The threat of a jihadist expansion in West Africa

jihadist expansion

By: Dan Sanaren
Picture credits: Tan Khaerr – wikimediacommons


With recent attacks in Benin, the security situation in the Sahel is drastically changing, and the relatively limited activities of violent extremism seem to be spreading across West Africa. The crisis in the Sahel was ignited with an insurrection in northern Mali in January 2012, when secessionist Touareg groups and radical elements progressively gained control of northern cities in Mali. This alliance between proponents of northern self-determination and extremist movements, however, did not last simply due to diverging ideologies. The Bamako Agreement resulting from the Algiers process of 2015 limited hostilities between secessionists and the state, while radical groups faced opposition of all parties of that agreement. Yet, they were able to strengthen their presence not only in Mali but also in neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso. Radical groups, most importantly the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusratul Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM – Support Group for Islam and Muslims) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have consistently strengthened their positions in the three Sahelian states since 2015, despite international military action through missions such as the French Opération Barkhane or the regional Joint Force-G5 Sahel, a military partnership between Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. However, radical groups in the Sahel, in particular JNIM, a coalition of radical movements that includes since 2017 the Sahelian Emirate of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun and Katiba Macina, have shown ambitions to expand their presence throughout West Africa. Most notably across the coastal countries of Cote d’Ivoire and Benin, but also Togo, Guinea, and Ghana, while constituting a threat for others, like Senegal and Mauritania.

An old presence turned hostile 

The aforementioned coastal states have had a jihadist presence since the start of the crisis, yet their presence has changed from logistical to operational in recent years. Even before the crisis in 2012, the Gulf of Guinea was connected to the Sahel through major supply routes and logistical hubs used by radical groups. Since 2011 and the start of the Libyan Civil War, these exchanges between the inner Sahel and the Coastal Sahel drastically intensified. Indeed, prior to 2011, Libya was the source of most illicit weapons and goods inflows, a trend that shifted as the Libyan demand for weapons surged with the conflict in the country. Acquiring arms from external parties is crucial for JNIM, as seizing substantial amounts of weapons within Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso is becoming harder and riskier.

In 2019, the Small Arms Survey identified major smuggling routes for weapons from Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, towards the central and northern regions of Mali, notably the region of Mopti, one of JNIM strongholds. In parallel, the flows of basic goods and motorcycles originating from coastal countries guarantee JNIM’s operational capabilities to carry out their activities. Therefore, smaller strategic strongholds have been established by radical groups to assure these circulations, including close to the Cote d’Ivoire-Burkina Faso border with the establishment of the Katiba Alidougou, strongly connected to the Katiba Macina in Central Mali. The latter is also expanding its presence towards the Southern regions of Mali, bordering Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. 

However, recent attacks in coastal countries show that JNIM’s presence has both logistical supply and operational purposes. Since June 2020, JNIM carried out thirteen attacks in northern Cote d’Ivoire and multiple incursions from JNIM militants claimed the lives of at least fourteen Ivorian soldiers. Benin experienced two attacks since the start of 2022; in January, two soldiers were killed with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). In February, nine people lost their lives in an ambush in the W National Park. Similarly, Togo experienced its first attack in November 2021, while the presence of Ghanaian JNIM militants in Mali confirmed the group’s presence and recruitment in Ghana. 

Securing new resources amidst societal frictions   

While the attacks were perpetrated mostly in northern border regions do not represent major security risks in the immediate aftermath, they do show potential to cause major issues for the coastal countries. This is notably due to the fact that Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and other coastal countries, face challenges of social cohesion, acute inequalities and governance.  

JNIM, and in particular Katiba Macina in Central Mali, has been able to exploit socio-economic grievances of specific populations to recruit troops, by building on a rhetoric of justice and equality. This resonated with marginalised communities such as the local Fulani, traditional pastoralists in Mali and several countries of the region, who have been facing discrimination and economic hardships. Furthermore, Katiba Macina was able to consolidate its presence on territories where the state is unable to provide efficient social services, presenting itself as the alternative to the “corrupt elites”. 

The insecurities of specific communities, coupled with socio-economic deficits, are the main drivers of recruitment, and, like Katiba Macina in Central Mali, JNIM would be able to strengthen its ranks by building on injustices and economic hardships in coastal countries. In Ghana, for example, Fulani communities are portrayed as “armed robbers, bandits, and rapists”, a discourse justifying abuses of those communities. While similar trends exist in other countries like Senegal and Benin, Ghana constitutes the prime example of the marginalisation of pastoral communities by authorities, with the Operation Cow Leg – recurrent killings of herds and expulsions of Fulani communities. While JNIM tends to recruit without distinction, national discourses tend to perpetuate injustices towards certain populations by presenting them as directly linked to radical groups, making them a target and accentuating insecurities. These discourses that create a “suspect group” can arguably worsen the already tense situation, as national security forces may justify the repression of pastoralists, or other marginalised populations, as part of counter-terrorism actions. Recruitment by radical groups would therefore be more likely, as suspect groups would tend to seek protection by enrolling in jihadists’ ranks. 

However, the exacerbation of violence against suspect groups can originate from other actors than security forces. Coastal countries in West Africa also host several still-armed groups, or defence militias, that are involved in communal conflicts and that can act as aggressors. Until now, certain countries were unable to disarm such groups effectively, as is the case with the Dozos in Cote d’Ivoire, militarised during the country’s crisis, or with defence militias in Benin. An infamous example exists in Mali, where the involvement of ethnic militias, and notably the Dogon Dan Na Ambassagou, lead to massacres and destruction of Fulani villages, aggravating communal tensions. 

As previously stated, securing flows of weapons and ammunitions is of paramount importance for radical elements in the Sahel, and groups are unable to rely on attacks targeting weapon storages or security forces complexes. In that sense, the Gulf of Guinea countries are reliable sources, as radical groups can acquire weapons coming through illicit trade or rely upon local production. The latter is increasingly important, as hazards of grand trafficking less impact it. In addition, illegal production in countries such as Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire responds to the needs of jihadists. For example, local blacksmiths in Ghana are capable of producing up to 200,000 weapons annually, despite legislation limiting these activities. Complementing production capacities, local arms production is becoming more sophisticated, and the production of assault weapons resembling AK-47 is increasing. Production aside, large quantities of weapons are held by civilians, reaching up to 2.3 million in Ghana. Securing access to border areas in coastal countries therefore allows JNIM to further exploit local production and local stocks of weapons.  

JNIM is also in need of securing pockets of stable income to obtain funding for its activities. Through illegitimate governing of certain territories, JNIM requires the population to pay the Zakat – a religious tax in the form of money or goods. This has been widely used in Central Mali and more recently in the Boucle du Mouhoun region of Burkina Faso. However, the group is reliant on performing illicit activities, notably the extortion of transit routes and kidnapping for ransom. The group is therefore investing in the trafficking of goods and people and cattle as it has proven itself to be a reliable source of income. These flows of cigarettes and migrants are generally going towards or from north Africa and can prove volatile due to the increased vigilance of security forces and Bamako Agreement signatory groups.

Securing strategic points along trafficking routes is therefore an economic must for radical groups in order to assure the flow of supplies and their ability to finance their activities. However, further connectivity with organised crime in the region can represent another major threat to West Africa. It is important to note that JNIM has, until now, refused to be associated with narco-trafficking but has arguably recruited members among organised crime structures in the region. Accordingly, some regions of West Africa are increasingly attractive for terrorist groups, as they provide easily exploitable resources. This is notably the case for the Gulf of Guinea, plagued by piracy and marine crime, with criminal activity such as kidnappings, illegal fishing and oil-bunkering increasing in the past years. This could also be true for gold-rich Senegalese regions bordering Mali. Therefore, while there are currently no clear signs of sophisticated collision between jihadists and organised crimes, it cannot be ruled out in the future.  

Looking at the preparedness of the Coastal countries 

West African countries rapidly mobilised to address the intensifying threat of JNIM’s activity on their territories. However, these responses were generally security-oriented, including high militarisation of at-risk regions and intensified recruitments for national security forces.  Since 2017, coastal countries have acted through the Accra Initiative 2017, and it was through a joint operation between Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo that over 300 suspected members of radical groups were arrested. Countries are also relying on the identification of suspects on their territories and more thorough control of movements of border communities, which in some cases lead to increased societal tensions, as the Fulani community is increasingly targeted in Cote d’Ivoire. 

Coastal countries are also diversifying partnerships in order to enforce effective security and border control measures, with Benin’s integration of African Parks rangers, and the deployment of military-trained forest rangers of a South African NGO managing natural parks in the country.  Additionally, the withdrawal of French forces from Mali present in the country in the framework of Opération Barkhane offers perspectives for redeployment in coastal countries as its establishment in Niger was ruled out. A French presence would strengthen the capacities of the Gulf of Guinea countries and complete the already-established cooperation on maritime security between these countries and European Member States. 

Lessons from the Sahel should guide the action of coastal states, as the military-first approach towards radical elements in the region did not end the crisis. Instead, security measures often eroded social cohesion and gave place to political crises, as was seen in Mali and Burkina Faso in recent years. Security measures therefore seem bound to fail if governments are unable to address the underlying causes that exacerbate the conflict. Additionally, while they address the problem on a short-term basis by distributing jihadist operations and flows, measures like enhanced border controls and curfews exert additional pressure on the livelihoods of local populations. 

Prevention of the broadening of activities carried out by JNIM and other radical groups should therefore be at the centre of the agenda for West African governments. By addressing the situation in their northern regions, governments of coastal countries have the opportunity to strengthen social cohesion and prevent the deterioration of relations between the population and the state. As recruits often join radical groups out of socio-economic despair, governments should encourage the development of increased opportunities and the provision of basic social services, to avoid a disconnection with populations and offer them better opportunities than jihadist rebels’ governance. Furthermore, breaking with systemic marginalisation would lessen the resentfulness of key groups, such as transhumant pastoralists. Also, it would lead to the improvement of living conditions of these groups through enhanced attention to value chains of their products would mitigate recruitment trends and radicalisation of the population within a state.


In the context of the recent developments in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, as well as the withdrawal of the French Opération Barkhane, radical structures within the region show a will to expand their activities generally south, towards the Gulf of Guinea. Such expansion, indicated by recent attacks and the increased presence of militants in key border regions, represents a threat to the security and stability of coastal countries and the region as a whole. Indeed, this southward transition would allow JNIM and other groups to strengthen their supply chains by connecting them to the already-fragile Gulf of Guinea. Coastal countries, which have previously been affected by the spill-over of the conflict from neighbouring countries, are still strengthening their counter-terrorism actions through enhanced military measures. Yet, they fail to address the socio-economical drivers of the conflict. National and regional structures should address the issues of small arms and light weapons proliferation and encourage demobilisation of the population. Additionally, a focus on preventive measures by improving social cohesion and livelihood in at-risk areas should therefore be reflected in national and regional policy.

Interested in reading more JASON articles from this author? Then make sure to check out the following article on the Cabo Delgado crisis

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