April 4, 2023
IntelBrief: Jihadist Groups Threaten to Destabilize the Sahel and Coastal West Africa
As terrorist groups continue destabilizing the Sahel region in sub-Saharan Africa, violence has spilled over into coastal West African states which were previously beyond the reach of regional jihadist groups. Al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) now controls 40 percent of Burkina Faso’s territory, according to U.S. government estimates, and the group is increasingly spreading outward, taking over larger swaths of territory throughout the region. The Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS) is also active in the Sahel, challenging fragile governments and taking advantage of porous borders, high levels of corruption, and weak rule of law. In 2017, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Ghana, and Burkina Faso formalized their cooperation to combat the spread of Islamist groups under the Accra Initiative. The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have also advocated for closer coordination between the affected states to combat the influence of the militant groups. The growing threat has also received attention from international partners in the region. To bolster good governance, the United States, through the U.S. State Department, has moved to implement the Global Fragility Act, which provides resources to help “stabilize conflict-affected areas and prevent violence globally,” with a specific focus on Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Despite these efforts, the same challenges facing the Sahel – political volatility, intercommunal and tribal disputes exacerbated by the climate crisis, and the growth of criminal networks, are now plaguing coastal West Africa.
The Wagner Group is active in several sub-Saharan countries, where its role as a guarantor of regime security has granted the group outsized access to and influence within the region. Wagner is deployed ostensibly to provide security, but allegations of the group’s involvement in widespread human rights abuses and crimes against humanity suggest the continued presence of these Russian proxies will further destabilize the Sahel. Incredulously, Wagner still positions itself as the solution to the region’s growing terrorism problem, which is exacerbated both directly and indirectly by Wagner’s actions. The result has been a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. The growing strength of JNIM and other jihadist groups including ISGS, coupled with a drawdown by Western militaries, including the United States and France, has provided an opening for Wagner, and by extension Russia, to fill the security void. Yet, Wagner’s draconian approach reinforces resentment for the central government amongst marginalized groups, driving individuals to join jihadist groups which have co-opted these grievances to boost local recruitment.
Ghana has long been viewed as an island of stability in the broader West African region. With peaceful elections and government transitions, Ghana’s democracy has been lauded as an example for other nations. But this relative stability is threatened by jihadist groups’ continued encroachment, particularly in northern Ghana, which borders the Cascades Region of Burkina Faso and northern Cote d'Ivoire. In Benin, jihadist attacks have spiked since late 2021. JNIM has occupied parts of Benin to establish a supply corridor, shuttling manpower, weapons, and other materiel to resupply its fighters operating throughout the Sahel and West Africa. As Benin’s security forces have responded, there has been a rise in accusations of human rights violations. This illustrates the danger posed by heavy-handed militarized responses, which create new grievances for jihadist groups to exploit. As in Mali and Burkina Faso, groups like JNIM have succeeded in recruiting among ethnic Fulani communities, a transnational nomadic group which has been particularly hard hit by changing environmental conditions. The extremist groups tend to operate and recruit in close proximity to national borders and often use nature reserves and national parks as safe havens. This has made places like Park W, which straddles Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger, a particularly attractive target for jihadist groups. In nearby Togo, JNIM fighters have attacked in large groups, killing Togolese soldiers and looting weapons. Along the border with Burkina Faso, in villages and towns such as Sanloaga and Kpekankandi, jihadists have launched similarly fierce assaults. In Savanes, Kara, and Centrale, three northern regions in Togo, there have been warnings of local populations’ increased vulnerability to the lure of violent extremism.
The increasing jihadist violence in the region is one aspect of a multifaceted set of challenges facing regional leaders. Aftershocks of the colonial period, corruption and distrust of elites, migration, climate change, and land exploitation have created an environment in which ethnic and tribal divisions are increasingly triggering conflict, either organically or due to manipulation by Islamist groups. Despite concerns over neocolonial policy responses to the growing violence, there is no denying that the United States, China, and Russia see Africa as an arena for strategic competition. The U.S. maintains a military base in Niger, from which it provides crucial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support to aid local forces in the fight against the militant groups. In addition to this, the U.S. conducts security assistance missions in the region to bolster the capabilities of partner states. Russia operates through Wagner in Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic and there are growing concerns that the mercenaries could set their sights on Cote d'Ivoire and other countries in the region. China prefers to focus on investment and development opportunities to build bilateral relationships based on economic ties. Both China and Russia offer a ‘no strings attached’ arrangement to African nations, appealing to some leaders for their expediency and lack of oversight. Against this backdrop, jihadist violence continues to spread from the Sahel toward the Gulf of Guinea. There are real worries that instability could spread to, and ultimately engulf, a country like Nigeria, the impact of which would be disastrous and have cascading effects throughout Africa.