1. What’s the source of the trouble?
Mainly continuing instability in Mali and, further afield, in Libya, where years of turmoil have opened up smuggling routes and access to weapons. A French military intervention in 2013 dealt a heavy blow to jihadist groups that partnered with ethnic Tuareg rebels to seize control of northern Mali a year earlier. Deprived of their urban bases, the jihadists resorted to bombings and hit-and-run attacks, targeting army posts and the 15,000-person United Nations peacekeeping mission. They extended their operations to Burkina Faso, which faces its worst-ever humanitarian crisis as 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes. There have also been intermittent attacks in Niger, including a high-profile ambush in 2017 that claimed the lives of four American soldiers and the murder of six French tourists this year. The jihadists have exploited and fueled age-old tensions between farmers and cattle herders who compete for land and scarce resources in Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, recruiting members of aggrieved communities to their cause.
2. Which jihadist groups are involved?
There are numerous militants in the region and the line between jihadist and non-jihadist groups is often unclear. The oldest and best-known jihadist organization is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in the Sahara desert and the Sahel, an adjacent semi-arid zone to the south. Originally formed under a different name to fight Algeria’s secular government in the 1990s, the organization aligned with al-Qaeda in the 2000s and helped Tuareg rebels capture northern Mali. In 2017, four groups — AQIM, Ansar Dine, an offshoot called the Macina Liberation Movement and Al Mourabitoune — announced that they had joined forces under the banner the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, known by its acronym JNIM.
3. Does Islamic State have a presence?
Yes, and its influence is growing. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, formerly the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, claimed responsibility for two separate, high-profile attacks late last year on military bases in Mali and northern Niger that killed more than 130 soldiers. Islamic State in West Africa Province, an offshoot of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, mainly operates in the Lake Chad area in northeastern Nigeria. While Islamic State and al-Qaeda have different strategies, fighters are believed to often pass back and forth between their coalitions.
4. Why is it so hard to stop the jihadists?
The Sahel and the Sahara are vast spaces with hostile climates, making it difficult for national governments to control them. Analysts say jihadists have been able to gain influence in the region because state institutions are weak and seen by civilians as rife with corruption and indifferent to rural areas. Some jihadist groups provide social services to isolated communities, while others use social media to promote the narrative of government neglect. They also exploit ethnic differences and discontent among the young, who have slim job and marriage prospects. Radicalization is often fueled by resentment against the secular state. In the Sahel, where most young people are raised as pious Muslims, strict versions of Islam can tempt those who experience what the International Crisis Group calls “a potent sense of alienation.”
5. How are governments responding?
They are sharing intelligence and cooperating more closely. Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Niger and Mauritania set up a regional force of 5,000 soldiers to fight terrorism and organized crime in border zones. The joint force works alongside the UN peacekeepers in Mali and a 4,500-strong mobile French force known as Barkhane. France, the former colonial power, has been overseeing talks between government leaders to tighten collaboration. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who faced criticism for mishandling the insurgency as well as over corruption and nepotism allegations, was forced to step down on Aug. 19 after being detained by a military junta that has pledged to facilitate fresh elections. The coup, the country’s second in eight years, followed weeks of mass protests that were staged to demand his resignation.
6. Is there a downside to the use of force?
There’s unease among political analysts over the militarization of the region. Many Malians initially hailed the French troops as liberators but view them with suspicion today. Persistent reports of extra-judicial killings, torture and forced disappearances during security crackdowns by troops in Mali and Burkina Faso are stoking distrust of the state among local populations that are already under pressure from militants. Defense spending has ballooned in Niger, Mali and Chad, at the expense of health and education. Experts agree that any effective long-term strategy against the jihadists must include ways of reversing the alienation felt by young West Africans. That means strengthening local governance, tackling corruption and creating jobs.
7. How have gold mining operations been affected?
A boom in small-scale gold mining in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has provided armed groups new sources of funding. They smuggle gold, provide security to operations in areas where the state’s presence is thin or, alternatively, extort miners. Gold production, the main driver of exports in Burkina Faso and Mali, also provides targets for armed groups. Two attacks last year on gold mines in Burkina Faso — one artisanal and the other operated by Canadian miner Semafo Inc. — left more than 60 people dead.