The presence of jihadis in the Sahel is a threat that cannot be taken lightly
It’s a mistake to think that after its defeat in Iraq and Syria, the “brutal ideology” of the Islamic State (IS) is dead. In fact, it’s getting a foothold in Africa, warns the respected British news magazine The Economist, in an article published on July 12.
After the fall of the “caliphate”—proclaimed on June 29, 2014, at the Great Mosque of Al Nuri, in Mosul, by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—there began a phase of decentralization or fragmentation, which saw many combatants flee or relocate to Africa, in particular to the Sahel region, an arid belt of land where the savanna transitions into the Sahara Desert.
According to The Economist, the lethality of the jihadists in Africa has already surpassed that of their Iraqi comrades. Last year, they were responsible for the deaths of roughly 10,000 people, most of whom were civilians. Their militants are also numerous; the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Nigeria has roughly 3, 500 fighters, probably a greater number than that of the original IS fighters still present in Iraq and Syria.
Although as of yet the threat posed by IS to Western interests in the Sahel belt is limited, The Economist continues, its tentacles reach into the West, as demonstrated by the attacks on May 22, 2017, in Manchester, and on December 19, 2016, in Berlin, in which 23 and 12 people died, respectively. In both cases, the attackers had ties to Libya, where IS is present south of the city of Sirte (on Libya’s coast in the north).
Jihadist presence in the Sahel
Indeed, it is a threat that should not be taken lightly. As the Difesa & Sicurezza website explains, various jihadist groups active in the region have united under the name of Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS) to fight the joined anti-terrorism forces of five Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Known by the abbreviation FC-G5S (from the French Force Conjointe du G5 Sahel), this force fights together with French troops of Operation Berkhane and military forces from other countries, including the United States and Germany, against the jihadist groups, and it recently reached its full operational capacity (FOC).
The fact that the ISGS represents a danger not to be overlooked is demonstrated, for example, by the ambush on October 4, 2017, near the village of Tongo Tongo, near the border with Mali, in which four US soldiers and five Nigerien troops were killed.
The leader of the ISGS is Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. The former senior spokesman and self-proclaimed emir of the armed jihadist group al-Mourabitoun swore allegiance in May 2015 to IS and to caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (a pledge which was officially recognized only in October 2016), an action that caused a schism with another branch of the movement, led by Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In December of 2015, this latter group became a battalion or “katiba” of Al-Quaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Al Mourabitoun is an armed movement with ties to Al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack against the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital city of Bamako; the attack in March 2015 resulted in the deaths of 20 people (in addition to two terrorist attackers).
Lastly, in March 2017, four armed groups tied to Al Qaeda—Ansar Dine, as well as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s branch of Al Mourabitoun, and the Peul ethnic jihadist group Macina Liberation Front—announced their merger into a new movement, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, which translates as “Group to Support Islam and Muslims.”
Why the Sahel?
As The Economist explains, the jihadist phenomenon is destabilizing a series of poor and often badly governed countries in the Sahel region—countries which also are experiencing high demographic growth. “If they fall into chaos,” the magazine warns, “Europe can expect millions more refugees.”
“The rise of jihadism in Africa is rooted in bad governance, exacerbated by population pressure and climate change,” the article continues. “When the state is corrupt and predatory, the insurgents’ promise of religious justice can sound appealing.”
Last June 29, Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Nasser Bourita, spoke in Skhirat (between Casablanca and Rabat) to the participants in an encounter of political leaders of the global coalition against IS, saying that Africa has more than 10,000 jihadists or combatants, who are skillfully exploiting the continent’s vulnerabilities.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation report
These concerns are confirmed by a report presented by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in April 2017. Titled “Africa at a Tipping Point,” the document presents a series of striking statistics, which help to understand the scale of the challenge facing the continent.
From 2015 to 2050, the number of African young people will nearly double, from 230 to 452 million. In 2015, 60% of the African population—more than half; actually, nearly two thirds (!) — was less than 25 years old. On average, nearly half of the African population has not yet reached voting age. In addition, less than a fourth of African youth say they are “very interested in public affairs.”
Due to the lack of opportunities, between a third and one half of the population with higher education in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Mozambico and Ghana, leave the country in search of a better life elsewhere. In the past decade, the number of protests and revolts has increased more than tenfold in Africa.
Four African countries are among the top ten worldwide with highest levels of terrorism: Nigeria, Somalia, Egypt, and Libya. In the last decade, the number of terrorist attacks on the African continent in general has increased by more than 1,000%, the report reveals.
The African countries with the greatest number of victims are Nigeria and Somalia, with 17,930 and 6,278 victims respectively in the period from 2006 to 2015. The most active terrorist groups in these two countries are the anti-West group Boko Haram (which renamed itself “Islamic State’s West Africa Province”, ISWAP, in 2015) in Nigeria, and Al Shabaab in Somalia.
In the latter country, which isn’t part of the Sahel (although some think it should be considered as such), two relatively new groups have emerged with ties to IS: the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) and Jahba East Africa, also called The Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (ISISSKTU). Both groups split off from Al Shabaab.
The drama of the children
Special attention should be given to the drama of children who experience in their own skin the blind violence of terrorist groups. According to the report Silent Shame: Bringing out the voices of children caught in the Lake Chad crisis—published in April 2017 by UNICEF—in the region around Lake Chad (which, incidentally, is drying up) some 1.3 million children have been displaced and 123,000 are refugees in neighboring countries.
The practice of kidnapping of children, and especially of girls, has become widespread. All too fresh is the memory of the abduction of 276 girls in 2014 in Chibok, in the Nigerian state of Borno, by soldiers of Boko Haram. The fact that the terrorist group has not yet been defeated in Nigeria is demonstrated by the disappearance of 111 schoolgirls after an attack in Dapchi, in the state of Yobe, this past February.
According to UNICEF’s report, the girls abducted by jihadists are often assigned a “husband”, and are raped and abused, and if they are pregnant—even if they are very young—they are forced to give birth without any assistance.
There is another horrifying statistic provided in the UNICEF’s report: since the beginning of the month of January 2014, 117 children, more than 80% of whom were girls (because of their long, conceiling robes), have been used in suicide attacks in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.
All of this shows that the challenge posed by jihadism is serious. Although the fight against Islamic terrorism is dangerous—two French soldiers died last February when their armored vehicle struck a homemade mine—it is important not to repeat the mistake committed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, who decided to pull the US troops out of Somalia, leaving the country to fall apart, points out The Economist. “Stopping the Sahel from falling apart would be easier than putting it back together,” the magazine warns.