Most of us won’t be able to locate the country on a map. But the brutal killing of 44 villagers in Burkina Faso by jihadists is the latest sign of the resurgence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State—which has also opened the door for Vladimir Putin’s favourite mercenaries: the Wagner Group. It’s a matter of time before the ripple effects of the bloodbath in the Sahel become tidal waves that can swamp the world.
Editor’s note: Part two of our series on the science of skincare will be published tomorrow—unless of course something more pressing and newsworthy intervenes:) ICYMI: Here’s the very popular part one—which dropped on Friday.
Ok tell me what happened in Burkina Faso…
True confession: We first had to locate Burkina Faso on the map to figure out where this happened. So let’s start there. The nation is part of the Sahel region in West Africa. The Arabic word ‘sahel’ (“shore”) signifies the semi-arid bit between the Sahara Desert in the north and the savannah plains in the south.
The frontline of Islamic militancy: For over a decade, nations in the Sahel have been ground zero for the resurgence of Islamic militancy—which spread downwards as the Middle East collapsed into chaos. Weapons and armed fighters entered the region starting in 2011—when Libya imploded after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Since then, the stretch of land covering the border areas of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger has become a base for powerful affiliates of Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
The bigger picture: The jihadists have found fertile ground in a region wracked by civil war and total absence of governance. Millions of people in six Sahel countries—Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria—are in the midst of a severe humanitarian crisis.
Here’s how bad it is: 18.6 million people face acute hunger, with many on the brink of starvation. And 7.7 million children under the age of 5 are malnourished—of which nearly 2 million are at risk of death without immediate aid. FYI: more than 2 million people have been displaced by the violence in Burkina Faso—which is also one of the world's poorest countries.
The attack in Burkina Faso: 44 people were killed when terrorist groups stormed two villages. The local governor condemned the “despicable and barbaric attack”—but did not name the organisation involved. But the area has long been overrun by Islamist groups—which have repeatedly attacked civilians. Last June, 86 civilians were killed in a nearby area—marking one of the bloodiest attacks in recent years. In February, the Islamists killed 51 soldiers in the northern part of the country. The body counts are spiralling—but get very little international attention.
Key data point to note: Jihadist groups control 40% of Burkina Faso.
And this is Al Qaeda? I thought they were done…
Al Qaeda 1.0 is as good as dead. The organisation that orchestrated the 9/11 attacks had a centralised leadership based out of Afghanistan—which has since been gutted by US intelligence operations. The latest was the assassination of Osama bin Laden’s successor—Ayman al-Zawahiri—who was taken out by a Hellfire missile in Kabul last year. But Al Qaeda 2.0 is highly decentralised and its global footprint is bigger than ever—as you can see in the Economist map below:
Point to note: As the map shows, the Islamic State—hounded out of Syria and Iraq—has followed Al Qaeda’s lead. In 2020, the Global Terrorism Index noted that the "centre of gravity" for the Islamic State group IS has moved away from the Middle East to Africa—and to some extent South Asia. The continent has also become new terrain for their rivalry.
A dizzying spread: Experts predict: "Africa is going to be the battleground of jihad for the next 20 years and it's going to replace the Middle East.” And the Sahel is ground zero:
- The region accounted for more than a third of all terrorism deaths in 2021.
- The local Al Qaeda offshoot—Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin—was the world’s fastest-growing jihadist organisation in 2021. FYI: that ranking is measured by the increase in the tally of attacks and deaths.
- Not to be outdone, Islamic State offshoots like Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have replaced Boko Haram as the main jihadist group in Nigeria.
- One of its affiliates has also mounted repeated attacks in other parts of the Sahel—including Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
- By 2019, the sub-Saharan nations accounted for 41% of ISIS-related deaths. And the total deaths by IS in sub-Saharan Africa had jumped by 67% in just one year.
The new modus operandi: As in the Middle East, Al Qaeda affiliates position themselves as the more “moderate” extremists—in comparison to ISIS that has a reputation for gruesome violence. And they have also been better at leveraging local ethnic grievances to their benefit. As one expert describes it: “Today, Al Qaeda is truly ‘glocal,’ having effectively incorporated local grievances and concerns into a global narrative”—but not everyone thinks that it adds up to “an all-encompassing grand strategy.”
Point to note: These affiliates aren’t quite as disciplined or coordinated as their previous avatars. They often seem more opportunistic than ideological—taking advantage of weak borders and security: “They have set up lucrative money-raising activities, such as imposing taxes, and trafficking drugs, weapons and people, which help fund their activities.” They may “wrap [themselves] in a jihadist flag” but do not have “a clear political project.”
As for India: Although the Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan, it appears unwilling to support renewed attacks on the West. According to some US experts, Al Qaeda has now turned its attention to Kashmir—and more broadly, to the rest of India. While they have not been able to engineer any attacks, there are signs of traction—which poses greater risks:
With growing Hindu nationalism in India and growing legal discriminations against the country’s Muslims, there is a real risk that AQIS and likeminded groups will be successful in recruiting members and building up a network inside Kashmir and ‘mainland’ India. Afghanistan and the jihadi safe haven offered by the Taliban will likely be central to these efforts, on one hand serving as an inspiration for militants in Kashmir and on the other hand providing a platform for Kashmiri and Indian militants in Afghanistan to support their comrades in India.
Surely these guys can’t stage another 9/11, right?
According to some, this decentralised jihad doesn’t pose that kind of a risk to the West (at least):
Some argue that the violence they perpetrate in places like the Sahel and Afghanistan is dreadful for the locals but a sideshow for the West. “These are areas of limited interest to the United States,” says Daniel Byman of Georgetown University. The centrally run jihad of the 1990s against the West that culminated in 9/11 has, in this view, reversed. “Al Qaeda has become a local group that doesn’t really prioritise external attacks,” says Mr Hamming.
Harsh, and perhaps true. Except Moscow doesn’t see Africa as a “sideshow”—especially as its relations with the West continue to tailspin.
Cold War 2.0 meets jihad: The West’s great war with Islamic terrorism was birthed in the Cold War. The Taliban and Al Qaeda emerged from the ashes of the proxy war fought in Afghanistan with the Soviet Union. But with the invasion of Ukraine, the West is once again obsessed with Moscow (and its bestie Beijing)—and those terrifying jihadis have become a memory of the past. But in Africa, its two great nemeses are colliding in unexpected ways.
Enter, the Wagner Group: This is a private military company founded by a close friend of President Putin—a Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Its mercenary soldiers made headlines for their key role in the Ukraine war. But Putin has long deployed its troops in parts of the world where Moscow does not want to openly intervene. And that includes Africa—where the goals are a little different:
[It] turned into a model where [Wagner] typically targeted states that have weak governance and ongoing security threats that also have rich natural resources such as natural energy, gold, and gemstones…Moscow can exploit these resources, but also use them to finance its operations elsewhere, including in Ukraine — and with the added benefit of being a bit harder to target with international sanctions. Moscow uses Wagner to help guard these kinds of mineral assets, but also to capture the state. “Those friendly autocrats become Russian clients,” Ramani said.
The jihadist opportunity: Military dictatorships have not been able to curb the jihadist insurgency. And UN peacekeeping forces have failed to produce results. France has sent soldiers and aid to its former colonies—but to no avail:
France has maintained outsized influence over the politics, economies and security of Sahelian countries in the decades since they claimed their independence from the former colonial power in the 1960s. That history, alongside French troops’ failure to stop the spread of extremist activity in the region, has contributed to a growing sense of resentment.
As a result, these nations have turned to the ever-obliging Wagner Group—often described as a “one-stop shop for all autocrats around the world.” In 2021, Mali hired Wagner in exchange for access to its gold mines. And now Burkina Faso is poised to do the same—having recently kicked out all French troops and diplomats. Next on the list: Ivory Coast—which is one of Africa’s biggest economies—and is also battling Al Qaeda and IS forces.
Data point to note: Today, Wagner has an estimated 5,000 men stationed across Africa—a footprint almost as large as the US—which has 6,000 troops and support personnel.
Quote to note: Wagner has been posting recruiting ads for its Africa operations on Telegram that read:
Many have been waiting for the opening of old tourist destinations, and here they are–long-awaited trips to one of several countries in Africa!... Experience of traveling with the travel company ‘Wagner Group’ is desirable.
Fuel to jihadi fire: With its hands full with Russia in Europe—and China in the Pacific—the US isn’t doing much to counter Moscow’s big Africa campaign. Though Wagner’s activities offer Putin a way to duck sanctions—and potentially fund his Ukraine war. But more worrying is this: in places like Mali, the ruling junta and Wagner have gone on a killing spree:
Civilian deaths have roughly quadrupled to more than 2,000 since Mali deployed Wagner mercenaries in December 2021, up from about 550 in the previous year… In 2022, at least 750 civilians were killed in attacks by Wagner fighters working alongside Malian soldiers.
Yet, none of this brutality has made a dent in jihadist attacks—and in Mali, Wagner may have even strengthened their hand:
The arrival of Russian mercenaries [in Mali] hastened the departure of French and European forces. However, the Russian private military company did not deploy capable, disciplined, and well-equipped troops to fill the gap, and its brutal and indiscriminate counterinsurgency efforts are serving as a recruiting tool for the jihadis. A year after the arrival of the Russian mercenaries to Mali, the security situation has worsened. Despite ongoing fighting between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s branches in the Sahel, the two terrorist groups are consolidating their sanctuaries and gaining an unprecedented range of action.
The bottomline: A UN monitoring panel warned that jihadists in the Sahel must be wiped out or “one or more of them will incubate an external operational capability for al-Qaeda or a related terrorist group.” But no one paid much attention to Afghanistan until a group of determined terrorists took down the Twin Towers. No one is paying much attention to the Sahel today. Maybe because preventing terrorism requires first tackling its root causes—poverty and exploitation.
The Economist is best on the rise of Al Qaeda and IS in Africa—and BBC News has a report focused specifically on the Sahel. Associated Press has the most on Wagner’s intrusion into Burkina Faso—while Bloomberg News and Wall Street Journal (splainer gift link) looks at its increasing presence in Africa. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has the big picture on Russia’s expanding influence—and why the US has failed to counter it. Westpoint has a detailed report on the fallout of Wagner’s presence in Burkina Faso. Perhaps more interesting: its take on Al Qaeda’s renewed focus on India. Vox has a good guide to Wagner.