The Shifting Threat Matrix in West Africa

The Shifting Threat Matrix in West Africa

In recent years, West Africa has been considered a relative oasis of stability in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the region faces a multitude of threats that could spell a new era of insecurity. A spike in Islamist terrorism and intercommunal violence has strained governments in the area, pushing them to the brink of collapse. Ongoing issues with drug trafficking and corrupt security forces also threaten to upend the semblance of political stability.

West Africa has seen a spike in security threats in recent years. The security of West Africa has been challenged in past months, as the nations of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Nigeria have faced a surge in Islamist and intercommunal violence. The violence is spreading into coastal West Africa, a region that had for years largely been spared from the complex security threats that have characterised dominating the Sahel this decade.

In addition to Islamist terrorism and intercommunal violence, the region has long struggled with drug trafficking and abusive security forces. These issues are increasingly intertwined, resulting in a complex threat matrix that has pushed governments in the region to the brink. The solutions will need to be similarly holistic in scope. Incumbent on the leaders in the area, as well as their international partners, to take a comprehensive view of the region’s security threats. Only then will they be able to develop effective solutions and establish a durable atmosphere of peace.

Islamist terrorism

Mali has been a haven for terrorist cells in West Africa for years. Groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) rose to prominence following the Tuareg rebellion in 2012. While the rebellion was ultimately defeated with the help of French forces, the government has been unable to exert control beyond the capital and its surrounding regions. Since the rebellion and resulting insecurity, several groups, including an Islamic State affiliate, have used Mali as a launching ground for attacks in neighbouring states.

Burkina Faso has become a favoured target of such groups. Lethal attacks have become a regular feature in the country since 2015, following the deposition of longtime ruler Blaise Compaoré. Islamist groups such as Ansural Islam have expanded their operations in the country, effectively controlling its northern and eastern regions. The government based in Ouagadougou has long neglected these regions. Attacks frequently target Christian communities, who have for years lived in peaceful harmony with their Muslim neighbours. The mounting successes of Islamist groups forced the prime minister and his cabinet government from power earlier this year. The situation in Burkina Faso has become so grim that neighbours Togo, Ghana, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire are on high alert and may have already been infiltrated by terrorists.

Intercommunal violence

Continued attacks by Islamist groups have inflamed intercommunal tensions in both Mali and Burkina Faso. Escalating retaliatory attacks between the Dogon and Fulani communities in central Mali have left hundreds dead since the start of this year. Violence between the two communities reached such a fever pitch in Mali that the Prime Minister and his government resigned, citing their failure to disarm the communities.

Islamist groups have helped inflame long-simmering tensions over land disputes between the sedentary Dogon and nomadic Fulani. Members of the Dogon group have accused the Fulani, a predominately Muslim group, of harbouring Islamists. Such violence and insecurity have served to increase the Islamists’ leverage by sowing distrust between communities. The Islamists hope to paint themselves as the right defenders of the Fulani. Similar dynamics are unfolding in central Burkina Faso, with clashes between the Fulani and other ethnic groups, such as the Mossi.


While Islamist terrorism and intercommunal violence have dominated headlines in recent months, West Africa continues to struggle with the illegal drug trade. The region has long been the premier hub for drug smuggling from South America and Asia to Europe. Guinea-Bissau deemed a “narco-state” by the United Nations, has acutely been affected by the drug trade. More cocaine has been seized in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde this year alone than the total amount taken on the continent between 2013 and 2016. Ghana, one of the most stable democracies on the continent, is a favoured destination for South American producers.

In addition to its innate destabilising influence, the drug trade in West Africa has helped empower and become so profitable that regional terrorist groups are getting in on the action. Though they are not producers, groups such as Boko Haram and AQIM are hired out by drug syndicates to assist in various stages of the trafficking process. Their compensation comes either in the form of cash or weapons.

Abusive security forces

While much of the insecurity in the region is caused by non-state actors such as terrorist cells, ethnic militias, and criminal syndicates, governments in the area have undermined their legitimacy and regional security thanks to abusive security forces. In Burkina Faso, counter-terrorism forces, in their campaign to reestablish control over the country’s northern regions, have committed human rights violations. The same can be said in Nigeria, where the military has allegedly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in its campaign against Boko Haram.

There have been well-documented abuses committed by the police in Benin and Togo during clashes with pro-democracy protestors. In response to a flawed election held in April, several demonstrators were killed by the police in Benin. These fatalities followed a wave of arbitrary arrests that targeted opposition officials and their supporters.

Earlier this month, the Guinean National Assembly passed a law that effectively allows security forces to shoot anyone deemed an imminent threat with impunity. Human rights advocates worry that the new law will be used to brutally crackdown on future protests against the president’s bid to amend the constitution and stand for a third term.


Islamist terrorists, intercommunal violence, narcotrafficking, and abusive security forces are just some of the problems faced by West African governments. Human trafficking and slavery, especially in Mauritania, as well as endemic corruption, electoral violence, and kidnapping, also present severe threats to stability in the region. Many of these threats pale in comparison to the ever-present danger posed by the ongoing climate crisis, which has contributed to food insecurity in the area. In many states, corruption is lucrative for politicians and other officials, hindering efforts at reform. The same can be said of the drug trade, where the profits from the illegal market far exceed legal business.

So far, the most ambitious attempt at restoring security to the region has been the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The G5 is a military alliance between Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. It is tasked with tackling terrorist and criminal networks that criss-cross the region. Recently, it has taken up the cause of clamping down on intercommunal violence. Unfortunately, the G5 has faced chronic funding shortages and other delays, hampering efforts at rooting out these dangerous threats. Without political will and properly functioning democratic institutions, the security situation in West Africa will likely continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.

About Author

Adam Valavanis

Adam Valavanis is a Washington-based analyst for GRI. His research interests include democracy, authoritarianism, and security, specifically in West Africa. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs from Lafayette College and a Master of Science in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science.