When ISIS’s self-styled “caliph,” Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, reappeared last week in his first video message in five years, most observers focused on his attempt to rally what remains of his largely defeated group. Less attention was paid to an almost throwaway reference to two pledges of allegiance to the group from jihadi militias in the West African countries of Mali and Burkina Faso. But the intention of that second message was to reinforce the first. After being wiped out in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is searching for other territories in which to operate, and the Sahel region is a prime candidate.
Their presence has not gone unnoticed. In the same week that Al Baghdadi’s message appeared, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, landed in those two countries, pledging nearly $40 million in financial aid in addition to the nearly 1,000 German troops already stationed in the region, along with thousands more from France and other European nations. But the Europeans have their own domestic agenda in mind and their own reasons for fighting a quiet war in a distant land. As Germany’s economic and development minister, Gerd Müller, explained, “If we don’t solve the problems in Africa, they will come to us.”
The Sahel, a semi-arid zone that extends through 10 countries, is almost at breaking point. Repeated food crises and water shortages have exacerbated ethnic divisions. Poverty and corruption are endemic. Four of the countries worst affected by violence – Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso – are in the bottom 10 on the United Nations Human Development Index.
This arid territory has proved to be fertile ground for jihadi groups. Al Qaeda has operated in the region for several years, having gained a foothold in the deserts of northern Mali after the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011. ISIS soon followed and the two groups have joined a kaleidoscope of militant groups, usually fighting over local issues but happy to team up with outsiders when needed. Sahel governments are also not above using militias occasionally, further muddying the waters between states and outside forces. With such deeply entrenched problems in the region, “stabilization” has been the main political goal. Germany has nearly 1,000 troops in Mali, the largest European contingent in the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping force, which consists mainly of African and Arab soldiers. The French have been present in the region since 2014, when they created Operation Barkhane in Chad to conduct counter-terrorism operations. Both France and Germany also support the G5 Sahel force, an alliance of five countries facing threats from Islamist militants.
Like the rest of Europe, Germany is concerned that allowing any space for ISIS or others like it to regroup could lead to terror attacks on European streets. But the biggest concern is the mass movement of people. The refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean include many from the Sahel. The region is also host to many more would-be migrants coming from as far away as Sudan and Eritrea, because the smuggling routes into North Africa and onward to Europe start in the northern deserts of Mali and Niger. European governments hope that curbing the various insurgencies and bringing political stability to the region will reduce the flow of migrants. But it is not as straightforward as that.
European countries and ISIS are both, in some manner, seeking to interpose themselves into an already complex social and political situation. That makes both their tasks harder.
ISIS, as well as Al Qaeda, are trying to “internationalize” conflicts that are inherently local. There are estimated to be hundreds of separate militias operating across Mali, Niger and Chad, often composed of one ethnic group, and with strictly local grievances. Persuading them to fight for a common cause will not be easy. The motivational appeal of a “caliphate” may be strong in Iraq and Syria, which were both seats of real historical caliphates, but the countries of the Sahel have their own distinct political histories.
Before the war in Iraq and the rise of ISIS, the states of Syria and Iraq exerted complete control over their territory. That is not true for any of the Sahel states, all of which have their seats of government in the south, more than 1,000 kilometers away from their ill-defined northern borders. Stabilizing these countries means asserting government control over areas that have long been without it. Moreover, it is their governments’ actions –corruption, human rights abuses and ethnic divisions – that have pushed many into the arms of the jihadists. Undoing all of that will mean in some sense refashioning the way those states work.
That may be why the Europeans are keeping quiet about their involvement in the Sahel, preferring to work through regional governments and alliances such as the G5. They want neither to give the impression they are propping up unpopular governments, nor, particularly in the case of France, to allow the idea to develop that Europe is back in the business of remaking African states.
Much of the money Merkel pledged was for development projects and for the further integration of the G5 Sahel force. The message is that what happens in the Sahel is an African problem and European countries are merely there to help. Unfortunately, in the Sahel’s remote and forgotten villages, militant groups like ISIS are also whispering the same message.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.