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West Africa: Terrorism’s New Front Yard


There is a new front in the global fight against terrorism and terrorists. Ethnic, religious, and political tensions in West Africa, simmering for the past few years, have boiled over into widespread violence and coordinated military efforts throughout the region. A recent attack at an oil facility in Algeria has highlighted the wealth of knowledge, funding, and motivation available to opponents of the current African regimes and the West. This West African situation raises many questions about the nature and origin of military efforts there and the possibility of US involvement. The answers to these questions help define what the outlook and implications are for West Africa during this period of turmoil.

Although many doubt the possibility of stability in West Africa, it is unlikely that the region will mirror the situation in the Middle East – fracturing into various terrorist strongholds. The unique characteristics of the West African region are sufficiently distinctive from the Middle East to offer it a promising future if the current issues are handled properly.


Africa is a massive continent; West Africa itself surpasses the area of the continental US. This continent hosts diverse ethnicities, cultures, and governments. Only one hundred years ago, the entire region was still under the formal control of European colonial powers. Imperialist France controlled a majority of present-day Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Guinea. In many French colonies, direct imperialism continued into the late 1960s and early 1970s. Britain controlled Nigeria, Ghana, and a number of smaller states (the majority of their African empire fell on the Eastern and Central side of Africa, from Egypt to South Africa). Portugal, Spain, and Germany also had minor colonial holdings in the area. Cultural elements of these colonial powers still remain in their West African countries today.

Colonial governing habits continue to shape the policies and, more importantly, the attitudes of West Africans. The French severely restricted the self-government of their colonies. As a result, decolonization for most French colonies was violent and difficult. Following independence, these former colonies often followed in the totalitarian precedent set by the French. The British typically empowered local leaders to rule for them; in tribal cultures this often resulted in greater oppression for the numerous other tribes within the colonial bounds demarcated by European colonists. These borders, defined by powers in Europe, were and still are some of the worst carryovers from the colonial period. The borders on the maps rarely conformed to cultural and geographical realities. Colonial borders separated common people groups and coerced warring tribes into close living situations. Most of these colonial borders still define West Africa. In countries like Nigeria, Libya, and Algeria, these arbitrary national borders have created tribal, religious, and ethnic differences that continuously result in violence and political turmoil.

Conflicts: Ethnic and Ideological

The Tuareg

The Tuareg people of the Sahara and Sahel deserts best showcase the connection between colonialism, post-colonial West African governments, and the contemporary violence and terrorism that plagues the region. Their territory is not reflected by the political borders of West Africa, stretching across Northern Mali, southeastern Algeria, southwestern Libya, and western Niger. Tuareg territory also extends into Burkina Faso, Morocco, and Tunisia. When France pushed into Tuareg territory, the Berber people resisted but were eventually overpowered. Because of their nomadic tendencies, they rarely interacted with the colonial governments. When they did, it was generally violent with many massacres occurring on both sides. Due to the national borders carved by France, the Tuareg were split up and denied self-rule following decolonization. Since then, every country with a Tuareg population has faced irredentist violence.

Their desert-based nomadic culture and perpetual political struggles allowed the Tuaregs to easily become allies with Islamic extremists. In Libya (and elsewhere), the Tuareg were armed to help overthrow the government along with other discontented parties. Upon its overthrow, however, the Tuareg were still denied self-rule. Then, freshly armed and disappointed, they easily pass through the desert and across national borders with arms for other Tuareg conflicts. Their knowledge of the West African desert also makes them ideal smugglers. Tuareg smugglers comprise a large portion of the West African drug trade to Europe. This smuggling helps fund militant endeavors.

Islamist Extremists

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) are the two most prominent Islamist organizations in West Africa. By allying themselves with Tuareg separatist groups like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar al-Din, Islamic insurgents absorb the necessary infrastructure  to obtain funding, transportation, and terrain expertise. Complex alliances of such groups comprise the forces fighting against the French and African coalition troops in Mali. An alliance between foreign Islamists and Tuareg, local and non-local, launched the January attack on the Algerian oil facility.

Terrorist Profile: Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the Algerian-born terrorist and smuggler behind the January 2013 oil facility hostage crisis. His vast experience has made him a formidable terrorist leader in the region. He trained with and fought for the mujahadeen in Afghanistan and the Islamist militants in Algeria. He now leads the Al-Mulathameer terrorist brigade (associated with AQIM) in Northern Mali, Algeria, and beyond. Married to four Tuareg women, his connections across the region have enabled him to create a smuggling empire that transports cigarettes, stolen cars, humans, and weapons to raise money for their violent jihadist activities. Belmokhtar and his affiliates also specialize in the kidnapping of foreigners, receiving up to 6.5 million USD in a single deal. The State department has vetoed his assassination multiple times due to anticipated blow-back. He is currently wanted in Algeria for Murder and Terrorism and, since the attack, US and French anti-terror agencies have been unable to locate him.


The core goals of the groups are simple (unlike their complex political affiliations). The Islamist groups, AQIM, the Islamist Tuareg group Ansar al-Din, MUJAO, and others, seek to gain the power necessary to establish sharia law over the entire region (and then the world). The more moderate and secular Tuareg separatists fight for the creation of an independent Tuareg state the size of Texas to be carved out of the Saharan portions of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, and small pieces of other contiguous countries.

Into the Future

Although many doubt the possibility of stability in West Africa, it is unlikely that the region will mirror the situation in the Middle East – fracturing into various terrorist strongholds. The unique characteristics of the West African region are sufficiently distinctive from the Middle East to offer it a promising future if the current issues are handled properly.

In 2005, the US began a Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorism program. This billion dollar program was designed to prevent the spread of radicalism through humanitarian assistance and security aid in West and North Africa. The US military, the State Department, and the US Agency for International Development all contributed funds and program assistance. These programs, however, were unable to reverse a combination of cultural factors that gave rise to the threat posed by terrorist operations in West Africa today.

These current threats grew out of the political unrest of the past decades. After defeats in Algeria and elsewhere during the 1990s, Islamists began to reorganize. This reorganization period extended into the early 21st century when  Western governments began to notice the growing regional threat of these small cells. Since the losses of the early and mid-1990s, the myriad precursors to AQIM had reestablished smuggling and kidnapping networks throughout the region. This coincided with an increase in more fundamental Islamist beliefs throughout the region, especially in the Maghreb. By the time that the Arab Spring erupted in North Africa, West African terrorist and trafficking organizations were ready to capitalize on the confusion surrounding the various political movements. By the time that the uprisings were more or less concluded, Islamist and Tuareg groups were well-armed and generally dissatisfied with the overall results of the uprisings. Dissatisfied extremist groups found many new recruits both during and after the uprisings.

In Mali, this resulted in a Tuareg-led coup that was hijacked by Islamists. The Malian military was defeated and an Islamists, allied with Islamist Tuareg, took control over the Northern portion of the country. Once established over Northern Mali, Islamist fighters began pushing South towards Mali’s capital. France quickly returned to its former colony to repel the invaders and drive them out of the country. Soon, however, the non-Islamist MNLA Taureg rebels had separated themselves from the Islamist occupants and offered to help the French and African forces, arresting and handing over a number of Islamist leaders. Now, Taureg militias claim to have secured portions of Northern Mali in cooperation with French and African forces.

Analysis and Recommendations

For West Africa to move past the current conflicts, it must resolve two persisting issues. These issues are the Tuareg demand for independence and the spread of Islamist extremism from the East and North. The two issues, although related, demand different solutions.

The Tuareg

No design for peace and stability in West Africa will succeed without addressing Tuareg political demands. The Tuareg desire for political independence has survived for over two decades and is unlikely to fade out as long as their demands are unmet. Considering both Tuareg demands and the governments currently in power, peace will likely only arrive with a provision for some Tuareg autonomy. The only satisfactory autonomy would require the cooperation of at least Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Niger. These countries, however, are not willing to discuss autonomy. This is, in part, due to the valuable natural resources of the Sahara, resources that governments are unwilling to give up to a nomadic  minority group. Although Tuareg autonomy would be the most effective, longest lasting method of satisfying the many reasonable Tuareg demands, it may not be politically achievable. Even though the demands of Tuareg rebels may be impossible to meet, a discussion on the means of countering Islamist violence in the region can also shed light on other means to peace with the Tuareg.

Islamist Extremism

The majority of West Africa is Muslim. Islam is, like Christianity, a missionary religion. This means that wide areas are susceptible to broad cultural shifts as the religious attitudes of missionaries or religious leaders change. In many areas of the world, factors have come together to radicalize wide margins of the population. In Mali, Nigeria, and elsewhere, radicalism in action has followed radicalism in teaching. However, as news spreads throughout Africa of the horrors imposed by Islamist occupants in Nigeria and Mali, attitudes will shift away from radicalism towards moderation and, in some areas, anti-Islamic sentiments. This shift is the region’s opportunity to prevent radicalism from gaining a permanent foothold. Generational radicalism relies on communities to help it expand and, as West Africa is dominated by village societies where, unlike most Western communities, people are highly interconnected. This interconnectedness offers either a safe-haven for radicalism or a strong human shield against its entrenchment. If, in the next few years, the region develops a strong anti-radicalism sentiments, then it will be comparatively safe from cultural shifts towards radicalism. If, however, anti-extremist attitudes fail to develop, then the region will be susceptible to movements towards extremism made even stronger by close-knit communities.

The second factor for anti-radical and anti-terror efforts in Sahara and Sahel regions of West Africa is partnership with the Tuareg. Islamist partnership with the Tuareg is a highly dangerous combination, as demonstrated by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The alliance provides expert knowledge of the region, transportation, weapons, and everything that terrorist cells need to succeed. Without help from the Tuareg, Islamists can be isolated and opposed. This also means that special care must be made to prevent the Tuareg from radicalization themselves. African governments and the West must carefully distinguish Tuareg from Islamist lest both groups become outcasts and turn to each other for help.


In summary, neither the Tuareg nor the extremist issue are unique on the African continent. Most countries have dissatisfied ethnic minorities with their own complaints, demands, and methods of seeking redress. Many African countries face the threat of Islamist extremism. Success against extremism in West Africa is imperative to the entire continent and beyond for, when a predominantly Muslim country clearly separates itself from extremism, it becomes a beacon of hope to the portions of the world where the two can be difficult to differentiate. Until then, kidnapping insurance for foreigners in the region remains at a high premium, coalition anti-terror campaigns will be the norm, and private security firms in the region will flourish as companies and governments continue to pursue resources in the region.

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks is an OSINT researcher and OODA Analyst and with a background in international development and security across Central Africa and the Middle East. Currently based in Berlin, Germany, he holds a BA in International Policy from Patrick Henry College and a Masters in International Security from the University of St. Andrews.