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French soldiers confiscate a motorcycle found in a forest in northern Burkina Faso where jihadists have established themselves on November 9, 2019, during Operation Bourgou IV. The soldiers are deployed to Operation Barkhane in support of the G5 Sahel countries’ fight against armed jihadist groups. (AFP)

Last month, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire jointly conducted Operation Comoé along their borders. They captured thirty-eight suspected terrorists, killed eight, and dismantled training camps. The operation reflects growing concern in these and other West African coastal states about a spillover of violent extremism and the need to prevent attacks from being staged in their territories.

But the spread of attacks isn’t the only problem terrorism brings, and these operations shouldn’t be the only way countries address it. They need to also focus on the factors that allow these groups to function. Extremists are increasingly tapping into a terrorist economy, using Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo as sources or transit zones of funding and logistics.


Motorcycles are valuable to extremists because of their robustness and mobility through difficult terrain


Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research shows that livestock stolen in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger is sold in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana at below-market prices. The profits are ploughed back through the networks of accomplice dealers. Various accounts point to terrorists being among the armed groups funded by this illicit trade. They use the income to buy arms, fuel, motorcycles, and food.

Motorcycles are valuable to extremists because of their robustness and mobility through difficult terrain. They are also easy to maintain, light on fuel, and can carry more than one person for combat and combat support operations.


Sahel Terrorists Draw Supplies from across West Africa
The terrorist economy affects West Africa’s coastal states.


Many motorcycles found in Niger’s Tillabéry region are trafficked from Nigeria through the Togolese border town of Cinkassé and Burkina Faso’s Boucle du Mouhoun Region. Some are also trafficked from Togo to Burkina Faso, and a few are trafficked further to Niger.

Both Tillabéry and Boucle du Mouhoun are hot spots for violent extremism. Although groups may not be directly involved in trafficking, they gain access to goods through vendors or criminal entrepreneurs who organize their procurement.

Evidence is also emerging of extremists sourcing materials to make explosives from Ghana. Ghanaian officials say fertilizer, a key ingredient for improvised explosive devices, is smuggled in sizable quantities to Burkina Faso. Police frequently arrest smugglers and seize consignments in northern border towns such as Hamile, Kulungugu, and Namori.

In July 2019, Upper West Region minister Dr. Hafiz Bin Salih said Ghana had lost US$12 million to fertilizer smuggling from Ghana to neighboring countries the previous year. Although terrorist groups may not be directly involved in the smuggling, an apparent rise in availability of the material in Burkina Faso means increased access and affordability.

Also, a 2018 counter-terrorism operation in Ouagadougou’s Rayongo neighborhood led to the seizure of an electric cord for making improvised explosive devices which was traced to northern Ghana. This suggests the involvement of trafficking networks from Ghana’s north where artisanal and small-scale mining is a long-standing economic activity.

Interviewees told the ISS that the northern Ghanaian town of Dollar Power has many West African illegal miners, including Ivorian former rebels and Burkinabe nationals, and is known for armed robbery. In eastern Burkina Faso, gold from some mining sites controlled by violent extremist groups is purchased by buyers from Benin and Togo. This may be providing valuable funding to terror groups, although the scale is unclear.

Leaders of coastal states are preoccupied with preventing a southward spread of attacks. This informed the February 2017 meeting of the presidents of Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo in Accra. They had called for an extraordinary Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit on terrorism, and launched the Accra Initiative in September that year.

Attacks in southern Burkina Faso, close to the borders with Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo, have deepened concerns among counter-terrorism officials. At an ECOWAS extraordinary session held on September 14, 2019, in Ouagadougou, leaders also decried the spread of terrorism in the region, although there was no specific reference to coastal states.


Extremists use Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo as sources or transit zones for funding and logistics


Burkinabe officials have often alerted their coastal counterparts to suspected extremists crossing into their northern territories to avoid arrest. Such alerts followed the March 2019 Otapuana operation in southern Burkina Faso. In Ghana, extremists hide or rest in the north, counter-terrorism officials told the ISS, a situation that elicits complaints from Burkina Faso about the country’s commitment to countering terrorism.

Coastal states acknowledge the importance of addressing the root causes of violent extremism, including governance and developmental deficits. Extremists could exploit the lack of basic services, such as roads, health and education facilities, and socio-economic opportunities, to penetrate and implant themselves in communities. The 2020–2024 ECOWAS Priority Action Plan outlines steps to tackle these shortcomings.

But capacity to address the vulnerabilities that enable terror groups to source and move funds and logistics remains limited. These vulnerabilities include weak border surveillance and security; porous borders; and strong communal, family, and socio-economic ties. The content of cross-border trade transactions is largely untracked, as border officials do not have sufficient capacity and the necessary technology.

To prevent violent extremism, the various dimensions of the problem must be understood, particularly terrorists’ covert dealings. This will enable officials to strike a much-needed balance between counter-terrorism operations and breaking the funding and logistics supply chains used by violent extremists.


Border officials lack the capacity and technology to track cross-border trade transactions


West Africa’s coastal states must also address the weaknesses that allow these groups to operate. Capacity is needed to track trade consignments between countries, beef up border control and surveillance, enhance intelligence gathering and analysis, and garner the support of people living in border areas. This could help identify extremists who may be exploiting cross-border ties.

The disruption of supply chains could set the stage for more terrorist attacks. Violence could be used to protect hideouts, secure supply routes, or attack border posts that extremists believe are impediments to their supply of materials. This means that, to avoid generating community resentment, strategies aimed at disruption must be balanced with preserving the livelihoods of individuals and communities who rely on cross-border trade.


Sampson Kwarkye is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ regional office for West Africa, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin.

This article was originally published by ISS Today.


In this undated handout file photo released by Al-Andalus on May 23, 2012 shows Abdelmalek Droukdel, aka Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with his fighters in Azawad, an unrecognized state in northern Mali. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) chief Abdelmalek Droukdel was killed on June 5, 2020 in Mali. Al-Andalus / AFP
An undated photo of Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed on June 3, 2020, in Mali. (Al-Andalus/AFP).

French soldiers killed the leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, and several of his associates in northern Mali on Thursday, June 3, revealed French defense minister Florence Parly.

France has more than 5,000 troops in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgent mission that cooperates with local armies under the umbrella of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) provided intelligence about Droukdel’s location.

AQIM is a Salafi-jihadist organization active in North Africa and the Sahel. It was founded in 1998 as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (known by the French acronym GSCP), after it splintered from the Armed Islamic Group, a key participant in the Algerian Civil War. It was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January 2007 after it became an affiliate of Al-Qaida.


It is one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world


AQIM, and previously as GSPC, is notorious for kidnapping Westerners for ransom in North Africa. The American Center for International Security and Cooperation says it is one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world.

AQIM also leads Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), a militant alliance of various jihadist groups that has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Malian defense and security forces.


A Veteran of the Algerian Civil War

Droukdel, a.k.a. Abou Mossaab Abdelouadoud, was born in Blida, Algeria, in 1970. He was a postgraduate engineering student when the civil war broke out in 1992; he gave up his studies and became joined the Islamist insurgency against the Algerian government. In 2004, he succeeded Nabil Sharaioui as the leader, or emir, of GSCP/AQIM, and steered it to a closer alliance with al-Qaida.





Soldiers of the French Army monitors a rural area during the Barkhane operation in northern Burkina Faso on November 12, 2019
French soldiers monitor a rural area in northern Burkina Faso as part of the ongoing anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane on November 12, 2019.


The non-profit NGO Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) has released a new report that expresses concern over the lack of aerial surveillance equipment that is available to the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali.

In 2017, The Washington Post declared MINUSMA as being the UN’s deadliest mission due to the death of 118 peacekeepers between 2014 and 2017, the vastness of the territory, and the presence of several dangerous terrorist groups aligned with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to say nothing of inter-ethnic clashes.


France’s Operation Barkhane alone has deployed more than 5,000 trooops.


CIVIC argues that a greater number of surveillance helicopters, medical airlifts, and attack aircraft could help curtail jihadist activity, a sentiment shared by several Malian politicians representing the country’s central and northern regions, where most of the violence takes place. MINUSMA is not the only military operation active in the region: France’s Operation Barkhane alone has deployed more than 5,000 troops and several dozen aircraft, which are used for transport, surveillance, and air support.

The problem, as pointed out by a French officer interviewed by Jeune Afrique, is that effectively utilizing these tools requires troops on the ground to provide intelligence and guidance for aerial missions. France alone cannot fight Mali’s battles, nor does Mali want it to do so, meaning that more support is needed for MINUSMA to help it to fulfill its mission.

The United Nations is set to host a virtual conference next week, May 19, to encourage member states to increase their material support for MINUSMA.



Soumaila Cisse
Malian Opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé greets supporters as he joins them in a march on September 15, 2018, in Bamako.


Amadou Kolossi, the mayor of the Malian city of Koumaïra and the chief negotiator for the safe return of kidnapped opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, was freed on Sunday, May 10, more than a month after he was also abducted while negotiating with Cissé’s captors.


Cissé was abducted on March 25 while campaigning in the Timbuktu region.


Kolossi’s release is the latest development in a political drama that has gripped Malians since Cissé was abducted on March 25 while campaigning in the Timbuktu region, just days ahead of the first round of legislative elections. Since his disappearance, the only new information on Cissé’s condition and whereabouts was a statement from his party, the URD, that he was “doing well”. That statement came on the day five members of Cissé’s team abducted with him were freed, giving hope that negotiations between the kidnappers, the URD, and the government of Mali would lead to Cissé’s release.

Frustrations have been mounting, especially for the family of Soumaïla Cissé, who’ve said the federal government was moving too slowly in securing his release. The kidnapping of Soumaïla Cissé is set against a backdrop of persistent instability that has troubled Mali since 2012, with continued attacks by rebel and jihadist groups.



Electoral officials are seen during the vote counting at a polling station in Bamako on March 29, 2020.
Electoral officials are seen during the vote counting at a polling station in Bamako on March 29, 2020.


Protests broke out in the Malian capital Bamako and elsewhere in the country after the final vote count for legislative elections held in March and April was announced, giving the ruling party ten more seats than the interim results did. The Rally for Mali (RPM), the party of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, now holds 53 out of 147 seats in the National Assembly. Following the announcement, hundreds gathered in the streets to express their frustrations, accusing the RPM of “stealing” votes.


The low voter turnout calls into question the credibility of the RPM’s mandate to rule.


It was expected that Malians would be upset by any final declaration of which parties won and lost seats given the low voter turnout—only 36 percent nationally and 7.5 percent in Bamako during the second round of voting—which calls into question the credibility of the RPM’s mandate to rule. Before the first ballots were cast, Keïta was pressured to postpone the elections yet again. They were originally supposed to be held in 2018, but were held off due to the turbulent security situation in the country’s north and east.


Security concerns have not abated since 2018.


The president explained that the vote needed to happen based on the outcome of the National Inclusive Dialogue, held between December 14 and December 22, 2019, and to uphold the peace accord signed in 2015, an agreement between the Malian government and two coalitions of rebel groups that gives partial autonomy to the north of the country. Opposition groups disputed this reasoning, noting that security concerns have not abated since 2018 and that holding elections would put voters at risk.

The COVID-19 pandemic was one of the reasons for the low voter turnout; another was the shocking abduction of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé just days before the vote. He is still missing.


Mali was one of the last sub-Saharan African countries to be “free” of COVID-19, until it reported its first two cases on March 25. Yet, a couple of weeks before that, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Planning partnered with the Agence des Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication (AGETIC) to create a mobile app and a website to inform Malians about the virus.


The app provides an option to report a suspected infection.


Named SOS Corona, the app provides up-to-date information on confirmed cases and recoveries, symptoms of the virus, and an option to report a suspected infection. As of writing, Mali has reported 424 cases, 122 recoveries, and 24 deaths, but the country’s weak medical infrastructure and persistent threats from terrorists and rebel groups increase the risk of the country’s health services being overwhelmed should the disease become more widespread.

There are only 41 ventilators available in public hospitals and 15 in private facilities, far below what is needed to manage the current caseload, let alone an exponential increase.


Partial Lockdown

While Mali’s neighbors have instituted various forms of lockdown, the administration of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has only implemented a curfew from nine p.m. until five a.m., otherwise allowing Malians to use public transport and gather at cafés. Schools are closed, however, and gatherings of more than 50 people are banned.


A Scout volunteer reminds faithfuls to wash their hands before entering in the big Mosque of Bamako during the Friday prayer on April 10, 2020. Hand washing stations have been installed in proximity of the entrances as a preventive measure to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in public spaces.  MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
A volunteer from the Scouts of Mali reminds the faithful to wash their hands before entering Bamako Grand Mosque during the Friday prayer on April 10, 2020. Hand-washing stations have been installed at entrances to public spaces as a preventive measure to avoid the spread of COVID-19. (Michele Cattani/AFP)


Malians voted in a long-delayed parliamentary election on Sunday, barely a day after the country recorded its first COVID-19 death and with the leading opposition figure kidnapped and believed to be in the hands of jihadists. The vote took place in an insecure envorinment of the war-torn West African country.


Election Date: March 29, 2020


Political Parties:

Alliance for Democracy in Mali, in coalition with the Pan – African Party for Liberty, Solidarity and Justice (ADEMA–PASJ): First formed on October 25, 1990, from opposition parties opposed to the rule of then-dictator Moussa Traoré, ADEMA–PASJ dominated Mali’s National Assembly up until 2013. The party successfully elected Alpha Oumar Konaré as Mali’s president in 1992 and 1997.

Rally for Mali (RPM): Current ruling party of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, having won a substantial number of seats in the 2013 parliamentary elections. Keïta formed RPM on June 30, 2001, only eight months after he left ADEMA–PASJ due to internal disagreements.

Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD): Another splinter group from ADEMA–PASJ, the URD was formed in June 2003 by Soumaïla Cissé and his supporters. Cissé was designated as ADEMA–PASJ’s presidential candidate for the 2002 elections, but outgoing president Alpha Oumar Konaré backed Amadou Toumani Touré, which was read as a betrayal by Cissé. Regardless, the URD would go on to support President Touré for his 2007 re-elections.

A handful of other parties were listed for Sunday’s vote. National Assembly members are elected using a two-round system for a five-year term.


Democracy Under Fire

Global viral pandemic. Endemic terrorist violence. A fragile peace deal hanging in the balance. 

Malians heading to the polls on Sunday, March 29, to fill the 147 seats of the beleaguered country’s National Assembly had a difficult decision to make. On the one hand, Mali’s legislative branch is wallowing in a crisis of legitimacy. Parliamentary voting, originally scheduled for October 28, 2018, was postponed on multiple occasions. In June 2019, with the legislators’ mandate nearly up, Mali hastily adopted a law extending it until May 2020. 

The reason given for this was to grant President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s administration time to ensure “optimal conditions” for efficiently organized elections. Yet Mali’s national security forces continue to suffer losses against rebel militias, organized crime syndicates, and jihadist terror groups. 


Electoral officials are seen during the vote counting at a polling station in Bamako on March 29, 2020. Malians headed to the polls on March 29, 2020, for a long-delayed parliamentary election just hours after the country recorded its first COVID-19 coronavirus death and with the leading opposition figure kidnapped and believed to be in the hands of jihadists. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Electoral officials are seen during the vote counting at a polling station in Bamako on March 29, 2020. (Michele Cattani/AFP)


A Shaken Government

The violence has not been limited to attacks on soldiers. In March 2019, months before the mandate extension bill was signed, more than 150 Fulani were massacred in the village of Ogossagou by Dogon hunters, who accused the semi-nomadic Fulani herdsmen of having ties to violent jihadists. The massacre followed months of tit-for-tat attacks between Mali’s diverse ethnic groups, exploited and encouraged by terrorist groups and rebel fighters to help expand their ranks and gain influence.

The violence at Ogossagou shocked the conscience of Malians. On April 17, 2019, members of the National Assembly live-streamed a motion of no confidence in the government of then prime minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, whom they accused of incompetence in reducing inter-ethnic violence. Two days later, before the vote could be held, Maïga’s government resigned. On April 22, 2019, President Keïta appointed former finance minister Boubou Cissé as the new prime minister, with the responsibility of forming a “broad government”.

Already one can see the precarious position of Mali’s legislature. But it is not just a matter of delayed votes and shaky coalitions that plagues Mali’s parliament. Elections are also needed to ensure that key provisions of the 2015 Algiers Accord—a peace deal signed between the government of Mali and two separate coalitions representing rebel groups—are met.


Indirectly Voting on Crucial Peace Agreement

At the heart of the Algiers Accord was a concerted effort to address the longstanding economic and social failings that have left Mali’s north perpetually underdeveloped compared with the rest of the country. Mali’s northern region is home primarily to the Tuareg peoples, who have launched four separate rebellions since independence in 1960. Then, as today, the Tuareg (as well as other ethnic groups living in the north, including Moorish Arabs) claim they have been left out of political decision-making affecting their territory.

These frustrations led to the Tuareg Rebellion of 2012, which succeeded in ousting the Malian army from the country’s north. After jihadists co-opted this rebellion to turn the region into a would-be caliphate, France intervened and succeeded in removing Islamist terrorists from the principal cities of the region by late 2013, though violence has hardly abated since then. A handful of Tuareg individuals currently sit in Mali’s National Assembly, but this is still not fair representation. This is the reason President Keïta insisted on holding elections despite the risks.


Health Risks from COVID-19, Security Risks from Terrorists

This brings us to the other side of this Catch-22. While parliamentary elections need to go ahead to bolster the legitimacy of the National Assembly and demonstrate Bamako’s commitment to the Algiers Accord, forging ahead poses a grave public health risk, namely exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s more, polling locations are prime targets for terrorist attacks, which Malian security forces have not managed to quell ahead of the vote.

Perhaps the starkest example of the government’s inability to guarantee the safety of its people occurred just a few days ago when Soumaïla Cissé, head of the URD opposition party, was abducted while campaigning in the Timbuktu administrative district. 

While no reports of violence striking polling locations was announced on Sunday, the threat of it is likely to have dissuaded voter turnout, which was just barely above 37 percent in 2013’s legislative elections. More pressing are the dangers posed by COVID-19. Late Saturday night, the government of Mali announced the first death linked to the virus. Nonetheless, the URD urged supporters to turn out on Sunday, while other opposition parties urged for another postponement.

Hand-washing kits were distributed to polling locations around the countryside, and precincts in Bamako were provided with face masks and hand sanitizer. As the virus continues to spread throughout West Africa, Mali is poorly equipped to handle a large outbreak. The country has only twenty ventilators countrywide for a population of 19 million, and large swaths of its territory have little to no government authority present, making it that much harder to track and contain infections. More than 200,000 Malians displaced by ongoing violence were also unable to vote in addition to being at greater risk of contracting the virus.

With the first round of voting concluded, a second round is scheduled to take place on April 19. Despite the risks, international experts and observers hope that the elections will finally give Mali a chance to break out of its cycles of violence that have plagued it since 2012. A new parliament will be able to enact with greater authority a number of the reforms laid out in the Algiers Accord, including decentralization and integration of former rebels into the police and army, which has already been under way, albeit slowly.

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