Over the past two years, there has been a dramatic escalation in violence across the Sahel, as both militancy-related violence and inter-communal ethnic conflicts have expanded and intensified. EXX Africa assesses the outlook for the current situation, and the likely implications on security for commercial operators in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

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The Islamist insurgency in the Sahel has undergone a significant shift since 2016, with the past year recording the highest number of militancy-related violent incidents to date. Moreover, the intensification and expansion of regional militant activity has corresponded with an escalation of violent inter-communal ethnic conflicts, greatly complicating counter-insurgency efforts by both local and international security forces. EXX Africa has monitored such threat developments in a series of recent analysis briefings (See MALI: UNRELENTING SOUTHWARD EXPANSION OF ISLAMIST MILITANCY IN THE SAHEL).

Amidst the general intensification of violence across the region, the threat of terrorism and kidnapping posed to foreign nationals and international commercial interests in remote areas of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger has been elevated, with the mining sector in particular becoming increasingly vulnerable to attack.

Situational update

Since 2016, the frequency, impact, and geographic spread of Islamist militancy-related violence in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso has increased dramatically. The formation of broad militant alliances, such as the Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) coalition, as well as the deepening of militant ties to organised crime networks, has facilitated a rapid expansion of the militant presence across the Sahel. As such, while Mali remains the focal point of the regional Islamist insurgency, militant groups are now also entrenched in the border areas between Mali, western Niger, and northern and eastern Burkina Faso, where they carry out frequent attacks on security forces and local communities.

Militant tactics have also adapted to regional counter-terrorism efforts, as the number and effectiveness of hit-and-run and roadside Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks has increased substantially in the past two years. In addition, militant groups have demonstrated a strong capability to carry out high-impact attacks in the region’s urban centres, despite the presence of multinational security forces. Since 2015, seven high-impact terrorist attacks have taken place in the capital cities of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Alongside this militant expansion, inter-communal ethnic tensions in the region have also spiked. Faced with a lack of reach into peripheral areas and an inability to push out insurgents, regional states chose to allow the formation of communal militias, such as the Dan Na Ambassagou organisation in Mali, which was established in 2016. In the past year, spurred on by regional militant groups, inter-communal tensions over land-rights and access to resources have erupted into large-scale violence, much of it perpetrated by these same militias. In the most significant incident to date, on 23 March 2019, at least 153 people were killed and 73 wounded in a massacre targeting the Fulani ethnic group in a village in central Mali. As a result, inter-communal violence in the region now accounts for more casualties than militant attacks (See MALI: FRUSTRATION MOUNTS AS SECURITY CRISIS SPINS OUT OF CONTROL).

Faltering counter-insurgency efforts


International and regional efforts to address the insurgency have thus far been unsuccessful in limiting the scale of the violence. While both the UN Multinational Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the French counter-terrorism mission, Operation Barkhane, remain ongoing, both are too limited in size and resources to cover the entirety of the affected region effectively.

As such, the primary responsibility for counter-terrorism operations in the region falls on national security forces, the majority of which are overstretched, under-trained, and ill equipped. In Mali, the security forces are completely reliant on external support from Barkhane and MINUSMA, and most units cannot operate independently. In Burkina Faso, the security apparatus, including the Special Forces and the intelligence services, was largely dismantled with the departure of former president Blaise Compaoré after a popular uprising in 2014. The G5 Sahel Joint Force, a regional counter-terrorism partnership between Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad, has yet to become fully operational despite extensive international support, and remains hamstrung by a lack of training and equipment.

Impact on commercial operations


The vast majority of militancy-related attacks in the Sahel have either targeted local and international security forces or pastoral villages. Nonetheless, regional Islamist militant groups have both declared and repeatedly demonstrated their intent to target international commercial interests.

In May 2018, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a statement explicitly threatening to conduct attacks on Western companies, particularly French entities, which operate in the area “from Mauritania to Libya”. This declaration did not signal a new threat, but rather highlighted an increasing effort by regional militant groups to connect foreign commercial operations to the Western military presence across the region.

In regional capitals, commercial activity has not been substantially disrupted by the militant threat. High-impact terrorist attacks have typically focused on areas popular with Western expatriates, such as hotels, beach resorts, and restaurants, as well as sites specifically connected to France. Commercial offices of Western companies have been unaffected, as militants continue to focus on those targets that offer the greatest opportunity to cause high numbers of casualties.

However, commercial operators in more remote areas face more significant challenges. Given the relative isolation of mineral deposits across the region and the limited security presence in these areas, the mining sector in particular has become increasingly vulnerable to direct attacks. Since September 2017, there have been at least nine recorded attacks on mining operations across the Sahel which have resulted in death, injury, or the destruction of property.

This vulnerability has been further underlined by the kidnappings of at least five foreign nationals employed in the mining sector during the same period. Most recently, on 14 January 2019, a Canadian national was kidnapped from a mining exploration site in northern Burkina Faso, near the country’s borders with Mali and Niger. Two days later, the victim’s body was found bearing multiple gunshot wounds.


Frequency and impact of attacks to continue

The current trajectory of the militant threat is likely to be sustained in the coming year. The intensification of inter-communal ethnic conflicts has greatly complicated efforts by regional and international authorities to conduct counterinsurgency operations and has led to a diversion of resources intended to deal with militancy. Moreover, while the development of local security forces has been prioritised, international efforts to do so continue to bear mixed results, and progress has been slow and uneven.

The longevity of the international commitment to this effort also remains uncertain, as internal debates in Washington over the past year have left significant questions over the future of US support for security capacity building in the region. As such, in the coming year it is unlikely that the G5 Sahel Joint Force or national security forces will reach a point where they can reverse the current situation.

Increasing regional expenditures on security also threatens to undermine government capabilities to address the social and governance-related issues that have contributed to the spread of militancy in the region. Militant groups in the Sahel have developed a keen awareness of where local dynamics and gaps in security and governance can be exploited to their advantage and have repeatedly done so through providing limited services and security to marginalised communities. With the ongoing escalation in inter-communal violence and resultant population displacement, the trend of militant expansion to new areas of operation is therefore likely to continue.

Greater responsibility on businesses for security

The continued deterioration of the region-wide security situation will present a growing number of challenges to foreign commercial operators in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. While commercial mining operations in south-western Mali have been largely sheltered from the insurgency up until this point, a significant number of mines in Burkina Faso and Niger are situated in vulnerable areas and have become increasingly exposed to militancy, as well as opportunistic violence by criminal armed groups.

Beyond the threat posed to mining facilities themselves, overland travel by commercial operators in remote areas is also likely to become increasingly difficult. In addition to the threat of kidnapping, the employment of indiscriminate roadside IEDs and mines has been reported in close proximity to commercial sites. For instance, on 14 August 2018 five people were killed when a police convoy came under heavy fire after striking a mine upon returning from the Boungou mining complex in eastern Burkina Faso.

Both local and international security forces are likely to remain overstretched in the foreseeable future and will therefore be largely limited to adopting a reactive posture to the militant threat to commercial sites. For instance, in response to the 3 October 2018 militant attack on the Inata gold mine in northern Burkina Faso, French armed forces from Barkhane intervened by deploying air assets to track down the perpetrators. While such responses may provide a limited deterrent, regional militant groups have proven extremely adaptable and are likely to quickly development counter-tactics to evade detection following attacks.

As such, in Burkina Faso, the government has stated that security measures at mines must be improved and has proposed the building of barracks and deployment of military personnel to commercial sites. However, it is unclear when these measures will be implemented, and to what extent they will be effective in countering the threat. Militant groups across the region have demonstrated their willingness and capability to target well-manned and equipped military and police outposts, often for the purpose of acquiring vehicles, weapons and ammunition. In order to continue operating effectively, commercial entities in the region will have to take much greater responsibility for their own security and adapt to the changing situation.