Jihadist conflicts are now a part of West Africa’s political makeup, as militant Islamist groups resist numerous campaigns to counter them.
In 2021, three of the ten countries most affected by terrorism globally were Sahel countries – Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, according to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index. Similarly, ten of the 20 deadliest attacks of 2021 occurred in the region. In 2022, most member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are dealing with some form of militant Islamist presence.
These developments come with a staggering cost. Aside from deaths, injuries and displaced persons, confidence is waning in countries’ ability to govern and to support healthy economies. Countries have therefore initiated regional programmes to counter terrorism, such as the Accra Initiative (2017), and several national legal and policy frameworks. These range from border security to intelligence gathering and building community resilience.
These measures are necessary – but not enough. Coastal West African countries must think differently to prevent jihadist conflicts from worsening. They must move away from traditional counter-terrorism practices which respond to the threat in the short term, towards nation building interventions that prevent it in the long term. There must be a more comprehensive look at the threat, taking into account the governance issues that have led to the present.
How did we get here?
Militant Islamist groups have undergone many changes: splits, alliances and shifting allegiances to global projects such as ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Between 2010 and 2017, campaigns to counter militant Islamist groups were mainly geographically focused on individual groups such as Boko Haram, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and al Mourabitoun. As the threat becomes more regional and less national, there is less mention of individual groups. Jihadist coalitions such as the Islamic State in West Africa Province ISWAP, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin JNIM have become more prominent.
This shows that Islamist militant groups are consolidating their presence. They are defying national boundaries and numerous counter-terrorism efforts.
Moreover, over time, the activities of militant Islamist groups are increasingly presenting them as criminal cells engaging in profiteering and destructive politics. They act less like grievance-based organisations seeking religious puritanism and alternative politics.
Still, they could continue to strengthen their reach and increase and threaten multiple levels of security.
A new approach to violent extremism
West African countries need a different approach to countering violent extremism.
They must see the enablers of terrorism in different shades and degrees. The ease with which Islamist groups are strengthening across the West African sub-region indicates that coastal countries’ socio-political, geographical and historical makeup is not very different from that of Mali, Burkina Faso or Niger, in terms of the conditions that give rise to terrorism.
Countries also need to appreciate that jihadist groups are not all the same as each other. The elements and actors of Islamist militancy differ regarding the type of presence, modus operandi, fundamental and strategic motives and the balance of power between them and others.
Coastal West African countries must therefore disaggregate the threat and respond accordingly. Sustainable and comprehensive counter-terrorism must cover more ground and have short-term, medium-term and long-term measures.
What works in one place doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere. Military campaigns may work in Iraq, but not necessarily in the Sahel. Similarly, coastal West African countries may not need the same prevention measures as Mali.
The days when Islamist groups were simply “Islamic”, “Middle Eastern” and “anti-West” are also over. They are active political actors, even if they are aberrations to the norm. And jihadist and non-jihadist conflicts are more alike than they are different.
Violent Islamist extremist groups are also as African as they are global, if not more so. The Sahel situation challenges claims that jihadist groups are fundamentally external. For this reason, Islamist militancy in coastal West African countries is not a “coming” threat; it’s “already here”, as part of the present.
Seeing it this way allows countries to look inward rather than outward to counter violent extremism. It also takes the emphasis away from border security and puts it on human security to prevent groups from growing within countries.
Coastal countries must recognise that decisions and statements could be part of the problem. For instance, the dragnet attack on suspected Boko Haram members in 2009, leading to the death of leading member Mohammed Yusuf, pushed the group to become more militant.
Political statements and policies can also fuel Islamophobia and legitimise the rhetoric of militancy. Surveillance practices can backfire. Certain words can turn counter-extremism insights into insults that undermine national security.
That’s why, without careful implementation, even Ghana’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign could create more problems. Security agencies, therefore, require training in cultural diversity, religious sensitivity and national belonging during their work.
Then there is the need for African leadership in response policies. For example, counterinsurgency by Mozambican forces in conjunction with Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community has resulted in a reduction in terrorism deaths.
In this sense, the Accra Initiative is vital. However, regional power dynamics could also defeat counter-terrorism efforts. This happened in the Lake Chad basin with the Multinational Joint Task Force.
Multilateral partnerships in counter-terrorism are crucial, especially through intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations, the African Union and ECOWAS. But actors must acknowledge the different political settings and not impose a “universal” logic on “particular” local contexts.
Local grievances and governance deficits are the key causes of political extremism. That’s why governments must take some blame for the conditions that foster extremist political sentiments.
It is also why West African countries must not only defeat terrorism, they must also resolve the conditions that produce it.