The persistent and growing strength of violent extremist organizations in the Sahel threatens to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and spread instability across Africa, posing significant security and financial risks to the United States and Europe. The continuing collapse of international counterterrorism support, as well as weakening leadership in regional efforts, has created a vacuum in which violent extremism can expand. Organizations including Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP), and others have already taken advantage of that vacuum, using countries in the region as platforms to launch indiscriminate attacks on government forces and civilians alike. Other non-state actors, such as the Wagner Group, have also capitalized on the absence of foreign involvement to expand their influence. The possible convergence of security threats, including increased cooperation among terrorist organizations, and between terrorist and criminal organizations, could intensify the danger those groups pose in the region and beyond.
Spanning the area from Senegal to Eritrea, situated between the Sahara to the north and the African tropics to the south, the Sahel region has long faced severe, complex security and humanitarian crises. Since gaining independence in the 1960s, many countries in the Sahel have experienced violent extremism due to the confluence of weak and illegitimate governance, economic decline, and the worsening effects of climate change. Violence, conflict, and crime have surged over the last decade, transcending national borders and posing significant challenges to countries both in and outside the region. The Sahel remains a principal transit point for migrants traveling from sub-Saharan Africa to northern coastal states and on to Europe. Further violence could exponentially increase the rate of displacement and migration from the region, compounding pressures on northern and coastal African states and Europe. The epicenters of violence and humanitarian disaster are in the Liptako-Gourma and Lake Chad Basin subregions.
Liptako-Gourma is in the central Sahel, in the borderlands of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Current instability is associated with the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011, which led to the proliferation of weapons and armed fighters in the region. The influx of extremists into northern Mali reignited the dormant Tuareg rebellion [PDF] in 2012, which had previously surfaced in 1963, 1990, and 2006. Representing only 10 percent of the Malian population, the Tuareg people, organized under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), sought an autonomous state and aligned themselves with multiple Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine to push government forces out of the north. Then-President Amadou Toumani Touré was deposed in a March 2012 coup by the army, which disapproved of the government’s failure to suppress the rebellion. The consequent collapse of state institutions in the north enabled the MNLA to capture the regional capitals of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu; the group had declared the independent state of Azawad [PDF] in northern Mali by April. The MNLA quickly split from al-Qaeda and other allied Islamist groups in June following their attempt to impose Islamic law and declare an Islamic caliphate over the northern territory.
After a period of relative calm, the crisis deteriorated in January 2013 as AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine pushed further south to capture Konna in central Mali. In August, Mali transitioned back to a civilian-led government under Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, which later signed a peace agreement with a coalition of Tuareg independence groups including the MNLA in 2015. The coalition excluded Islamist organizations, which quickly took advantage of the agreement to expand their control, spreading further into central Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. Liptako-Gourma has since become a hotbed for violent extremism in the Sahel.
Notable attacks targeting the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali, the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso, and L’Etoule du Sud Hotel in Ivory Coast in 2015 and 2016 demonstrated the extent of the Islamist threat to the Sahel and West Africa. In September 2016, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) surfaced in Burkina Faso, launching its first major attack on a border post near the Burkinabe city of Markoye. In 2017, several al-Qaeda affiliates merged to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM). The emergence of ISGS and JNIM have intensified violence in the Sahel. Both JNIM and ISGS have pushed farther south in Liptako-Gourma, threatening the security of West Africa’s relatively stable coastal states. JNIM has more recently gained control over territory in northern and central Mali, while ISGS has been confined to northern Burkina Faso and western Niger due to clashes with JNIM that began in 2020.
Violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin at the intersection of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria prevailed in the same period with the reemergence of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Founded by Muhammed Yusuf in northeastern Nigeria in 2002, Boko Haram was forced underground in 2009 after Nigerian police forces killed over seven hundred members, including Yusuf, during a raid that July. In June and August 2011, Boko Haram resurfaced, indicating its more expansive and aggressive strategy by launching suicide attacks [PDF] on police and the UN headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria. The group gained international notoriety following its abduction of 276 girls from the town of Chibok, Nigeria, giving rise to the global Bring Back Our Girls movement in April 2014.
In 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and rebranded as the Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP). A splinter faction of the original Boko Haram was active until 2021, when ISWAP killed its leader, absorbed its territory, and relegated its members to remote islands in Lake Chad. ISWAP has since established control of northeastern Nigeria and parts of Niger.
Experts attribute the expansion of violent extremism in the Sahel to persistently weak governance, characterized by corruption, democratic backsliding, legitimacy deficits, and human rights violations. Many countries in the region share similar internal dynamics of inequality [PDF]—state power tends to be concentrated in southern, urban regions while rural, northern areas remain underdeveloped and ripe for exploitation by extremist groups. Thus, Sahel countries are consistently ranked high on the Fragile State Index, particularly Chad, Mali, and Nigeria. Frequent transfers of power are also a problem: Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger experienced a combined twenty-five successful coups d’état between 1960 and 2022. Consecutive military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, resulting in Mali’s current interim government under a military junta, launched the region’s most recent so-called coup epidemic, which saw similar occurrences in Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger.
The death of Chadian President Idriss Déby on April 20, 2021, created a leadership crisis in regional counterterrorism efforts. Under Déby, Chad and its military acted as a linchpin in regional security coalitions across both Liptako-Gourma and the Lake Chad Basin. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)—comprised of Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria—was activated in 2014 to respond to the threat of Boko Haram, organized crime, and banditry in the Lake Chad Basin. In February 2017, France and the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5) countries—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—announced the creation of the G5 Sahel Force, a five-thousand-troop-strong counterterrorism force aimed at fighting militant groups with an expanded mandate to cross borders in the Sahel region. Increasing civilian casualties and severe human rights violations by security forces in Chad, Mali, and Nigeria have further undermined regional and national efforts.
In 2013, international involvement began in earnest when French forces entered Mali at the request of the Malian government. Operation Serval, later transformed into Operation Barkhane, became a three-thousand-strong force based in N’Djamena, Chad, focused on rooting out violent extremists in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, in partnership with local governments and with the support of Chad and Mauritania. In 2015, Operation Barkhane’s mandate expanded to provide additional support to the MNJTF [PDF] in its fight against Boko Haram. Operation Barkhane was quickly succeeded by the establishment of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINSUMA) and, in 2020, support from the European Union–led Task Force Takuba. By 2020, France had deployed 5,100 troops supported by 15,000 UN peacekeepers from around the world.
The United States has also provided logistics and advisory support to both the MNJTF and G5 Sahel Force. In addition, the U.S. military has increased its presence in the Sahel, deploying approximately 1,500 troops to the region and building a drone base in Niger as a platform for strikes against groups across West and North Africa. On October 4, 2017, members of the U.S. Special Operations Task Force were ambushed by an Islamic State–affiliate group in Tongo Tongo, Niger, leading to the deaths of four servicemen. The United States also remains a top donor of humanitarian assistance; continues to provide military training, such as the Flintlock program; and has delivered millions of dollars of arms to the region.
Despite increased international involvement, the campaign against militants has instead caused the spread of militancy to countries across the Sahel. That failure, coupled with France’s growing unpopularity in its former colonies, led French President Emmanuel Macron to announce on July 13, 2021, that Operation Barkhane would end in the first quarter of 2022. In February 2022, France and its European allies comprising Task Force Takuba also announced their intent to withdraw all troops from Mali, ending their nearly decade-long intervention.
Violent extremists exploited the resulting security vacuum with heightened attacks across the Sahel. The first six months of 2022 saw a dramatic increase in attacks, particularly in the Liptako-Gourma area and spilling into coastal West Africa. More than two thousand civilians were killed during this period, an over 50 percent increase from 2021. Many attacks have specifically targeted MINUSMA, which has been dubbed the United Nations’ most dangerous peacekeeping mission. In lieu of French support, the Malian military junta sought security assistance from the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization involved in other fragile contexts including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mozambique, Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. Since its introduction in December 2021, the Wagner Group has deployed one thousand mercenaries to Mali housed at fifteen outposts, including former French bases. March 2022 was the deadliest month recorded by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project since 1997—coinciding with renewed activism by ISGS along the Niger-Mali border and the Moura massacre in central Mali. On March 23, Malian soldiers accompanied by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group launched a five-day attack on the town to root out Islamist militants, killing more than three hundred civilians.
Prospects for regional and international counterterrorism efforts deteriorated further in May 2022 when the Malian government officially terminated its Defense Cooperation Treaty with France alongside the Status of Force Agreement formerly governing France and the European Union’s operations in the country. Mali’s military government also pulled out of the G5 Sahel—greatly diminishing the organization’s counterterrorism capacity. In June, JNIM killed 132 villagers in central Mali, the deadliest attack on civilians since the coup.
In June 2023, Mali’s government demanded the departure of MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping force. The UN agreed to withdraw within six months, raising concerns of a power vacuum and setbacks for Mali’s transition to civilian rule, for which the junta claims a June 2023 referendum was a first step. MINUSMA has also played a key role in assuaging Tuareg separatists, who warn that the UN departure will deal a “fatal blow” to the peace agreement.
An acute humanitarian crisis is exacerbating violent extremism’s threat to regional stability. The last decade of conflict has displaced 2.6 million people in Liptako-Gourma and 2.8 million people in the Lake Chad Basin, with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into neighboring countries. Sahel countries consistently rank [PDF] among the world’s poorest with compounding issues [PDF] of poverty, food insecurity, high unemployment, and the world’s fastest-growing population. The Lake Chad Basin crisis has long been recognized as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world due to the severe harm of climate change and weak governance in rural areas. Temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, directly damaging the livelihoods of millions dependent upon natural resources. Diminishing land and water resources have led to increasingly frequent clashes between herding, farming, and fishing communities. Violent extremist organizations have not only helped worsen humanitarian conditions, including by targeting humanitarian workers, but have also exploited [PDF] insecure conditions to recruit and control populations in the Sahel. In addition, the weakened economies and proliferating violent extremists have increased illicit activity and criminal organizations in the region, further contributing to instability.
In January 2023, UN experts advocated for an independent investigation into potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by government forces and the Wagner Group in Mali. The experts claimed a “climate of terror and complete impunity” characterized the Wagner Group’s activities in the country, pointing to the Moura massacre in March 2022. Wagner’s future in West Africa is less certain after the group’s failed June 2023 rebellion in Russia, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would allow its African operations to continue. In July 2023, the United States accused Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin of orchestrating Mali’s decision to expel MINUSMA to advance Wagner’s interests. Neighboring Burkina Faso has denied contracting Wagner Group, but the interim president said Russia is a strategic ally.
In 2023, security forces in Mali and Burkina Faso faced allegations of civilian massacres. First, in April, survivors of a massacre in Burkina Faso blamed the military for the deaths of 136 civilians. Then, in May, the UN released a report accusing Malian soldiers and foreign fighters of executing more than five hundred civilians in a March 2022 operation. Meanwhile, armed groups have stepped up attacks on poorly trained civilian volunteer forces. The withdrawal of the UN from Mali raises the risk of violence against civilians, as extremist groups might attempt to seize urban centers as they have in Burkina Faso.
A July 26 coup d’etat in Niger, the ninth attempted overthrow of a West African government in the last three years, dealt a significant blow to counterterrorism and stabilization efforts in the Sahel. Niger’s government fended off a coup attempt in March 2021, two days before President-elect Mohamed Bazoum assumed office, but the most recent coup attempt succeeded in unseating him. Despite pressure from ECOWAS, including sanctions and the threat of military intervention, the coup leaders have refused to cede power and declared a new government. The military junta have since announced that they will prosecute Bazoum for treason; Bazoum is currently being held in an undisclosed location after a failed escape from his home in Niamey. In response, the African Union suspended Niger, which was the institution's first public communication since it convened immediately following the coup. Nearby military regimes Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali have backed junta, with the latter two vowing to treat military intervention in Niger as a “declaration of war.” On September 16, the military leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger signed a mutual defense pact, solidifying their alliance against external intervention.
Niger had become the West’s last major counterterrorism partner in the Sahel in recent years after a series of coups in neighboring countries, but the takeover threatens to upend its status as a bulwark against an expanding power vacuum. Shortly after seizing power, the coup leaders ceased military cooperation with France, which moved its troops to Niger in 2022 as its relations with Mali deteriorated. On October 22, France completed the withdrawal of its forces from Niger, repatriating troops and equipment via Chad and Cameroon.
In contrast, the United States signaled that it will pursue pragmatic relations with Niger's military junta. This came shortly after the United States officially designated the military takeover a coup, requiring the United States to suspend over $500 million in economic and military aid. The United States still maintains around one thousand troops in the country, and recently resumed drone flights and manned counterterrorism operations from its bases in the country. However, there is increased fear that Russia's Wagner Group is "taking advantage" of Niger's instability to expand its regional influence, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned after the coup.
Meanwhile, extremist violence has surged across the Sahel. The first seven months of 2023 saw at least 7,800 civilian deaths, a significant increase from 2022, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). This data contradicts claims by the military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger that they are effectively tackling insecurity.
Mali is on the brink of civil war as Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels consolidate power in northern Mali. The increase in violence coincides with the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers with attacks more than doubling since they completed the first phase in August. JNIM, in particular, has taken advantage of the withdrawal to launch a renewed offensive, blockading the northern city of Timbuktu and carrying out a series of attacks on military and civilian targets. In parallel, Mali has redeployed its forces to the northeast as clashes intensify with Tuareg rebels comprising the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA). The Wagner Group is said to be leading the Malian offensive to overtake the rebel stronghold in Kidal.
Recent violence in Mali has spilled over into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. On September 5, seventeen soldiers and thirty-six volunteer fighters were killed in clashes with Islamist militants in northern Burkina Faso. Less than a month later, twenty-nine soldiers were killed in an attack by ISGS in western Niger. Worsening instability has led to increasing democratic backsliding as the military governments in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are struggling to regain control in the wake of dissolving international support.