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Sahel Islamist groups more lethal and connected

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Monday, 11 February 2019 13:41

Islamist groups in the Sahel are getting connected and gaining confidence. A report released today shows:

• Three quarters of battles with state security forces are initiated by Islamist fighters

• Islamist attacks in the Sahel killed 1,082 people in 2018, more than double the previous year

Violence in the Sahel has risen as it has fallen in other areas, including those linked to Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.

But it is their co-ordination that is really shaking the experts, with a complex network of criminal gangs supplying the rebels with weapons, money and recruits.

The backdrop:

• In a region beset by unprecedented numbers of displaced people – Chad, for example, hosts 400,000 refugees – there is a huge pool of labour for Islamists.

• Poverty caused by climate change is swelling the ranks of the insurgents, with millions of farmers affected by the shrinking of the Lake Chad basin, including in Northern Nigeria.

• State failure in the region, including the criminalisation of security forces in Mali, reaches back several decades.

Weak states remain the ideal breeding ground for extremism:

In Libya, a civil war pitting General Haftar in the East against a UN-recognised regime running the capital, Tripoli, boiled over again this weekend, with intense fighting over control of oil fields in the south.

• Ghassan Salamé, the UN special envoy for Libya, warned the Security Council late last year that Libya’s south was “becoming a regional battleground and safe haven for foreign armed groups”.

Complicating the picture:

The withdrawal of US troops from Syria will start in a few weeks” according to U.S. Army General Joseph Votel. Previous US drawdowns have sparked an exodus of foreign Islamic State fighters back to their home countries.

• Up to 3,000 foreign fighters are among the 18,000 Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, according to a UN report seen by Reuters

• As many as 30% of them could be African, sparking fears of re-integration

• Tunisia, where a court sentenced the killers in the 2015 tourist attacks at the weekend, still has the highest per capita fighters with Islamic State.

Watch out for:

Reactions to the Algerian ruling party’s announcement that wheelchair-bound, 81-year-old president Abdelaziz Bouteflicka will run for a fifth term.

Until now, the authorities have managed to keep Islamists from regaining popular support; but patience may be running out among the youth.

by Nicholas Norbrook
Photo credits: Mohamed Ben Khalifa/AP/SIPA

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