Deconstructing the Terrorist Mindset in Sahel Region

حمدي عبدالرحمن

Dr. Hamdy Abdul-Rahman


Over time, the Sahel region has become one of the strongholds of international terrorism. Along the vast region sprawling from the Horn of Africa through the Sahel to West Africa, many terrorist groups are active, most notably Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, Mujahideen Youth Movement (al-Shabaab), Al-Mourabitoun, Ansar al-Sharia, and Nusrat Islam and Muslims group (JNIM).

Many of these groups pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS), which in turn quickly incorporated them into globalized financing networks. However, the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has installed himself as a Caliph on Muslims in Iraq and Syria, was a severe blow to these efforts to connect terrorist groups in Africa with global jihadism that contributed to shaping and supporting the terrorist mind in the region.

The Sahel is usually considered a “gray area”, due to the lack of government control in many remote areas as well as the porous borders of states in this region. The trans-border tribal ties and smuggling routes, sometimes dating back centuries, facilitate the recent movements of jihadists and members of organized crime groups in the region. Along these routes, cocaine moves from the West African coasts to northern Mali cities such as Gao or Timbuktu, or Agadez in Niger, before being transported to North Africa and making its way to the streets of Europe. Estimates of the cocaine trade volume vary greatly, ranging from 50 to 200 tons per year. Cannabis and counterfeit medicaments are other important products that are smuggled across the Sahel, but not in the same direction as cocaine. It runs the Sahel and Saharan routes until it ends up in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

A portion of the revenue from illegal drug trafficking and smuggling is often earmarked to provide basic services to the local population – something the central government cannot do. This may contribute to presenting these terrorist and criminal groups as an alternative governmental authority, which strengthens their legitimacy in the eyes of the local population and thus gives them great freedom of movement and provides significant social incubators. Many security studies and intelligence information indicate strong links between terrorist groups that are active in the region, especially Al Qaeda, and criminal drug trafficking groups. Sources of fund for terrorist groups vary, chief among which are the KFR (Kidnapping For Ransom), donations by individuals and Islamic NGOs.

In general, we can talk about four levels that terrorist and organized crime groups can interact with when they operate in the same geographic region: competition, coexistence, coordination, and cooperation. While clash and confrontation may occur in the first case where everyone is competing for domination in the same region, the second scenario expresses a state of accepting the other and living in the same space. The third scenario pushes beyond coexistence where some form of coordination occurs in activities. In the case of cooperation between terrorist groups and organized crime groups, terrorists provide protection for drug traffickers and smugglers. The end result could be a complete merger between the two parties, which would lead to the emergence of what might be termed “drug jihadism.” This was not the case in the Sahel region previously, and it may not be entirely conceivable in the future in light of the accelerating transformations in the globalized terrorist movement.

Regardless of the terrorist rhetoric that hide under the cloak of religion, the mindset of violent extremist groups in general expresses clear pragmatism and opportunism in the face of illegal activities and local conflicts. These groups are flexible and adaptable. They are very smartly exploiting the nature and weaknesses of local economies, competition between different social and professional groups, and the shortcomings of government institutions in the state.

The argument that violent extremist groups exploit and increase local tensions and conflicts is a simplistic one. These groups’ position on local conflicts varies depending on both their strategic goals and the context. Violent extremist groups can be a party in conflicts or a mediator in them and their presence can also lead to a temporary cessation of local conflicts. The approach of violent extremist groups appears to depend on several factors related to their needs and strategies: their level of penetration into local communities; the nature of marginalized groups and the degree of neglect they suffer from; as well as the balance of power between the parties of the conflict.


Understanding and deconstructing the terrorist mindset in the Sahel region is a necessary precursor to the Sahel countries in order to activate the African Union initiative to make 2020 the year of silencing the guns. Going forward, a wider African role is needed in efforts to find special solutions in the domains of conflict and peace. Silencing the guns will require African leaders to address social and development problems as well, with a particular focus on historically marginalized societies.

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