As Islamist militant groups attempt to expand their operations into new areas, some have looked to the Sahel region in western and central Africa and seen opportunity.
The militant groups exist in pockets throughout the western Sahel and Lake Chad basin. Some, like Boko Haram, which has holdings in northern Nigeria and parts of Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, are expansive and relatively well-defined.
Others, like the numerous groups in Mali, are smaller and more scattered. The Sahara separates these local groups in and near the Sahel from territory dominated by al-Qaida and IS in North Africa—particularly Libya and Algeria.
This part of the Sahel can provide revenue sources for groups able to access and control key territory. Trade in illicit activities passes through the region, as traffickers try to get their goods into Europe. The region also holds valuable deposits of uranium, gold, and other metals that can be sold on the black market. Jihadist groups like al-Qaida and IS also see this part of the Sahel as a fertile recruitment ground.
For countries like the US and France, there’s a concern that these groups will form a corridor between North Africa and the Sahel that would allow revenue, fighters, and operations to merge and flow easily.
They hope to use counterterrorism operations to contain the extremist groups. France’s focus is Mali and other parts of the western Sahel, while US operations have concentrated on the Lake Chad basin to the east.
Islamist militant groups in the Sahel have the potential to contribute to or strengthen other jihadist groups. For this reason, organizations active in the area can’t be ignored and left to their own devices.
The current containment strategy at times obscures the role of Western security operations in addressing the threat, but in fact, countries like the US and France don’t need to fix the underlying problems facing West African nations in order to achieve their security objectives there.
Instead, they can maintain a lighter footprint and engage in limited military interventions to keep the groups at bay.
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