As in Afghanistan, the objectives of ending the jihadists have not been achieved in the Sahel (Expert)

“As in Afghanistan, the objectives of ending the jihadists have not been achieved in the Sahel”: Have the mistakes made against the Taliban been repeated against jihadists in Africa? Seidik Abba, a Sahel specialist, provides some answers.

Jihadist groups in the Sahel: As in Afghanistan the objectives of ending the jihadists have not been achieved in the Sahel

As in Afghanistan the objectives of ending the jihadists have not been achieved in the Sahel

In the years 2009-2010, it was thought that the countries of the Sahel, led by Mali, had found a democratic path to economic development. But the jihadist groups that invaded northern Mali in the spring of 2012 tragically revealed the profound fragility of this state and, by contagion, of its neighbors. Ten years after the launch of the French army’s intervention and Operation Serval, hailed as a military and political success, the situation in the Sahel has never stopped deteriorating.

In his book “Mali-Sahel, notre Afghanistan à nous?” (Impact Éditions, 147 pages, 15 euros), journalist and Sahel specialist Seidik Abba draws an instructive analogy with Afghanistan. Indeed, according to many experts, the security prism can no longer be the only one relevant to understanding the deterioration of the situation in the region over the last ten years. For Seidick Abba, the military response cannot be a substitute for the political, economic and social responses needed to emerge from a deep crisis.

As in Afghanistan the objectives of ending the jihadists have not been achieved in the Sahel

All the more so since, on the other side, certain jihadist groups have undergone a transformation, creating enemies from within, a situation that makes the terrorist equation more complex. In order to better understand how important it is to take into account the changes that have taken place on the ground, Seidik Abba agreed to answer FLA‘s questions. “As in Afghanistan, the objectives of ending the jihadists have not been achieved in the Sahel”.

What concrete elements have led you to assert that Mali and the Sahel can be to France what Afghanistan was to the United States?

Many observers dispute this analogy given the cultural, historical and geographic differences. However, I have found great similarities. In both Afghanistan and the Sahel, the original objectives have not been achieved. On the American side, in 2001, the United States was determined to remove the Taliban from power and prevent the country from becoming a sanctuary for jihadists. Twenty years later, it has failed. When the Americans left Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban were back in power and the country was still a terrorist stronghold, since the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been killed in Kabul in July 2022.

On the French side, if the Serval operation launched in January 2013 by François Hollande is analyzed as a military and political success, Barkhane, which took over in 2014, this time with the ambition of eradicating terrorism in the Sahel, was a failure. The terrorist threat gained ground and was exported to Burkina Faso and Niger mainly. But the countries of the Gulf of Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin or Togo, are also threatened.

“As in Afghanistan, the objectives of ending the jihadists have not been achieved in the Sahel”

Another element of comparison, and not the least, is the fact that the Afghan Taliban always had a local agenda. Their ambition was really to reconquer Afghanistan. They never had a strategy of sending fighters to attack France, Germany or even England on the model of the Islamic State. They were not interested in the international agenda.

The same thing is happening in the Sahel, where jihadist groups have a local agenda. It was not for nothing that when the United States decided to leave Afghanistan, Iyad Ag Ghali’s Muslim Support Group (GSIM) issued a congratulatory statement to the Taliban, “brothers” who had defeated the world’s largest army. This departure has galvanized them.

There is also a connection between Afghanistan and the Sahel

There is also a connection between Afghanistan and the Sahel on the issue of international aid. The international community has poured huge amounts of international aid into Kabul, to no avail.

In the Sahel, too, aid has not been effective at all:

For example, in Mali under IBK, between 2012 and 2017, about 1 billion euros of public aid was diverted according to a Canadian study.

In Niger, there was the Ministry of Defense scandal.

In all Sahelian countries, the security situation has created niches that have favored the detour of public aid. There was no synergy between the stakeholders. After ten years, the prevailing impression is that nothing has been done.

These are all elements of convergence between the Taliban and the terrorist groups of the Sahel – apart from the Islamic State – which make me say that we are dealing with Sahelian Taliban.

“As in Afghanistan, the objectives of ending the jihadists have not been achieved in the Sahel”: Have the mistakes made against the Taliban been repeated against jihadists in Africa? Seidik Abba, a Sahel specialist, provides some answers.

How do you explain, today, the rivalries that explode in broad daylight between terrorist groups in the Sahel and which make the populations the first victims of terrorism, unlike in Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan, there is only the Taliban, although the Islamic State no longer hesitates to launch attacks. This is a change that is interesting to observe because the rivalry is very strong in the Sahel, where there are two big names tearing each other apart. First, the Islamic and Muslim Support Group, created in 2017 by the merger of several factions, including Ghali’s Ansar Dine, Ansarul Islam, the late Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al-Mourabitoune, katiba Serma, Amadoun Koufa’s katiba Macina, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi), under the banner of Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg leader from Mali.

On the other side, we have the great rival, which is the Islamic State in the Great Sahara (EIGS). The latter infiltrated Africa after the disintegration of Libya. It then strengthened its Sahelian footprint and is now present in the tri-border area between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

G5 Sahel forces

Islamic State had the ambition to gain ground

At first, these groups organized themselves with a precise territorial distribution. It was the only part of the world where there was a tacit agreement between two major terrorist organizations.

Then things went wrong, the Islamic State had the ambition to gain ground and started to encroach on the territory of the GSIM. It is in this context that we have tipped, from 2019, in the escalation of violence against the civilian population. Until then, jihadist groups followed the Taliban model and did not attack civilians, but mainly defence and security forces or foreign soldiers. Since then, they have carried out punitive operations against populations or ethnic groups suspected of collaborating with either the armies or the opposing movements. We saw what happened with the instrumentalization of the Peuls. Today, terrorist groups kill more civilians than soldiers. It is as if their hold on Sahelian territory is such that they no longer need the support of the population. We are faced with an entanglement between security, religious and ethnic issues.

A recent video of jihadist leader Iyad Ag Ghali confirms that al-Qaeda is expanding into southern Mali. How should this appearance be analyzed? What significance does it have in the context of this open war between the two terrorist groups?

Iyad Ag Ghali has not appeared publicly since the release of the French hostage, Sophie Pétronin, and the Malian hostage, Soumaïla Cissé. He wants to demonstrate that he can go wherever he wants, and move around more easily with the departure of the French military, of which he was the number one target. There is also a desire on his part to mark his status as a protector of civilian populations, particularly Tuareg communities and their territory, in the face of the EI, which launched an offensive on the ground last March.

eidik Abba, a Sahel specialist

But this public appearance by Iyad Ag Ghali, surrounded by notables from the Ménaka region pledging allegiance to him, is also part of an acceleration of the endogenization underway within the terrorist groups present in the Sahel. That is, it is the Sahelians themselves who are taking the lead. And Iyad Ag Ghali has been chosen for this purpose with Amadoun Koufa as his number two. In this respect, too, the GSIM differs from its great enemy, the EI, most of whose leaders come from other parts of the world.

This is certainly a colossal challenge for the state. However, can this appearance enable the Malian army to overcome the Islamic State, with which it has always refused to negotiate?

This appearance gives the impression that Mali does not have total control of the territory, contrary to what has been claimed in recent months, especially since the arrival of the Russian partner and Wagner. While Bamako was celebrating Mali’s sovereignty on the 62nd anniversary of the Malian Armed Forces (Fama), Iyad Ag Ghali appeared in Ménaka, proving that the jihadists can still move around without the Malian authorities being able to crack down.

Paradoxically, the alliance of local leaders with Iyad Ag Ghali is also intended to weaken the EI in the Great Sahara, and Malian authorities can benefit from this competition. The junta will not go so far as to affiliate with Iyad Ag Ghali to fight the EI, but he has become, in a sense, an objective ally of the Malian state. It is clear that the fratricidal confrontation between the two groups is weakening each other, which could benefit the government in the long run.

What do the notables of the Ménaka region want from Iyad Ag Ghali?

It is the need for protection that has brought in the local chiefs, including General El Hadj Gamou, a historical enemy of Ghali within the Touareg community. He is one of their own, and he seems better able to ensure their protection. For them and the population, he also has more legitimacy in the face of the violence perpetrated by the EI.

How much does the endogenization of jihadist groups complicate the terrorist equation in the Sahel?

Since the emergence of terrorism in the Sahel, katiba leaders and even fighters have come mainly from the Maghreb, some from Algeria, others from Tunisia, the Western Sahara (Especially separatists of the polisario, housed in Tindouf in southwest Algeria), and a little from Mauritania. It was later that these terrorist groups decided to recruit locals from the base to the command. There are now Fulani, Songhai, Tuareg, Malian Sarakole, Zarma, Hausa, etc.

How did they achieve this?

Terrorists have found a fertile breeding ground, since young people in these regions have no activities or prospects. Several areas are suffering the effects of climate change. There is no development and the state is absent. On the other hand, these jihadist groups have deployed significant financial resources, thanks in particular to the ransom payments they receive and to the various trafficking activities.

To solve the equation, we will have to find solutions other than armed force. In any case, the lessons of the failure of the Western intervention in Afghanistan must be taken into account. The Sahelian governments must rebuild their regalian apparatus, respond to the development needs of the populations, establish justice, etc.

French military to quit Mali in possible boost to jihadists: the objectives of ending the jihadists have not been achieved in the Sahel

We also observe that since the withdrawal of the French army, jihadist groups have not hesitated to communicate on the supposed exactions of the army and their deputies of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner against civilians. Doesn’t the “informational battle” between Wagner and France in Africa risk distracting from the real problems on the ground?

In West Africa, Wagner is surfing on a context, which is that of the disappointment of several African public opinions with regard to the relationship with France. According to my own field research, in these countries, the populations are rather disappointed with the lack of results on the military front. In some villages, they see the French military pass by without seeing the situation change. They feel excluded. In public opinion, this discontent was transformed with the idea that with Wagner the war was already won in advance.

It is illusory to believe that Wagner or Russia alone will solve the Sahelian crisis. The solution goes beyond security and the military. The response must be holistic, meaning that Sahelian governments must focus on both military and security to stabilize, socio-economic development to reduce the breeding ground for recruitment, and at the same time ensure the return of the state, good governance, and the rebuilding of communities, not to mention ensuring an end to impunity.

In my view, too much is being made of Russia and Wagner on this side. If Burkina Faso, Mali or Niger want to enter into bilateral partnerships, they should be able to do so. If the choice is Russia, why not create the conditions for complementarity between all stakeholders with the objective of quickly restoring security for the populations? The problem is the contracting of mercenary services.

The same scenario seems to be emerging in Burkina Faso. Do you think that, like Bamako, Ouagadougou will go all the way in breaking with France and welcoming the Russian militia group of Wagner or do you think that, on the contrary, Burkina will remain in a more cautious approach?

Since its independence, Burkina Faso has always been reluctant to accept any external military presence on its soil, which can be explained by its socio-political history. This is explained by its socio-political history. The country is known as the land of “Men of Integrity”, and the legacy of Thomas Sankara lives on. The country is the only one to officially call on VDPs, civilian volunteers, who support the security and defense forces. It was not until 2018 that the military cooperation agreements with France were signed, which led to the installation of the Sabre military at Camp Kamboinsin, under the presidency of former President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, because of the deteriorating security context.

After two coups d’état, this was a golden opportunity for the regime of Captain Ibrahim Traoré to assert its sovereignty, particularly in terms of defense. In this way, it is responding to a demand from a part of Burkinabe opinion that cooperation with France is not satisfactory. The wind of sovereignty blowing from Bamako to the other Sahelian countries has also changed the situation. However, Ouagadougou is taking a different approach.

The authorities seem to me to be very cautious about bringing in Wagner. In Mali, some of the officials trained in the former USSR were ready to break all bilateral relations with France and they cared little about their immediate ECOWAS neighbors. In Burkina Faso, the junta is very sensitive to the reactions of a country like Côte d’Ivoire, with which there are strong historical, economic and social ties. The junta would not want to fall out with Ghana either, as President Akufo-Addo has expressed his hostility to Wagner’s arrival.

This Interview was first published in frensh here.


Leave a Reply