After the jihadist attacks against civilian targets in the capitals of Mali in November 2015 and Burkina Faso in January, killing 21 and 30 people respectively, West Africa is once again a region of international concern.
Even though the French military intervention in Northern Mali in 2013 had restored state control in the area, it is no secret that jihadist armed groups are still active. Not only that, but they are also growing very rich.
West Africa generates profits from illicit activities, such as drugs, human and arms trafficking, cigarettes smuggling and poaching. It is also a vast area with one of the fastest growing populations in the world and struggling with chronic poverty and huge social inequality. This means West Africa is fertile ground for the recruitment of jihadist groups.
The old trade routes that lead from the coasts of Western and Southwestern Africa, through Mali to the Mediterranean Sea, which is a huge stretch of land, are now controlled by jihadist groups.
West Africa is not only of strategic importance for the West, but also for the jihadists. And in recent months we have witnessed a “competition” between Al-Qaeda, in the form of the Al-Qaeda in Maghreb (AQIM) and its associates, on the one side, and Islamic State (IS) on the other. Both want control of the area.
This is one reason behind the attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Last year, we watched as the different groups acting in West Africa, namely AQIM, al-Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine, re-emerged and established different forms of cooperation.
On the other side, Islamic State in Libya cannot isolate itself in the Libyan territory alone. It needs to expand both south and west.
AQIM and IS, as Al-Qaeda and IS in Afghanistan, are in a race for control. This impacts the jihadist environment in Africa in general. The Nigerian movement Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, although it seems to be a nominal one. In January, a suspect emissary of IS was arrested in Nigeria for his ties Ansaru, a splinter of Boko Haram. In Somalia, Al-Shabaab, still loyal to Al-Qaeda, is experiencing internal divisions over the matter of international relations.
An interminable source of funds
West Africa has proven to be a real goldmine for the jihadist groups related with Al-Qaeda.
Kidnappings for ransom have become their specialty since 2003 when 32 European tourists were kidnapped by the then Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The group later pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda and became AQIM.
The kidnapping of Westerners for ransom in Western Africa has brought tens of millions of dollars to AQIM and its partners.
Meanwhile, Mali is a key point in the trafficking of cocaine, hashish and heroin to European markets.
For cocaine coming from Latin America, the country represents one of the three most-used routes and is probably the safest. In addition to the cocaine business, heroin is arriving from Afghanistan.
AQIM is not usually directly linked to the trade. However, it taxes the convoys as they cross the territories under its control. According to a report published by the Reuters news agency in 2012, traffickers arrested in Mauritania told authorities that a single convoy transporting hashish through AQIM’s area pays up to $50.000. If we take in consideration that, according the United Nations, cocaine trafficking to West Africa generates $800m every year, we can imagine that any stake the jihadists take from that market is huge.
Cigarette smuggling is also a very lucrative activity – one that has flourished under a former AQIM member and now leader of the al-Mourabitoun group, the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as Mr. Marlboro.
The market for smuggled cigarettes in Europe is on a high level due to the unlimited supply from West Africa.
One of the latest activities of AQIM and the jihadist groups is the trafficking of migrants. This business is even more profitable and less risky than the drugs trade. Thousands of young people from every state of West Africa are desperate to reach Europe, through Morocco, Libya or Turkey.
In an article published by the International Business Times, it was noted that in 2014, of the 170,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean into Italy, 50,000 came from sub-Saharan Africa. The total value of human trafficking in Libya alone was estimated by the Global Initiative on Transnational Crime in 2015 to be around $300m.
What is more, the poaching of the rare Mali desert elephant for ivory smuggling is yet another source of revenue. As reported by MINUSMA in 2015, a fifth of the remaining elephants were killed during that year alone by poachers under jihadist protection or by the jihadist themselves.
For the above, the jihadist groups use a well-organised network supported by strong family alliances, made possible through marriages or corruption. The same routes are used for different “products”.
There is also a permanent relation and strict cooperation between jihadist groups and organised crime as is the case with the drug traffickers of Latin America and Afghanistan and the mafias in Europe.
Money buys support
Illicit activities maintain a very comfortable financial situation for AQIM, Ansar Dine and the others. They are able to finance their activities and purchase arms and information and to corrupt authorities and locals.
But the activities of the jihadists also bring money to the areas they control. In fact, they are involved in the direct or indirect creation of jobs. These areas are considered among the poorest on Earth. The locals are able to earn a living working as drivers, traders, informers, workers and guides. They see jihadists’ presence as strictly related to their survival and even though they do not share their religious radicalism, they do support them.
Gao, for example, is a city in the north of Mali that has transformed into a hub for illicit activities. It has undergone tremendous change during the last couple of years. After 2010, beautiful villas were built in its suburbs, shops were packed with all kinds of goods, young men had jobs and huge 4x4s raced down its streets. All this was made possible because Gao became the centre for smuggling and trafficking – a heaven and haven for the drug lords and the jihadists.
Little was done to stop the illicit activities since the locals were satisfied with the situation because it brought them money and wealth.
However, the recruitment of children as soldiers or workers is in direct relation with the huge amount of money flashed by the jihadists. According to a Special Report by the Reuters news agency in 2012, the United Nations has evidence that the existence of children among AQIM and its affiliate groups is part of a deal in which jihadists agree to pay the parents in order to recruit their children.
What they fight for
The rise of Islamic State represented a serious menace for Al-Qaeda generally and for AQIM particularly. It is suspected that there were defections by young militants who considered their affiliation with Islamic State to be better and more prominent.
AQIM has its own schedule based on a regional level. It is not interested in spreading its influence to other territories of Africa, but around its actual zone of operations.
Holding on to its influence is instrumental because it is the only way the group can continue exploiting the rich sources of funds, buying local support, keeping its militants and attracting new recruits.
On the other hand, the situation with Islamic State is more complicated. Islamic State has an ecumenical view and its actions and recruitments are not limited to one geographic area alone.
Islamic State is also fighting to emerge as the leader in the jihadist cause and its success hinges on isolating Al-Qaeda. For both, it is a fight for their reputation as well.
For Islamic State, West Africa is of course important as a source of recruitment and funds, but as a first step it is more useful for the fight IS is waging in Libya.
One interpretation of the latest attacks could be that it was more “a family affair” for AQIM aiming to show that the group and its allies are still alive, dangerous and fully operational. These were acts to prevent defections to Islamic State. It was also a warning to Islamic State to that West Africa remains under its control.