The power of jihadist extremists in the Sahel has been on the rise for the past decade, and now several groups appear poised for expansion into new areas of West Africa.
Militants from Mali and Burkina Faso have moved south, launching attacks in the coastal states of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo. In Nigeria, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has started operations far further west and south than had previously been the case.
This includes an audacious prison raid just outside the capital Abuja, several hundred kilometres from their usual areas of activity.
In the past, the power and influence of these groups has been dangerously underestimated. There are lessons to be learned in better tracking their expansion and predicting what they may do next.
As a team of analysts who have been monitoring armed group control in a range of conflicts, we lay out here what aid workers, policymakers, and security officials need to be doing differently this time around.
Rethinking armed group control
UN agencies, security analysts, and news outlets regularly produce colour-coded maps of territorial control in war zones, often with clear dividing lines between which actors control various areas (and the contested areas in between).
The trouble with these maps is that they fail to capture how armed groups actually operate. As lessons learned from a number of conflicts suggest, that creates a perilously false sense of security. After all, maps in Afghanistan showed the Taliban in control of a strikingly small proportion of the country – right up until they seized power. In reality, the Taliban held much more influence than those maps conveyed.
There are three main problems with the current status quo. First, there is a default assumption of the state being in control of territory. In reality, the state may be only one among many actors vying for control – and they may not even be the dominant one. Armed groups may exercise as much or even more influence.
Secondly, armed group control is as much about controlling populations as territory. Indeed, armed groups often seek to control people before they seek to dominate territory. Enforcing the contours of what populations can and can't do permits control without a permanent presence.
In reality, the state may be only one among many actors vying for control – and they may not even be the dominant one.
Third, control is not zero-sum. Instead, these conflicts are frequently characterised by overlapping layers of control and fluid forms of influence.
What then should we be doing differently?
Based on our extensive research across various conflicts, there are three essential elements to understanding control. The first is to identify and understand jihadist strategy across the political, economic, and social spheres of civilian life. Often, there is an overemphasis on the violence these groups enact or on territorial dividing lines, without a more systemic understanding of their operations.
The second is identifying the practices and techniques they are applying to exert control over the population. Again, this should include violence but also “softer” tactics like the provisions of services, the use of informal courts, regulation of aid, and any “rules” or social strictures they expect people to obey.
The third and final piece is gauging their capacities, coercive as well as financial (i.e. where do they get their money? How do they allocate funds?) and organisational (i.e. do they have a clear chain of command, and coherent shadow governance structures?). This, in turn, allows us to better predict what they can or might do next.
Population control in West Africa
Population control, rather than territorial control, has become a key practice of West African jihadists. This hasn’t always been the case. Al Qaeda-linked extremists were successful in capturing and controlling territory in Mali for a period in 2012-13.
Likewise, between 2014 and 2015 “Boko Haram” captured a large part of Borno state in northeast Nigeria, including many sizable towns. Yet both were later pushed back (by French forces in Mali and the Nigerian Army in Nigeria).
Like the so-called Islamic State (in Iraq and Syria), which was ultimately defeated in its efforts to control territory, West Arican jihadists have learned from this experience.
Instead, their approach now focuses on “competitive control”. This is not a new idea: Bernard Fall described how the Viet Cong used it to entrench themselves in Vietnam, and David Kilcullen writes about how the Taliban used it to gain a foothold in villages across Afghanistan.
It engages civilians in a way that can seem – to some extent – benign. Militants may provide food, loans, and legal rulings. Equally, they may provide protection against threats (bandits, corrupt officials) and even rudimentary healthcare.
Population control, rather than territorial control, has become a key practice of West African jihadists.
These tactics are designed to exploit civilian frustration with the government. For example, where state systems fail to deliver justice, insurgents step in with their own courts. People may value these activities, and the security they offer, even if they do not agree with the militants’ political doctrine.
However, these tactics sit alongside extreme violence and punishment for transgressions of jihadist rules. By using carrots and sticks, groups like Mali’s Katiba Macina, or Nigeria’s ISWAP, seek to control communities. Doing so allows them to extract resources and human capital that can be redeployed into the insurgencies.
Across West Africa, there is a discernable pattern: Assassinations of notables (religious or political elites who might pose a challenge), and low-key efforts to infiltrate communities using “carrots” (providing “justice” and controlling economic resources are common ones), precede or accompany an intensification of insurgent violence and restrictions.
Control of the population, rather than territory, is the objective. Jihadists will certainly attack state forces when they can. ISWAP, at times, has been ruthless in its targeting of the Nigerian military.
Yet these groups do not try to control and hold territory at all costs. Rather, they most often favour a flexible form of transitory population control and “asymmetric” hit-and-run military activity that presents a serious threat to the security forces, while making it very hard for states to find and oust them.
Jihadist armed groups moving south
This all offers insights into how to understand the recent jihadist incursions into West African coastal countries. Such attacks have escalated since June 2020, when JNIM members attacked a military post in the border village of Kafolo in Cote d’Ivoire.
In 2021, JNIM claimed several attacks in Kpendjal in Togo and on the Beninois army at the border with Burkina Faso. In the last year alone, ACLED recorded 28 events in northern Benin, including assassination and kidnappings of resistant local actors.
There are multiple drivers of the violence, from herder-farmer conflicts to the government’s marginalisation of local communities. The W-Arly-Pendjari parks, between Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso, constitute a paradigmatic case in this regard.
Read more: Stories of survival and self-sacrifice from Mali’s local jihadist dialogues
Local communities (especially pastoral communities) denounce the abuses of government environmental protection policies and practices, including excessive fines imposed for wood harvesting, informal taxation practices, extortion, and intimidation.
As local communities are not only excluded from the use of resources within protected areas, but also from the benefits deriving from their conservation, the main targets of violence have become anti-poaching units and rangers. In this sense, jihadist groups gather consensus among local communties by opposing the perceived corruption of local authorities and an unfair management of resources that allows them to recruit members.
The way forward
Militarised security-centred approaches have shown their limitations in West Africa. Anti-Western (read French) sentiments are growing, and democracy backsliding, with six military coups in the last two years.
It’s about time to seriously reflect on local populations’ needs, which include inclusive mechanisms of access to resources, provision of services, and paths to fair justice.
Jihadist groups gather consensus among local communties by opposing the perceived corruption of local authorities.
Meanwhile, to keep track of these changing dynamics in the region, we need to pay close attention to shifts in population control. Indicators of control are context-specific, at times subtle and difficult to spot. However, the attacks on anti-poaching units and park rangers in the W-Arly-Pendjari parks are hallmarks of an insurgency attempting to expand its influence by attacking symbols of authority or those seen as unjust among civilians.
Tensions over natural resources may provide the opportunity for insurgents to establish parallel systems of justice, which some come to view as more effective than the state.
Monitoring these developments – along with others such as changes in resource extraction and changes in social norms and behaviour – can help anticipate the direction of the conflict so that aid workers can better navigate the dangers in seeking to help populations living amid armed group control.