Jihad South of the Sahara: The Local Roots of Transnational Violence

Northern Mali, June 2015. Photo Credit: AFP Photo/Philippe Desmazes

By: Tim Cook, Columnist

One of the most important keys to understanding an insurgency movement is to recognize the local conditions that allow it to exist. This is particularly apparent in the Sahel region of Africa, where insurgency is fueled by historical ethnic tensions, political contentions, and the geography itself. The Sahel is a long band of territory in northern Africa between the arid, uninhabited desert of the Sahara, and the dense rain forested lands to the south. The region spans several countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger; three nations embroiled in instability at the hands of radical jihadists.

When the popular imagination thinks of jihadist insurgencies, these three countries rarely come to mind, yet over the last six years the scope of the Sahel’s jihadist conflict has only grown. One of the primary drivers of this increase in violence was al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Since 2007, AQIM has operated across North Africa, but had particular success in northern Mali, where the group effectively held territory for a brief time in 2012 before being driven underground by an international coalition. The militant group has not wasted the intervening years however, as it has been spreading its ideology across the Maghreb and Sahel while forming ties with ethnic groups. To do so, AQIM has exploited longstanding ethnic grievances and environmental afflictions, by giving disenfranchised individuals a path to justice through jihad.

For the Fulani, a pastoral cattle-herding people that rely on vast swaths of uninhabited land, the Sahel itself has turned against them as climate change and poor land management methods transform their grasslands into desert. The group has been forced to encroach on agricultural territory in search of water and usable land for cattle. These incursions have prompted violent conflicts between farmers and herders that have condemned the Fulani throughout the region.[i] Despite being one of the Sahel’s largest ethnic groups, the nomadic Fulani are widely dispersed and therefore a minority within most states they occupy. Outnumbered and vilified, the population has been made vulnerable to a damaging alienation which has driven many to take up arms.

In Mali, these tensions lead firebrand Fulani Imam, Amadou Koufa to rally his people with the promise of restoring the Islamic Macina Empire, a 19th century state founded on Fulani jihad. To achieve his ambitions, Koufa founded the jihadist Macina Liberation Front (MLF) in 2015 with the help of AQIM associate Ansar al Din, based in Northern Mali. Unlike its pre-colonial predecessor, the MLF’s conquest embraces modern insurgency tactics, such as riding motorcycles into battle and setting IEDs.[ii] The MLF has victimized teachers, mayors, police officers, peacekeepers and aid workers. Though Koufa’s goal is to implement Sharia, the motivations of the MLF’s recruits vary greatly with some seeing their fight as self-defense against a hostile state system.[iii]

In 2015, preoccupied by maintaining a fragile peace agreement in northern Mali, the Malian government with its UN and French allies, were slow to respond to the threats posed by MLF. As time wore on, the Jihad exacerbated the hardships faced by the Fulani and their neighbors. In response to the instability, members of Mali’s ethnic majority group, the Bambara, began to form vigilante groups to protect themselves from MLF’s violence and settle farmer-herder disputes.[iv] However, despite their defensive posture, the additional actors only deepened the vicious cycle of violence and displacement. When the Malian army did intervene, it usually sided with the Bambara and conducted arbitrary arrests and other human rights abuses against the Fulani, thus worsening the group’s sense of alienation from the state.

In addition to increasing ethnic tensions, a lack of governance in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso has allowed the MLF to endure. Malian attempts to dislodge the insurgency have been hampered by the porousness of borders with neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso. Both countries have a significant Fulani population, which allows the jihadists to build ties with locals and maintain support networks. Since 2012, refugees from a variety of ethnicities have been fleeing state collapse in Mali over the vast ungoverned terrain. The flow of refugees has overwhelmed the already limited agricultural capacity of northern Burkina Faso and contributed to increased food insecurity in the country.[v] The overthrow of longtime Burkinabe dictator Blaise Compaoré in 2014 and the disbanding of his security forces furthered the instability which allows jihadist violence to spread into the country’s north.[vi] Exploiting this vulnerable lack of governance, in 2016 a Burkinabe Fulani preacher named Ibrahim Malam Dicko founded another associate of Ansar al Din known as Ansarul Islam. Ansarul Islam began to replicate the tactics of the MLF, carrying out dozens of attacks on state security forces.

This increasingly sprawling transnational network of Jihadist groups is fueled by a diverse array of ethnic and environmental grievances at the local level, which has created organizational and branding difficulties for AQIM. To remedy this problem, in March of 2017 Ansar al Din leader Iyad ag Ghali, announced that AQIM-Sahara, Ansar al Din, the MLF and Al-Mourabitoun had merged to form a new umbrella group: Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). The merger means that Ghali now has command over Al-Mourabitoun’s highly successful suicide bombing capabilities, which were previously used to great effect in a 2017 attack on Gao in northern Mali. The bomber chosen for the attack was a Fulani, likely in order to inspire others from the ethnic group to martyrdom.[vii]

Even as the jihadist movement in the Sahel takes on an increasingly bloody, ethnically tinged character, France, the region’s most committed international counterterrorism partner, is finding a way to institutionalize their security presence. In 2014, France backed the creation of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, composed of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad.[viii] However, securitization alone will not cure communal resentment. G5 Sahel must consider the longstanding ethnic tensions and environmental concerns that are driving conflict. Sustainable remedies must create realistic land-management solutions and bridge divides between Fulani and other ethnic groups. While international security partnerships have been imperative to maintaining stability, these challenges must also be tackled at the local level. If past experiences are any lesson, peacebuilding in the Sahel requires patience, pragmatism and a willingness to share power equitably. The process of accommodating the underlying concerns of the Fulani has only just begun, and will likely continue for many hard years.


Tim Cook is an M.A. Candidate in the security studies program. He graduated with a B.A. in political science from Hope College in 2016. Prior to coming to Georgetown, Tim was an intern at the White House during the Obama administration and also interned at a number of think tanks including the Hudson Institute and the American Enterprise Institute where he served as an open source intelligence analyst. Tim has a wide range of interests including counterterrorism, middle eastern politics and emerging technology.











[i] Agbamu Timothy Jnr, “Desertification and the Horrors of Fulani Herdsmen – Agbamu Timothy Jnr – Medium,” Medium, June 19, 2017. Accessed October 01, 2018: https://medium.com/@agbamutimothyjnr/moving-desert-and-the-fulani-horrors-b288a9ffe28c.

[ii] Rémi Carayol, “Mali : Le Front De Libération Du Macina, Un Nouveau Boko Haram?,” JeuneAfrique.com, August 31, 2015. Accessed October 01, 2018: https://www.jeuneafrique.com/mag/258720/politique/mali-le-front-de-liberation-du-macina-un-nouveau-boko-haram/.

[iii] Yvan Guichaoura, Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba-Konaré, and University of Kent, “Djihad, Révolte Et Auto-défense Au Centre Du Mali,” Le Monde.fr, October 16, 2016. Accessed October 03, 2018: https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2016/10/14/djihad-revolte-et-auto-defense-au-centre-du-mali_5013649_3212.html.

[iv] “Mali: De Nombreux Peuls Victimes D’attaques De ‘chasseurs’ Dans Le Centre Du Pays,” Slate Afrique, June 25, 2018. Accessed October 01, 2018: http://www.slateafrique.com/867548/mali-de-nombreux-peuls-victimes-dattaques-de-chasseurs-dans-le-centre-du-pays

[v] La Croix, “Au Burkina Faso, Dans Un Camp De Réfugiés Maliens,” La Croix, June 14, 2016. Accessed October 02, 2018: https://www.la-croix.com/Monde/Afrique/Au-Burkina-Faso-dans-camp-refugies-maliens-2016-06-14-1200768459.

[vi] Rinaldo Depagne “Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence,” International Crisis Group, March 08, 2018. Accessed October 01, 2018: https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/burkina-faso/burkina-fasos-alarming-escalation-jihadist-violence.

[vii] Souleymane Ag Anara, “Al Qaeda Says Mali Attack Punishment for Cooperation with France.” Reuters. January 18, 2017. Accessed October 01, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mali-security/al-qaeda-says-mali-attack-punishment-for-cooperation-with-france-idUSKBN15214U.

[viii] Azad Essa, “G5 Sahel Counterterrorism Force Explained,” Al Jazeera, November 03, 2017. Accessed October 01, 2018: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/g5-sahel-counterterrorism-force-explained-171102071159524.html.

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