Understanding the rise of extremism in West Africa

A sharp rise in violent attacks from extremist organizations is threatening stability across the region, causing new tensions and revealing government failures in addressing these critical developments. What has prompted this security crisis, and what should be done to prevent further deaths at the hands of these groups?

The Problem

Across West Africa and the Sahel region, violent extremist organizations are operating with increasing frequency, perpetrating more attacks and straining governments that have little experience dealing with these novel threats. The failure of states to respond is resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and an increasingly worse security situation within the region. 

In January 2019, al-Qaeda affiliate group JNIM claimed responsibility for a series of attacks across Mali and Burkina Faso that targeted local military forces as well as civilians; a year later in Nigeria, militants working for the group Boko Haram ambushed and killed 30 civilians in early February. These are just the latest in a campaign of violence and terror in the region that has been ongoing since around 2012. 

At the hands of extremist organizations, which are often linked to powerful groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS, West Africa is facing a crisis the caliber of which has not been seen before.

Much of the recent and ongoing violence in the region can be traced back to 2012, when a coup d’état in Mali ousted democratically elected President Touré. The resulting instability in the country allowed a group of ethnic Tuaregs in the north of the country, along with Islamist militant allies, to seize territory and declare independence

The alliance between Tuaregs and the extremist group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) quickly fell apart and AQIM began pushing further into government-held territory. The AQIM stablished a brutal Islamic regime in northern Mali and destroyed important cultural sites in the cities of Timbuktu and Goa. A French intervention was meant to counter this insurgency and was assisted by UN forces in 2014, but this force merely halted expansion and failed to significantly weaken the groups holdings.

The power vacuum in Mali allowed other groups to establish a presence in the area and begin launching attacks into new parts of West Africa. Despite international involvement, violence has spread to countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, and Nigeria. In 2017, France and five of these countries formed the G5 Sahel Force to cooperate to counter this growing threat. The G5 aims to conduct counterterrorism actives, monitor cross-border groups, and stop the human trafficking market in the region. This group has faced criticism for failing to properly address underlying issues that contribute to extremist violence, like systemic poverty and ethnic tension. Critics question whether a military response, especially of the scale of the G5 is the most effective way to address regional violence. 

The current failure of the G5 is evidenced by the worsening situation in Burkina Faso, where militants are emboldened by the deposition of long-time leader Blaise Compaore. From the country, militants are staging attacks in nearby Benin and Togo, worsening instability in those countries. In the face of these developments, the G5 has done very little and seems powerless to stop extremist groups that operate from the periphery of the country.  

The Solution

The rise of Islamic extremism as a transnational issue means that it will take a coalition of states and actors to address both the insurgency itself and the underlying issues that contribute to instability. The G5 Sahel force is an example of good intentions but poor execution; the force is severely underfunded and focused almost exclusively on the conflict side of this issue. In order to more properly address this crisis, the group needs to begin working alongside the UN mission in the area and increase coordination in monitoring borders and tracking militants. 

More funding will accomplish some of this, but also a change in the focus of the organization and the commitment of states will be necessary. If development in the region can be improved, insurgency could become less attractive. Of course, the dangers of developing a region with insurgents is well known, but exerting some level of government control over the area could yield promising results.

In December of last year, the Trump administration announced its intentions to appoint a special envoy to the region to assist in the fight against extremist groups. The US works with the G5 and the African Union, and a special envoy could work to make coordination better and the efforts of the international community more effective. 

However, at the same time as this announcement came reports that the US was considering reducing its military presence in the region, and moving to a strategy of containment, rather than confrontation. It is hard to say whether the US wants to play a more active role in this conflict given these two announcements. 

In the meantime, West Africa and the Sahel will descend further into violence and extremism, threatening not only those countries in the region but Europe, the US and other international actors.

Problems and Answers

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