Geopolitical & Security Insights

West & Central Africa | Jihadists emboldened

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A jihadist insurgency in the Sahel region is highly likely to worsen at an accelerating pace in the coming months.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 14 September 2023.

  • The number of terrorist attacks in both Burkina Faso and Mali increased by more than 35% following the coups there
  • But we assess that any southward jihadist expansion into the Gulf of Guinea, Cameroon and Nigeria is likely to remain limited in the coming months

We assess that the intensification of a jihadist insurgency throughout the Sahel region is highly likely to continue and accelerate in the coming months. Among other reasons, this is due to the disorganisation of local militaries following successive coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger since 2020. However, we anticipate that jihadists will focus on consolidating their control of territory in these three countries – including mounting attacks in Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou – until at least 2024 before trying to expand to neighbouring states. In the Lake Chad region, jihadists are militarily weaker than the ones in the Sahel, and so less likely to take advantage of the post-coup security vacuum.

Worse to come for the Sahel region

A military coup in Niger on 26 July is highly likely to lead to an increase in the already-high pace of jihadist attacks in the Sahel and especially in Niger. In the year and a half that followed similar coups in Mali (May 2021) and Burkina Faso (January 2022) there were 36% more attacks than in the year and a half prior based on our data. And preliminary data after the 26 July coup in Niamey also show an increase of around 29% in the number of attacks in Niger.

The number of attacks in Niger remains low compared to Burkina Faso and Mali. Only nine attacks took place in Niger since the coup and 38 this year compared to 183 in Burkina Faso and 166 in Mali in 2023 so far. This is most likely because jihadists were more established in these countries prior to the coup and Niger’s approach to counterterrorism has previously made it harder for jihadists to recruit and exploit grievances. We currently doubt that the pace of attacks there will reach levels comparable to either Mali or Burkina Faso.

Regional jihadist groups (Islamic State Sahel province, Islamic State West Africa and Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wa Al-Muslimin) almost certainly see the successive coups as an opportunity. Pro-Islamic State channels welcomed the coup in Niger saying that ‘it will create favourable conditions for militants’. This echoes similar rhetoric from other groups after the coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021 and the two in Burkina Faso in 2022.

Disorganisation of local militaries and dismissal of old partners

Juntas in the region are also highly likely to lose control of large parts of their territory to jihadists in the coming months. This was particularly the case in Burkina Faso. At the time of the coup the civilian government controlled around 60% of its territory. But the junta now only controls 40% of national territory, according to ECOWAS. This is most probably due to the disorganisation of local militaries involved in counterterrorism operations, especially when a Western partner was previously involved. Jihadists, and especially JNIM, are most likely to move into southern Burkina Faso and western Mali.

Military juntas have demanded the withdrawal of international partners. This has already led to a loss of intelligence, aerial reconnaissance and support (see map above). And that drawdown continues; the French authorities said on 5 September that they would withdraw their aerial forces and aircraft from Niger (Reaper drones, Mirage planes and attack helicopters) in response to a request from Niamey. This also seems to be leading those partners to turn away from the region over the long term (beyond five years). For example, France recently made the Indo-Pacific region its priority for military planning.

New partners will probably exacerbate insecurity

These juntas will almost certainly face the jihadist insurgency on their own, at least in the coming months. Regional bodies like the African Union or ECOWAS have sanctioned them and will not take part in any counterterrorism cooperation. That is particularly true since the worst effects of the insurgency remain contained away from the Gulf of Guinea. The UN would also be unwilling to work with the juntas especially as Mali demanded its withdrawal. And their stretched capacities mean that there is little chance that talk of greater collaboration between Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger would be materially consequential.

Sahelian juntas are thus likely to turn towards Russia and its private military companies (PMC). That includes the Wagner Group, which is already present in Mali and Burkina Faso. But that would probably worsen rather than improve the security situation. A combination of human rights abuses and the targeting of ethnic minorities (Fulanis, Gurmas, Tuaregs) only seems to work to the advantage of jihadists. They also often use this in recruitment-focused propaganda.

Expansion to the Gulf of Guinea unlikely for now

We assess that jihadists are highly likely to focus on consolidating their territorial and operational presence in the Sahel in the coming months. JNIM, which is the group most active in the southern Sahel (see map below), had been quite vocal about expanding its operations southward into Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana or Togo. But neither it nor its supporters have mentioned this recently based on our monitoring of such messaging and propaganda.

Rather than doing so, they are most likely to target capitals such as Bamako and Ouagadougou. Their main aim continues to be to undermine the Malian and Burkinabe governments to establish a state based on their interpretation of Sharia. Niger does not appear to be a priority for JNIM. It last claimed responsibility for an attack in Niger in December 2021.

Jihadists are highly likely to continue carrying out small armed incursions into Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo in the meantime. These would mostly be gun raids or roadside bombings against civilians and security forces. Based on our data, they are already most capable of mounting attacks in Benin (11 this year) and Togo (seven attacks). This is probably because these groups control smuggling routes between these countries and Burkina Faso, and have training camps located in the forests of Benin’s northern national parks.

We assess that jihadists will probably try to expand southward into Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo after consolidating their presence in Burkina Faso and Mali. But this endeavour would be likely to happen in the northern and central parts of these coastal countries. This is because the populations in the southern regions are predominantly Christian and therefore nigh-on impossible to recruit. As well, local militaries appear better equipped and organised to counter militants the Malian and Burkinabe ones. They all retain the support of Western partners.

Limited impact of the Niger coup in the Lake Chad region

The impact of the Niger coup on terrorism in Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria is likely to remain limited, in our analysis. This is because groups in the region (Boko Haram and ISWA) are comparatively weaker than those in the Sahel. Though ISWA declared a campaign of expansion in May 2022, we have not seen clear indications of this happening despite a few attacks outside Borno state and the Extreme Nord region where their presence is strongest. This is probably because the Nigerian military is better equipped but also due to the ongoing fighting between the two groups to control the same area.

We assess that both Boko Haram and ISWA are likely to try expanding further north into Niger in the coming months. So far attacks have remained located in the south of the Diffa region. But such an increase in the number of attacks is unlikely to be as significant as in Burkina Faso and Mali following the coup. And with the Nigerian military being on high alert due to the potential, yet unlikely, intervention into Niger, jihadists’ movements are likely to be more limited than previously when they took advantage of the easy-to-cross border.

Image: Cars damaged by conflict in northern Burkina Faso on 23 May 2019. Photo by Giles Clarke/UNOCHA via Getty Images.

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