Lightly patrolled borders, sparsely populated areas, and recent terrorist activity raise fears that the Sahel is a fertile ground for jihadist movements, notably al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Regional cooperation and discreet aid from the West are critical for countries to regain control of their territory and prevent al-Qaeda from gaining ground in Africa, asserts a paper by Jean-Pierre Filiu. 

Key Conclusions

  • AQIM poses more of a security threat than a direct political threat to governments. Terrorist networks linked to al-Qaeda operate in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, but their roots are shallow and they enjoy little popular support. AQIM is weakened by internal rivalry and its partnership with criminals, limiting its broader appeal.
  • Al-Qaeda’s central leadership doesn’t seem to have any grand plans for Africa, but leaders are interested in incorporating new recruits from the Sahel. 
  • The ethno-racial divide within al-Qaeda prevents African recruits from gaining leadership roles. The terror organization’s three affiliates—in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and the Islamic Maghreb—remain essentially Arab, and AQIM struggles to prove its commitment to “Africanized” jihad without Africanizing some of its leadership.

Recommendations for policy makers

  • Equip security forces. Counterterrorism forces in Sahel countries are ill-equipped to chase and fight AQIM across vast areas and need quiet international assistance to control areas that are now security risks for foreigners.
  • Collaborate regionally. Security cooperation between neighboring countries is critical for disrupting AQIM’s mobility.
  • Avoid direct intervention from the West. Any public display of U.S. or European involvement will play into AQIM’s hands.

“Mauritania, Mali, and Niger are among the world’s poorest states and will require international support to defuse AQIM’s momentum,” writes Filiu. “Algeria is right to push for regional cooperation to address the threat, and discreet aid from the West is crucial to help the Sahel countries regain control of their territory from al-Qaeda forces and prevent the terror group from taking hold in Africa.”