Islamist terrorism in the Western Sahel region started to boom in late 2016, with the formation of Al Qaeda affiliate Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) in Mali, and the launch of its jihadist campaign across Mali through 2017 until now. The southwards spread of JNIM into Burkina Faso, and its alliance with Burkina Faso’s own Al Qaeda affiliate Ansaroul Islam, resulted in the diffusion of this jihadist campaign into the northern and eastern regions of Burkina Faso. The Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (EIGS) has been active in the area since 2015, but is affiliated with the other prominent jihadists, Islamic State, and is involved in intense, sometimes lethal, rivalry with JNIM.
As a direct result of the campaigns of these groups, terrorist attacks against security forces and civilians in the area have escalated to unprecedented levels in the last three years. Burkina Faso has suffered particularly: until the removal of long-term autocrat President Blaise Compaoré in 2014, the country had experienced little Islamism, but the subsequent deterioration of security allowed jihadist groups to start recruiting from rural communities and attack military outposts and civilian urban centres.
The coronavirus reached Mali and Burkina Faso in March, with total cases standing at 544 and 652 respectively, and deaths at approximately 5%. Active cases in Burkina Faso have declined steadily since mid-April but remain high in Mali. The lack of effective testing and reporting means that reported statistics are unreliable, and the numbers are likely to be much higher than those recorded.
Coronavirus Statements by IS and AQ
Unlike Boko Haram, both Al Qaeda and Islamic State have acknowledged that the threat from the coronavirus is real, regardless of creed or religious practice, and could impact any of their members.
At the end of March, Al Qaeda released a six-page statement, clearly directed at a Western audience, deriding the US economy for its fragility and referring to the virus as a “weak, invisible soldier” that has harmed American society because it is not the “hygiene-orientated” culture of Islam. The document calls on non-Muslims to use the lockdown to learn more about Islam and its benefits but does not make any declarations of violence.
In the March issue of Islamic State’s newsletter Al-Naba, the group provides advice for dealing with epidemics, some of which is practical (covering the mouth when yawning and sneezing, washing hands before meals), but framed within Sharia objectives (such as seeking refuge in God). However, in the same newsletter, it demands that its members continue their campaigns of terror, including an open instruction to those living in the West to attack “infidels”, weaken their capabilities, and reduce their capacity to harm Muslims. It specifically calls upon all members to increase attempts to free Muslim prisoners from state prisons and detention camps.
Problems in Western Sahel
Burkina Faso and Mali are two of the poorest nations in the world, burdened with political instability, widespread corruption, and environmental hazards, which compound the threats of militant violence and the coronavirus pandemic.
Healthcare in Burkina Faso is extremely limited, particularly outside Ouagadougou, and previous outbreaks of measles, meningitis and meningococcaemia have resulted in hundreds of deaths in rural areas. Similarly, healthcare in Mali is not widely available and is largely dependent upon external humanitarian support. This situation is exacerbated by huge numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs), particularly in Burkina Faso, where numbers fleeing militant violence have reached approximately 300,000, most of whom are held in unsanitary conditions in refugee camps across the country.
Levels of food insecurity and malnutrition in both countries are high, the result of issues relating to climate change, inadequate agricultural techniques and landscape degradation, as well as poor economic performance. To make matters worse, the rainy season is fast approaching the whole region, when the likelihood of flooding and landslides grows, increasing the risk of more refugee movements.
In the current environment, both governments need their armed forces to provide security to rural, inaccessible parts of the country, not only against Islamist militants, but also organised crime groups, ethnic militia, violent rival farming communities, and local self-defence gangs who can be responsible for horrific acts of violence. After the Islamic State statement, governments can be expected to use their soldiers to increase security around prisons, where facilities are poor, inmates are at high risk of infection, and break-out attempts by local militants are likely. With international forces already considering a reduction in their Sahel footprints (particularly those of France and the United States), the Burkinabe and Malian armies may find this workload too much.
Opportunities and likely outcomes
Although they may have long-term plans to create a new political entity, EIGS and JNIM do not hold territory in quite the same way that the Taliban does in Afghanistan. Their militant tactics are usually based around small-arms assaults on military positions by armed men on motorcycles, a manoeuvre that allows them to move quickly through the bush and withdraw to secure locations that are beyond the reach of state security resources.
However, pandemic-related destabilisation in Mali and Burkina Faso now gives both groups an opportunity to have a new political impact on local communities, and to seek new regional loyalties and new recruits (possibly even taking taxes). They can be expected to accuse governments of mishandling their responses to the outbreak, and then to organise their own resources to provide local communities with the basic services that many of them lack. These might initially include water and basic healthcare, which will be important in the pandemic; in the long term, they may include education; but they will most certainly include food and security, provisions that they can either provide or withhold, depending upon the loyalty of a community.
This strategy would change the nature of the terrorist activity in BF and Mali, putting greater emphasis on holding territory; this may even be the reason for the increased violence between JNIM and EIGS in both countries in the last six weeks. It will result in more violent conflict and probably more attacks against civilian targets rather than state security units. After all, the provision of community services by jihadists will depend upon them having resources to provide; these can only be attained by theft – from the state or from humanitarian agencies – so will result in more violent attacks against civilian convoys.
This is the third in a series of articles looking at the similarities of different Islamist groups in different areas, considering al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, and Al Qaeda and IS affiliates in the Western Sahel.
*Photo shows security forces in Niger.