Selected Analysis

The Sahel faces resurgence of terrorist attacks

by Jean Sovon, Global Voices

The resurgence of violence in Sahelian countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, is largely attributable to the withdrawal of military allies in these countries due to frayed relations between their coup-installed governments and Western nations.

Since 2020, West Africa has experienced several coups d’état, including six in the Sahel region: Niger (2023), Burkina Faso (January 2022 and September 2022), Guinea (2021) and Mali (2020 and 2021). Civilian governments in these countries have been overthrown and replaced by military governments, whose first order of business was to terminate French colonial-era military agreements and demand the withdrawal of French troops from their territories.

In January 2013, French troops were officially deployed in the Sahel, under Operation Serval, to help the Malian army contain the advance of rebel, terrorist and Salafi groups demanding independence for the northern Malian region of Azawad. In 2014, Serval ultimately became Operation Barkhane, which extended beyond Malian borders to cover the Sahel and parts of the Sahara. 

The withdrawal of Operation Barkhane troops from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, has left a significant void in the region’s security. To fill this void, military coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso have established relations with Russia and thereby asked the military Wagner Group to be part of their new defense strategy.

Resurgence of terrorist attacks

For a while, the deployment of French troops significantly reduced terrorist attacks in the Sahel and Mali in particular. This is what Jonathan Guiffard, a Sahel crisis expert at Institut Montaigne, explains in his review titled Barkhane: Success? Failure? Mixed bag?:

La lutte contre le terrorisme menée entre 2013 et 2022 a permis aux forces françaises, maliennes, nigériennes et burkinabè de mettre hors-de-combat les émirs des quatre katibats d’Al-Qaïda au Maghreb Islamique et plusieurs dizaines de leurs responsables opérationnels, les émirs d’Al Mourabitoune et du Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, un grand nombre de responsables d’Ansar Eddine, trois des cinq émirs du Groupe de Soutien à l’Islam et aux Musulmans (…)

The counter-terrorism operation conducted between 2013 and 2022 enabled French, Malian, Nigerien and Burkinabe armed forces to take down the emirs (leaders) of four Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb katibats (brigades), dozens of their operational leaders, the emirs of Al Mourabitoun and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, several of Ansar Dine officials as well as three of the five emirs for the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (…)

However, there are three closely connected issues surrounding the current situation: a wave of coups d’état, the withdrawal of military allies from the Sahel and the rise of rebel groups gaining ground in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger alike.

The Nigerien coup d’état on July 26, 2023, has significantly weakened the Sahel region. As the last bastion has now fallen, the country has become a new breeding ground for Jihadist threats, thus further complicating the security situation. Although Niger had experienced several terrorist attacks before the overthrow of former president, Mohamed Bazoum, the attacks increased significantly following the coup, as mentioned in an initial assessment by the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) on Radio France Internationale (RFI):

Le 3 août, c’est un village près d’Anzourou, au nord-ouest de Niamey, à moins de 100 km de la frontière malienne, qui a été attaqué, faisant au moins 5 morts. Le lendemain, les villages de Wabila et Hondobon, près de Kokorou, ont subi le même sort : 12 personnes ont été tuées. La commune de Dessa a également fait l’objet d’une agression, et du bétail a été emporté. Le 9 août, à Bourkou Bourkou, proche de la zone aurifère de Samira, ce sont cinq gardes nationaux au moins qui ont été tués par « des bandits armés ».

On August 3, a village close to Anzourou, which is northwest of Niamey and less than 100 kilometers from the Malian border, was attacked, leaving at least 5 dead. The following day, the Wabila and Hondobon villages, close to Kokorou suffered the same fate; 12 individuals were killed. The Dessa commune was also attacked, and livestock was taken. On August 9, in Bourkou Bourkou, which is close to the Samira gold mine, “armed bandits” killed at least five national guards.

As of August 19, or two weeks after the coup, there were nine attacks with heavy casualties in various areas of the country.

Although French troops had been deployed in Burkina Faso since 2018, this country has experienced Jihadist attacks since 2015. A series of coups has contributed towards the breakdown of the country’s security network. The latest coup, which brought Captain Ibrahim Traoré to power, effectively put an end to the deployment of French troops in the country in early 2023.

The new government sought to take control of the country’s security, thus conducting several offensives to neutralize the Jihadists. An operation conducted on April 16, 2023, made it possible to capture several terrorists, as media outlet, Africa 24, posted on X (formerly Twitter):

🇧🇫 On Sunday, April 16, 2023, armed forces in #BurkinaFaso said they had neutralized at least 70 “terrorists” during two attacks against two military units and their auxiliaries in the north and center-north of the country.

— #AFRICA24 (@AFRICA24TV) April 17, 2023

An appeal was also made to citizens enlisted as Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP) to boost the number of combatants and support military personnel. However, as the country continues to experience terrorist attacks, this measure has fallen short of expectations.

According to French newspaper, Le Monde, an attack was carried out in two separate locations in the west of the country on July 18, which left ten or so injured. On August 6, another attack in Nohao, on the center-east border region with Togo, killed around twenty traders. What’s more, according to an Africanews report, 53 Burkinabe citizens (soldiers and VDP members) were killed in a further attack on September 4:

The country’s security situation therefore continues to deteriorate.

Mali is especially vulnerable

The situation is more complex in Mali than elsewhere. This country had experienced violent attacks demanding independence for the Azawad region before the deployment of French troops under Operation Serval and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in 2013.

The country’s coups d’état precipitated the departure of French troops and the gradual withdrawal of MINUSMA, which will end on December 31, 2023. Meanwhile, the peace agreement signed between the Malian government and armed groups in 2015 was rendered void when rebel groups took up arms again on September 7. According to Radio France Internationale:

Jeudi, deux attaques ont visé le camp militaire de Bamba (région de Gao) et un bateau qui naviguait dans le cercle de Rharous (région de Tombouctou). Vendredi, à Gao, c’est un camp de l’armée malienne et l’aéroport qui ont été pris pour cibles. Les attaques de jeudi ont fait au moins 64 morts.

On Thursday, two separate attacks targeted the Bamba military base (Gao region) and a boat sailing on the Niger River in the Gourma-Rharous area (Timbuktu region). On Friday, a Malian military base and airport in Gao were also targeted. Thursday’s attacks left at least 64 dead.

This Africanews video report explains the attack on September 8 in detail:

It is clear to Sahelian people that their governments are incapable of ensuring their security. Ever since the region’s rebellions began in 2003tens of thousands of people, including children, have lost their lives and more than 2 million have been displaced. The situation is only getting worse, as a 2023 report on global terrorism from the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) indicates:

The Sahel region in sub-Saharan Africa is now the epicentre of terrorism, with the Sahel accounting for more terrorism deaths in 2022 than both South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) combined. Deaths in the Sahel constituted 43 per cent of the global total in 2022, compared to just one per cent in 2007.

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