Executive summary

Regional vulnerability to terrorism

The countries of North and West Africa are linked by the Sahara Desert and the smaller but parallel Sahel region across the desert’s southern extremity. Similar social, economic, structural and historical drivers have made them, to different degrees, vulnerable to insurgencies, criminal trafficking and religiously-inspired terrorism. Many of those countries have become theatres of conflict in which Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and DaeshFootnote 1 challenge state authority and each other. The most violent confrontations between regional state authorities and terrorist organisations are taking place in Libya and Mali, while Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia are also implicated because of their strategic location in the Sahara, Sahel or both.

The region has a long history of terrorism. Mujahedeen fighters returned from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, eventually forming the Salafist Group for Preaching and Jihad (GSPC)Footnote 2, one of the violent extremist groups resisting the Algerian government after the cancellation of elections in 1991. When the insurgency was defeated, they dispersed to other parts of the region. Extremists were also present in Libya before the 2011 revolution ousted Muammar Gaddafi.

The trajectories of AQIM and Daesh in the region are linked to their ability to exploit the vulnerabilities of the countries in which they attempt to embed themselves.

Libya has been divided between two rival government coalitions, and the recent attempt to install a Government of National Accord to implement the Libyan Political Agreement has only resulted in the creation of a third rival government. The fragmentation of political authority has made it easier for rival militias to seize power. Most of these militias represent local clan families, which were suppressed, not eliminated, under the Gaddafi regime. Al-Qaeda has successfully inserted itself into the Libyan conflict; Daesh has been driven from its last Libyan urban stronghold, Sirte.

The government of Mali is also weak, has neglected the northern part of the country, and excluded from power potentially important local interests. AQIM gained a significant foothold there, but the French military intervention of 2013 killed many fighters and scattered others to other parts of the region. Despite this setback, AQIM has increased its tempo of attacks and is now more entrenched than before. However, Daesh has not been able to establish a lasting territorial presence.

Contrasting terrorist strategies

The reason for the successes of AQIM and the defeats of Daesh can be attributed to those groups’ different strategies for inserting themselves into local struggles.

Daesh has had great success until recently in Iraq and Syria because it represented a local Sunni reaction to Shia dominance in both countries. The magnetism of its extremist narrative, attention to communications and recruitment, as well as the drawing power of the grand idea of a ‘caliphate’ gave Daesh the capacity to recruit regional and international fighters.

However, the epochal narrative is not always relevant to extremists engaged in complex local struggles for power, and the brutality of Daesh alienates local populations and generates strong popular and military reactions.

Al-Qaeda (AQ) has adopted a different strategy, not only in North Africa and the Sahel, but everywhere. This is clearly illustrated in Syria, where Jabhat Al-Nusra (JAN) took care to distinguish itself from Daesh by working with local populations, providing necessary services and deliberately avoiding the kind of violence to opponents and local populations which Daesh celebrated and publicised. When JAN changed its name to Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, and ostensibly ended its affiliation with Al-Qaeda, it was simply implementing a strategy that the latter is also using in Africa.

In Mali, Al-Qaeda has reestablished its influence by submerging its own AQ identity and embedding itself with local groups in the north with grievances against the government. Al-Qaeda operatives inter-marry with local clans and leverage clan identity for their own benefit. As AQ becomes more powerful through this strategy, it becomes more indispensable to other groups, whether they are armed gangs or criminals who need to protect their access to Sahara-Sahel trafficking routes. Sharing criminal activities provides funding and support for social and religious activity. AQ has also established a reputation for dispensing justice and providing administrative capacity in the absence of state services. Through an embedding strategy Al-Qaeda becomes dominant, but invisible. For authorities, it is difficult to distinguish between nomads, rebels, criminals and jihadists.

The success of this strategy becomes clear through examining the conflicts in Libya and Mali. In Libya, Daesh tried but failed to establish a permanent presence in Derna and Benghazi. In both it was rejected as an alien entity by other militias. It finally found success in Sirte, by co-opting an isolated Ansar Al-Sharia branch and bringing in leaders and fighters. However, Daesh then followed its extremist vision by executing Coptic Christians, threatening to conquer Rome and trying to establish itself as a centre for global jihad. Its threatening behaviour and spectacular violence towards the population led to a successful drive by Misratan militias, backed by Western special forces and US air support, to push it out of the city. Its fighters, mostly francophone West Africans, not Arabs, are scattered, but not eliminated from Libya. Daesh’s lack of lasting appeal can be attributed to its fanaticism, but also to its inability to be relevant to the complex rivalries within Libya.

By contrast, Al-Qaeda offshoot Ansar Al-Sharia has been an effective militia with the Misratan faction; sees itself as a revolutionary group with a Libyan—not a transnational—mission; and has appointed prominent Misratan jihadists to leadership positions. 

In Mali, despite attempts to implant itself, there has been no room for Daesh. Al-Qaeda, through its surrogates, dominates the jihadist landscape and has widespread support. AQ works through groups like Ansar Dine and is close to the Peul and Fulani peoples, both of which were disadvantaged under previous national and informal power-sharing arrangements. Working with Al-Qaeda changes local dynamics, so that weaker groups with AQ partners become dominant and in turn become indispensable partners for fighters and criminals alike. While AQIM took heavy casualties from French military action in 2013 and 2014, and had to pull out of the cities, the French threat, and the attempt by Daesh to establish itself, ultimately hardened AQIM as it developed new strategies and improved operational security. Attack levels are rising again, doubling from 2015 to 2016.


For foreign observers, the experience in North Africa and the Sahel offers conclusions which are applicable to the region and beyond:

  • Daesh may become less visible as it loses territory, but as elsewhere this may lead to a new form of non-territorial terrorism, not defeat;
  • Less visibility for Al-Qaeda may simply mean that the strategy of submersion in local organisations has been successful. Al-Qaeda will be more entrenched, more dangerous, but less obvious;
  • The Sahara-Sahel is a unified transmission belt, with fighters, traffickers and weapons suppliers moving between countries in response to opportunity and military pressure;
  • Terrorism begets more terrorism as regions become accustomed to violence and infrastructure supporting terrorism become entrenched;
  • Even a regional lens may be too limited to understand the problem. Daesh in Libya has been active in pushing refugees out into the Mediterranean, part of the movement causing tensions across Europe;
  • States must be realistic about the cost of the strategies they advocate. North Africa and the Sahel represent one theatre of many where terrorism is being confronted by national governments and the international community.

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