15 June, 2021
essay / Paula Mora Brito [English version].
Terrorism in the Sahel is a neglected reality that affects millions of people. Not surprisingly, the region is one of the most afflicted by it internship. Its complex geographical features make it difficult to control borders (especially those of the Sahara desert), and the lack of cultural and religious homogeneity, coupled with continuing economic and social challenges, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, make the region a fragile and convenient scenario for terrorist groups. In addition, Western countries (mainly France) are present in the area, provoking a certain rejection of their intervention in the eyes of the Sahelian population. Although data is scarce on this issue, which makes it difficult to study, this article will attempt to broaden the concepts and knowledge of terrorism in the Sahel, extending its geographical scope to show the daily life of its inhabitants over the last few years. The focus of the analysis will be on Western intervention in the fight against terrorism.
The terrorist phenomenon
Terrorism is a controversial concept, as it is subject to individual interpretation: while some condemn a group for the use of indiscriminate violence under a political/social/economic goal , others consider its members to be heroes of freedom. Only its purpose defines this activity: to coerce and intimidate the general intention on an issue. It takes different forms: by geographical scope (regional, national or international) or by its goal (ethno-nationalist, political and/or economic ideology, religious or specific issues). This is why each has different characteristics.
Religious terrorism, as Charles Townshend highlighted in his book Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, has its own unique characteristics. Quoting Hoffman, he explains that goal transcends politics because it is seen as a theological demand. It is a bilateral relationship between fanatics and God, in which there is no possibility of dialogue or understanding, only the establishment of the demand. This conception leads to international terrorism, even if it starts at the regional or national level, as the group of "enemies" is broader. Messianism is the driving force behind this activity, and martyrdom its most potent weapon. The death that comes from fighting is presented as a sacred act and reflects the certainty of the members of these groups to their ideology.
The West finds it difficult to address these threats because it understands the world in a secular way. However, in the states in which these groups develop, religion represents nationhood, values and lifestyle: the individual is religion and vice versa. As Edward Said said: "The entrenched West is blind to nuance and change in the Islamic world". Indeed, Islamic religious terrorism emerges as a response to colonialism and the internship of soft power 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 an ecoregion that transitions between 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 of 5,000 km. It is made up of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Burkina-Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is a privileged area, as the desert is understood as a pathway to speech.
The area has 150 million inhabitants, 64% of whom are under 25 years old and mostly Sunni Islamic. In 2018, the last year there is data on these countries, the annual mortality rate per 1,000 people was 8.05, a very high rate compared to Spain's 2.59 in 2019. The adult literacy rate (15+), for which there is only data for seven of the ten countries, is 56.06 %. In reality, it is very unequal: while Algeria has 81.40%, Niger or Mali have 35%. The poverty incidence rate based on the national poverty line is 41.15% (only four countries have data from 2018). Life expectancy is 63 years.
The territory faces an economic, political and social crisis. The Sahel is one of the poorest regions in the world, with northern Nigeria as one of the territories with the largest number of extremely poor people in the world. The status worsened this year with a historic drop in the price of raw materials (more than 20%), which account for 89% of its exports. The environmental crisis is hampering the economic development .
Climate change has caused temperatures to rise 1.5 times faster than the global average rate, which has multiplied droughts (from one every ten years to one every two). Political instability in some countries, such as the 2012 coup d'état in Mali, is hampering their economic development 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 group . Terrorist activity has spread 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 people displaced and more than a million unable to find homes work. The UN programme development estimates that between now and 2050, more than 85 million Sahelians will be forced to migrate.
Most attacks take place on the tri-border areas of Mali, Burkina-Faso and Niger; and Niger, Nigeria and Chad. Since the Treaty of Berlin in 1885, African borders have been a serious problem because they were a European imposition that did not respect the tribal and ethnic reality of many regions, forcing and creating a nation that its inhabitants do not feel part of. This reality was reflected in the case of Mali, showing the pre-existing fragility of the region.
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 cruelty employee by the Hammadu, as they follow the takfirism (war against "infidel" Muslims) of Zarqawi (ISIS).
They take over territories through negotiations, where they establish a market for illegal trafficking. Once they have acquired a area, they set up their settlements, training camps and prepare their next attacks. Another means of financing is kidnapping. It is a way to subjugate, humiliate and extract revenue from the West. The need for money, unlike in a criminal organisation, is not for the enrichment staff of the components, but to continue financing the activity: buying loyalties, weapons, etc. There is no recruitment data development , no conditions, no age, class or gender targeting.
The geographical and socio-political characteristics of the ecoregion have forced AQIM to develop its capacity to adapt, such as the subdivision of group (Boko Haram), which sample no longer needs a fixed physical base as in the 1990s (AQ in Afghanistan). In addition, there has been a change in strategy, as these groups are increasing their attacks on international organisations or government infrastructure by 250%, and decreasing attacks on civilians. This may be a new way of attracting locals as they promote themselves as protectors against state abuse.
In 2019 there was an average of 69.5 attacks per month in the Sahel and Maghreb, and 438 deaths were recorded last March. In 2020, activity has decreased due to COVID-19. Terrorism brings political and social insecurity, as well as economic insecurity, as investors are not attracted to do business in an unstable area, leading to continued precariousness. This causes and/or maintains the underdevelopment of a state, leading to a large influx of migration. A vicious circle of underdevelopment and poverty then ensues.
For Spain, the most recent and shocking event took place on 28 April 2021, when journalists David Beriain and Roberto Fraile were murdered in Burkina-Faso by the Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, group de Apoyo al Islam y a los Musulmanes en español; a terrorist group linked to Al-Qaeda.
The recent sudden death of Chadian President Idris Déby Itno on 19 April 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 president of the last three decades was fighting against this rebel group , created in 2016 in Libya, which sought to oust Déby and the dynastic regime from Chad. Since this event, massive protests have covered the streets of Chad, calling for a democratic transition in the country, to which the army has responded by killing some of the protesters. This uprising is due to what Chadians see as a repetition of their history and a violation of the nation's constitution. The Chadian army had announced the training of an 18-month transitional committee under the leadership of Mahamat Idriss Déby, the son of the former president. The problem is that his father, in 1999, created the same political body and promised the same. However, his promises were not kept. The transitional military committee suspended the constitution, which states at degree scroll Fifteenth that the transnational president must be the president of the National Assembly.
Chad's status is core topic in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. The country lies between the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. The withdrawal or weakening of troops on the country's borders poses a great risk not only to Chad, but also to its neighbours. Countries bordering Chad will be exposed to violent attacks by terrorist groups, as Chad has the largest combined force in the G5 Sahel. Chad is the stabiliser of the region. To the east, it prevents Sudanese political instability from spilling over the borders. To the south, Chad has been the new home to more than 500,000 refugees from the Central African Republic and its massive migration crisis. To the west, it mainly counters Boko Haram, which is now a major player in Niger and Nigeria. To the north, it counters Libyan rebel groups. It is important to understand that although Libya is not part of the Sahel, its instability resonates strongly in the region, as the country is the new hub for terrorist groups in the Sahel, as the death of the former president seems to demonstrate. The country has become the launching pad for Africa's terrorist groups seeking to impose their will across the continent. What happens in Chad remains to be seen, as it will completely change the current Sahelian paradigm.
The West's fight against terrorism
There are institutional initiatives to address these regional issues jointly, such as the group G5 Sahel, composed of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, with the support of the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations and the World Bank, among others.
There is also financial aid international support to the region, mainly from France and the European Union. Since 2013, at the request of the Malian government, the French government launched Operation 'Serval' with the goal aim of expelling terrorist groups in northern Mali and other Sahel nations. It was followed a year later by Operation Barkhan, which focuses on attendance to the G5 Sahel member states, seeking to provide the resources and training necessary for these countries to manage their own security independently. Spain, Germany, Estonia and the UK also participate in this Operation. Last year, 2020, Task Force "Takuba", composed of French and Estonian special forces, was launched in the Sahara-Sahel belt. To date, France has deployed 5,100 military personnel, trained more than 7,000 G5 Sahel soldiers, deployed 750 training or combat support activities and has 75 cooperation officers in the region.
France has also been at the forefront of international intervention in the Sahel. In 2012, at the UN Security committee it promoted Resolution 2085 to underline the need for international attendance intervention in the region. In 2017, France was the precursor of the mission statement United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), created under Resolution 2391 to provide attendance to the Malian government in the stabilisation of its country. It has more than 15,000 civilian and military personnel providing logistical and operational support.
The EU has also been involved through three main missions in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) framework : mission statement of training of the European Union (EUTM) Mali, EUCAP Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger. The first was created in 2013 to train and advise the Malian armed forces. It also cooperates with the G5 Sahel member states to improve border control. The other two are civilian missions whose goal is to train the police, gendarmerie and national guard, as well as to advise on security reforms at government. EUCAP Sahel Niger was created in 2012 and is still in force. As for EUCAP Sahel Mali, it was created in 2014 and has been extended until 2023. In addition, France and the European Union also contribute financially to the region. Last year, the EU contributed €189.4 million to the region. France contributed around €3.97 billion during 2019-2020.
However, the uncertainty over Déby's death has reshaped local perceptions of Western, mainly French, intervention. The protests that have taken place in Chad in recent weeks have also led to an indictment of France for backing the military committee against the will of the people. Together with the African Union and the European Union, Macron declared at Déby's funeral that "France will never be able to make anyone question (...) and threaten, today or tomorrow, the stability and integrity of Chad", following Mahamat's promises to "remain faithful to his father's report". These statements were understood by Chadians to mean that Mahamat will follow his father's style of leadership and that France does not care about the oppression the people have suffered for decades. It is at this point that France risks only caring about the stability that Chad brought to the region, especially in its geopolitical interests regarding Libya and West Africa in particular. Perhaps this is why Macron felt the need to clarify his words a week later: "I will be very clear: I supported the stability and integrity of Chad when I was in N'Djamena. I am in favour of a peaceful, democratic and inclusive transition, I am not in favour of a succession," he said. However, Sahelians are getting tired of being the puppets of Western games, as demonstrated this year in Mali by the protests of the inhabitants against the French military presence in the country. The West must show its real commitment to promoting human rights by pushing for a democratic transition while maintaining its fight against terrorism.
In conclusion, Islamist religious terrorism has been on the rise in recent years as a counterpoint to US power in the Cold War. The Sahel is one of the predominant theatres of these activities, as it is an area with pre-existing political-economic instability that terrorists have taken advantage of. Terrorism is changing its modus operandi, showing its adaptability in terms of geography, methods of operation and resource acquisition. France has shown itself to be the leader of the Western initiative in the region and has made progress in the region. However, the West, especially European countries, must begin to pay more attention to the causes of the region's problems by gathering data and understanding the realities of the region. Only then will they be able to address these problems effectively, assisting existing regional institutions, looking for long-term solutions deadline that satisfy the population.