The jihadist insurgency in the Sahel, despite years of Western-backed efforts to counter it, is nonetheless expanding. Threats that were primarily concentrated in states such as Mali are now strategically expanding south into the littoral states on the Gulf of Guinea: Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire. Understanding why efforts to stymie jihadist insurgent groups, to include affiliates of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, have failed over recent years is essential to ensuring the expanding threat can be slowed down and reversed.
The southward expansion of jihadist insurgency into the littorals is facilitated by two structural drivers. First are the socioeconomic vulnerabilities present in peripheral communities that draw in illicit actors to include jihadists. These vulnerabilities stem from the failure of governments to manage—or in some cases even recognize the absence of—development, education, and access to resources. Second, porous borders and untenable levels of low-grade criminality, coupled with predatory responses by ill-equipped and poorly trained government forces, facilitate insecurity and propel individuals and communities toward jihadists.
The region is at an inflection point. Right now, there is an opportunity for the United States and its European and African partners to get ahead of this growing threat. However, to avoid repeating the mistakes seen in the Sahel, the partners will need a recalibrated approach that does not simply repackage counter–violent extremism and counterterrorism policies and activities that have proven ineffective. The response in the littorals must be African driven, through the G5 Sahel and the Accra Initiative. A coordinated multinational effort will need to combine security force assistance (Western training missions with African partners), development initiatives (cooperation units and the United States Agency for International Development), and diplomatic efforts. The Western approach to countering jihadist insurgency in the Sahel has failed. A new way forward is needed.
Ungoverned Spaces Provide Safe Haven for Insurgent Expansion
Jihadists linked to both the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the regional al-Qaeda franchise, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), have for years moved with impunity throughout the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) Complex that spans Niger, Burkina Faso, and Benin. The movement was first seen along transhumance corridors, which extend from southern Algeria into these parks on the borders of the littorals, soon after France’s counterterrorism operations in Mali began in 2013. Local recruits, familiar with these corridors, moved southward in search of safe resting spaces in the forests during French operations in the Sahel. The parks, including the WAP Complex and Comoé National Park in Côte d’Ivoire, offer dense forest cover that makes aerial surveillance difficult, provide access to food and fuel supplies, and offer expanded influence and ready recruitment pools in susceptible, marginalized communities.
The 2019 kidnappings of two French tourists in Benin’s Pendjari National Park and the assassination of a Spanish priest traveling from Togo into Burkina Faso were watershed moments for jihadists in the littorals. The deliberate targeting of Westerners had ramifications for aid workers and development organizations that viewed these countries as stable. Moreover, the capacity for these groups to kidnap Westerners in the littoral states highlighted the mounting capabilities of JNIM and ISGS as well as the expansion of their regional networks of facilitators, combatants, and supporters deep into the coastal states.
Until recently, counterterrorism experts discounted jihadists’ ability to expand into littoral West Africa because these states, unlike their Sahelian neighbors, were more politically stable and had greater control of their borders. According to this logic, the stronger security forces and governance structures in the littoral states made jihadism unwelcome. The complexity of the kidnapping and assassination operations indicated that the groups had a more permanent fixture in the WAP Complex and surrounding communities in Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso than previously believed. In particular, the ungoverned, disputed territory around the town of Koalou, at the intersection of these three countries, has become a safe space for jihadist movement and a staging area inaccessible to security forces.
A North-South Structural Divide Sets Conditions for Jihadist Expansion
While the littorals are not as fragile as the Sahel, they nonetheless exhibit structural vulnerabilities, perpetuated by a north-south divide in development and economic opportunity. Underdevelopment is rampant in the north due to distance from the economic boom towns near ports of entry along the coastline. The divide is exacerbated by poor infrastructure and lack of roads. Northern Muslim-majority populations, largely agrarian based and mobile, are generally deprived of resources—such as access to jobs and education—available to the more industrialized southern regions. This is most evident with respect to the Peuhl, who have become increasingly marginalized by modern institutional and socioeconomic changes. Jihadists are exploiting mounting grievances among the Peuhl and other disenfranchised groups in peripheral communities, capitalizing on socioeconomic marginalization, intercommunal violence, and illicit supply chains. A vicious cycle is underway, whereby government security forces and pro-state communal militias react to the ethnic-oriented jihadist recruitment campaigns by targeting Peuhl communities with indiscriminate violence for their association with jihadists.
Ignoring rising intercommunal violence as a future indicator of jihadist expansion—as has been witnessed in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger—also delays meaningful government response before violence becomes rampant. These localized tensions risk destabilizing the littoral states in the same way that intercommunal violence between the Peuhl and Tuareg communities in Niger’s Tillabéri region escalated into the ISGS insurgency that ambushed US Special Forces in Tongo Tongo in 2017. For example, decades-old chieftaincy conflicts that the Ghanaian and Togolese governments have been unable to quell are now drawing in Burkinabe armed groups with cultural and familial ties to one side or the other. As Burkinabe security forces undertake planned clearing operations inside the safe haven provided by W Regional Park and Arly National Park, jihadists will likely seek shelter along the borders with Ghana and Togo, and from there, use the chieftaincy issues as a more deliberate point of entry into the littorals. As a result, US and European policy and security officials in Burkina Faso need to pivot their focus and assistance to the country’s southern regions, likely the last areas of the country that can remain stable, to stem the Islamists’ advance.
An Evolved Jihadism in Africa
Commercial and historical familial, cultural, and linguistic ties binding these crossborder communities already exist, making it a matter of time for jihadists to be drawn south. Transnational links facilitate regular movement of migrants, herders, and merchants, including illicit smugglers moving artisanal gold, narcotics, and arms. The supply chain of illicit activity that facilitates and finances crime and jihadism in the Sahel both begins and ends in the littorals’ northern markets.
Jihadist expansion into the littorals is increasingly deliberate, as evidenced by a video of jihadist kingpins, including Iyad ag Ghaly and Amadou Koufa, detailing these plans at a 2020 meeting in Mali. Jihadists adopted a decentralization strategy after French-led Operation Serval began clearing operations in 2013, dispersing al-Qaeda strongholds in northern Mali. Jihadist leadership in the region realized that by creating an insurgency and conducting operations through remote and marginalized communities in the vacuum of governance, they could comfortably stage, train, and reinforce their units. They recruited from these local areas without disruption and eventually controlled territory by amassing a sizable civilian-led insurgency against African and Western counterterrorism forces.
The recent death of Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau left the insurgency in the Lake Chad region in flux. It created the possibility that the Islamic State’s West Africa Province and its affiliates could move closer to cementing an alliance with ISGS. This would create a sizable Islamic State sphere of influence across West Africa, or perhaps more accurately a jihadist area of responsibility, in which they could move with impunity across the littoral states. As the French counterterrorism Operation Barkhane draws down, jihadists are ever more likely to become a permanent fixture in the littorals.
In response, the United States and its partners should recalibrate their approach to counter–violent extremism and counterterrorism in the region. Containment has proven unsuccessful in the Sahel and it will likewise fail in the littorals. There may be limited interest by Western partners to invest more security resources in the region, but the United States and its European partners can still identify effective ways to galvanize existing security, as well as development-driven counter–violent extremism assistance, to create systemic change. This would be a welcome alternative to promoting dependency issues and propping up corrupt and ineffective governments, as is often currently done.
Civil Society is the Lynchpin to West African Counterinsurgency
US security and development assistance strategies in West Africa will need to address structural causes of underdevelopment and security forces’ weakness that erode trust in government. US approaches that bolster leaders and security forces who are corrupt or abusive, rather than placing the best interests of communities in the fore, will continue to drive communities and individuals toward insurgency.
While it would be easy to assume ideology is driving individuals to these groups, research shows that ideology is not as much a driver to jihadism as once thought. Rather, the associative religious factor is a means for jihadists to connect with local communities on a sociopolitical level after providing governance and security to marginalized groups. In Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, ISGS and JNIM use socioeconomic grievances, such as the (perceived) social and political marginalization of ethnic groups and a frail social contract with the state, to recruit and adapt their influence on the local context. Jihadists in the WAP Complex are reportedly recruiting among communities that were displaced from their land by African Parks Network, a conservation nongovernmental organization that now manages Pendjari National Park and W Regional Park inside Benin.
While the region is not flooded with US projects, US Special Forces have taken small steps to coordinate with the US Agency for International Development and the State Department on projects that focus on reducing the presence of jihadist influence and activity. Among these projects are civilian-led counterinsurgency efforts that promote defections from jihadist insurgencies or build the capacity of civil society to promote counter–violent extremism campaigns. These efforts focus on civil-military engagement in the short term, and economic and social development that mitigate the root causes of insurgencies in the long term. These projects have shown promise but are difficult to expand. Policies in Washington, DC bar projects from mixing funding from different agencies, making it a challenge for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development to officially work with the US military on counterinsurgency.
Civil society—community-based organizations, such as religious and trade associations or women’s groups—in the northern areas of the littorals often has an outsized role in representing the local population. These groups should be at the forefront of a counterinsurgency response, to inhibit jihadist recruitment by reaching communities first and to simultaneously build civil-military coordination. However, the success of this approach hinges on communities trusting the government, which is undermined by the security forces’ predatory approach, as seen in parts of Niger and Burkina Faso. This can be lessened by carrying out inclusive recruitment in the security forces and mandating human rights training, particularly in places like Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, where corruption and military misconduct have created distrust of the security forces.
Lack of coherent and transparent military operations is another reason why jihadism has managed to proliferate and expand outside the Sahel and into the littorals. Numerous multilateral missions have often failed to agree upon and communicate a centralized objective, leading to incoherent operations. The joint Ivorian-Burkinabe Operation Comoé in the spring of 2020 is an example. Disconnected policies and poor coordination between the two militaries led to failed intelligence sharing, followed by racketeering in the border area between the two states. Since these borders are porous, jihadists fleeing kinetic operations crossed into Côte d’Ivoire, settled, and subsequently carried out an attack in Kafolo once the dust had settled. Poorly coordinated operations inadvertently fan jihadists out across the region rather than containing their areas of control.
These counterterrorism missions need to build trust with communities and encourage civilian coordination with security forces by carrying out the counter–violent extremism work in tandem with kinetic operations. This can be done by promoting defections, negotiating cessations of hostilities between local groups that are engaged in intercommunal conflict, and building counter-influence campaigns that double as intelligence networks that can provide early warning of jihadist movement and activity. Dialogue with some insurgents should not be dismissed, as jihadist groups are segmented, and various members—from foot soldiers to leaders—often pursue different goals. However, to avoid deepening intercommunal divides or further delegitimizing the state, the negotiations need to be inclusive and appropriately sequenced with national policies.
Western partners need to approach jihadist expansion in the littorals through a coordinated strategic effort, ensuring that development and humanitarian interventions are in lockstep with security assistance. Instead of throwing more resources at the problems in West Africa, the United States and its European partners need to improve interagency and multilateral coordination. Jihadists’ approach in West Africa is to champion the perception that corrupt governments do not have marginalized communities’ best interests at play. When the United States and European partners bolster, instead of holding accountable, leaders that are in many cases an affront to democracy and human rights, the approach feeds directly into jihadist groups’ recruiting narratives and raisons d’être. If the Western approach in the littorals follows the model deployed in the Sahel, so too will its outcome.
Aneliese Bernard is a consultant with experience in stabilization, DDR, and civil-military engagement in West Africa and Mozambique. She previously worked for the Department of State in Niger, leading a defections program within the counter–Boko Haram interagency effort. This article is prepared on the basis of the recent mixed-methodology field research study she led, “Tracking Violent Extremism Spillover from the Sahel into the Littorals.” Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a full copy of the report.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Kyle M. Alvarez, US Army