West Africa: The New “Epicenter” of Global Terrorism?

cc U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos, modified, https://flickr.com/photos/39955793@N07/33314871061/in/photolist-SKVquD-9LvVWX-8Vm6b6-FCwxZK-2kHqTvk-2kC4vcX-2ja2cVm-FG6FMu-71yVxb-3Hy59P-mwDspo-FjhaiN-FJozUv-FJozok-9dLKzn-FG6GbA-FCwyDF-EP993e-ENX2Cd-X3q3GB-EP98gK-2oA8pgx-8EVRmL-2jFi9d8-8Gio6M-2oA2xJU-DzoqrC-8Gmyn3-2kU1wD5-2j3oQVe-2opMBpV-9oyg3T-2orzZtY-2opGsYJ-2jxX8Au-k1PoVP-2jxSP1C-8vxYFf-2nnE8Wq-rQAXGH-8vy15L-8vxZxf-FJoA98-2nnGyY2-8vAZxN-8vuVWr-8vuYok-8vuXDD-8vxZkf-88LKA1, A Chadian Army Soldier who is a simulated casualty awaits medical assistance during a simulated assault in Faya-Largeau, Chad Mar. 3, 2017 as part of Flintlock 17. Flintlock is an annual special operations exercise involving more than 20 nation forces that strengthens security institutions, promotes multinational sharing of information, and develops interoperability among partner nation in North and West Africa. (Army photo by Sgt. Derek Hamilton)

At the dawn of 2024, UN Chief António Guterres pointed to Africa as the new “epicenter” of global terrorism. For decades, jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have built local affiliates in West African countries like Mali and Burkina Faso, and in recent years have moved further East to Mozambique and South to Uganda. In areas where state actors, UN peacekeeping missions, and international coalitions now have little influence, local affiliates remain able to build on societal tensions and long-lasting conflicts to bolster their ranks.

In West Africa, the threat posed by Al Qaeda’s Sahelian branch (JNIM) and Islamic State West Africa, the local affiliates of the leading jihadist groups worldwide, shows no signs of abating. ECOWAS – a regional alliance between West African states – recorded over 1,800 terrorist attacks in the region as of August 2023, leading to over six million displaced civilians. In Burkina Faso alone, jihadist violence displaced over two million people, 10% of the country’s population. It is important to recall that while most of these militant units are composed of locals – primarily motivated by offers of a few dozen dollars per week, an automatic rifle, and a motorbike – it has been proven in recent years that experienced foreign fighters returning from wars in Libya or Syria have also been bolstering the commanding ranks.

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