COVID-19: An Opportune Moment for Jihadi Groups in the Central Sahel

Security in the central Sahel has long been a fragile and elusive goal, and prior to the Coronavirus pandemic regional governments and their international sponsors had long struggled to effectively suppress the region’s Al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliated jihadi groups. This situation has been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic, which has simultaneously interrupted international aid and stabilisation efforts while creating new opportunities for jihadi groups to exploit. In this piece, Ayyub Ibrahim explores the risks facing this troubled region.

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Prior to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the central Sahelian governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, had been unsuccessful in preventing terrorist groups, the region’s two most notorious being Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), an Islamic State affiliate, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) also known as Group in Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), an Al-Qaeda coalition affiliate, from increasing and expanding their capacity to carry out attacks. This was underscored by the region’s 4,000 confirmed deaths by terrorist-attack in 2019, a five-fold increase since 2016; and the groups’ expansion south from northern Mali into central Mali, Niger, and most notably, Burkina Faso, which accounted for 1,800 of the 4000 confirmed deaths in 2019 –  a 2150% increase from 2016.

This rise in violence in the central Sahel occurred despite the support governments received in aid and arms from the G5 Sahel Joint Force (G5S), an intergovernmental cooperation force comprised of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger and subsidised by the international community; the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA); 5100 French troops as part of Operation Barkhane, France’s largest international deployment, assisted by the United States military; and three European Union Missions.

COVID-19 presents an extraordinary opportunity for terrorist groups operating in the central Sahel to build on their gains, as the response by central Sahelian governments and the international community to COVID-19, in particular the preventive measures implemented to contain the pandemic, has exacerbated conditions, namely resource, economic and community insecurity, that have been essential to the groups’ recent success.

While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the central Sahel were relatively low as of June 12, 2020; 892 in Burkina Faso; 1,722 in Mali, and 974 in Niger, the decision by central Sahelian governments to implement preventive measures have produced an immediate negative impact on resource and economic security for many central Sahelians. By imposing preventive measures, such as border and travel restrictions and community lockdowns, governments have suppressed economic activity, fractured food supply chains, and impaired the ability of humanitarian aid organisations to provide essential services. Furthermore, the region’s lack of health infrastructure, combined with generally poor health outcomes, all but assures that the central Sahelians who contract COVID-19 will not receive proper care.

In contrast to the relatively low number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, as of June 8, 2020, 5.5 million central Sahelians were facing emergency levels of food insecurity, the highest levels in a decade; and a record 7.5 million central Sahelians required humanitarian aid, up from last year’s 6.1 million. Food has become unaffordable for many central Sahelians, particularly the many whose work is affected by the preventive measures in place, as disruptions to food supply chains have caused food prices to spike, a repercussion of export-import restrictions and widespread local market closures owing to their failure to comply with social distancing regulations. Traditionally, shocks to the food supply would be mitigated to an extent by support from humanitarian aid organisations, however, a lack of funding and border and travel restrictions have affected the ability of humanitarian aid organisations to receive and distribute goods. Furthermore, cash transfer programs administered by humanitarian aid organisations, which in normal times work to boost economic development and employment, are undermined by a decline in the number of central Sahelians who can access markets and cash distribution centres, as well as the swell in food prices.

Fundamental to the terrorist groups’ recent success is their ability to obtain local support, recruits, and finances by providing otherwise unavailable services intrinsic to resource, economic, and community security in central Sahelian communities, especially where inter-communal tensions and violence is high. Smuggling is one such service, for example, that central Sahelians may increasingly use to obtain goods, especially in the event that a rise in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases leads governments to move from a containment strategy to a mitigation strategy that involves more severe border and travel restrictions and community lockdowns. As the measures imposed continue to exacerbate resource and economic insecurity for central Sahelians, a subsequent spike in violence between pastoralist, semi-pastoralist, and sedentary communities competing for resources is likely – a scenario favourable to groups, such as ISGS and JNIM, adept at capitalising on inter-communal violence to supersede local authority and gain legitimacy.

Moreover, in light of the decision by regional governments and the international community to shift resources from containing terrorism to COVID-19, terrorist groups, who have in turn increased the number and intensity of their attacks, are presented with an opportunity to achieve a key goal of theirs – to expand their attacks further south into new territories, namely the West African coastal nations of Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana, which have remained relatively unaffected by violent conflict. Despite averting a spillover in violence from their northern neighbours, West Africa’s coastal nations have been integral to the terrorists’ economy by functioning as sources and transit zones for the groups’ funding and logistics supply chains. If the groups’ financial influence is an indication of their general influence in the region, their likelihood of success, should the groups begin to concentrate their efforts on increasing their attacks in the West African coastal nations, should be concerning to regional governments and the international community, who actively made thwarting this goal a priority before the emergence of COVID-19.

In a sign of what may be to come, French defence minister Florence Parly’s June 5, 2020 announcement that the French military had killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, creator of JNIM, was eclipsed the following week by the news that JNIM had succeeded in executing an attack in Cote d’Ivoire, the first since 2016.

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Ayyub Ibrahim is an American security analyst focusing on human rights and international development, with a background in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania. Ayyub has previously worked for the World Justice Project in Washington D.C. and the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies in Jordan, and on Agricultural development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Photo: French troops deployed on Operation Barkhane, wikimedia commons