When the term ‘radical jihadist’ is thrown around the seemingly never ending Middle Eastern conflicts pops into mind. Though in recent years a new jihadist threat has been brewing in the African Sahel. The Sahel, is a region of central Africa that closely borders the Sahara Desert, it spans across the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania (this is a non exhaustive list). The U.S. military has been referring to the Sahel more and more as “the new front in the war on terrosism”.
The war in this region has been growing rapidly. Jihadist groups killed “ten times more people were killed in 2014.” Two main groups of jihadists are involved: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); and Jama’at Nasar al-Islam wal Musllimin (JNIM) which is closley linked with al-Qaeda.
The insurgent groups have lost ground in the Middle East, and are now expanding in Africa. This takes funding. Many African countries are large exporters of gold. These terrorist groups are readily gaining control over gold mines and making money off of them, effectively funding the groups for the long term.
Burkina Faso has an official gold industry though black market mining produces far more gold. “Just 2% of Burkina Faso’s gold output is exported through official channels”. Most of the informally produced gold in Burkina Faso is smuggled into neighboring countries, particularly Togo. The gold is then passed to larger countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Switzerland, and India for further processing and distribution.
Gold has historically been an optimal currency for insurgents, because it retains its value and is widely accepted as a currency in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
William Linder, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer who served is West Africa, states, “Violent extremists have extended their areas of control and have enhanced their ability to generate income through gold – while state actors remain poorly positioned to do anything about it. Failure to fix this problem now will only deepen and help spread the Sahel crisis.”
While it might not be highly publicized in the media, there is already foreign involvement in the region, with some 5,100 French troops, 1,200 U.S. troops, and 15,000 UN blue helmets on the ground. With American forces leaving Afghanistan, the Sahel will soon be the West’s biggest combat zone.
Many gold mines have been shut down by the government because they are on nature preserves, and serve as a threat to the wildlife. This subsequently leaves many men jobless, and without a reliable income. One of the ways that the insurgent groups are winning over locals is by allowing them to mine in these protected areas. “In a country (Burkina Faso) with annual incomes of just $660 a head according to the World Bank, government efforts to close off mines to individual diggers – whether for conservation or to make way for big business – are unpopular.”
In order to gain more support with native people JNIM and ISGS have framed their messages as “fighting a neo-colonial enemy bent on stealing Africa’s riches”. The radical jihadists have also fitted there narrative to local situations, “reflecting some of the concerns of the diverse ethnic groups, Tuaregs, Arabs/Moors and black African Fulani and Songhai.”
A variable further complicating the issue is that government forces have been extremely rough with local populations, leading many people to lean toward the terrorists’ cause. “This year, more civilians in the Sahel have been killed by government soldiers than by jihadists, says José Luengo-Cabrera of the International Crisis Group (icg), a Brussels-based NGO.” President Roch Marc Christian Kaborè of Burkina Faso privately remarked that some of his citizens would feel safer living amongst the various terrorist groups as opposed to the government’s security forces.
To make matters worse, the jihadists are gaining control in three different directions. To the south the insurgent groups threaten Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo. In the west there have been attacks in Mali in close proximity to its border with Senegal. Towards the east with Nigeria’s insurgent groups. “The jihadists already have a “de facto safe haven in northern Mali”, says General Dagvin Anderson”.
In Mali there are growing calls for negotiations with the jihadists. The Mali government has extended an offer to talk with JNIM, the group has agreed once foreign troops have left, though this is unlikely. Though the jihadists have little incentive to negotiate while they are winning on the frontline .
As many western forces pull out of the Middle East, the fight against radical jihadists grows in the Sahel. There is no easy solution, and the immediate future seems murky.