Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad

AFRICA / In Norway, interest in the Sahel region is increasing. With Gaddafi's fall in 2011, the strength and number of rebel groups in the region increased. After the start of the global war on terror in 2001, more and more countries have become interested in this vast area. But aren't the Islamists primarily fighting against the West?

Jihad in Africa. Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in the Sahel
Author: Edoardo Balaro Luca Ranieri
Publisher: il Mulino, Italy

Edoardo Balaro and Luca Ranieri have gathered nine young Italian political scientists and a social anthropologist from Mali to make knowledge about the Sahel accessible in Italian. The official language in the Sahel countries (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad) has been French since colonial times, even though few inhabitants speak it. To the extent that the EU has had a Sahel policy, France has primarily initiated and controlled it since 1960. However, since the global war on terror in 2001, other countries, especially the United States, have also shown interest in the Sahel. With the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, insurgent groups in the Sahel increased in size and strength. Rising poverty and less security led to increased migration towards Europe, and thus an increased political interest in the Sahel in Europe.

This increasing interest is particularly evident in Italy; while Italy was previously only represented by honorary consuls in the Sahel, Italy opened an embassy in Niamey (Niger) in January 2018, followed by Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and Bamako (Mali) in August 2021 – and soon the first Italian embassy in N’Djamena (Chad) will also open.

The approximately 1,000 fighters associated with GSIM are funded by control over gold mines, transport routes, and ransom payments from kidnappings, bringing in between $18 and $35 million annually.

Terror and Counter-terrorism

Norway opened its first embassy in the Sahel in Bamako (Mali) in 2018. In Norway, interest in the Sahel is increasing – we have more than doubled bilateral aid to the Sahel in the last ten years and now provide nearly NOK 500 million in annual aid to Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Additionally, we give almost the same amount of multilateral support to the same countries, with military counter-terrorism measures forming a significant part of this.

The book Jihad in Africa deals with terrorism and counter-terrorism in the Sahel. The uprisings in the region involve a range of different actors, both local and international. The number of insurgent groups makes the situation complex, but even more difficult to understand is that the actors often switch alliances, affiliations, and leaders.

Some insurgent groups in the region, especially Mali, are linked to international jihad groups. Balaro and Ranieri refer to these groups as «franchises» of the original terrorist groups. This provides a good understanding of the ideological connections. Still, it is probably not accurate concerning the economic connections – it is doubtful whether the insurgent groups in Mali provide money or weapons to the other jihad groups.

Jihadists in the Sahel
Jihadists in the Sahel


The Ansar al-Dine rebel group, established in 2012 under the leadership of Tuareg Iyad ag Ghaly, joined with several other groups in 2017 to form Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (the «Support Group for Islam and Muslims»), better known by its French acronym GSIM. GSIM is closely linked to Al Qaeda internationally. The approximately 1,000 fighters associated with GSIM are funded by control over gold mines, transport routes, and ransom payments from kidnappings, bringing in between $18 and $35 million annually. GSIM is not only fighting to establish Sharia law in Mali but also to be more important than other Islamist rebel groups, especially the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). While GSIM was the most feared in 2021, both by the local population and the international community, it appears that in 2022, ISGS gained the upper hand. In recent months, thousands of residents in the Gao and Menaka regions have had to flee due to their depredations, and ISGS controls large areas in northern Mali. These internal conflicts may seem paradoxical to us – are not the Islamists primarily fighting against the West?

Other groups, such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), are much less religious and more focused on separating northern Mali from the rest of the country. In Chad, however, the rebel groups are neither linked to international ideological terrorist networks nor interested in dividing the country in two – they are only interested in taking power in the country, preferably through coups.

Russia’s and the private military company Wagner’s increasing influence in Mali.

The chicken-and-egg discussion

Whether the rebel groups in the Sahel are primarily local groups inspired by jihad or whether they are straightforward subsidiaries of global terrorist organizations is an interesting discussion initiated by the authors. Similarly, they also discuss whether it is terrorism that radicalizes the insurgents or whether the men start with terrorism because they are already radicalized. And later, they discuss whether economic crime inspires ideological and violent terrorism or whether terrorism inspires crime. The chicken-and-egg discussion does not provide clear conclusions here either. Clear answers to these questions would have given a more unambiguous and clear Sahel policy from both the EU and Italy (and Norway).

It is perhaps the waffling policy of the EU, particularly France, that has led Sahel countries to seek new international partners in recent years. Casola, for example, provides an interesting overview in the book of the new stakeholders in the Sahel:

  • Russia’s and the private military company Wagner’s increasing influence in Mali.
  • France’s gradual withdrawal after many military and diplomatic defeats.
  • China’s entry into the Sahel as both a security provider and aid actor, in addition to some emerging interest from the Gulf states and Maghreb.

In Norwegian, the book would be called Jihad i Afrika, with the subtitle Terror og antiterror i Sahel. Most of the chapters do indeed focus on Mali, but the editors themselves manage to maintain a regional perspective, thus keeping the book – almost – true to its title.

Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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