février 20, 2019

The territorial expansion of violence in the Sahel: Strategic planning or adapting to changing economic needs?

In recent months, observers of the Sahel region of Africa noticed the rather rapid expansion of terrorist activities outside the “usual” areas of Mali and northern Burkina Faso. Numerous attacks have occurred in the east, south-east and south-west of Burkina Faso, which prompted an expansion of the state of emergency to several other provinces since the start of 2019. Reports of militant activities also emerged from south-west Niger, north-west Nigeria, Bénin, Ghana and Togo. With the multiplication of these reports, analysts and observers of the region debate the motives of this expansion and how it fits into the larger strategic picture.

For those unfamiliar with the situation of the Sahel region in Africa – for simplicity reduced to Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad (in French, the espace sahélo-saharien expands the region to include other countries) – the situation has gone from bad to worse since terrorists were “defeated” in Mali by local and French forces of “Opération Serval” in 2012-13. Several factors acted as catalysts for this development, notably the Libyan civil war; the ousting of the former President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, in 2014; the development of IS entities in the region (in Libya, Sinai, Greater Sahara (ISGS) and IS West Africa province (ISWAP, sometimes still referred to as Boko Haram); the resurgence of local Malian terrorist groups such as Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) or the emergence of new ones like Ansarul Islam or the Macina Liberation Front.

These are just a few of the factors that not only accelerated the insecurity in the region but also played an important role in compounding or stirring local community tensions, already significantly volatile due to historical and economic grievances, as well as poor governance. Finally, another significant effect of this situation is how it altered the economic ecosystem of the region, notably by creating or expanding markets for illegal goods, which in turn affected how the larger smuggling families did business as a whole and with each other.

As of writing this text, terrorist activities expanded from northern and eastern Mali into Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. If we include the westward expansion of activities coming out of the Lake Chad region into north-west Nigeria, south and south-west Niger as well as Bénin, Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast – small but not insignificant at this point – we can see a slowly emerging terrorism “corridor” linking the Lake Chad region to southern Algeria and Libya.

In the complexity of the security situation in the Sahel, it appears the situation in Burkina Faso, which is worsening on a daily basis, has become a good indicator of the expansion and tendencies of terrorist activities, both internally and through the spill-over to and from neighbouring countries. At first glance, this expansion appears to be a “classic” strategic one, linked to increasing territory and power. But when looking closer, with the help of credible intelligence reports, it appears to be rather linked to a re-routing of smuggling routes in the region, raising doubts about the expansion being strategic based rather than a necessity. It is this tactical adjustment that I will discuss in this post.

Burkina Faso, the microcosm of terrorist expansion?

If we take the terrorist attack on the Splendid hotel and the Cappuccino Café in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city, on January 15, 2016 as our starting point, the country has since experienced approximately 200 incidents involving actors linked to or alleged to be linked to terrorist organisations, most prominent of which are the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), Ansarul Islam and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). This is a stunning development for a country that had been for all intents and purposes “spared” by terrorist attacks prior to 2016, in spite of terrorist groups being very active to varying degrees in the Sahel since the 1990s. This situation raised the question about a possible agreement between former President Compaoré and terrorists before being deposed from power.

Perhaps more interesting than the absolute numbers of incidents is where and how the expansion of terrorist activities within Burkina Faso occurred. Using the same playbook that has been used in Mali for a number of years, terrorist organisations target government officials and institutions, eliminating would-be opponents and instilling a climate of fear that pushes governmental representations out of the targeted region. No institution or representative is spared: Councilmen, soldiers, police officers, customs officials, rangers and teachers are murdered or intimidated; police stations, army and border posts, government buildings or schools are destroyed, either bombed, shot or burned down. Arguably, the most significant impact of this strategy is on school access with well over 600 schools destroyed or unusable and teachers refusing to teach or fleeing their assigned sector, resulting in thousands of Burkinabe children being deprived of education for months and in some cases years. In some areas, this strategy has led to such a deterioration of the security situation that some of MOSECON’s sources suggest they have become no-go areas for government officials, including the military. The north and the east of the country appear to be mostly affected by this situation.

In terms of territorial gains, the expansion has been steady and measured, despite the shocking speed at which it is occurring. In 2017, the northern part of the country was mostly affected, especially the Soum region. From there the expansion went into the east and south-east regions of the country for the most part of 2018, with numerous activities occurring close to the Niger border, but also increasingly in the Kompienga region in the south-east, closer to the borders with Bénin and Togo. Finally, during the last third of 2018 and leading into 2019, a sporadic but increasing number of violent incidents began to occur in the south-west region of the country, close to the Ghana and Ivory Coast borders. These incidents were at first attributed to bandits, but slowly attacks have begun targeting government institutions and personnel in the same way observed in northern and eastern Burkina Faso. Hence, this development is one to be closely monitored when analysing the security situation in the Sahel in 2019.

As such, we have observed that the country’s border areas have become significant areas of terrorist activity in the country, creating a “donut” around the central regions. While terrorism has occurred mostly away from the centre, it is important to recall that Ouagadougou has been hit by an important terrorist attack each year since 2016. Therefore, it would not be surprising if another attack occurred there in 2019, especially in light of the current developments. However, while the expansion eastward into Niger appears logical – especially based on some intelligence suggesting coordinated activities of IS entities in the region as well as other local factors – other intelligence related to smuggling routes suggest a different reason: A redirecting of the routes away from northern Niger and Chad.

Pressure on one end, bulge on the other?

Again, for readers unfamiliar with the area, it is important to understand that smuggling is not synonymous with terrorism or organised crime. It is a normal and essential part of the economy and hundreds of thousands of people benefit from it in one form or another. Sometimes it is clear cut criminal or illegal, such as drugs or weapons, but often less so as with people for example. However, regardless of the product, the supply chain is often so long that legal and legitimate actors will be part of the smuggling process of illegal goods at some point, due to various business and family ties and dealings. For some Sahel ethnic groups with a strong nomadic population, such as the Tuareg, the Toubou or the Fulani (Peuhl), smuggling and the transfer of goods across regions has been a way of life for centuries.

As I mentioned in the opening portion of the text, the increasing conflicts in Africa and elsewhere in the world like in Yemen, Syria or Iraq, have affected the economic and smuggling ecosystem of the Sahel and the bordering regions. A higher demand for weapons, drugs and other material created more opportunities for business, expanded markets and reshaped business partnerships to maximise income. In turn, this increase meant it became easier to have access to material and move people and personnel from one area to another. As the supply chain improved, so did the lethality of insurgency groups who enjoyed better access to the material they require for their fights. Knowledge of this situation prompted local and international security actors to try to limit the flow of illegal goods in the area, notably the smuggling routes crossing the northern parts of Chad and Niger.

These routes are not only centuries old, but they are an essential supply line from the east for goods coming in from or being sent to the Horn of Africa via Sudan and from there on the north/south axis from Libya to central and west Africa, especially through Niger and Chad. These are the key routes in large part supplying the conflicts in the Sahel and the Lake Chad region, and as such are of the highest importance both for terrorists and security forces alike. Therefore, several local and international actors exerted a lot of pressure throughout 2018 to stop the flow of goods through those routes. By the third quarter of 2018, the pressure was becoming successful, as both providers and consumer were feeling the pinch. This forced organisations and smugglers to adapt and re-rout their supply chain from the north to the south, beginning in southern Chad and north-east Nigeria.

As observed in the last months of 2018 and confirmed throughout by credible intelligence, the following smuggling route emerged as increasingly important: From Chad and north-east Nigeria westwards towards the north-western Nigerian border with Niger. From there, the goods are transported into Bénin with a northwards direction to Burkina Faso through the W national park (Sahel national parks are very well known smuggling hubs), and then through Burkina Faso, following mostly the eastern border, to Mali. From there, the goods are transported cross-country to Algeria before being dispatched elsewhere in north Africa or Europe.

Is there a correlation between the aggressive expansion in eastern Burkina Faso and the “new” smuggling route?

Correlation is too strong a word for the current analysis. However, it is hard to dismiss a credible link between the rapid developments in eastern Burkina Faso in terms of terrorist/militant violence in the last third of 2018, from the successes of anti-smuggling operations in northern Chad and Niger, as well as the increasing traffic on the smuggling route I described above over the same period of time. Parallelly, increasing militant activity has been observed in Sokoto, Zamfara (Nigeria), Bénin, south-west Niger – regions directly on the route – which cannot be dismissed as coincidental and warrant closer observation. It is likely at this point that the economic and material needs (smuggling) prompted actions that fit well with the strategic framework of terrorist organisations in the region. Hence, needs meet opportunity.

Bearing in mind that the situation in the Sahel is extremely complex and involves a multitude of key, moving elements, the impact of smuggling routes is one of many factors playing a role into the expansion of terrorism. It is however, seldom taken into account when assessing the tactical or strategic changes done by terrorist organisations and militias and not just in the Sahel. As I have learned over the years, the developments, and fluctuations of a conflict involving informal groups can often be answered by following the goods, not necessarily the money, which in turn can indicate possible emerging areas of conflict before the first attack occurs.

The above does not explain the changing security situation on its own, but I hope it offers readers another important element to consider when assessing and discussing the tragic situation in the Sahel.