No end in sight

West Africa: Shifting strategies in the Sahel

By Flore Berger

Posted on September 30, 2019 15:50

Militant groups attack armed forces and civilians on a daily basis, while self-defence militias kill hundreds, razing entire villages. National and international security actors, despite renewed efforts and new strategies, are failing to contain the violence.

Armed groups – especially the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (known by its Arabic acronym JNIM), an al-Qaeda linked coalition of various militant Islamist groups founded in March 2017 – have been successful in expanding their territorial reach, recruiting and conducting large scale and sophisticated attacks.

Among the many reasons for JNIM’s success, the most worrying one is how it uses violence to disrupt communities, exploiting existing fault lines to stoke local conflicts. In Mali, this strategy has resulted in hundreds killed in Bandiagara, Bankass and Koro, districts in the central region of Mopti.

Communal violence and competition over access to land is not new in Mali but the scale and the nature of the violence definitely is, to the extent that it has been characterised by analysts as ethnic cleansing 1, something that the region had never experienced before.

Indeed, as militant groups spread across the region, Bambara and Dogon communities started to organise self-defence militias to protect themselves. In the absence of a state presence, they took up arms against militant groups and Fulani people, who they accuse of allying with these groups, an accusation they use to target Fulani communities indiscriminately. 2

The situation today is different from the crisis that erupted in 2012, when a Tuareg group – the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – allied with Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) to fight for an independent state in northern Mali. The fronts have since shifted.

Militant groups that were chased out from the major towns by the French Operation Serval in 2013 dispersed, re-organised and spread.

  • The first spread of militant groups was from northern Mali to central Mali in early 2015 (under the impetus of the Macina Liberation Front);
  • The second was in late 2016 to western Niger (mainly the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and northern Burkina Faso (Ansarul Islam – a local Burkinabe group with links to Al-Qaeda);
  • The third expansion of militant groups took place in early 2018, to eastern Burkina Faso where all groups (JNIM, ISGS and Ansarul Islam) have establish bases 3;
  • And the fourth wave will potentially see militant groups expanding their reach to Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin.

New priorities for new battle fronts

Operation Barkhane

Barkhane is a 4,500 strong, French-led counter-terrorism force fighting the spread of the jihadist threat in the Sahel. As such, they are staying away from Bandiagara, Bankass and Koro. 4

At the moment, counterterrorist activities focus on two regions; the border area between Mali and Niger, the Liptako, and between Mali and Burkina Faso, the Gourma. These zones became a strategic crossing point as militant groups – ISGS, JNIM and Ansarul Islam – moved to northern Burkina Faso and western Niger in late 2016. Since then, they have used the largely unprotected border areas to launch and retreat after attacks, and to get supplies for new operations.

Barkhane’s involvement in the Liptako region dates back to 2017, when the ISGS started targeting the border area. More recent is their move to the Gourma region. In April 2019, they built a new base in Gossi and participated in multiple joint security operations with Malian and Burkinabe forces. 5 Despite increased French presence in this zone, military gains remain limited. Both sides barely ever engage in direct confrontation. Militants use guerrilla tactics, rely heavily on improvised explosive devices and hide within the civilian population before and after launching attacks.

Barkhane is thus trying to strengthen the development side of its operation and focusing on gaining the trust of the local population and addressing the wider causes of the violence, such as communal tensions and banditry. Critics have stressed that this strategy aims instead at reinforcing France’s legitimacy in the region, at the expense of that of the Malian authorities.


The United Nations Security Council renewed the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) mandate for one more year on 28 June and kept its strength at 13,289 military and 1,920 police personnel.

The implementation of the 2015 peace agreement in northern Mali remained the mission’s strategic priority but the new mandate includes a second strategic priority, the implementation of a comprehensive plan for the reduction of communal violence and the restoration of state presence and state authority in the central Mali. 6 MINUSMA did not wait the renewal of its mandate to do so; in May it established a new sector (“sector centre”) based in Mopti 7 and launched Operation Oryx to establish a deterrent presence in Bankass, Bandiagara and Koro districts, allowing the Malian armed forces to focus on the area at the border with Burkina Faso.

The revised mandate is a welcome development, in theory. Lack of resources, however, has hindered MINUSMA’s efforts in the past. It will continue to do so under an expanded mandate, which has not been matched by the pledge of more funds. However, the mandate is too little too late.

Central Mali has been engulfed in violence since 2015. The population there struggles to understand why peacekeepers have remained focused on northern Mali and the implementation of the peace agreement for so long. The legitimacy of MINUSMA, already quite low, took an even bigger hit earlier this year during the retaliatory waves of violence between communities, as it was incapable of protecting civilians.

Regional efforts

The kidnapping of two French tourists in May 2019 in northern Benin, at the border with Burkina Faso, was a harsh reminder that militants operate across borders and constitute a real threat for Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin. These countries have taken preliminary measures and established various committees, conducted various counter-terrorism operations, and deployed soldiers to border areas to address the growing threat. 8

In addition to national efforts, regional frameworks of cooperation have been widely discussed in the past months. The concerns, challenges and solutions – especially the need for broader cooperation mechanisms to response to militant group’s expanding their reach – have nothing new to them and have been flagged multiple times in the past. 9 Nonetheless, the alarming wording used and the call of action seems to indicate growing collective awareness and a sense of urgency.

Although the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S), created in July 2017, is on its feet, it still lacks full operational capacity and has struggled to find its place in the region. It has only conducted limited operations since January 2019, after it resumed operations following the attack by JNIM on its headquarter in Sévaré, Mopti, on 29 June 2018. Most of the joint operations take place on a bilateral basis between Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and France.

France and Germany announced their intention to reinforce and broaden their support to the G5 Sahel by creating a new platform, the “Partnership for Stability and Security in the Sahel” (P3S), to re-engage the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries in the security environment. 10

ECOWAS countries have been discussing a potential activation of their ECOWAS Standby Force 11 and pledged $1bn from 2020 to 2024 to reinforce the ongoing national and joint military operations during the September Summit in Ouagadougou. 12 While the substantial amount of the pledge shows that ECOWAS countries take the threat of expansion seriously and want to prevent it from escalating, it is unclear what role the  community wants to play in the current environment and alongside the other security initiatives. 13

Beyond military answers

Despite the international and regional efforts, militant activity seems to have nonetheless grown steadily. Preventing this can only happen with a paradigm shift. The first priority should be to ensure a coordinated security plan that involves all affected States. Rather than creating new platforms in an already crowded security environment, stakeholders should reinforce existing ones by sharing best practices and fostering synergy and locally driven cooperation.

The emphasis of this strategy should be on avoiding fuelling tensions with aggressive counter-terrorism strategies which lead to gross human rights violations by armed forces and reinforce the lack of trust between the population and the authorities.

In addition, armed forces in the region cannot continue to delegate security responsibilities to self-defence militias as it is fuelling communal tensions and providing a fertile ground for militant groups.

The second priority should be addressing the socio-economic and political causes of the insecurity. The most effective way of doing this would be to allow short-term security objectives to give way to long term development, social and political efforts with the ultimate goal of fostering trust between the people and their authorities.

Addressing the local grievances with a bottom up approach and through the development of local
governance, inclusive politics and decentralisation – which has been promised since the 1990’s
but never seriously implemented – should be at the core of stakeholders’ priorities.



2 In the deadliest communal clash, the Ogossagou massacre of 23 March, 157 Fulani were killed by the
Dozo militia Dan Na Ambassagou. Numerous tit-for-tat attacks followed in retaliation, in which hundreds of Fulani,Dogon and Bambara civilians were killed. Dozo militia are present in several districts of Mopti and Ségou regions and recruit mainly from the Dogon community. Originally hunting   associations, they have become paramilitary groups, with bases and weapons of war, and have organized themselves at least with the tacit agreement of the Malian authorities.


4 Interview with Remi Marechaux.

5 For example, in May 2019 Burkinabe and French forces conducted a joint military operation in the
Gourma, the first one since the two countries signed a cooperation agreement in December 2018 providing a framework for such joint operation.


7 Officially launched on 24 June, but operational from 28 May


9 See for example





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