The Sahel: The non-state armed groups in the central Sahel

The prevalence of non-state armed groups in the central Sahel is an important contributing factor to instability in the region. Here we look at jihadist and non-jihadist groups but also consider the role of criminal organisations. It is often the case that the types overlap as conflict actors exploit the situation for their own ends.

In previous blogs reference has been made to a variety of non-state armed groups (NSAGs) and here I will look at these in more detail, categorised as jihadist groups and non-jihadist groups (which include separatist groups and government-backed militias). We should note that regarding Mali there has been a historical presence of Tuareg groups in the north and a more recent expansion of jihadist groups after 2011. Many of those described below are linked to Mali as it was the north and centre of the country that political instability and socio-economic issues led to an increase in violence, which later spread into Burkina Faso and Niger. It is also the area where the United Nations Mission to Mali (MINUSMA) patrols and has been subject to attacks.

It is the jihadist groups who are the focus of the western military missions to the Sahel region. They became more prominent during the 2011 rebellion and increased in strength in the wake of failed negotiations relating to the short-lived Tuareg Azawad state and an increasing number of Algerian militants who had rejected a peace treaty with the Algerian government. By 2017 the various jihadist groups had begun to coalesce.

Andrew Lebovich gives four distinct groupings or coalitions. The first is the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), a coalition of autonomous al-Qaeda-aligned groups, which seeks to establish Islamic law and drive out foreign forces out of Mali but has also carried out attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger. Groups in this coalition are Ansar al-Din, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Mourabitoun, and Katibat Macina. The second is two groupings of fighters linked to JNIM, Katibat Sèrma (operating primarily in an area of Mali, but also Burkina Faso) and Kabitat Almansour Ag Alkassoum (operating primarily in an area of Burkina Faso). The third is Ansarul Islam, who are predominantly drawn from the Peul ethnic group and have operated in Burkina Faso and across the borders with Mali and Niger, and whose members have worked alongside Katibat Sèrma and Kabitat AAA. The fourth group is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which was recognised as an ISIS affiliate in 2016. It has operated in parts of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, and has recruited internationally and within the areas it operates. It originally emerged from a split within the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), itself a splinter from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Much like other conflict situations such as the Syrian War, the jihadist landscape is complex mix of alliances international and local, with an alphabet soup of acronyms, loyalty to leaders, switches between rivalry and cooperation, an overarching hostility to national and foreign forces, and a commitment to the establishment of their version of Islamic law, but with an interest in controlling their own area of responsibility.

The non-jihadist groups include separatist groups, government allied groups, and self-defence groups. They generally have an ethnic affiliation due to the need for self-reliance where government security and service provision are weak. Here I will provide examples from the sources cited below, which give a more comprehensive overview.  

In northern Mali and central Mali, there are a significant number of groups with differing stances on their relationship with the government based in Bamako. Their numbers and shifting alliances rival that of the jihadist groups, in part due to the initial success of the 2011 Tuareg rebellion, the impact of the jihadist groups, and their stance on independence and autonomy during and after peace talks, which culminated in a peace agreement in 2015. There are two major umbrella organisations that formed in 2014, the Coalition des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), which is composed mainly of pre-independence groups, and the Plateforme, composed of groups favouring Malian state authority. Both were signatories of the 2015 Algiers accord. These include ethnically based self-defence groups and there are many leaders and differences within each umbrella organisation. The CMA has been subject to splits and dissident groups have emerged. An example is Coordination des Mouvements et Fronts Patriotiques de Résistance (CMFPR), a collection of self-defence movements from the Songhaï and Fulani/Peul communities in the Gao and Mopti regions, which split into pro and anti-government factions, creating CMFPR-II, which then divided over clan issues, creating CMFR-III, which then returned to CMFPR-I. There are also other independent groups.

Most non-jihadist groups, whether part of an umbrella group or coalition or fully independent, are identarian, being linked to an ethnic group or clan, and many are dominated by the concerns of the leadership.  In Mali, the ethnic Dogon group Dan Na Ambassagou (those who put their trust in God) is a loose coalition of Dogon self-defence militias that emerged in 2016. They are known to have attacked Peul villages, which they claim have supported jihadists from Katibat Macina and have also fought Peul self-defence groups. Another example is the Koglweogo of Burkina Faso (referring to ‘the guardians of the bush’) emerged in the north in the mid-2000s, before the central Sahel crisis, and have filled the security functions of the state, with which they have a complicated relationship. In Niger, the Izala movement is a Salafist group that has moved from promoting Islamic ideals to the provision of security, social support, and other functions normally the responsibility of the state.

The patchwork of both the jihadist and non-jihadist groups is complex and overlapping and contained within it are a multitude of interests and alliances crossing religion, ethnicity, and clan or tribe, with practical concerns over social services, jobs, security, property, and land. There is also the added complication of criminal organisations, which have been able to survive the changes in governance and have actively thrived where the state has failed. Prior to the escalation in violence in the central Sahel, criminal activity in the region was seen as being more dangerous to state stability than the jihadist organisations. Smuggling routes, which include drugs, cigarettes, and people, are not limited to the central Sahel region, nor are they the most lucrative, but they are an important source of income for people living in the region. Whilst the traffickers benefit most and are visibly well off, others benefit to a lesser degree, and in northern Mali and Niger there were no sources of income to rival criminal income. Kidnapping for ransom has proved lucrative for the jihadist groups. There have been allegations of state collusion with crime across the Sahelian states in general, including Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

Within the complex mix of interests in the region the activities of distinct organisations overlap and it is likely that actors from one type of group are involved in the activities of other types. For example, the lucrative smuggling networks are a boon for jihadist organisations looking to finance their operations and provide for the areas under their control. As one experienced observer noted, the population in northern Mali is not big enough to populate the various NSAGs in the region, indicating an overlap in personnel.  The constantly evolving alliances and feuds between the three types of groups and within the types have meant that the dynamics of the relationships between NSAG actors is fluid and subject to change.

Armed conflict is not a loss for everyone. While it carries a significant human and material cost there are winners and losers, with conflict entrepreneurs making gains at the expense of security and prosperity for all. The most obvious winners are the criminal organisations who can exploit the absence of effective governance, but where a NSAG controls territory there are gains to me made from taxing said routes. There is also the lucrative business of using one’s own manpower to muscle in on illicit activity if one feels that they have the capability to do so. The jihadist groups, despite their pious messaging, can treat conflict situations as opportunities to demonstrate the incapacity of the state to provide security and basic human needs. The leaders of separatist groups in central and northern Mali were able to leverage political capital from their inclusion in peace processes, turning armed rebellion into inclusion into the political sphere. While there religious, political, and social motivations for leading or joining a NSAG, there are also practical and down to earth financial incentives. Where leaders gain political, social, and financial capital, recruits may see the NSAG as the only way to make a living. This is particularly the case when the NSAG wields political control or influence.

As Harmonie Toros, an academic, has noted, the areas outside of government control are not simply ‘ungoverned spaces’ as they are subject to ‘informal governance’. This might include providing internal and external security, justice systems, political and economic administration, and social support and rules. The extent to which NSAG governance reaches is dependent on the resources available to them and the scope of their territorial reach. In areas neglected by the government a NSAG can gain legitimacy with the local population by meeting needs where the government has failed. They can also be more responsive, talking to tribal and village leaders and listening to their concerns, providing security where previously there was none, and assign extra judges to deal with disputes. It is functions such as these that enable a NSAG to gain influence and establish themselves as a quasi-authority. Their legitimacy amongst the people varies according to their relationship with the people governed, shared ethnicity (for example- Tuareg in northern Mali), the severity of their rule (jihadists are notorious for alienating people once in charge) and people’s attitude towards the government (some NSAGs are government-backed).

This is generally unrecognised and usually opposed by domestic and foreign governments, particularly when there is an ideological or religious element. It also an unmistakable fact that NSAGs are effectively stationary bandits, unrecognised on the international scene, and usually accountable only to themselves. In order to govern they require a mix of outside funding, extortion, and outright robbery, while the provision of food may be achieved by allowing aid to be distributed. Their informal rule is guided by dogma, with harsh punishment for stepping outside of the law, and violence is directed towards the ingroup and outsiders. The legitimacy of a NSAG is derived from identity, whether it be religious or ethnic in nature, and is often enforced with methods deemed illegitimate for any actor. One of their claims to legitimacy is to provide informal governance where the state has failed but their actions make recognised governance more difficult.  As is the case elsewhere, including Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, western Iraq, and Afghanistan, the non-state actors are able to exploit state shortcomings, replacing weak governance with stronger informal governance.

The ability of NSAGs to provide informal governance and the prevalence of criminal organisations in running parallel economies which fill the jobs goes some way to explaining their ability to survive in areas where formal governance is weak or non-existent and the failure of government and foreign interventions in countering them. It is the conflict entrepreneurs who are benefiting from this situation, and this is at the expense of the general population. The only way to do this is to effectively govern the conflict regions and provide viable alternatives to the informal governance of the NSAGs. As previously demonstrated, this is an uphill task, with many challenges, and one to be tackled over the long term.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using research for earlier blogs. Sources used for jihadist and non-jihadist groups are: Mapping Armed Groups in Mali and the Sahel (Andrew Lebovich), accessed at: ; Anarchy in Azawad: A Guide to Non-State Armed Groups in Northern Mali (Andrew McGregor), accessed at: . Sources used for criminal organisations are: Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region (Wolfram Lacher), accessed at: ; Drug Trafficking, Violence and Politics in Northern Mali (International Crisis Group), accessed at: . The source for the concept of Informal governance was: Informal Governance of Nonstate Armed Groups in the Sahel (Harmonie Toros), accessed at: . Toros also discusses NSAGs and criminal organisations.

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1 Response to The Sahel: The non-state armed groups in the central Sahel

  1. Pingback: Afghanistan (Departure) Part Two: The Doha talks | Conflict Analysis and Resolution Information Services

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