Thousands of lives are under threat as a transnational humanitarian crisis unfolds across the Sahel region. The region faces the brunt of climate change as evolving weather patterns and geological changes stunt economic growth. Heightened competition between herders and farmers over shortage of land and scarce resources has spurred tensions between communities. These precarious climate-induced economic conditions are only exacerbated by the political instability and slew of violent activity that has plagued the region since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
Violence escalates across porous borders, putting the entire region at risk. During the past year, 1,315 events of political violence have been recorded, including explosions and violence against civilians.1 Additionally, more than 1.7 million people have been internally displaced.2 The conflict has historically been centred in Mali and Niger, however, Burkina Faso has replaced Mali as the epicentre of the Sahel crisis today. According to the UN, one in every four individuals in Burkina Faso face vast food insecurity and require immediate humanitarian assistance.3 Access to humanitarian resources is limited due to dangerous terrain and conflict dynamics. Internal friction between the state and its people breeds conditions for violence in Burkina Faso, especially in border areas in the north and east of the country.
Polls show that there has been a steady decline in trust and satisfaction with the government as the population's expectations for good governance have not been met.4 Insecurities explain local animosity towards the state, as well as growing violence and the proliferation of non-state actors including Islamist parties, self-defence groups, and armed militias. All these factors interact across time and space to produce an extremely complex and interconnected conflict environment. These findings posit the following questions: what role do non-state actors, specifically Islamist parties, play in destabilizing the socio-political landscape of the Sahel? In what ways do locals partake in or become victims of non-state violence? What do these interactions look like at a regional level and a state level? In this paper, I will evaluate the forces of non-state actors in the Sahel region, using Burkina Faso as a case study.
Conflict in The Sahel
In this paper, I focus primarily on Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. However, it must be noted that the Sahel region itself cannot be demarcated by state borders; it is a space that reflects the conditions on the ground and is constantly expanding and shrinking as the socio-political and economic landscapes change. The Sahel conflict is extremely complex and stems from a combination of poor state capacity, political upheaval, and economic instability which only exacerbated pre-existing structural and environmental inequities. Over the past decade, this has led to the mobilization of insurgent groups across borders, involving both state and non-state actors including Islamist groups, self-defence militias, state security forces, and international security forces. We are now seeing new, fluid power networks that challenge and replace existing systems of governance which have fueled a robust intra-regional conflict.
The fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 is widely acknowledged as the impetus for the regional conflict. The state's political upheaval encouraged Tuareg and Arab militias to seize resources and return to Mali with a new supply of weapons. In January 2012, leaders started capitalizing on their shared Tuareg ethnicity to mobilize masses against the government resulting in a rebellion against security forces led by Tuareg rebels in northern Mali. This power vacuum enabled Islamist groups, like Ansar Dine, to join rebels with the mission of overthrowing the government. Islamist insurgent groups were now active in Mali's security arena and would later start to challenge the authority of Tuareg rebels, initiating political instability that exists to this day.
Armed non-state actors (NSAs) have become key actors in contemporary armed conflicts. NSAs hold an increasingly significant role in instigating violence and conflict in the Sahel region. This has prompted greater discussion around who non-state actors are, what their functions are, and how they mobilize support in areas of conflict. It must be noted that human rights violations are committed by both state and non-state actors. However, the focus here is on non-state actors given their perhaps unexpected, but important, relevance in the Sahel.
Islamist Extremist Groups
Non-state actors encompass a wide range of organizations and individuals not affiliated with the government including corporations, private institutions, NGOs, as well as paramilitary and armed resistance groups. Our particular focus is on violent non-state actors identified as 'Islamist extremist groups'. The Islamic State, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, Boko Haram, and other extremist movements played an instrumental role in the geopolitical upheaval across the Middle East and are now an emerging threat within the Sahel. In recent years, the Sahel has seen a surge in activity by armed Islamist extremists. Islamist non-state insurgent groups have acquired power at a rapid rate, making them an actor of particular interest when studying conflict dynamics.
Islamist groups are socio-political organizations that contest the power of the existing state. Their motivations may be determined by relative access to political power; the nature of government repression; and its access to war-making resources.5 They advance a political Islam based on extremist, fundamentalist religious interpretations. Dominant Islamist groups in the area include those affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Incidences of violence involving militant Islamist groups and both state and non-state armed forces comprised 52% of all reported violent events in 2021, an upward and recurrent trend since 2016.6 The propensity of violence has shifted from Mali to Burkina Faso, where 58% of all religiously motivated violence in the Sahel has taken place in recent years.7
Islamist groups were able to establish a foothold in the region and develop robust networks in the Sahel due to instability. Islamist extremists first arrived in the Sahel from Algeria. Most of these fundamentalists were previously part of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) which joined forces with al-Qaeda and is now known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).8 In 2012, following the armed secessionist rebellion led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), these groups took control of three northern regions of Mali alongside Tuareg rebels. They were able to capitalize on local grievances against the government to recruit locals who often joined out of pragmatic needs more than religious beliefs. While some became genuine extremists, many used insurgent groups to defend their communities, get back at state representatives, or shift local power balances.
But what drives participation in these radical groups? Researchers at the Institute for Security Studies conducted interviews with formerly recruited youth and identified a variety of motivators including a low standard of living and environmental stressors. Unemployment, poverty, and unsteady income were strong factors of consideration. As one youth stated "even if the work was not decent, since the state left, we have had to protect ourselves the best as we can."9 As expected, religious indoctrination, although important for few, was the rarest motivator of the youth interviewed. These findings were specific to the state of Mali, however, can be applied to the Sahel region more broadly given similar interplay between jihadist groups and the population. Given this context, the following sections will present explanations for local participation within Islamist groups.
Explanations for Local Participation in Violence
Grievances Against the State
The first set of literature presents 'grievances against the state' as an explanatory factor for local participation in violence. Karin Dyrstad and Solveig Hillesund argue that interactions between local grievances and perceived political opportunity structures explicate the rise of political violence. Using comparative data from Guatemala, Nepal, and Northern Ireland, they collect robust evidence that suggests that support for violence increases with perceived grievance and decreases with greater political efficacy. If there is a perceived ability to succeed vis-a-vis nonviolent means or if grievances can be addressed through robust political channels, then the population can funnel anger through peaceful opposition. This will "undermine the ability for violent insurgency to take root,"10 and as a result, prevent insurgent groups from assuming power. Following this logic and applying it to the Sahel, we can assume that a lack of political capacity for the population to express their grievances encourages them to engage in other (violent) measures. This may also be due to the suppression of nonviolent protests within authoritarian regimes across the Sahel. People may view non-violent mechanisms as ineffective, driving them towards joining violent NSAs. Researcher Caitriona Dowd argues that "group-level grievances are a necessary condition for political violence."11 Dowd finds that in areas with a higher presence of Islamist extremist networks, the people tend to hold greater political and economic grievances against the government. Islamist violence is not unlike other forms of violence; the local economic and political conditions are the prime factors in mobilization. The escalation of Islamist activity is explained by the state's politically exclusionary practices that enable militants to capitalize on grievances against the state.
Religious Appeal of Violent NSAs
Other literature places religion at the forefront of insurgency group participation. While this may hold true for some, it is not always a relevant factor. Traditional frames of thought in international relations tend to frame Islamist violence to be distinctly different from any other form of violence; arguing that "violence is an inherent cultural facet of Islam" or that Islamist violence is a consequence of an international "clash of civilizations".12 The perceived role of ideational factors like 'jihad' in Islam has been cited as contributing factors to violence. Western scholars like Bernard Lewis assert that Islamic teachings of the jihad envisage an all-out war by Muslims against non-Muslims.13 Many contemporary scholars, however, disagree with this framing. Thus, rendering the expansion of Islamist violence as 'Islam taking over the world'' is a faulty argument.14 The same goes for local participation. Many locals joining these extremist Islamist NSAs are not motivated by religious indoctrination, nor do they tend to share any religious beliefs. However, the level of religious appeal may vary depending on the individual, context, and community in which groups are operating.
Security and Protection
The third set of explanations focuses on the security dimension associated with insurgency groups. The Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) and Geneva Call propose that the "provision of community security is a primary, rather than a secondary function for militia groups".15 Militias can be "a form of self-help to escape particular circumstances", in areas where the political administration is inaccessible and inefficient, state protection from violence is absent, and where communities are unable to defend themselves.16 NSAs and militias are the product of environments of extreme insecurity wherein individuals see no alternative to reaching justice other than "through rudimentary vigilance". The report finds the following relationship: the growth of militias occurs when state protection is absent, and the suppression of militias occurs when authorities and social support for the community are present. Therefore, NSAs ultimately appropriate the security function of the state in dysfunctional states. Kristina Kuasch corroborates this point, suggesting that "the existence of non-state actors translates into state collapse and therefore an absence of statehood: a state vacuum".17 According to Kausch, this state vacuum is an important explanation for why non-state actors will become predominant and accrue strong footholds. Academics agree that non-state actors thrive in "voids left by weak state institutions" and will carry out functions of the state, "providing security, welfare or charity, or by acting as the representative of a given community within the state."18 Therefore, a weak state-citizen relationship and a weak governing state body are essential to understanding the rise of non-state actors.
Case Study: Burkina Faso
The socio-political history of Burkina Faso makes it an interesting case study, prompting greater analysis of how the state reflects broader regional trends and has local-level nuances in conflict dynamics. Security conditions are regionally interconnected, and insecurity dynamics leak beyond borders. The situation in Burkina Faso began to disintegrate due to events unfolding in Mali. A third of the country now has no state presence, enabling armed militias to move in.19 In 2021, Burkina Faso recorded 1337 crisis-related violent incidents and nearly 2294 casualties.20 Traditional and non-traditional non-state actors play a significant role in defining the conflict in Burkina Faso and how violence unfolds on the ground. Rebel groups have gained considerable momentum and traction in operation in Burkina Faso. The following sections will interrogate how non-state actors have come to shape violence in Burkina Faso today.
The country has undergone nearly seven coups since acquiring independence from France in 1960. The most recent one occurred on September 30, 2022, when Interim President Paul Henri Sandogo Damiba was removed by the military for his "inability to deal with the country's Islamist insurgency."21 Damiba had been in power for only eight months, having previously toppled President Roch Marc Christian Kabore in January 2022. Both leaders promised to quell jihadist attacks within the country, yet failed. Military personnel overthrowing Damiba stated, "faced by the continually worsening security situation, we the officers and junior officers of the national armed forces were motivated to take action with the desire to protect the security and integrity of our country".22 Civilians expressed anger over the deteriorating security of the country and limited progress in addressing Islamist violence in the country. Damiba overthrew the previous regime with the promise of pushing jihadists away. However, there continued to be hundreds of victims of insurgency violence. On June 11, 2022, over a hundred people were killed in an Islamist attack on the border between Burkina Faso and Niger.23 The north and east of Burkina Faso remain susceptible to attacks by Nusrat-al-Islam and the Islamic State group in the Greater Sahara. A strengthening Islamist movement has resulted in the government controlling only 60% of the country. Economic mismanagement, corruption, poverty, and the failure of the government to resolve resource-based grievances ultimately gave rise to the coup.
Non-state actors hold an important position in the security sector in Burkina Faso, and some non-state groups have historically even held close ties with the government. This state and non-state interaction has dated back to the 1980s revolution and the creation of CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) which were a collection of revolutionary cells intending to mobilize masses and restructure social systems at a local level. They were called upon by President Sankara at the time and collaborated with the state to carry out social services as a community-facing organization. Building on that tradition, the Burkinabe state has responded to the security conditions by encouraging local vigilantes and collaborating with self-defense groups when national forces were overwhelmed. In 2019, the state created a militia, the VDP (Volunteers for the Defense of the State or Volontaires pour la Défense de la Patrie) which was a new category of non-state actor that acted as an extension of the state in some capacity. This militia was created to defend the country in Northern Burkina Faso against Islamist groups and was trained alongside army men. These actors blur the line between what is categorized as state and non-state actors in areas of violence. This also makes it difficult to distinguish who is a combatant and who is a non-combatant, who is the enemy, and who is not the enemy. Overall, this compounds an already complex security landscape in which thousands are being killed by many different actors involved.
Ansaroul Islam is considered Burkina Faso's first "homegrown" militant group. In November 2016, Burkinabe security forces enacted a state of emergency in parts of Soum, in search of jihadists from across the Malian borders. In the process, security forces "humiliated local elders and traditional chiefs"; these malign actions prompted locals to join Ansaroul Islam and stage an attack. The movement has an important relationship with the local Burkinabe communities that can help explain its strong foothold in the state. The movement targets state representatives, security, and defence forces to reinforce its narrative of state abandonment. Although it is majority Fulani, this is just a result of its regional demographics, as Soum (where the movement originated from and is based) is 90% Fulani. Therefore, instead of appealing to an ethnic identity, the movement tapped into local frustrations and inequalities. This message resonated broadly with those of lower social status. The movement split up after the death of its leader, Dicko, and supporters are now under the umbrella group of Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), which is the largest active movement in the area.
Since March 2022, Islamist groups have carried out offenses in northern Mali and Burkina Faso. The Human Rights Watch reported execution-style killings of 19 men in or near 12 different villages in the northern part of the country.24 Those targeted had reportedly provided information to security forces. In February of 2022, JNIM imposed a blockade in the town of Djibo, Soum province, instigating the humanitarian crisis in the state today.25 Islamist groups have systematically employed tactics such as sieges, threats, kidnapping, and blockades. to advance personal motives. They move freely across the country while the army continues to fight them, depleting the country's supply of resources.
The actions of the Ansaroul Islam provoked a countermovement from local populations; self-defense militias, known as Koglweogo, decided to enact vigilante justice at the local level. What is unique about the Koglweogo is that they are viewed as "legitimate expression of communities' self-reliance."26 The Koglweogo actively seek out "jihadists", criminals, and bandits, however, have harmed innocent lives in the process as well. In January 2019, the Yirou massacre occurred when an Islamist attack on the village was followed by reprisals led by Koglweogo militiamen. The militia ended up killing 49 Fulani people for their "alleged association" with the Islamist group. Fulani ethnic groups are repeatedly being targeted due to confusion about who is an Islamist and who is a Fulani. This has created mistrust towards the Koglweogo and Fulani civilians are even creating alliances with the Islamists, in light of the self-defense groups' violence toward the Fulani communities. Evidently, the Koglweogo has exacerbated the violence occurring and now placed it along ethnic lines. While the Ansaroul Islam movement was busy advancing its own interests, the community itself became increasingly divided. These tensions have further divided a community that historically coexisted together, contributing to the deteriorating national cohesion of Burkina Faso.
State Security Forces: Burkinabe Military
The Burkinabe military apparatus plays a vital role in the conflict. Security forces that have assumed a 'counterterrorism' approach to violence have been implicated in human rights violations as well. Reports show the army killed almost as many people killed by all the Islamist groups combined. The Human Rights Watch reported the execution of 14 people by state security forces in 2017 with seven men being allegedly executed on a single day.27 Community leaders recounted many instances in which security forces detained large numbers of men found in the vicinity of attacks by Islamist groups.28 Detentions would last anywhere from several days to months. Many of the victims, who were ethnically Peuhl and resided in the north, faced abuse by both Islamists and the security forces. A local mayor stated that, "the army acts like all Peuhls are jihadists, yet it is the very Peuhl who are victimized by the Jihadists – we have been killed, decapitated, kidnapped and threatened."29 Locals revealed that killings by armed Islamists led to intense government-sanctioned investigations whereas abuses by security forces rarely, if ever, led to investigation by the security forces. This not only reveals that human rights violations by state security forces are being overlooked but that there is also a lack of and unbalance of accountability measures on both sides.
Burkina Faso's security forces face allegations of killings and abuse in villages where residents are already subject to violence from Islamist militants. These crimes reinforce and validate the 'grievance-based' narratives that Ansarul Islam promotes. The government must work closely with local populations to rebuild trust and create peaceful sustainable presence in areas subject to political violence.
While lacking deep local support, militant groups in Burkina Faso have employed a grievance-based narrative to radicalize individuals. These actors successfully mobilize lower socioeconomic classes and youth against traditional elites and government leaders. They capitalize on ethnic tensions between the Fulani and other groups and reinforce ethnic cleavages to strengthen unity amongst members and present themselves as the solution. The poor perception of the state is exploited to turn grievances against the state into action and mobilization.
Groups have manipulated local-level grievances to foment animosity between communities, inciting violence. For instance, the ISGS was identified as having "exploited anger over cattle theft to exacerbate tensions between Tuareg nomads, seen as cattle rustlers, and the Fulani herders along the border."30 Likewise, the FLM has tapped into local grievances to exploit the ethnic and social cleavages between Fulani and Bambara, and Dogon groups. A similar strategy was employed by Ibrahim Malam Dicko, an Islamist preacher who instigated the country's first indigenous insurgence movement. Herders who were ethnically Fulani felt disadvantaged in comparison to the farmers, whom they felt the government favored in resource allocation. Dicko exploited the frustrations of the people and conflicts over scarce land and water resources and urged the people to revolt against the corrupt government. He spread radical sermons via radio stations and created a movement, Ansarul Islam, which opened a path of militant movement from Mali into Burkina Faso.31 Sermons focused on equality between minority and majority groups, appealing to lower classes and recruiting non-Fulani individuals as well. Since his first broadcasting, other Islamist networks became dominant and started exerting influence over nearly one-third of the country.
Ansar Islam reinforced its role in society by fully replacing the role of the state and serving as a governance system in the places it occupies.32 The group exercised full control and intended to remake society by implementing social policies. They are achieving such goals by replacing the education system, banning ceremonies held by traditional elites, requiring the hijab, and banning recreational activities such as music, smoking, and football. The group uses force and financial leverage to ensure these policies are adhered to. The group has assassinated those who challenge its existence, violently suppressed dissidents, controlled lines of communication, and destroyed local institutions that employ foreign workers. Through claiming religious expertise and legitimacy, the Islamist groups have rapidly assumed power to conduct these activities. This is also supplemented by the fact that Islamist networks exist beyond borders, and the flow of resources across borders help strengthen local initiatives. The mobility of these groups is attributed to the limited number of security forces patrolling expansive areas. Trends seen in Burkina Faso reflect the broader strategies employed by violent non-state actors across the region.
Perpetuating institutional vulnerabilities, weak state governance systems, and porous borders between states have created fertile conditions for instability across the Sahel today. The introduction of violent non-state actors has transformed the security landscape from grievance-based movements into violent insurgencies. Insurgent groups exploit existing ethnic tensions and leverage the regions' instability, large size, and underdevelopment to advance organizational goals. To curtail violence, regional governments have responded by deploying troops to combat them, yet in many cases this has exacerbated violence rather than eliminated it.
Ultimately, the structural context from which violent non-state actors emerge makes it difficult to advance policy measures that both address regional and domestic influences. Ad hoc military strategies may suppress violent non-state actors in the immediate term; however, they do not resolve the structural backdrop against which such actors emerge. Greater investment in bridging local-state divides and addressing community grievances will limit the ability of non-state actors to assume legitimacy and power within the Sahel. Building capacity must be prioritized for any future progress in the region.Footnotes
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