Northwestern Sahel represents one of the most unstable areas in sub-Saharan Africa. Seven years after the outbreak of the conflict in Mali, violent extremism has spread across the region, together with community conflicts over the access to natural resources and inter-ethnic violence. Trans-border activities of non-state armed actors – insurgents, jihadist groups and ethnic-based militias – as well as illicit trafficking networks feed the regional insecurity. These dynamics have boosted military and political intervention of Western actors and the development of multilateral initiatives across Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. What are the main drivers of the instability affecting the Sahelian states? To what extent is the current security situation in the Sahel deteriorating? And what are the challenges ahead for states and international actors?
The video message recently released by the al-Furqan media network, showing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for the first time since 2014, turned the spotlight on the presence of the Islamic State (IS) in the Sahel – the region of Western Africa south of Sahara. Urging jihadist fighters in Mali and Burkina Faso to intensify their attacks against France and its allies to avenge the aggressions in Syria and Iraq, al-Baghdadi explicitly confirmed the oath of allegiance to the Islamic State made by Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, a former MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) member and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s comrade in the Sahel.
Just a few weeks before, IS applauded the jihad fought by mujahedeen against African tawaghit (transgressor of the will of Allah) governments, tribal murtadd (apostate) militias and Western crusader armies in the Sahel. In al-Naba newsletter (N. 175), Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks conducted by assailants loyal to the Caliphate against foreign military forces and pro-government armed groups in Mali, slightingly defined as Sahawat– particularly, colonel El Hadj ag Gamou’s GATIA militia (Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies) and the coalition of former rebel groups MSA (Movement for the Salvation of Azawad).