Insecurity has become the major subject for the Heads of State of West African countries. An insecurity that increasingly threatens the territorial integrity of several countries stretching between the Sahelo-Saharan strip and the Gulf of Guinea. Can we really overcome this phenomenon?
Violent extremism, armed insurgencies, cross-border crime, cybercrime for ideological purposes, political assassinations or even banditry... These security threats all fall under the legal definition of the crime of terrorism, as defined by Berto Jongman in 1988. A concept taken up in the legislation of the world, particularly since the Patriot Act, the American law whose objective is to "provide the appropriate tools to detect and counter terrorism". Because of the excitement caused by the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Patriot Act has become a reference in many other countries on the planet.
In Africa, the development of terrorist organizations took place in two phases. The first took place simultaneously around Lake Chad, the natural border separating the dense forest regions between Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, and in the Algerian-Malian Sahara. We then witnessed the birth of the first two projects for African jihadist caliphates, with, on the one hand, Boko Haram in Nigeria and, on the other, the Salafist Group for Prediction and Combat (GSPC) in northern Mali, in 2002.
During the five years that followed, the commanders of the GSPC formed the first African armed terrorist group (ATG) loyal to the Pakistani-Afghan nebula known worldwide since September 2001: al-Qaeda. Called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi), the terrorist group was, between 2001 and 2013, mainly active in Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, to a lesser extent in northern Niger and Mali.
Meanwhile, Boko Haram looked more and more like a gang or a sect, having no real political demands. But the ideology of Boko Haram "equating States with the corruption that characterized them", according to Christian Seignobos, author of "Boko Haram: warlike innovations from the Mandara mountains".
The war in Libya, a major turning point
Until 2011, Aqmi and Boko Haram had a hard time recruiting massively in West Africa. The Sahelian countries were experiencing a relative economic boom due to oil and mining windfalls. And the populations did not have access to a point of reference of their socio-economic situation, besides decades of postcolonial chaos. Because globalization, and its first tool, the Internet, had not yet developed.
According to the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), the only apolitical global platform specialized in the fight against terrorism in which African experts have been present since the foundation, Internet penetration in Africa has been "parallel to the resurgence of the recruitment of armed groups on the continent”.
The major turning point came in 2011, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), influenced by France and the UK, decided to interfere in the Libyan civil war. The confrontations between Muammar Gaddafi and his Tuareg, Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries on the one hand, and Libyan rebels and opponents led by former Gaddafi soldiers and armed by NATO on the other, marked the start of the return of thousands of African jihadists from the Middle East.
Over the months that followed the death of Gaddafi and the crumbling of his regime, these elements, armed with equipment stolen from Gaddafi's armories in southern Libya, and enriched by the smuggling of arms, hydrocarbons and migrants, have gradually joined the "Three Borders" zone in western Niger.
An "all-military strategy" that has never curbed terrorism
It was therefore between 2011 and 2016 that al-Qaeda wove its web in the Sahel, and that Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. The terrorist groups that are still raging in West Africa today have also taken advantage of Western operations in Libya, then in Mali — Serval, then Barkhane —, using them as an effective propaganda tool.
The Islamic State in West Africa (EIWA) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) then proliferated in Niger and Nigeria. AQIM, in return, has extended its influence in regions long neglected by the Malian, Burkinabè and Nigerien states, the infamous area of the “Three Borders”.
Mali's east, where Tuareg militias were rebelling against Bamako, was also impassable terrain for the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and French Barkhane forces, as well as their European allies. A context in which the Katiba Macina and the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), the last two standard bearers of al-Qaeda in Africa, have developed.
The inaction of the States of the region in the areas of development and education has been accompanied by an all-military strategy of Western forces in the Sahel. And it was difficult for rural West African populations to ignore the effect of the French presence, considered insolent, on the radicalization of young people.
According to the researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), Caroline Roussy, "the Barkhane force is increasingly considered as an occupying force". An observation shared by many French soldiers, by Malian and Burkinabè civil society, for years, but which Paris ended up ignoring. At the same time, French support for the Déby regimes in Chad, Biya in Cameroon, IBK in Mali or Compaoré in Burkina Faso did not help matters. For years, the GATs became politicized and established parallel states in the rural regions of the Sahelo-Saharan strip.
Africa, the continent most affected by terrorism
Today, the security situation in the Sahel “mortgages the future of the populations”, according to the head of the UN office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Mahamat Saleh Annadif. Before the United Nations Security Council, Annadif assured in January that "the consequences could be felt far beyond the West African sub-region".
According to the latest Global Terrorism Index (GTI), West Africa has been, since 2017, the region where terrorist groups are the most deadly. In 2021, five of the ten most serious terrorist attacks took place in Niger and Burkina Faso, with 430 civilian deaths. The whole of Africa suffered 3 victims among just over 461 in the world in 7. That is half of the world's fatalities.
Another finding noted by the GTI: “Politically motivated terrorism has now taken over religiously motivated armed violence. The latter fell by 82% in 2021. Over the past five years, there have been five times more politically motivated terrorist attacks than religiously motivated ones”.
West Africa is, today, the second region of the world with the most terrorist elements in the world after the MENA region (which includes North Africa, the Middle East and the Horn of the 'Africa). The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), which establishes the GTI annually, says that Niger is the country where victims of terrorism have increased the most. And the terrorist group GSIM, of Iyad Ag Ghali, is said to be the deadliest in Africa and the second most dangerous in the world after the Afghan branch of the Islamic State.
Are West African states playing into the hands of terrorist groups?
In the latest annual report of the United Nations Security Council on West Africa and the Sahel, the UN assures that, despite the increase in terrorist attacks in the Sahel, some African countries have recorded a drop in attacks. This is particularly the case for Somalia, but also for Nigeria and Mali. On the other hand, the head of UNOWAS, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, believes that "the attacks in the north of Côte d'Ivoire, Benin and Togo demonstrate the reality of the displacement of acts of terrorism from the Sahel to the coastal countries of the Gulf of Guinea”.
The most recent attacks in Togo, Benin and Côte d'Ivoire, all of which targeted the army and military installations, mark a qualitative change in the activity of terrorist groups. The analyzes of the various specialized think tanks of these attacks show a certain negligence of the modus operandi, which is very different from that of the GATs in the Sahel.
Indeed, the more the activity of groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State advances towards the south, the more it mutates. Raids on military positions are increasingly replacing the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The fact that terrorist groups invest personnel, equipped with small arms, to attack government forces before looting the attacked positions with weapons and vehicles, is not unprecedented.
This is the third phase of the modus operandi of the “mother organizations” of these terrorist groups, commonly referred to as “al-ihtitab” – understanding “the affouage”. It succeeds the recognition and recruitment phases, and its goal is to raise funds, while creating a feeling of insecurity among the populations, by shaking the confidence of citizens in their State.
This shows, once again, that the neglect of the States of the West African region of rural development, the decline in good governance, and the "all-military" counter-terrorism strategy, constitute a climate conducive to radicalization, which therefore takes a vector more political than religious.
Another problem, in terms of communication, it is very difficult to fight against the propaganda of terrorist groups. The latter is rooted in the facts, West African governments are diplomatically focused on foreign powers. And governance in West Africa suffers from endemic corruption and mismanagement. The storytelling on the exploits of the "couffin presidents", the rejection of the fault on climate change or, worse, on agro-pastoral tensions and inter-ethnic conflicts struggle to convince.
Ill-prepared intelligence services?
Other factors explain the spread of terrorist crimes in West Africa. First, the lack of pragmatism of the intelligence services, which still use intelligence bulletins, and are too often dependent on the executive power of the State. A political police, in other words.
The French journalist and author François Soudan also believes that, "for lack of means and interest" African intelligence "has been completely neglected, remaining the exclusive prerogative of the French DGSE, the British MI6, the CIA American or the Israeli Mossad, which retransmitted to the African services the information they wanted to give them".
Even when this was the case, the Togolese example is obvious. Alerted in 2020, by a happy excess of media zeal by the boss of French foreign intelligence Bernard Emié, of the possible expansion of terrorist groups from the Sahel to Togo, how did Lomé proceed? Colossal military expenditure and the creation of a military zone on the border with Burkina Faso. Was that enough to anticipate, prepare for, or even repel the May 11 terrorist attack in time? No, the Togolese army suffered its deadliest attack, without even being able to recover a single one of the 15 dead assailants in order to identify them.
It should be noted that Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Benin have proceeded in the same way as Togo, to prepare for the expansion of Sahelian terrorist groups.
Concordant Togolese military and government sources, through documents consulted by the Journal de l'Afrique, had revealed that seven terrorist elements who "have certain links" with the GSIM, had been arrested in May 2021. They were then released , after months of questioning, against the backdrop of a legal conflict between national laws and international treaties.
However, since 2013 already, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), had alerted West African countries to the importance of prevention and the installation of effective counter-terrorism mechanisms. The difficulties on development caused by terrorism “should encourage West African States to effectively organize its prevention and repression. These considerations imply the adoption of appropriate anti-terrorism laws, insofar as it is the law which sets the general framework for the fight against terrorism,” reads an OECD report from April 2013.