The Sahel Syndrome: Terrorism, Resource Wars and the Global Security Nexus

Known for its diverse cultures and ecosystems, the Sahel has now become a hotspot for global security concerns as a result of insurgent activity groups directly linked to Al-Qaeda and ISIS. These terrorist organisations clearly pose significant threats to the stability in the region and international peace.

The Sahel is a long belt that passes across Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It encompasses Gambia, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea. This region bears significant strategic importance connecting the Sahara in the north, to the Savannas in the south.

Aside from domestic security issues, the Sahel has a list of challenges ranging from poor governance, deep rooted ethnic tension, natural climate change impacts, and competition and confrontation over diminishing natural resources.

Natural resources

The Sahel is known for its abundant natural resources which include:

  • Uranium – Niger is one of the world’s top producers of uranium, a critical source for nuclear energy.
  • Oil and Gas – Chad and Niger have considerable oil reserves.
  • Iron Ore – Mauritania is a significant producer of iron ore.
  • Gold – Gold resources are abundant to the east in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

The Sahel countries are some of the largest gold producers in Africa. Although production data is unreliable, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger are thought to have produced 229 tons of gold in 2021, worth over US$12.6 billion.

This wealth of natural resources has, of course, attracted international investment mining interests from companies in China, Canada, Australia, Russia and France. The presence of these corporations has brought with it concerns over environmental impacts, community displacement and fair revenue sharing. 

Mali

China International Trust and Investment Corporation CITIC (China): Through various subsidiaries and investments, CITIC has been involved in mining activities in Mali, although their primary interests are often in infrastructure and development projects which can include mining.

B2Gold Corp. (Canada): Operates the Fekola mine, one of the largest gold mines in Mali.

Barrick Gold Corporation (Canada): Jointly operates the Loulo-Gounkoto mine complex in Mali, a significant gold production site.

Resolute Mining (Australia): Operates the Syama Gold Mine in southern Mali. 

Burkina Faso

China National Gold Group Corporation (China): This is one of China’s largest gold producers, involved in exploration and mining activities in Burkina Faso.

Zijin Mining Group (China): Has investments in Burkina Faso’s gold mining sector, reflecting the company’s broader strategy to expand its international presence.

Endeavour Mining (Canada): Operates several mines in Burkina Faso, including the Houndé and Karma gold mines.

IAMGOLD Corporation (Canada): Involved in the operation of the Essakane gold mine, one of Burkina Faso’s largest gold mines.

Nordgold (Russia): Operates the Taparko and Bissa-Bouly gold mines in Burkina Faso. 

Niger

Areva – now Orano (France): Niger is one of the world’s top uranium producers and France’s involvement through Orano in Niger’s mining sector is significant.

China National Petroleum Corporation CNPC (China): While primarily focused on oil, CNPC’s presence in Niger signifies the broader Chinese investment in the country’s extractive sectors. The presence of these large mining corporations and opaque accounting practices in the Sahel has raised questions as to the extent at which profits benefit local economies. Ensuring that profits are fairly shared among all stakeholders, including local communities, is a relentless challenge. 

Insurgency in the Sahel: Stakeholders and consequences

The Sahel belt is now a battleground for several insurgent groups, the most notorious of those are known to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). Exploiting jihadist ideology and local discontent and grievances, these organisations are looking to form their own unique perspectives of an Islamic state in the region. Formed in the aftermath of historical conflicts and power vacuums left by weak governance, these groups take advantage of ethnic tensions and leverage the anger and disappointment in communities to recruit members and increase their influence.

The effects of insurgent activities on the local people have been disturbing. Civilians throughout the Sahel are faced with violence, displacement and the erosion of basic human rights. They are caught between the brutality of the insurgents, and the very military operations looking to eradicate them. This has led to significant fatalities, forced migration and a humanitarian crisis. The disruption on agriculture and trade has caused food shortages and poverty.

Neighbouring states and global powers who recognise the threat of regional fighting spilling across borders, and fearing international terrorism campaigns, are supporting local governments by supplying troops and resources. There is now a growing consensus that recognises the need to attack the root cause of insurgency by developing programs, governmental reforms and reconciliation processes. Although much has been done towards a peaceful solution, achieving stability in the Sahel is still a challenge. 

Known insurgent groups in the Sahel

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

Operation: With origins dating back to the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, AQIM has expanded its operations to the Sahel, targeting countries like Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Reported activities: AQIM has been involved in kidnapping and ransom, which has provided a significant source of funding for their operations. They have also carried out suicide bombings, attacks against military and civilian targets, and have been implicated in the execution of hostages.

Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)

Operation: An ISIS-affiliated group operating primarily in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, known for conducting raids and attacks against military and civilian targets.

Reported activities: ISGS has conducted ambushes on military patrols, violent attacks against civilians, as well as mass killings. One of their most notorious acts was the ambush of a US military convoy in Niger in 2017, which resulted in the death of four American soldiers along with several Nigerian troops. 

Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM)

Operation: Formed in 2017, JNIM is an umbrella group that unites several jihadist factions in the Sahel – including AQIM – and is actively involved in the insurgency in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Reported activities: JNIM has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on military and civilian targets, including suicide bombings, attacks on hotels and resorts frequented by overseas tourists, and assaults on military bases. They have also been involved in the abduction of foreigners for ransom.

These armed and violent terrorist groups that have spread across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are employed by high profile traffickers to facilitate the illegal transport of gold across Sahel border routes usually destined for the UAE.

Governance and ethnic tensions

Weak governance in the region stems from corruption, limited resources and colonial histories during which ethnic and cultural boundaries were often overlooked, creating serious challenges for future independent states. Corruption severely impacted public trust, and left governments poorly equipped to manage vast territories or provide basic services. Desperate communities across the Sahel now compete for diminishing resources, leading to violence and instability. Insurgent groups deepen the crisis by exploiting tensions to service their own needs. 

Natural climate change and resource scarcity

The changing climate is also threatening the Sahel, worsening environmental concerns like desertification and impacting agriculture, the foundation of its economy. The indigenous population is struggling to grow food and feed livestock. Clashes between farmers and herders trying to access water are commonplace. However, local and international governments are now working to improve water conservation and allow for sustainable farming practices. Large scale renewable energy farms are being considered as a sustainable regional investment. 

Assessing the future: Outcomes and solutions

The Sahel sits on a knife’s edge. Current challenges include insurgency, weak governance, scarce resources and regional security. However, there are opportunities for the adoption of strategic interventions, government reforms and economic growth. Sustained support from the international community that considers the Sahel’s unique needs and requirements is also pivotal. Financial and military assistance is required to build institutions that promote good governance, education and health services. 

Conclusion: A call for sustained attention and action

Alongside its vast natural wealth, the Sahel now grapples with insurgencies, climate change and resource scarcity. Threatening groups linked to Al-Qaeda and ISIS exploit these problems underlining both the region’s potential for prosperity and current suffering.

Unchecked profiting and the growth of insurgent groups not only destabilises the region but serves as a breeding ground for terrorist factions looking to broaden their reach and bring chaos to the West. The geopolitical powers that be must accept that the security of the Sahel is inherently linked to international security, requiring tough concerted efforts to pull apart the financial vehicles that fuel terrorist ideologies.

“When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” – Ethiopian Proverb.

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