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How Jihadists Are Creating Turmoil Across West Africa

Islamist militants have wrought havoc in West Africa. An insurgency that began in northern Mali in 2012 spread to Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, and threatens coastal states including Benin, Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast. Military juntas have toppled governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, accusing them of failing to provide security. Jihadists killed more than 1,300 civilians in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in 2021, bringing the toll since 2015 to more than 3,500, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Gold-mining operations, a key source of income, have also been targeted.

1. How did the trouble start?

It was triggered by instability in Mali and, further afield, in Libya, where a power vacuum opened up smuggling routes and access to weapons. A French military intervention in 2013 dealt a heavy blow to jihadist groups that partnered with ethnic Tuareg rebels to seize control of northern Mali a year earlier. Deprived of their urban bases, the jihadists resorted to bombings and hit-and-run attacks, targeting army posts and a United Nations peacekeeping mission that currently comprises more than 15,000 soldiers and police. They extended their operations to Burkina Faso, where a state of emergency in border regions did little to improve security.

2. What’s inflamed tensions?

The jihadists have exploited and fueled age-old rivalries between farmers and cattle herders who compete for land and scarce resources, recruiting members of aggrieved communities to their cause. A deadly attack occurred in Burkina Faso in June 2021, when militants killed at least 132 civilians and injured dozens more in the northern village of Solhan. There have also been intermittent strikes in Niger, including a 2017 ambush that claimed the lives of four American and four Nigerien soldiers. 

3. Which jihadist groups are involved?

There are numerous militants in the region and the line between jihadist and non-jihadist groups is often unclear. One of the biggest jihadist organizations is the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, which is known by the acronym JNIM. It has a stronghold in Mali and operates in the Sahel, a semi-arid region on the southern fringe of the Sahara.

4. What were its origins? 

JNIM was created in 2017 through an amalgamation of four groups. One of them, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is the oldest and best-known jihadist organization in the region and is known as AQIM. Originally formed under a different name to fight Algeria’s secular government in the 1990s, AQIM aligned with al-Qaeda in the 2000s and helped Tuareg rebels capture northern Mali in 2012.

5. Does Islamic State have a presence?

Yes, and its influence has grown. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which was formed after a split in the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, claimed responsibility for the attack in 2017 on U.S. and Nigerien troops. In August 2020, the group’s leader, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, personally ordered the killing of six French aid workers and guides and drivers in Niger. In 2021, France said it had “neutralized” Al-Sahrawi in an airstrike. While Islamic State and al-Qaeda have different strategies, fighters are believed to often pass back and forth between their coalitions.

6. Why is it so hard to stop the jihadists?

The Sahel is a vast region with a hostile climate, making it difficult to control. Analysts say jihadists have gained influence because state institutions are weak and have little reach beyond the cities. Some jihadist groups provide services to isolated communities, while others use social media to portray government neglect and fuel discontent over the failure of foreign troops to tackle security lapses. They also exploit ethnic differences and discontent among the young, who have slim job and marriage prospects. Radicalization is fueled by resentment against the state.

7. How have governments responded?

They have shared intelligence and cooperated more closely. Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Niger and Mauritania set up a regional force of 5,000 soldiers to fight terrorism and organized crime in border zones. That has worked alongside UN peacekeepers in Mali and a mobile French force, which was being scaled back. A total of 25,000 soldiers are on the ground in the Sahel, including 4,300 French troops. 

8. What has the French role been?

French forces entered Mali in 2013 under then-President Francois Hollande to stop al-Qaeda-linked militants from advancing toward the capital, Bamako. They ended up staying as violence spilled across borders. His successor, Emmanuel Macron, announced the French mission in the Sahel would be gradually replaced by a multinational European operation called Takuba, which fully deployed in April 2021. But by early 2022 that force was being withdrawn from Mali after a deterioration in relations culminated in the expulsion of France’s top diplomat in the West African nation. Instead, it was being redeployed to support soldiers in Niger. 

9. What is the political backdrop? 

Mali’s government was ousted in August 2020 and again in May 2021, while Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore was ousted in early 2022. Military officers in both countries have justified seizing power on the grounds that national security was under threat. The New York Times reported support among crowds in Burkina Faso in January for potential help from Russia to quell the insurgency, following its intervention in the Central African Republic.

10. How has gold mining been affected?

A boom in small-scale gold mining in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has provided armed groups with new sources of funding. They smuggle gold, provide security to operations in areas where the state’s presence is thin or, alternatively, extort miners. The industry, the main driver of exports in Burkina Faso and Mali, also provides targets for armed groups. Two attacks in 2019 on gold mines in Burkina Faso, one artisanal and the other operated by Canadian miner Semafo Inc., left more than 60 people dead.

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