by Alice Pistolesi
The spread of jihadist terrorism is becoming increasingly widespread in the Sahel, where one of the armed groups recently pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph, thereby establishing a province of the so-called Islamic State in the region. This is the second attempt, following the one in 2013, in a context of profound political instability (see the coups d’état in Niger and Gabon), as well as social and economic unrest.
“We need to examine the sequence of events,” says Francesco Strazzari, professor of political science at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. In the first phase, there was a battalion linked to al-Sahrawi, which struggled to gain credibility as a splinter group from the long history of Sahelian jihadism, dating back to the Algerian Salafist era, and which was subsequently eliminated”.
Do you think it plausible that a new attempt to “rebuild the Caliphate” is underway in the Sahel?
After the defeat following the intervention of France and the international coalition in Mali, this initial cell emerged, but it struggled to gain recognition, especially after the capture of Mosul in Iraq. The turning point came when they began to move south, making contact with Boko Haram on the Nigerian border and around Lake Chad. It was there that they made contact and gained recognition for their indigenous dimension linked to the Black Caliphate. There was a significant leap forward here, as the Islamic State invested in and recognised a real province with some different tactics, including the use of female suicide bombers.
The most recent development, which took place last year, was the creation of the Sahel Province, which straddles three borders (Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso). This fighting force has pledged allegiance to the latest caliph. We have the video of the oath of this new formation, the Sahel Province of the Islamic State. Attacks by this group are increasing as they clash with groups linked to Al-Qaeda. Since the French withdrawal, the conflict has shifted to confrontations with the Russians and has become more concentrated in Mali. The strategy has also changed: whereas the French were known for targeting leaders, the Russians are more indiscriminate, disproportionately affecting the Fulani population in particular. In the north-central zone, there is another group with close links to al-Qaeda, which recently declared a siege of Timbuktu.
What do you think of the coup d’état in Niger?
It is an episode that stems from local dynamics and, for the first 24 hours, seemed to be an attempt to somehow save the general who promoted it, a man from the former president’s circle. To explain this, we need to take into account various elements of political and economic stability.
The trigger is actually internal to the system of power distribution among the elites. Within 24 hours, however, we see that the military, which has grown considerably in recent years, unanimously declares a coup, including the fire brigade. At this point, there could have been an attempt at internal negotiations. Nigeria, on behalf of Ecowas, sent the Sultan of Sokoto, a traditional leader in the border region between Niger and Nigeria, to mediate. But the situation quickly escalated and became caught up in the geopolitical calculations of the region.
What everyone doesn’t realise is that the generals in the area, who are senior officers with considerable expertise in counter-insurgency warfare, are now using all the means at their disposal to play their role. They may have silenced the scandals, but they are frustrated by the limited results of the strategy of repression. There is the illusion of eradicating terrorists, but this idea lacks empirical evidence. The results, including Wagner’s intervention in Mali, are not encouraging. There is frustration at being decimated in increasingly intense and deadly attacks, but there is no military way out. People say “ISIS will go away”, but without specifying how, while civilian casualties continue to rise.
What do you think of the latest moves by Ecowas? Is the relationship with France, and Europe as a whole, in a nadir?
Ecowas is currently acting mainly on the initiative of the coastal governments. It should not be assumed that Nigeria or Ghana are acting on behalf of France, because that would be to deny that Africans are capable of acting independently. I also believe that France has come to terms with the end of its era. The idea that France is manipulating the situation is not credible. Nevertheless, Ecowas is in a paradoxical situation. The coup in Niger is one coup too many. Ecowas is bound by the principle that member states undertake to recognise coups of a military nature. There have been many exceptions to this principle, but today we are at a point where Ecowas is aligning itself with a government whose president is still in the city, which has asked for intervention, which denies that a transition is taking place and which insists on the need to restore constitutional order.
Ecowas indeed has a record of intervention from the Gambia to Liberia, and there is a perception among African political elites that if the coup in Niger is allowed to stand, the principle of legitimacy will be compromised, potentially triggering a chain reaction. The so-called “contagion” is a dilemma between two principles: on the one hand, the need for electoral consultations within a constitutional framework and, on the other, the importance of preventing the military from usurping the will of the people.
This created conflicts; even the African Union was reluctant to endorse it. But we must not forget that a military solution is not the only option. For example, I have signed an appeal calling for a negotiated addendum. We need everything but another war in the Sahel, which would only benefit the jihadists. One way for jihadist groups to expand is through a conflict between two factions, as we have seen in Libya. Jihadism is already targeting coastal states, having learned its first lesson from terrorists who targeted Western interests with beach resorts, thus moving out of the desert. It is therefore clear that if coastal states with democratic legitimacy confront inland states with military juntas, jihadist forces will have further justification to expand towards the coast. In this scenario, we could see rapid jihadist expansion, and the Islamic State will find another opportunity to expand, especially if it finds the Russians in relative disarray.