Countering militancy in the Sahel

What works? What doesn't?

Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo

Violent jihadism continues to gain ground in West Africa, ramping up humanitarian needs in a region where 18.5 million people already require aid.

IRIN spent a year reporting from the Sahel to better understand what is driving militancy there and to identify and assess efforts being made to foster sustainable peace. Former fighters, displaced families, aid workers, government and military officials, and others made clear that there’s no single cause and no single solution: economics, politics, and faith all play a role in spurring militancy on, and all could play a role in forging peace. As the panelists at an IRIN roundtable on possible ways forward concluded, any peace and reintegration processes must, therefore, include the local communities themselves.

Takeaways from the 19 articles that make up this reporting project, carried out in partnership with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, are below.


Root causes: One size doesn’t fit all

What seems to connect the insurgent battlegrounds of northeast Nigeria, northern Cameroon, north and central Mali, and southern Niger is that they are poor and neglected. But that it too simplistic. Underdevelopment, marginalisation, and inequality may help fuel grievance, yet they don’t explain why an insurgency can occur in one deprived region but not another.

What we do know is:

Neither poverty or education level correlates with militant membership. Extremist ranks are filled with the learned and the illiterate, the lowest members of society and those that had opportunities. That means the path to jihadism is not linear – there are multiple routes that can lead an individual to extremism.

The decision to join a militant movement is fundamentally an emotional one. People have agency. Youths are not “passive entities upon whom violence is exercised,” research by Interpeace and the Malian Institute of Action Research for Peace notes. “Youths are fully fledged actors in the dynamics of violence and make their own choices, even if these choices are often limited or defined by context.”

And there is also a gender dimension that is rarely explored. We seem to automatically regard female jihadists as somehow coerced. But women are also active members of insurgent movements, not just wives or cannon fodder. “It’s difficult to accept that this complexity – including the role of men and women – is the story, because we want it to be more simple, and it’s not,” notes researcher Elizabeth Pearson.


Recruitment: it’s personal

There’s no archetype of a “terrorist” but the inter-play between ‘individual’ and ‘community’ helps us trace the path to recruitment.

  • Peer pressure plays a part in why people join militant groups. Moustapha Bachir remembers how some of his friends signed up to the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram after the insurgents visited villages in Cameroon’s Far North Region promising “wealth and status to youths who would follow them to Nigeria”.
  • Community identity can also play a role linked to ideas of dignity, recognition, and respect. For example, the Malian jihadist Macina Liberation Front seeks the revival of the 19th century Macina Empire, a Fulani-led Islamic state based in the central Mopti and Segou regions of present-day Mali.
  • The impact of personal trauma and humiliation – how you or your family were treated by the security forces, say – are also important. A United Nations Development Programme study found that for 70 percent of jihadists, the arrest or killing of family members was the tipping point in their decisions to join.


Motivations: The power of faith

We tend to dismiss the power of faith in favour of more “rational” explanations, like poverty and underdevelopment. But ideology is significant, analysts say.

  • Jihadists can sincerely believe in their cause. “Boko Haram’s ideology, that Westernisation is evil, still has resonance,” writes Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development. “Rural northeastern Nigeria is highly conservative. While the insurgency’s violence is not approved of, its broad worldview has power and can still attract sympathy.”
  • People need a narrative. So how the conflict is “framed” creates meaning and emotional power for militants and sympathisers. Boko Haram generates support with the notion it alone represents true Islam; that it is resisting a supposed war on Muslims waged by the government; and that Nigeria, as a constitutional democracy, is an infidel state that must be overthrown.
  • Paradise beckons. But, even though militant groups wage war in the name of religion, the evidence from conflicts around the world is that many radicalised young men have only a limited grasp of the holy texts they purport to defend. Martyrdom, nevertheless, exerts a powerful allure for some.


Security forces: Big stick, big problems

Security forces – whether members of the military or the police – are extraordinarily bad at identifying jihadists or those at risk of joining their ranks.

  • Bad cop: Traditional policing – far too often based on brutality and arbitrary arrest rather than proper detective work – can create more fear of the security services than of the insurgents and is clearly counter-productive. The death in police custody of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 merely turbo-charged Boko Haram’s insurgency.
  • Collective punishment: Police and military officials often punish communities indiscriminately rather than work from within the community to detect threats to public safety by promoting trust and collaboration. The Nigerien government’s counter-insurgency strategy has been blunt. It cleared entire villages from the border area with Nigeria, destroying a local economy based on fishing and red pepper cultivation.

The spread of violence in the Sahel

The fight against extremist violence in the Sahel involves a range of armed groups.


Reducing the ranks of fighters: demobilisation

Amnesty and demobilisation schemes backed by financial and vocational support for surrendering fighters can be a smarter way to thin jihadist ranks than combat.

  • But demobilisation can be messy. Programmes launched in Nigeria and Niger could have been groundbreaking, but in reality both models are ad hoc, underfunded, and poorly administered.
  • There’s confusion over the legal framework under which ex-fighters are detained and which categories of ex-combatants qualify for amnesty. The necessary doctrines, resources and partnerships are often not in place to deliver effective “deradicalisation” programming – especially in Niger, where ex-Boko Haram, including women and children, are kept in a windswept former refugee camp with the barest of services.


Former fighters: reintegration is hard

Communities have often been displaced, fragmented, and traumatised by conflict, making reinsertion of ex-fighters all the more difficult. There is also an understandable problem of anger and distrust towards the former militants.

  • Communities need to be consulted. The Nigerian government was surprised by the fury it encountered when it presented its plans to free ex-Boko Haram fighters – plans made without first talking to the affected communities. People that have been hurt by violence need reassurance they will not be re-victimised by returning former combatants.
  • They also need to benefit materially from reintegration to smooth their re-acceptance, made all the harder when economies are dominated by informal business. “First, the government should meet those communities that lost everything, living under trees: meet those people, comfort them, and bring them back to their houses, give them means to resettle,” says Aboubaker Issa, a youth leader in the southern Nigerien town of Diffa. “After that, the government can turn to the ex-combatants and help them come back to their communities.”



Humanitarians: an ethical web

There is no consensus on what violent extremism is, much less how to combat it. Those working in the countering/preventing violent extremism industry, also known as P/CVE, believe it is distinct from the “hard” militarised approach of counter-terrorism – and some aid agencies have been happy to take P/CVE money as part of their “human development” programming.

  • But there are significant ethical concerns in accepting P/CVE sourced funding. Humanitarian principles demand that aid should be impartial, neutral, and independent – not politicised. “Preventing and countering violent extremism is not a battle for humanitarians to fight,” the Norwegian Refugee Council warns.
  • Evidence is scarce that P/CVE approaches have successfully reduced extremism. There is little to suggest that providing aid reduces the incidence of terrorism or the likelihood of people joining jihadist causes.


Text by Obi Anyadike


Must reads: An annotated guide to some of the best research out there

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