Countering terrorism in the Sahel region: an ongoing battle and the new Joint Force between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

  Focus - Allegati
  25 April 2024
  13 minutes, 21 seconds


The Sahel region has entered the international headlines due to numerous events over the past decades. Causing growing concern, in addition to the unstable economic, political and social situation, have been the increasingly dangerous and widespread jihadist terrorist movements that have settled precisely by exploiting the conditions of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment in this area. Given the seriousness of the situation, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, three States in the Sahelian zone, decided at the beginning of March 2024 to set up a joint force to counter the phenomenon of terrorist jihadism in the area.

The objective of this article is to provide a comprehensive overview of the jihadist situation in the Sahelian territory, analyzing the steps taken in the past decade by some States in this region and by international organizations to combat the phenomenon in order to achieve greater security in the area, as well as recent measures adopted by Sahelian States as the terrorist situation in the territory continues to be prominent.

Alice Rambaldi-Junior Researcher, Mondo Internazionale G.E.O. - Politics

Origin and spreading of Jihadist groups in the Sahel region

According to the Global Terrorism Index Report of 2023, in 2022 the Sahel was the area most impacted by terrorism in the world, accounting for 43% of global deaths caused by this phenomenon. The pivotal reason behind the increasing presence of Islamic extremist groups over the years is believed to be the governmental weakness of the Sahel States, which has led terrorist groups to fill the void in several ungoverned territories that suffered from issues such as widespread poverty, lack of education and lack of job opportunities (Folahanmi, 2021).

The Sahelian area has thus gradually filled up over the past decade with jihadist terrorist groups, which partially exploited the discontent of the population by distributing goods such as food, and medicine and by persecuting thieves in the territory. Unfortunately, however, jihadism has also been largely responsible for various illegal trades implemented in the region, by enacting and fomenting numerous illicit trafficking of goods such as drugs, arms and migrant smuggling.

The spread of extremist groups in the territory was also stimulated by unstable situations and conflicts in the Sahelian zone in the early 2010s, which have further encouraged the proliferation of jihadism, and which have made specific areas real hubs of tragic scenarios such as humanitarian crises and intensified violence. The areas most affected by this phenomenon are Liptako-Gourma, located between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, and the Lake Chad Basin, located between Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

As for the Liptako-Gourma area, the growing influence of terrorism has been greatly stimulated by the 2011 Libyan conflict, which led to poor border control and widespread disorder, leading to an increase in illicit activities such as drug, arms and human trafficking. The spread of extremism in this area also influenced the Tuareg rebellion that occurred in Mali in 2012, as the Tuareg people (a semi-nomadic group of Berber-speaking pastors and farmers), relied on some Islamic extremist groups such as AQMI (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), al-Murabitun, born from the union of MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) and Al-Muwaqi'un Bil Dima, and finally Ansar Dine. In the following years, the rise of certain groups such as IS Sahel (the Islamic State Sahel Province) in Burkina Faso, and JNIM (Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen), created through the merger of a number of extremist groups already present in the territory, led to the intensification of violence in the Sahel. The Lake Chad area has also been oppressed in the same period by specific terrorist groups that have progressively taken control of this geographic zone, such as Boko Haram, which gained progressive attention by African and non-African media after some suicide attacks occurred in 2011.

It is important to point out that these terrorist groups compete fiercely with each other, and this can be traced back to their bay'ah (allegiance), which for some of them like JNIM and AQMI is to al-Qaeda, while for others like IS Sahel it is to the Islamic State. These internal tensions naturally lead to a worsening of the internal Sahelian situation due to more widespread violence.

Actions taken in the 2010s by local governments to counter terrorism in the Sahel

The expansion of Islamic terrorist groups has led to growing concern over the years, first and foremost on the part of States parties in the Sahelian region, which have repeatedly attempted to contain the situation by implementing various initiatives.

Among the most important steps taken in the Sahel area are the Nouakchott Process, the Multinational Joint Task Force and the G5 Sahel.

The Nouakchott Process is a mechanism created in 2014 specifically in the city of Nouakchott, Mauritania, to counter terrorism in the area; founded with the 2014 Declaration, it involved the States of Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Algeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Nigeria, and it represents an important instrument of cooperation between the members to monitor and control the situation of widespread terrorism in the region.

The G5 Sahel was founded in 2014 by the States of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger with the goal of promoting greater security in the five State parties. The primary goal of the G5 was in fact to identify terrorists and anticipate their moves so as to prevent attacks and violence on the local populations.

Lastly, the Multinational Joint Task Force was activated in 2015 by the States of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Benin. Even if originally founded in 1994, the official implementation of the MNJTF happened in 2015 with the specific objective of countering the terrorist group Boko Haram, and it is economically supported by the European Union.

International aid implemented over the years to counter terrorism in the Sahel region

Over the past decade, international actors have shown strong concern towards the dangers and consequences of terrorism in the Sahelian territory. The European Union and the United Nations have started to implement missions of various nature to fight the jihadists groups over the region: among these, the EUCAP Sahel Niger and EUCAP Sahel Mali are some of the most important. Implemented in 2012 and 2015, respectively, both missions were created with the main objective of strengthening the security of countries as well as strengthening governance and promoting economic development of these States.

The United Nations have also made significant efforts to fight extremist groups in the Sahel, specifically with the MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), launched in 2013 with the goal of supporting the stabilization of the country following the jihadist insurgencies that occurred during those year. The MINUSMA Mission officially ended in December 2023, after being active for 10 years, due to a pullout ordered by Mali’s military government.

The biennium 2023-2024: the Alliance of Sahel and the Joint Force formed by Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger

The worsening terrorist situation despite previous efforts made both locally and internationally, due in part to coups that have occurred since 2020 in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso (the last of which occurred in Niger in 2023), has led to an evolution of counterterrorism measures in the 2023-2024 biennium.

On September 16, 2023, the above-mentioned countries signed a defensive alliance, the Alliance of Sahel (thus withdrawing from the G5 Sahel organization), to take a further step towards the goal of fighting terrorism in the Liptako-Gourma area, where the borders of the three States meet. The factors that led Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali to take this important step were many, but certainly prominent among them has been the previously mentioned coups d’état, the last of which occurred in Niger in July 2023 to overthrow President Mohamed Bazoum. The impending end of the MINUSMA mission in the Malian territory also played an important role in the decision to form a triple alliance, as the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops has rekindled the Tuareg group's dormant desire to regain control of the territory at the expense of the local government, a situation very similar to what happened in 2012.

The alliance was thus created with the goal of providing mutual defense between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, with the priority of "fighting against terrorism in the three countries" in a "combination of military and economic efforts" as the Malian president Abdoulaye Diop declared (Diop, 2023).

On March 7, 2024, after a meeting between the heads of the military forces of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the creation of a future Joint Force "operational as soon as possible", as stated by the head of the Nigerian military forces Moussa Salaou Barmou, was officially announced (Barmou, 2024). The agreement to create a Joint Force among the three States got off to a strong positive start, according to statements by Barmou, who announced that "with the combined efforts of our three countries, we will manage to create the conditions for a shared security" (Barmou, 2024). The decision to form this new Joint Force of a military nature also stems from the gradual military estrangement by the three Sahelian States towards the European Union and neighboring States, whose relations have soured as a result of the various coups that have taken place over the past four years.

Despite the positivity of the States parties to the Sahel Alliance and the new Joint Force, outside opinions on the possible future of the new triple union are not at all proactive: James Barnett, a researcher specializing in West African studies at the Hudson Institute called the three regimes “very fragile”, describing them as 'hard to build a stable security framework when the foundation of each individual regime is shaky” (Barnett, 2024), thus showing little confidence in the future counter-terrorism and security maintenance of the armed forces of the triple alliance.


The Sahelian situation is, as we have seen, severely compromised by the presence of terrorism, unstable governments, widespread poverty, and other factors that intertwine to create an extremely fragile situation that is ready to break down at any moment. In spite of the positive premises of these new steps taken by the member countries of the new Sahel Alliance, outside opinions are, as we have seen, very uncertain and not very confident in the actual success of the mission to banish terrorism once and for all.

The future of the Sahel situation depends in fact on the ability of internal reconstruction to decrease the discontent of the population, thus improving the economic and social aspect to ensure that the territory is no longer a breeding ground for the proliferation of armed groups of Islamic-extremist matrix. All that remains, therefore, is to watch the Joint Force's progress in the coming months while knowing that the premises are not the best and that the Sahel nations certainly need, as mentioned earlier, more radical interventions aimed specifically at addressing the root causes of the proliferation of terrorist groups.

So far we have seen a substantial failure of the interventions put in place by both state parties and Western international organizations. Although hope for improvement in this territory remains, the real chances that future interventions will succeed in their intent to eliminate the terrorist threat permanently remain rather weak to date.

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