The Sahel has its share of nomadic, semi-nomadic and farm communities/tribes. The Dogon tribeᴰᵒ inhabiting central Mali, are one of the major tourist attractions in Sahelˢᵃ. They are the only tribe that still practise African traditional religion in a largely Islamic landscape. There is a minuscule Christian presence in Sahel. The desert is expandingᴱˣ and as it eats into the scarce vegetation, nomadic communities like the Tuaregsᵀᵘ and Fulanisᶠˡ are feeling the pressure. Not surprisingly jihadi groups in the Sahel are fuelled by members from these communities. However, as I have pointed out earlier, there is a lot of history at play here in addition to the desertification.
Sahara in the 21st century is quite different from the camel caravans of the bygone eras. Or is it ? I mean you can spot camel caravans carrying goods even to this date. On the other hand, airports, roads and railways have moved in to make travelling easier. Road vehicles are a common sight. Banks, schools, hospitals and telecommunication networks have popped up. French is the official language of many countries in Sahel, but on the streets, tribal languages dominate. In our era, the Sahel consists of many countries, like Maliᴹ. French is the official language of Mali, but on the streets Bambaraᴮ is the king. Arabic, Fula, Songhai and Dogon being some of the other languages. If you leave out the English and French languages, our world often emerges as a very complex mix of hundreds, maybe thousands of languages and dialects.
The development of communication networks and weapons technology has meant that the conflict of ideologies in the Sahel, is now a different beast altogether. The internet and mobile networks allows jihadi groups to forge new identities, but the underlying ideology remains constant as in the preceding centuries. Although there is resentment against Europeans in the mainly Islamic communities, the jihadis take this to a new level, trying to resurrect the ‘golden era of Caliphates’. Jihadi groups often rake up history to inspire their cadre to turn the tide against European forces, surging forth to enslave ‘al-andalus’, and then engage in the unfinished business of conquering Europe.
Sahel is effectively in a low intensity jihadi conflict with weak governments unable to do much about it. The French seem to realise the threat quite well and maintain a heavy military presence in the Sahel. Operation Sérvalˢ and then Op Barkhaneᴮᵃ pumped about 5000 French troops into Sahel, starting from 2013 to the present. This is in addition to MINUSMAᴹᴵ forces also operating since 2013. The French forces are the tip of the spear when it comes to tackling terror. But they cannot handle this alone and unfortunately, continual calls by the French for the European Union aka EU to invest more in the counter terror operations, has not been met to this day. Rivalry within the EU means that other members are resentful of the French spear head, which is childishly naive. If the jihadis win it won’t be just the French who will suffer, the whole of EU will go back into the caliphate era. MINUSMA remains a bystander at large. Jihadi groups have a lot of local support and hence when the French stomp out one snake head, another emerges out of the shadow, more like turbaned ghosts in flip-flops brandishing Kalashnikovs. Its a battle of mind and souls !
The flawed approach of trying to use force against an ideology has not sunk in. Those who have studied jihadi literature know quite well that it is a natural progression path of the salafi doctrine. There is a river of ready jihadi volunteers driven by the underlying ideology. The jihad in Sahel is instrumental in creating instability and poverty, with refugees fleeing the battle spilling over to the sea shores of North/West Africa and further on to Europe. Refugees from Sahel wind their way as far as Icelandᴵ and some to North America. This fits perfectly in the plan of creating a fertile breeding ground for jihad in Europe and Americas as the refugees carry the same ideology that generated jihad in the first place. Kapish ?
There are several jihadi groups running in Sahara and Sahel. I am not going to delve into the intricacies of the myriad jihadi groups or the salafi jihadi ecosystemᴶ operating in the Sahel. Some of the groups are — JNIM, ISGS, Al-Mourabitoun, AQIM Sahara and Boko Haramᴮʰ in North Nigeria. There are plenty of internet info resources available for the above. What I can say with certainty is that all these groups have a common denominator — Afghanistan. Most of the jihadi leaders of these groups are veterans of the Afghan civil warᴬᶠ. The finance for jihad comes from smuggling drugs and contraband as well as extortion, taxation and emigration rackets combined with hostage taking. The funny part is that some of these jihadi felons are claimed to have been neutralised multiple times, but keep popping up back on the terror circuit again and again, like Abubakar Shekauᴬˢ and Mokhtar Belmokhtarᴹᵇ, who is better known by his moniker ‘Mr Marlboro’, ( cigarette smuggler ).
In my mind, there definitely seems to be an attempt to create a jihadi column heading up from North Nigeria, winding through Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and then into the North African shores of Algeria/Libya. Linkages between jihadi groups have been established. It would be onward to Europe from there on. It can also branch out sideways to engulf the whole of Sahel and then head South to the rest of Africa. Extrapolating this further, it could be a continental jump on to Asia in the East, and Americas in the West.
Jihadi groups are now operating as far South as Northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado provinceᴹ. Security experts agree that jihadi groups in Sahel now have their eyes set on the coastal states of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Boko Haram, is spreading jihad to countries in the South of Sahel, as in Cameroon. In the lush tropical/savanna forests, countries like DRCᴰ, CAR, Uganda and Kenya are now experiencing regular jihadi incursions. Although Sahel is not fuelling jihad in the deep south of the African continent, right now, there is a possibility of linkages being established between the groups to fight for the common aim.
It is my view that governments with their entrenched bureaucracies, where people are more interested in protecting their official turf; will not measure up to the ideological storm of jihad. Afghanistan has shown that merely throwing in ordnance and soldiers, and opening UN agency offices, will not stamp out jihad. Afghanistan is a sort of graveyard for NATO/US troops. There is a now a scramble to withdrawᴬᶠ from Afghanistan while handing it over to the Pakistani run, salafi-Deobandi jihadi organisation, Talibanᵀᵃ. Even if some would contend that it is a cutting down of NATO/US troop presence and not a complete withdrawal, the Taliban will still run riot. In effect, Taliban were the ones cooking the NATO/US goose and they are going to be handed over Afghanistan on a platter. A comical and tragic end.
In conclusion I would like to add that if jihad in Sahel is not tackled soon, we will have another big headache on it’s hands. In trying to address the ‘how-to-go-about-it’ using my limited knowledge, the military component is required but is not the comprehensive answer. This has to go hand-in-hand with the ideological battle, and the Gospel is THE answer when it comes to ideology. A mind that is beholden to G-d is at peace, the natural man is always at war with themselves as with those outside. The ideology of G-d must replace the ideology of man. Most importantly prayer is the need of the hour. Any other approach by itself, will keep resulting in people running around in endless circles with the jihadis gaining ground.
Romans 8:6: For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace,
One can argue that setting up mission complexes running schools, hospitals and universities may be the answer. But, this is a very simplistic approach. One thing is certain that whoever steps into this jihadi landscape with the Gospel, is going to be in the centre of the storm. Keep in mind that ransom taking is a lucrative jihadi venture. There can be a set of approaches in trying to tackle the jihad storm, like pushing for good governance which is easier said than done; combined with encouraging missionaries to set bases. To be honest I figure only Christian missionaries would be foolhardy enough to enter Sahel.
That’s it from this two part foray into the state of jihad in Sahel.
Cover Image — Dust storm in Niamey, capital of Niger. Image attribute info — Image Atrribute
ᴵᵉIEDs — Improvised Explosive Devices
ᵀᵃTaliban — Going back to history, Soviet Russia sent it’s forces into Afghanistan in 1979, after a long sequence of events where they supported various regimes. Pakistan wanted the Soviets out. Again the reasons were/are historical, with the Pashtuns under Ahmad Shah Durrani of Afghanistan wreaking a reign of terror on Punjab ( 1748 AD ), now Pakistan, the seeds of revenge were sown between Pashtuns and Punjabis. The Punjabi dominated Pakistani military establishment plotted to bring Pashtuns under their thumb. Responding to some clever instigation by the Pakistani military spy establishment ISI ( Inter-Services Intelligence), the CIA funnelled funds and weapons to Islamic guerrilla fighters called the Mujaheddin, via the ISI , to overthrow Soviet Russian forces in Afghanistan. Faced with increasing losses, Soviet Russia had to abandon Afghanistan in 1989, leaving most of the country in Mujaheddin control; although the Soviets did manage to install proxy regimes, these were finally overthrown. Taliban was created in 1994 by the ISI , to impose Pakistani control on Afghanistan, after the collapse of the Soviet sponsored Afghan regime of President Mohammed Najibullah. Taliban comes from the root word ‘talib’ or religious student and is staffed by madrasa recruits, from Pakistan. They are trained by the ISI to sustain a campaign of jihad in Afghanistan. In a predictable turn of events Taliban turned rogue later and became instrumental in giving refuge to Osama Bin Laden, the architect of 9/11, as well as targeting US forces in Afghanistan. The US/NATO combine started fighting the Taliban and got a bloody nose in the process, mostly cause of Pakistan backing the Taliban. The Pakistani military establishment kept playing a clueless US bureaucracy into giving them more funds to fight terror. These funds were then cleverly pumped back into the Pakistani Taliban campaign in Afghanistan. In essence the CIA was paying to get their own feet axed.