hands of the Fighters of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), has further increased instability in the region. The 30-year president was fighting this rebel group, created in 2016 in Libya, which aimed to thrown Déby and the dynastic regime of Chad. Since this event took place, massive protests have covered the streets of Chad asking for a democratic transition in the country, to which the army has answered by killing some of the protestors. This uprise comes from what it seems to the Chadians as a repetition of their history and the violation of the nation’s constitution. The Chadian army had announced the formation of a transitional council, which would last for 18 months, under the leadership of Mahamat Idriss Déby, the son of the former president. The problem is that in 1999 his father created the same political organ and promised the same, and his promises were not kept. The Transitional Military Council suspended the Constitution, in which it is established in its Title fifteen that the transitional president must be the President of the National Assembly.[19]

The situation in the Chad is key in fighting terrorism in the Sahel. The country lies across the Sahel and besides the Horn of Africa. The removal or weakening of the troops in the country’s borders represent a great risk not only for Chad, but also for its neighbors as they will be exposed to violent attacks by terrorist groups, as Chad has the greatest joint force in the G5 Sahel. The country is the stabilizer of the region. To the East, it prevents the Sudanese political instability to spread over the borders. To the South, Chad has been the new home for more than 500,000 refugees that are escaping from the Central African Republic and its huge migration crisis. To the West, it counters mainly Boko Haram, which is now a major player in Niger and Nigeria. To the North, it counters the Libyan rebel groups. It is important to understand that, even though Libya does not form part of the Sahel, its instability echoes fiercely in the region, as the country is the new center of terror groups in the Sahel, as seen the death of the former president seems to prove. The country has become the launch pad of the terrorist groups in Africa that are aiming to impose their will all over the continent. It remains to be seen what happens in Chad, because it will completely change the actual Sahelian paradigm.[20]

The Western fight against terrorism

There are institutional initiatives to address these regional issues jointly, such as the G5 Sahel group, composed of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina-Faso and Chad, counting on the support of the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations, and the World Bank, among others.[21] There is also international assistance to the region, mainly from France and the European Union. Since 2013, after Mali’s government request, the French government launched Operation “Serval” with the objective of rejecting terrorist groups in northern Mali and other Sahel nations. It was succeeded a year later by Operation “Barkhan,” which focuses on assisting the G5 Sahel member states, seeking to provide the necessary resources and training to these countries to handle their own security independently. In this Operation, Spain, Germany, Estonia and the United Kingdom also participate. Last year, the Task Force “Takuba” was launched, composed by French and Estonian special forces, in the Sahara-Sahel belt. To this day, France has deployed 5,100 military personnel, has trained more than 7,000 G5 Sahel soldiers, has deployed 750 training or combat support activities, and has 75 cooperation officers in the region.[22]

France has also led international intervention in the Sahel. In 2012, in the United Nations Security Council promoted Resolution 2085 to underline the need of international assistance in the region. In 2017, France was the precursor of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), created under Resolution 2391 to provide assistance to Mali’s government in stabilizing its country. It counts with over 15,000 civilian and military personnel that provide logistical and operational support.[23]

The European Union has also participated through three main missions under the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP): European Union Training Mission (EUTM) Mali, EUCAP Sahel Mali, and EUCAP Sahel Niger. The former was established in 2013 to train and advise Malian armed forces. It also cooperates with the G5 Sahel member states in order to improve border control.[24] The other two are civilian missions which aim to train the national police, gendarmerie and guard, as well as advice the national government security reforms. EUCAP Sahel Niger was created in 2012 and remains in force.[25] Regarding EUCAP Sahel Mali, it was established in 2014 and has been extended until 2023 by now.[26] Furthermore, France and the European Union also contribute financially to the region. Last year, the European Union provided €189.4 million to the region.[27] France provided around €3.97 billion during 2019-2020.[28]

Nevertheless, the uncertainty created by Déby’s death has reshaped the local perception of Western intervention, mainly French one. The protests that have taken place these past weeks in Chad have also included accusations to France for backing the military council against the will of the people.[29] Along with the African Union and the European Union, Macron stated in Déby’s funeral: “France could never make anyone question (...) and threaten, neither today nor tomorrow, the stability and integrity of Chad”, after Mahamat’s promises of “staying true to the memory” of his father.[30] These declarations were understood by Chadians as that Mahamat will follow his father’s leadership style and that France does not care about the oppression that the people have been suffering during decades. It is at this point that France risks to just worry about the stability that Chad brought in the region, especially in its geopolitical interests regarding specially Libya and West Africa. This is why maybe Macron felt the urge to clarify his words a week later: “I'll be very clear: I supported the stability and integrity of Chad when I was in N'Djamena. I am in favor of a peaceful, democratic and inclusive transition, I am not in favor of a succession,” he said.[31] However, Sahelians are getting tired of being puppets in the Western Games, as shown this year in Mali with the Malians protesting against French military presence in the country. The West must show its real commitment to their fostering of human rights by pressuring a democratic transition whilst keeping its fight against terrorism.

In conclusion, Islamist religious terrorism has been on the rise in recent years as a counterpoint to the U.S. soft power of the Cold War. The Sahel is one of the predominant scenarios for these activities as it is an area with pre-existing political and economic instability that terrorists have taken advantage of. Terrorism is changing its ways of acting, showing its adaptability in terms of geography, methods of action and acquisition of resources. France has proven to be the leader of Western initiative in the region and has made progress in the region. Nevertheless, the West, especially neighboring European countries, must begin to pay more attention to the causes of the problems in this region, collecting data and learning about its reality. It will only be then, when they will be able to address these problems effectively by assisting the existing regional institutions, seeking long-term solutions that satisfy the population.


[1] Folch-Serra, Mireia (2012): “Las múltiples geografías del terrorismo” in Nogué, Joan and Romero, Joan (eds.), Las otras geografías, Valencia, Tirant Lo Blanch, pag. 157-172

[2] Townshend, Charles (2002), chapter 6: Religious Terrorism, Terrorism: A very short introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[3] Ibid.

[5] (INE) Instituto Nacional de Estadística. (2019). INEbase / Demografía y población /Fenómenos demográficos /Tablas de mortalidad / Últimos datos. INE.

[6]Banco Mundial (2018). Los datos relativos a Senegal, Malí, Mauritania, Chad, Níger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Sudán, Eritrea, Etiopía, Argelia | Data. Datos Banco Mundial.

[7] KATAYAMA, R., & WADHWA, D. (2019, Enero 9). World Bank.

[8] El Canal (2020, 14 de mayo). Desplome histórico de los precios de las materias primas. El Canal Marítimo y Logístico.

[9] Naciones Unidas (2019, 15 de mayo). Récord de economías dependientes de la exportación de productos básicos. Noticias ONU.

[10] Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo. (s.f.). Sahel, tierra de oportunidades. UNDP.

[11] Gómez, R., & Moya, J. (2020, 5 de mayo). Las fronteras de África. Atalayar.

[12] Echevarría, C. (2012). La vigencia del terrorismo de Al-Qaeda en las tierras del Magreb Islámico (AQIM): ejemplo de supervivencia y de adaptabilidad. Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos; Revista del IEEE.

[13] Ibid.

[14] NSD-S HUB, & ACRST (2020). NSD-S HUB. NATO.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Summers, M. (2021). Observatorio de la actividad yihadista en el Magreb y el Sahel Occidental de septiembre de 2020. Observatorio Internacional de Estudios sobre El Terrorismo; Gobierno de España, Gobierno Vasco, Generalitat Valenciana.

[18] Entremont, A. d' (1997): Geografía económica, Madrid, Cátedra.

[19] Aljazeera. (2021, 1 de abril). Is stability in Chad at risk? | Inside Story.

[20] Ibid.

[21] G5 SAHEL (2021). G5 Sahel

[22] Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères. (2020). France’s action in the Sahel. France Diplomatie: Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs; France Diplomatie - Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs.

[23] Ibid.

[24] EUTM Mali | EUTM Mali. (2021). EUTM Mali.

[25] EUCAP Sahel Niger. (2021). EEAS - European External Action Service - European Commission.

[26] EUCAP Sahel Mali. (2021). EEAS - European External Action Service - European Commission.

[28] Agence Française de Développement. (2020). Sahel : 22 projets en images et en résultats.

[29] Aljazeera. (2021, 1 de abril). Is stability in Chad at risk? | Inside Story.