contest winners (2021)

- 3ª Posición en el Concurso Defensa y Yo -

Iranzu Xiaochun Carretero

Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (Madrid)

19-year-old International Relations student Iranzu Carretero is a curious person. She is from Madrid, has studied and lived during all her life there, today she studies the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. From health care beginnings at high school, she decided to change the course of her life at the last minute. 

She speaks five languages, three of them fluidly, being translator for an NGO and having participated in many UN Models of diverse international relations topics. Vocation for defense came from her father and materialized in a subject at university. She is known for her good diplomatic skills, analytics and military prospects, and is an excellent group work companion. Now, she is a fond Europeanist and proud Spaniard.

Aumento del terrorismo yihadista en el Sahel

Growth of Jihadism in the Sahel

It is too comfortable for us to see things far away and believe that they will have  no incidence in our daily lives. But it is precisely that characteristic non-imminence of  Jihadi-Salafi threats that makes it increasingly dangerous. When we talk about Jihadi Salafism, we are referring to a wide and complex net of terrorist actors which are  operating in the Sahel region, causing much instability. Migration is one of the effects of  instability, and that is why we need not look up to ourselves, but down to Africa (in  geographical terms). We sometimes tend to live in globalization but somewhat forgetting  we are being part of that process. Everything is connected: if there was instability in  Africa, must we recognize, there are great chances of forced displacements of people,  who would eventually arrive to our borders, and perhaps that, together with sporadic  attacks could become burden enough for Westerners to react.  

In this way, disentangling the entanglement seems a point of departure towards  comprehending the puzzle. But, before, we must also understand how the puzzle was  formed, that is, how these terrorist organizations came to be.  

In the first place, the term “Salafi-Jihadism” is a movement that is formed by two  terms, of which “Salafism” refers to the ideology and of which “Jihadism” refers to the  use of violence to achieve political aims established by the ideology (even if original  writings call for tolerance). It is, hance, a marginalised trend within Sunni Islam that  marries the concept of “Salafism”, which returns to the practice of Islam in Mohammed  times, removing modernization in how the religion is practiced. The key here is, that the  idea that being Muslim and part of a Western society cannot be congruent, which leads  to a fundamentalist view, and an extremist outcome. 

Having failed in delivering the message within their own Muslim communities  during the 80s and 90s, they turned to attack the western world, blamed for having  supported the governments at that time (economically and militarily). The ideology is  capable of keeping these groups united, establishing a strategic purpose. They recruit  individuals to conduct Jihad in Western countries, which are out of their core of believers  and also far from other communities sustained by these terrorist groups. 

Following, we will analyse a wide picture, the historical background and actors in  the region (both for terrorist networks and counter-terrorist or other approaches in the  Sahel).  


The Jihadi-Salafi movement has, inside the Sahel, established a vanguard. They  have arranged a core of believers while developing relationships with the population  through other means (providing pragmatic benefits for the population: food, water, justice  is a key, means of working). They have been able to do so through the preexisting familial  and criminal networks in the Sahel.  

Within the region, Al Qaeda has used local identity politics (an “us vs them”  approach), which mainly strokes conflict against the targeted community, and later come  to the defense on the part of the community they are trying to get in touch with. This tactic  has been developed and adapted through the years. An example of it is the way Al Qaeda  strengthened itself when it attacked the Shia to have the Iraqi Shia attack the Iraqi Sunni,  later coming to the defense of the Sunni. Their aim was to support the opposition to the  Assad regime (which was predominantly Sunni), making themselves the “defenders of  the Muslims”. Therefore, within the Sahel region, the Salafi-Jihadi movement is said to  have been strengthened (not only Al Qaeda). On its part, the Islamic State (IS), has also  exploited frictions to establish its own presence inside of the region.  

Moreover, the area is very arid and hostile, it is basically desert. Smugglers have  figured out how to move in there, and have created oases with supplies, moving them to  next stations within a GPS system. Key hubs for smuggling and trafficking which serve  to finance the groups are very difficult to close, even with aerial surveillance, drones, and  other technical abilities, to get to and from the region is difficult. These hubs provide terrorist groups with resources, people, money, ways to make money and logistics to  move their goods and people around.  

And, besides this complexity, there difficulty of countering them lies in that they  are very old networks, with very robust human trafficking, smuggling and trade systems.  It has opened the door of access to Southern Europe and Eastern Africa, as well as to the  Middle East. That is why Al Qaeda and IS are making an effort to have control over them:  because both the licit and illicit economies are whole or partly sustained by these  smuggling routes. 

But complexity is not only specific to smuggling routes. Terrorist networks also  are, since they have been merging and diverging along time and have managed to control  their own territories. The current picture in the Sahel portrays three main groups: Al  Qaeda or JNIM (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin), which is an umbrella group for  other four organizations; the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which split from  the JNIM in 2015 and Ansar Al Islam, which remains unaffiliated between Al Qaeda and  the Islamic State (but has IS leanings). It is a kind of harbinger in terms of what these  groups can do in expanding the terrorism threat in the region. 

The ISGS’ independency has not been formally recognized by Al Qaeda, and is  considered by the ISIS part of the Islamic State in West Africa. Therefore, we can find  two Islamic State groups in the Sahel, the ISGS and the eponymous ISWA (which covers  Lake Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Chad). 

Nowadays, the ISWS and the JNIM no longer cooperate, but have until spring of  this year. JNIM still cooperates with Ansar Al Islam, and the latter with the IS. The Sahel  has proved to be an ecosystem for these groups’ interactions, with growing and  strengthening groups. The Sahel region started to be alive when in the early 80s – late 90s,  Algerian networks established themselves there. The GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) and  IS groups splintered in Al Qaeda and the AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). In  1998, the GIA splintered and created the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, formally  recognized as affiliate to AQIM in 2006 (Zimmerman, 2020).  

AQIM emerged out of the Algerian civil war and aimed to conduct jihad to  overthrow the Algerian state, and, because it was the premier AQ organization in North Africa, it drew recruits from that region, thus adding a non-Algerian component as well  (these were people from Mauritania, Northern Mali, Lybia and Tunisia). But in the 2000s  the situation degenerated, since the AQIM had a very strong focus on Algeria, and  Algeria’s security was strong, so attacks were not successfully carried out if they even  managed to. The risk the organization being shut down was so high, that AQIM attacks  declined. Moreover, analysts observed that AQIM was being unpopular as an AQ  organization. It was conducting kidnapping for ransom: European hostages, whose  countries would negotiate for the return of their citizens (gaining a couple millions every  time). In addition, AQIM was sitting on top of the smuggling network (pasta, cigarettes).  

From terrorists’ perspective it kidnapped people for money, moved illicit goods  along borders… but it really wasn’t seizing terrain, and wasn’t able to throw off any major  terrorist attack. That is why people were dismissive of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.  

However, with the Arab Springs the scene changed once more. Lybia fell, Tunisia  fell and Egypt went into a transition. The Lybian conflict is particularly relevant in this  regard, since it held the Third Tuareg revolution, eclipsed by a major Islamic insurgency  in 2012, which eventually spread to Bamako and ended up with French intervention. The  strategy used here was the one mentioned before: the Tuaregs, an ethnic identity based in  Northern Mali and the As Azawad region, with their homelands based in parts of Mali  and stretching through parts of Niger and Lybia were used by the Gaddafi regime. After  that, they had no money and returned to Mali, setting up the insurgency. The secular  demands for visibility and better treatment soon turned into Islamic revindications: Iyad  Ag Ghali (from the sub group within the Tuareg identity, key leader and smuggler, had lot of access to resources, and was also a Ghaddafi Jihadist), had made sure of it. An  Ansar Al Din fighter, he made sure that it happened the same to the Assad Regime as had  happened in the Syrian revolution before. He ensured revolution inside of Mali.  

Another identifiable case is the one of the Fulani. This ethnicity has long been  marginalized, same as the Tuaregs. However, despite their majority in some states, they  have not been able to gain proper representation in the politics of their countries. Iyad Ag  Ghali, together with Fulani Amadou Koufa, were able to rally the Fulani in central Mali  by provoking attacks to Fulani communities and coming to their defense. Amadou Koufa stood up for the Macina Liberation Front in 2015, operating in central Mali and fought  during 2012- 2013 alongside Iyad Ag Ghali.  

This shows how Al Qaeda has managed to manipulate discontent social groups  into their political aims and jihad. These localized conflicts are a battlefield of  opportunities for AQ and associates to identify key leaders of new communities, using  identities and choosing charismatic leaders to found new groups. An example of it is the  creation of Ansar Al Islam (in Burkina Faso), by a Fulani called Malam Ibrahim Dicko,  who fought in the Macina Liberation front in 2015.  

Al Qaeda’s strategy is not to tie all these emerging groups. It is to tackle local  leaders, found the groups and develop them to pose new threats. Some of these groups  were very present in 2015 inside the Sahel. They were Ansar Al Din, AQIM fighters in  the Sahara, the Macina Liberation Front and Al Murabitoun. This last one was upset with  the Algerian focus of AQIM, and wanted to conduct Jihad, thus causing a separation from  the AQIM. In 2017 all those four groups merged into JNIM, and still today the factions  are very visible. 

The second most important actor in the region, the IS, is a faction from AQIM. It  separated in 2015 because its leader, Abu Walid Al-Sahraoui (long time AQIM member)  had personal frictions inside the organization and wanted to conduct Jihad in a more  radical way. He fought in 2012 in Timbuktu, Mali (while still under Al Qaeda control, he  wanted to impose the Sharia law right there, especially corporal punishments). He  managed to take loyal men with him an create the ISGS, threatening Niger.  

Both organizations have been developing and gaining in strength, this being  allowed by the physical space. Both were able to recruit people from the two sides of the  population, and up until spring this year, there were not conflicts between both. But now,  there are: in Nigerian and Malian borders there has been a quite intense fighting going on. 

And while we let the groups fight among themselves, the international community  is making efforts to counter this terrorist cells. Countries who have specific interests in  the Sahel, such as France (mainly economic), have entered into the region. In 2013, at the  request of the Malian government, France launched operation Serval, the first counter terrorist operation against Ansar Al Din and AQ inside Mali (specially the north, where Ansar Al Din had established an emirate based in Timbuktu). The French have also led  “Operation Barkhane”, which consisted on counter terrorism support for local African  partners. But the French alone wouldn’t cope with the whole task, and looked to the EU  to bring a greater effort in the region. This has been reflected in the French led EU Takuba  Task force, which worked close to the G5 Sahel forces and Mali. It has mainly sent a  couple hundred advisers to serve for the African forces, but have also brought capabilities,  aerial surveillance and some air support to the table. 

The UN has also aimed to stabilize the region, sending a special mission to Mali  called MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in  Mali). It is based on Chad forces and other contingents from other countries. It pushed  for the Algiers accord, signed under international pressure between the Malian  government, the Tuaregs and the CMA in 2015. 

Another international effort, this case willing to coordinate is the G5 Accord of  2016-2017. The problem in the Sahel is that there are non-securitized regions, specially  those in the periphery of the countries, where terrorist actors tend to act. These regions  are characteristic for their aridness and deserts, which makes them very difficult to be  protected; added to a centered-focus security and the transnational issue that may arise, a  big challenge is to be faced. Coordination (sharing of intelligence and trying to deal with  weak borders) is required in this regard, because militants based in Niger are crossing  over into Mali, and the Malian Army is not being able to pursue them or vice-versa. To  the South, the Multinational Joint Task force is focused on Boko Haram and the Lake  Chad region. That established coordination between Chad, Niger and Nigeria. 

On US’s behalf there is AFRICOM, which provides training and equipment to  Niger. It also supports French missions through strategic airlift (moving French troops  into Africa). They have also contributed to intelligence sharing and aerial surveillance  with drones.  

As we can see, there are many efforts, but these are not well coordinated, and the  efforts to do so are not very fruitful. Local armies are fighting groups inside their borders,  while trying to coordinate with inputs from France and the US. Requirements to begin  well-coordinating in order to counter all terrorism factions are huge. Another problem regarding efforts is burden share, because it might seem a good idea: however, if no nation  has full command of what is happening, it is only responsible for what is happening inside  its area. And, as lecturer K. Zimmerman said “when you are only responsible for parts of  the problem, no one would be solving the entire problem”.  


The Sahel region is a very poor security region: it has weak borders and the proper  physical environment for terrorist groups to proliferate. Governments are not able or are  unwilling to provide for victim protection, which is in turn done by terrorist groups  themselves. These strategy of creating links and aiding ethnic minorities is gaining them  strength. This is the case specially in Mali, where after a bloody civil war, the policy  responses are still not up to the problem and where the political elite it to be blamed.  Burkina Faso and Niger undergo much more pressure than Mali does, therefore its leaders  have tried with few results to meet their citizen’s security demands. 

The Malian government is a key actor: it doesn’t have the political will to get to  the roots of the conflict, thus limiting international actor. In this way, the 25,000 personnel  committed to the region by the MINUSMA, the EUTM in Mali (EU Training Mission),  the EU Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) in Mali, the G-5 Sahel Joint Force and the  French operation Barkhane will be of restricted aid. Still, it remains to the international  community to learn from Somalia, where a shared approach advanced the political  transition. Because, it is in fact, the Sahel Alliance the one under fire for being too  ambitious and tackling complex problems with exclusive military solutions.  

It is thus, important to protect the population through cutting finance networks, as  well as making sure that coordination mechanisms really work. Setting up multilateral  missions would also permit to avoid ambiguities and of course, pursuing and imposing  sanctions for individuals who try to disturb the peace needs to be reconsidered (Lebovich,  2020). 

However once more, none of these actions will be really effective until the  region’s politics are effective and the elites engaged. Mali needs to disrupt its war  economy and their leaders need to look for their population’s needs, otherwise, they will  be “setting up the stage for further extremist gains” (Devermont, 2020).

Devermont, J. (2020). Politics at the heart of the crisis in the Sahel. CSIS Briefs

Lebovich, A. (2020). Disorder from Chaos: Why Europeans fail to promote stability in  the Sahel. European Council on Foreign Relations

Zimmerman, K. (2020). Salafi-Jihadi Ecosystem in the Sahel. American Enterprise  Institue.