Up to now, radical jihadi activity in West Africa has been centered in Mali—with spillover to adjacent parts of Burkina Faso and Niger—and the Lake Chad Basin. The two locales are now increasingly bridged by jihadi activity in northwest Nigeria, where resurgent struggles over land and water with a cast of ethnically aligned fighters and flourishing criminality provide them with new space. Jihadi movements in all three regions are fractious, subject to bloody internal rivalries, and overlap with criminal elements. They do share a declared goal of establishing polities based on Islamic law—sharia—and the destruction of the fragile, postcolonial secular states in the region. (National borders, established by the former colonial powers, are largely meaningless for most local people, as well as for criminals and jihadis.) Were they to be successful, however, it is by no means clear that they could establish coherent territorial governance much above the village level. No charismatic leader such as Abu Musab al-Barnawi, Osama bin Laden, or even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has emerged to impose unity on the various jihadi groups now active from the Lake Chad Basin to the western Sahel. More likely would be decentralized regimes of warlordism led by Islamist and criminal opportunists. Criminally inflected chaos and a humanitarian disaster are more likely than a resurrected, unified Islamic State.
France has the most modern military force countering the jihadis—Operation Barkhane numbers some 4,500 soldiers—and supports most of the weak militaries of francophone West Africa. The United States provides France with limited logistical and intelligence support from its drone base in Niger. It also trains small numbers of soldiers drawn from local militaries. Jihadi forces at present are resurgent throughout the region. Were the French to leave, jihadis would likely overrun Mali and adjacent territories even if they could not govern them.
In the Lake Chad Basin—mostly in Nigeria but also in Chad, Cameroon, and Niger—the jihadis are primarily factions of Boko Haram, some with links to the Islamic State, others to al-Qaeda. (Observers are divided as to the tactical or strategic significance of those links.) Nigeria has taken the lead in attempting to coordinate its efforts with those of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. Other than in Niger, the United States has no significant security presence in the Lake Chad region or the western Sahel. Across the region, the jihadis, far from defeated, appear to be strengthening. Northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin have a much larger population and, accordingly, the humanitarian disaster associated with fighting is much greater than in the western Sahel. (The United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and other international donors already provide significant humanitarian assistance right across West Africa, including the Sahel.)
These two centers of jihadism are separated by northwest Nigeria. That region is increasingly plagued by conflicts over water and land use, exacerbated by human and cattle population growth, climate change, and poor governance. A borderland between the Sahara, the Sahel, and better-watered lands to the south, the region has long been a center of smuggling as well as trading. With a harsh and variable climate—as in the rest of the Sahel—population movements have been a constant. So, too, have been waves of Islamic religious revival, which influence present-day jihadi activity. Jihadi groups are taking advantage of a general societal breakdown in certain areas. The Nigerian government has responded by seeking to crush the jihadis and the bandits through military and police methods, so far to no avail. Government-sponsored proposals, some fanciful, prescribe reorganization of the cattle industry. None address the huge population increase, climate change, and poor governance that provide jihadis and criminals with oxygen.
A different strategy is possible. Much of northwest Nigeria is included in the domains of the Sultan of Sokoto and his subordinate emirs. (The sultan is the preeminent Muslim traditional ruler in Nigeria, and his domains stretch into neighboring countries.) Muslim rulers provide traditional justice that often commands greater popular confidence than that handed down by the government in far-off Abuja. Their agents sometimes have a good understanding of what is happening on the ground—the local drivers of conflict. Jihadis despise these traditional rulers as heretics and seek to kill them whenever possible. In the northeast, for example, Boko Haram was nearly successful in killing the Shehu of Borno, generally regarded as second only to the sultan in the traditional hierarchy that jihadis seek to destroy. Were Abuja to cooperate more closely with traditional rulers that command popular confidence, its confrontation with the jihadis could be more successful.