Interview. 'We are faced with individuals who fit in among the local populations and who know how to make the most of the shortcomings of the state.'

‘Violence and protection”’ – the secret to jihadist success in the Sahel

The exponential growth of attacks against military bases and against civilians during the last few months has turned the Sahel into one of the most dangerous and difficult areas, especially in connection with the rise of jihadist groups. Il manifesto spoke about this situation with Ibrahim Maiga, chief researcher of the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Bamako, one of the main research and monitoring bodies at the global level.

Why has the Sahel become a favorable terrain for jihadist ideology in recent years, starting with Mali?

The process of radicalization and expansion of jihadist ideology began at the end of the ‘90s, with the flight from Algeria of numerous militiamen and ideologists of the AIG (Armed Islamic Group), and thus had an external source of development. Subsequently, internal factors were added to the mix, tied prevalently to the expansion of the jihadist groups in peripheral and border areas where the militiamen took up the role of a substitute for the absent state in terms of protection and control. Then, in 2012, came the rise of many leaders who were no longer foreigners, but native Malians, Burkinabé or Nigerians.

What has been the subsequent evolution during these years, which culminated in the recent attacks against military bases in the Sahel?

In their evolution, the two main groups in the Sahel (JNIM, tied to al Qaeda, and ISGS, tied to the Islamic State – n.ed.) have recruited numerous local militiamen, aiming above all at providing protection and shelter among different groups and communities. The economic aspect is also relevant, due to the fact that they are hiring militiamen and paying them, in areas that are very poor and without any prospects. The strategy, especially in the context of the attacks of this last period, between 2019 and 2020, is that of alternating protection activities with brutal attacks against civilians to claim control of the territory.

What is the real objective of these two groups – are there differences in their ideology or approach in the territory?

The approach remains the same: protection alternating with violence. Although the two factions are fighting for domination in the area, both are exploiting the absence of the state and the lack of security, as well as fomenting inter-community divisions (between the peul, tuareg, dongo, bambara) to impose their presence on the territory.

What do you think of the possible negotiations with some jihadist groups that were recently hinted at by the Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita?

It is a possibility, especially after the past military failures and defeats and the willingness of the JNIM to negotiate, on the condition of a total withdrawal of French troops from Mali. This openness to dialogue, however, aims to put the collaboration between the Malian government and Paris into question. The organization for which I work had already made a recommendation on the possibility of dialogue, if not with the top leadership, at least with the intermediate leaders, which sometimes have much stronger local roots. This is simply because our studies show that the people who join these groups often don’t do so out of ideology: they do it out of frustration, sometimes out of a spirit of revenge, so, if given support, these people could escape from the jihadist groups. However, dialogue should go hand in hand with strong action to bring back the state in all these areas, at the level of governance.

Can the solutions proposed at the Pau Summit in January 2020 and the cooperation agreement between the Barkhane French mission and the Sahel G5 actually work?

The military option has been totally ineffective at the moment, and it must be instrumental to a political and security solution. I think that some measures can serve to counter the jihadist rise in the area, even if this type of fight will be a long one and will inevitably have to include an improvement of the Sahel governments in terms of governance, security, the fight against corruption and an improvement in living conditions, especially in rural and border areas. We are faced with individuals who fit in among the local populations and who know how to make the most of the shortcomings of the state. This resilience of the jihadist groups also raises the wider issue of governance, which is often addressed in political discourse, but not sufficiently—or not at all—at a concrete level regarding the response against insecurity in the Sahel that must be implemented.

What is the future of jihadism in the Sahel, and how can we effectively fight it?

At the tactical-military level, international economic support should be increased to improve the equipment of the armed forces of the Sahel, which are poorly equipped compared to the jihadist groups that are well organized, thanks also to the arrival of militiamen from Syria through Libya. At the political level, it can be fought with an improvement in governance. The “success” of the jihadists lies in their capacity to insinuate themselves into the deficiencies of the state. In some cases, they do so with coercion, but often they do so by bringing in standards of governing and accountability, persuading communities from the grassroots level by drawing a contrast with the absence of the central governments or the violence perpetrated by them. Not abandoning these communities is an essential responsibility of the states in the region if this struggle is to be won. And, finally, on a social level, “we will not win the war without the help of the people”—this is what we keep saying to the Sahel governments. This means not falling into the past mistakes of corruption and indiscriminate violence by the military against the civilian population. For now, jihadist leaders seem to be better sociologists and politicians than the elected officials of the states. A failure to draw the consequences of this observation means seriously jeopardizing the states’ ability to build their legitimacy on the local level.

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