Feb 7th, 2022, 08:30 PM

The Sahel's Terrorism Problem

By Cire Taal
Image Credit: Flickr/Magharebia
A coup d'état in Burkina Faso comes as a reminder of the threat terrorism poses to sub-Saharan Africa.

President Roch Kaboré of Burkina Faso was ousted from power by the country's military in late January, with the country's government being restructured into a "transitional" military junta led by interim president Lieutenant Colonel Paul Henri Damiba.

Despite opposition from the international community, the military junta is mainly supported by Burkinabe popular opinion. The coup comes after months of anti-government protests demanding president Kaboré's resignation for his poor response and management of the country's growing terrorist insurgency. 

Burkina Faso has been the victim of militant attacks linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State since 2015, which have displaced 1.5 million people according to the UNHCR. The problems Burkina Faso faces are representative of the broader region the country finds itself in: the Sahel. Even the recent coup is not without precedence in the Sahel - not only is it the fourth coup in the region in the last 17 months, but even the coup's motivations and support from the people resembles neighboring Mali's two recent coups. Rather than being an outlier, the Burkina Faso coup is yet another reminder of the ever-increasing threat of terrorism in the Sahel.

Image credit: Openverse/Munion


The Sahel is a semi-arid region of Africa that divides the dry Sahara from wet, tropical grasslands. Spanning over 11 countries including Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Mali, the region has struggled with jihadist violence for the past two decades. Violent extremism as a whole has been on the rise in recent years. The region is plagued by poverty, insecurity and a relative lack of political or economic rights, creating widespread mistrust in government and leading populations to turn to political violence and even terrorism.

Terrorism has emerged as a force in the Sahel since the 1990s, and has become such a problem in part thanks to its ability to intertwine with pre-existing conflicts. Terrorism in the Sahel has largely emerged from the convergence of nationalist and jihadist movements. For example, the group Ansar Dine are viewed by scholars as having amalgamated "Tuareg [ethnic] seccessionist nationalism with Islamist ideology." The expansion of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State into Africa has also helped offshoot groups like al-Shabaab or Jama'at Nusrat Al-Islam wa'l-Muslimin (JNIM) to become greater threats in their respective countries of activity. As terrorism continues to makes its influence on regional politics tangible, especially through coups like in Burkina Faso, questions emerge over the efficiency of counter-terrorism programs in the region.

Terrorism in the region hasn't been entirely ignored, though. The western Sahel has in fact been the location of France's largest overseas deployment, Operation Barkhane, since 2014. This is in addition to the G5 Sahel, a joint counterterrorism taskforce formed by Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. While these military operations have been effective in containing the threat of terrorism in the region, they have been largely ineffective in eliminating that threat.

Operation Barkhane in particular has been met with growing anti-French sentiment from those living in the Sahel, who see the military operation as an extension of Françafrique and France's supposed neocolonialist agenda. France's intervention in western Africa, often linked to a painful past of French colonization for much of the region, has left some countries detaching from their historical partner and looking towards Russia.

Whether beliefs about France and their potential interests in Africa are true or not, it is clear the military deployment's sole focus on counterterrorism has not allowed for a meaningful restoration of stability in the region. A lack of focus on rebuilding institutions, integrating local perspectives, and rebuilding public trust in government, among other things, has not given countries a long term solution to an insecurity problem tied to more than just terrorism. 

As terrorism continues to make its influence known within the Sahel, the region is confronted with more obstacles. The Sahel's crisis calls more into question than just security - France's relationship with its African colonies, the encroachment of Russia in Africa, the strength of African states and more are at play when considering how this crisis is playing out. As civilians continue to bear the brunt of terrorist attacks, and as new states in the Sahel are threatened by the expansion of terrorism, perhaps the Burkina Faso coup should be taken as a reminder of the status quo.