Al-Qaeda Plans Expansion in the African Sahel Region

Al Qaeda, formerly the world’s most prominent terrorist group, has once again re-emerged as a major threat.

While most of the world’s attention over the last five years has been focused on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al Qaeda has slowly rebuilt its network of fighters and cells, and expanded its reach into new territories, most notably into the Sahel and sub-Saharan regions of Africa.

Estimates show Al Qaeda has close to 40,000 active members between Africa and Asia.

The 2018 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) from the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) identified the Sahel in Africa as one of three emerging hotspots of terrorism, alongside Southeast Asia and Nigeria’s Middle Belt. Emerging terror threats in the Sahel are the result of both the destabilisation of North Africa following the Arab Spring, as well as the exploitation of local grievances between the populations in the Maghreb and Sahel.

Al Qaeda first formed in the late 1980s under the backdrop of Soviet and American involvement in the Middle East. The group gained global notoriety after staging the 9/11 attacks in the United States, which were followed by a series of major attacks in Bali, Madrid, London and Islamabad in the subsequent decade. The killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 disrupted the group’s influence, yet under its new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda has formulated a future strategy.

“Al Qaeda has slowly rebuilt its network of fighters and cells, and expanded its reach into new territories”

Under al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda of Iraq broke its formal ties to Al Qaeda to form ISIL in 2013, a setback that drove al-Zawahiri to refocus the group’s efforts toward Yemen and North Africa and a slow expansion of influence into sub-Saharan Africa. This geographic refocus has in part been made possible because of Al Qaeda’s ability to frame local and regional grievances in the context of global extremist narratives.

In 2012, Mali’s Tuareg community – a group of nomadic Muslims seeking independence in the northern portions of the country – rebelled against the Malian government, demanding territorial autonomy over the region they called Azawad. Following the violent uprising of the Tuareg, the marginalisation of the population provided Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) the opportunity to frame their struggles as part of a broader ideological movement.

The Al-Qaeda’s Mali “playbook”

Al-Qaeda’s plans to infiltrate the Sahel region became public knowledge after the publication of internal documents that outlined the group’s plan to seize upon instability and grievances in Sahelian countries.

In 2013, revelations over Al-Qaeda’s Mali “playbook” coincided with Tuareg and Fulani independence movements that Al-Qaeda affiliates, specifically AQIM, saw as potential openings for support. Plans from this playbook eventually came to fruition following the merger of four Al-Qaeda affiliate groups between the African Maghreb and Sahel regions – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Dine, the Macina Liberation Front and Al-Mubraitoun – resulting in the formation of Jama’at Nasr a-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).

Five years after Al-Qaeda’s plans to move into Africa became public, JNIM remains the deadliest group in many Sahelian countries today.

Between 2015 and 2016, the groups that now compose JNIM were reportedly responsible for 105 deaths in Mali and Burkina Faso alone. JNIM killed 57 people in Mali in 2017 and an additional 27 in Burkina Faso, representing the deadliest year for both countries in terms of terror-related deaths.

Preliminary data for 2018 suggests both countries could see higher figures and JNIM could see its most fatal year ever. Neighbouring Algeria and Niger have already seen increased levels of violence since the formation of JNIM and ISIL -affiliates are also found in both countries. Most recently, JNIM has been formally dubbed by Al-Qaeda leaders as the Timbuktu Emirate of Al-Qaeda, cementing the emerging threat in the region.

These developments are all occurring alongside Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s persistence in Syria, Al-Qaeda’s most active terror group behind Al-Shabaab in 2017.

A resurgence of Al-Qaeda in the African Sahel, including plans to institutionalise Sharia Law and violently oust any Western presence, could further destabilise countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, which already struggle to govern beyond their capital and other major cities, particularly peripheral sparse desert communities.

France is currently leading the fight against extremism in the Sahel in an effort to contain terrorist activity, but the harms in the Sahel continue to grow deadlier.

For more information on the emerging hotspots of terrorism, read the 2018 Global Terrorism Index.