Misunderstandings and uncertainties:

the fight against terrorism in the Sahel at a time of inter-community conflict

By Bakary SAMBE

The most striking aspect of current regional developments is the scarcity of large-scale conventional attacks and the proliferation of isolated acts, that are sometimes never claimed. We are also witnessing a recurrence of inter-community clashes with violence, for which the causes are multiple and complex, infiltrating local ethnic or community conflicts. This has led to a growing concentration of incidents and attacks in rural areas, particularly in border regions far from the capitals or political centres of the various Sahel countries: Tillabéri, Tchintabaraden, Gueskerou and Ayerou in Niger, Gossi in Mali, and the Soum and Oudalan provinces in Burkina Faso.

There is concern that terrorist groups have redefined their strategy by infiltrating and escalating inter-community conflicts. Such a strategy would inevitably usher in a new era in the so-called "fight against terrorism", with an increase in the number of areas of instability in the countries of the region and further pressure on the international community.

Against this background, which further complicates analysis of the security situation in the Sahel, this contribution aims to address: 1) changes in the nature and forms of violence in the Sahel and its impact on inter-community conflicts; 2) the noticeable misunderstandings between Sahelian stakeholders, the local community and international partners; and 3) the challenges posed by mediation as a potential solution to a crisis which has become endemic.

The changing nature of violence in the Sahel: challenging dominant models

Attacks similar to those perpetrated by Yirgou Fulbé in North-Central Burkina Faso (January 2019) are likely to increase in number and have a significant impact in neighbouring countries, while Mali remains a major cause of concern. Burkina Faso, for its part, has become trapped in a cycle of violence fuelled by inter-community conflicts that, initially, were not religious in nature but predominantly agro-sylvo pastoral. The same is true for Central Mali, where a number of destabilising factors are concentrated in a country that has already been significantly weakened.

Similarly, Burkina Faso, where, prior to 2015, the situation was not as strained as in its Malian neighbour, is facing a challenging security situation with inter-community conflicts in the North amid tensions between the Fulani, Mossi and other communities.

The concepts of violent extremism, radicalisation, terrorism and jihadism have so shaped the way we understand the rampant violence in the Sahel countries in recent years that a new trend is emerging but is being completely missed. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that we rarely rethink the concepts we use to understand violence in the region.

We must ask ourselves whether the notion of jihadism has come to dominate our analysis to too great a degree. We risk projecting a major security concern, terrorism, onto all manifestations of violence, at the expense of a fact-based approach grounded in local realities.

Following Operation Serval, which forced terrorist groups to find new ways of functioning, the international community and the countries of the region have reacted by playing into terrorists’ hands, allowing them to dictate the way violence is thought about, and thereby having an impact on intervention in the area.

It is clear that Abu Walid al-Sahrawi realised the utility of changing his organisation’s modus operandi by transferring violence to inter-community rivalries and conflicts and attempting to trap Western powers into reacting with military interventions. These interventions are often sources of radicalisation and frustration, guaranteeing a secure recruitment base for groups like ISGS. Our countries and the Western media still seem fixated on the jihadist model, which does not reflect the current situation and the facts of violence.

A conceptual haze has developed around the way we characterise acts classified as violent extremism, with a clear tendency not to distinguish violent extremism from what is often called "organised crime".

When armed men attacked six Dozo people in early September in Northern Burkina Faso, near Kaïn on the border with Mali, or when "unidentified armed individuals assaulted several villages in Rollo department in Bam province (North-Central Burkina Faso) with the involvement of the Koglweogo Gondekoubé", the media and military commanders reported a jihadist operation. The same is true of "unidentified armed individuals who carried out an attack in the evening of 10 September 2019 in Ambkaongo, a village in the rural commune of Tougouri, Namentenga province (North-Central Burkina Faso)", and in the case of simultaneous attacks against military detachments in Baraboulé and Nassoumbou, two localities in Soum province (Sahel region), the reporting of which lacked any nuance, whether in official discourse or on 24-hour news channels.

Trapped using the "jihadist" model, even the most sophisticated analyses rely on sensational concepts such as "Islamist groups", "jihadist networks", or "radicalisation". As a result, little attention is paid to hybrid forms of the threat and the transfer of violence to inter-community conflicts, even though there is often practically no religious or ideological dimension to the discourse of the terrorist groups themselves. This represents a marked difference compared with the period of large-scale operations, accompanied by spectacular claims against a background of Koranic references (e.g. Bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora, or Al-Mourabitoun parading well-known terrorist leaders, ideologues and warlords).

As a result of an interconnected set of circumstances, we have moved from the era of so-called "jihadist" terrorism to a confused situation marked by the intensification of violence, increasingly affecting local populations who live in daily insecurity while also suffering from more and more draconian security measures imposed by States.

In practice, and passing almost unnoticed, a complete misunderstanding has gradually developed between the international approach to insecurity in the Sahel and the perceptions of local populations. This is particularly true of military operations, which have not only been unable to restore security but have been unable to even reassure local populations. A sometimes "nihilistic" sense of misunderstanding of the international community's efforts is beginning to take hold. Foreign States, whose rhetoric and justifications for intervention are being obscured, have become targets of criticism from local populations, who are playing an increasing role in the security debate in the Sahel. The fight against terrorism, a topic that until recently saw a strong convergence of views across an international community brought together by its shared vulnerability, is now divisive, and even raises suspicions of "imperialism", or at the very least a return to foreign domination for security reasons.

The new Sahelian conflict and unspoken misunderstandings

Beyond the impression of security taking precedence over development, as a result of the terrorist threat, there is a growing debate about the relevance of choices or the reversal of agendas, with shared embarrassment over the ineffectiveness of the strategies adopted to date. Meanwhile, worrying signs, such as the emergence of increasingly audible rhetoric aimed at undermining the credibility of the fight against terrorism, risk undermining the consensus between the international community and its Sahelian partners, who are now under severe pressure from internal opposition.

In addition to this, there is a damaging climate requiring a change in terminology, to avoid misnaming and misapprehending violence that manifests itself in a variety of ways. Where analysts and the media confine themselves to the concept of "jihadism" or "terrorism”, people in border areas and local military and political leaders refer to "banditry" and "crime" without any ideological or militant dimension. In addition, the unilateral classification of certain regions as "risk areas" has a strong impact on the attitude of States in the region to the problems of violent extremism or terrorism. States, whether for political or pragmatic reasons, often deny the full extent of problems to avoid tainting their country’s economic attractiveness and discouraging foreign investment.

The domination of the concept of "jihadism" leads to political responses that neither take into account the variety of circumstances and modes of expression of so-called "extremist" violence, nor the changing criteria for assessing the threat.

Thus, in their assessment of the security situation, Sahelian States are forced to align themselves with analytical criteria produced by a "dominant mindset" lacking in context. This is for two reasons: the dependence of the Sahelian States on international partners in coping with the threat; and the absence of shared priorities that sometimes affect the way criteria are defined.

This disconnect dates back to the beginning of the Malian crisis, when calls for stabilisation, which was urgently needed, coincided with the run-up to the French 2012 presidential elections. The campaign led to fragile compromises and also had an impact on the assessment of the security situation and on appropriate solutions.

With stakeholders and observers locked into conventional frameworks of understanding, the profound changes taking place on Sahelian territory have still not been grasped. Attempts at clarification or differentiation have not been made, despite the fact that there are huge differences between local situations and the international approach to the fight against terrorism. Some people now talk of stalemate while others are already looking at ways to end a crisis whose very diagnosis has not yet been unanimously accepted.

Uncertain requirements for a challenging dialogue 

In the Sahel region, attempts to reintegrate former Boko Haram combatants in Niger, through their settlement at the Goudoumaria camp (Diffa region), have certainly set the tone for the need for alternatives to all-out repression. However, the difficulties and complexities of Disarmament Demobilization Reintegration (DDRR) without a peace agreement quickly emerged, especially in relation to local communities, formerly victims, who have found it difficult to accept reconciliation rhetoric without a well-developed process of transitional justice.

Even though some analysts advocate entering into official dialogue with the groups operating in the region, there is currently no distinction made between the globalist strategies of certain groups (Al-Qaida) and those of federated regionalists using rallying slogans against "Western powers and their corrupt allies" (ISGS, Al-Mourabitoun etc.); those who oppose the political order; or those who rely on community and ethnic-religious logic (LWF, JNIM, etc.), not to mention the shift towards narco-criminal and transnational banditry.

In such a context, the question of dialogue with certain groups requires that the misunderstandings surrounding the provisions of Resolution 2058 - which must differentiate between armed groups and other terrorists - be resolved beforehand. Much has changed since this UN resolution was established and it has now "run its course" due to profound changes in the nature of the violence and the extension of conflict zones far from the original Malian epicentre.

Similarly, the limited experience of dialogue with armed groups that has resulted in agreements that remain fragile (such as in Northern Mali) has provided ample evidence of the correlation between the opening of talks and a rise in the number of interlocutors. Long-lasting conflicts always create war economies and tensions around the "sharing" of remuneration and privileges.

The other major issue remains identifying potential mediators whose acknowledged neutral stance could allow a minimum of consensus around the negotiating table. There is a lack of trust in international partners - already stakeholders in some cases - and even more so in the local political leadership. Rejection of their governance by local populations is part of the problem. The recent demonstrations against the establishment of the headquarters of the G5 Sahel Joint Force in Bamako, or the military presence of Western powers, are all signs of unease that do not facilitate constructive discussion, although such dialogue is unavoidable in the long-run.

Finally, a certain political class, especially in Mali, sometimes undermines the international community by stressing the "ineffectiveness" of stabilisation strategies, while spreading populist rhetoric on foreign powers’ undeclared intentions to partition the country. All the while, the question remains of credible guarantees that could be given to local populations once they succumb to fatigue in the face of conflicts they have become accustomed to.


Bakary SAMBE is Head of the Dakar Timbuktu Institute.


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