West Africa must confront its foreign terrorist fighters

Better information, border control and cooperation is needed to deal with foreign combatants in the region.

One year ago, 13 Senegalese nationals were convicted for acts of terrorism by criminal association. Twelve of them had joined Boko Haram in Nigeria. The 13th joined Katiba al-Furqane, a branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali.

Why do nationals from West African countries leave to join terrorist groups in distant battlegrounds as foreign combatants? For answers, states must look at how extremist groups access these individuals and the logistical and financial support they offer.'

The principle of free movement of people and goods in West Africa and the porous nature of borders calls for a rethink of the responses needed to deal with the phenomenon. The convicted Senegalese nationals are a prime example. They crossed several countries during their journey, moving from Kaolack in Senegal and passing through Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, en route to Abadam in north-east Nigeria (see map).

Boko Haram
Route taken by Senegalese extremists in West Africa
(click on the map for the full size image)

On their return, they had planned to repeat the trip by land, divided into three groups. While the first group reached Senegal, the second was arrested for holding counterfeit bills in Niger. The third, after a short detention in Nigeria and repatriation by air, remained at large in Senegal. The extremists’ goal was to establish a province of Islamic State in southern Senegal that would extend into The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea.

Some of them were trained to use weapons, stayed in the Sambisa Forest and fought, in particular, in the battles of Gwoza and Bita. Afterwards they met Boko Haram’s long-time leader Abubakar Shekau, who now heads one of the group’s two factions. The one extremist who left Dakar to fight for the AQIM branch in Mali was arrested in Burkina Faso for acts of terrorism.

The movement of citizens between countries to join violent extremist groups in the region is not new. Several terrorist groups in West Africa have Africans of various nationalities in their ranks and leadership.

West Africans have generally fought in countries that are close by, and in groups such as AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in Mali, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. With the proclamation of the caliphate of Islamic State in Libya in 2014, many West African fighters joined extremist groups in Libya. This decision was no doubt influenced by difficulties in reaching Syria, including visa denial and closure of border crossings by Turkey.

Others would probably have been enticed by the statement in 2015 by former Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, inviting those unable to travel to Iraq or Syria to fight in West Africa.

With the territorial defeat of Islamic State in Syria, the security situation in West Africa could worsen

With the territorial defeat of Islamic State in Syria in March 2019, the security situation in West Africa, particularly in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin region, could worsen. The inability of foreign fighters to stay in Syria could mean they return to their countries of origin, emigrate to third countries, or move to other combat zones such as Afghanistan, the Egyptian Sinai, the Philippines and Libya, which has become a refuge and transit zone.

As a result, West Africa could see an increase in extremists returning to their countries of origin. There could also be a relocation to West Africa of Africans from other regions and non-African fighters who temporarily withdraw, join or start other cells in Africa.

In 2017, the African Union (AU) expressed its concern about a possible security threat from these combatants who, even if imprisoned, could recruit others or plan attacks. The AU estimated that 6 000 Africans could return from Syria, but West African states have little data on the phenomenon. Few governments in the region report on how many of their nationals have joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Libya, Nigeria or Mali.

This will have to change. The resurgence of terror attacks by groups loyal to al-Qaeda and Islamic State in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin, and the spread of extremism to coastal West African countries, requires that policies are adapted to deal with foreign combatants.

West Africa lacks information sharing on detainees linked to violent extremist groups

The transnational nature of violent extremism is facilitated by corruption and ineffective border control of West African states, particularly in some areas on the Libya-Niger-Nigeria migration axis. United Nations Security Council resolutions in 2014 and 2017 called on states to control their borders and exchange information to stem the flow of foreign combatants.

In West Africa, the lack of technical and financial resources is one reason for poor implementation of these resolutions. There is also a lack of information sharing on detainees linked to violent extremist groups, and weak cooperation on the prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of returned or relocated foreign fighters.

The current propaganda strategy of Islamic State in Africa, its recruitment campaigns and opportunism have thwarted traditional, largely military focused, state responses to terrorism. As calls mount for new approaches, including engaging with extremists, a better understanding of the groups' networks is needed, as well as the ethno-linguistic and religious aspects of remote recruitment. Understanding how they recruit outside their areas of operation will make national and regional strategies more effective.

Adja Khadidiatou Faye, Junior Researcher, ISS Dakar

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