Africa’s Crime-Terror Nexus: Transnational Organised Crime, Illicit Economic Networks and Violent Extremism in the Sahel

Africa’s Crime-Terror Nexus: Transnational Organised Crime, Illicit Economic Networks and Violent Extremism in the Sahel
“Mangaize refugee camp, Niger” by Oxfam International is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Africa’s Sahel region lies at the epicentre of a sprawling jihadist insurgency straddling the ‘ungoverned spaces’ south of the Sahara. As U.S, French and African forces struggle to contain the violence spreading like wildfire across the Sahelian scrublands, one key dimension of instability which remains overlooked is the role of transnational organised crime and illicit economic networks in fueling violent extremism across the region.

In July, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his decision to drastically scale down France’s long-standing stabilisation mission in the Sahel. A vast expanse of semi-arid savannah separating the Sahara desert from the lush rainforests of Central Africa and stretching from Senegal to Sudan, the Sahel now represents the epicentre of a sprawling jihadist insurgency of both al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups. Since 2013, French forces have struggled alongside the G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) to contain the violent extremist threat spreading across the region as part of Operation Barkhane, becoming entangled in a ‘forever war’ with no clear end in sight

Organised Crime: A Neglected Driver of Violent Extremism in the Sahel

Several analysts highlight interlinked structural drivers, including weak governance, rampant corruption, porous borders, institutional fragility, endemic poverty, rapid population growth, mass migration and climate change, to explain persistent Sahelian instability. However, one crucial yet often neglected dimension of the Sahel’s transnational jihadist insurgency is the key role played by organised crime and illicit economic activities in fuelling cycles of violence. Only by understanding the centrality of trafficking and smuggling routes, illicit trade networks, border economies and unlicensed yet lucrative extractive industries can we unpick the complex dynamics of an insurgency which is driven as much by profit as ideology. 

The Sahel’s unique geographical location — straddling the scorching sands of the Sahara and tropical grasslands of Sub-Saharan Africa — may explain the emergence of transnational organised crime as a key driver of conflict and instability. Indeed, the very name ‘Sahel’ stems from the Arabic term for ‘coast’ or ‘shoreline’, highlighting the region’s historically significant position as the terminus of trans-Saharan caravan routes linking the African hinterland with the Mediterranean. During the pre-colonial era, this facilitated the emergence of powerful empires such as the Mali, Songhai and Sokoto, whose patronage of lucrative long-distance trade in salt, gold, copper and slaves transformed cities such as Timbuktu, Gao and Djenne into key trade nodes. Despite the decline of trans-Saharan trade during the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries as a consequence of European colonisation, the past decade has seen a dramatic resurgence of these ancient trade routes, as the interplay of geopolitical shockwaves with the Sahel’s existing social, demographic and geographical characteristics has fuelled the emergence of lucrative illicit economic networks.

Sahelian countries experience multiple interlinked structural drivers conducive to the emergence of transnational organised crime. Since independence, fragile states lacking the capacity to adequately govern territories ostensibly under their control have given rise to porous borderlands allowing for the transit of illicit goods. Furthermore, endemic poverty, climate change and unprecedented population growth has put immense strain on resources, driving many of the Sahel’s 135 million inhabitants towards the informal ‘coping economy’. Given the scarcity of formal employment opportunities, illicit economic activities are not only considered socially legitimate but are often essential for survival due to the prevalence of smuggled essential goods in isolated border regions. Furthermore, the Sahel’s vast youth bulge (Niger has the lowest average age in the world at 14.8) has created a huge population of underemployed young males, providing a fertile recruitment ground for criminal syndicates. Crucially, the Sahel region occupies a central position astride major global illicit networks, such as human trafficking routes linking Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. 

Similarly, West Africa represents an increasingly popular destination for Latin American drug trafficking supplying the European market, whilst Eritrea and Djibouti are major entry nodes for arms smuggling routes to the African continent. Collectively, the UN Office for Drugs Control (UNODC) estimates that profits from illicit economic activities throughout the Sahel amount to $3.8bn per annum, an immense sum for a region where 80% of the population survive on less than $2 per day.

Illicit Economies and Political Order in Sahelian Africa

The collapse of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya represented a watershed moment for the Sahel. Since 2011, Libya’s bloody civil war and subsequent fragmentation has flooded the Sahelian states to the south with cheap arms and munitions. Foreign fighters recruited from Sahelian communities by all sides in Libya’s multidimensional conflict led to an influx of hardened veterans across the impoverished region, with Tuareg nomads from Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion triggering the 2012 Malian civil war, a separatist rebellion quickly hijacked by jihadist militants linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Crucially, Libya’s implosion led to the emergence of a vast tract of almost continuous ‘ungoverned space’ stretching from Nigeria to the Mediterranean. 

Paradoxically, such ‘ungoverned spaces’ are far from ungoverned, despite their extreme fragility and complete absence of formal state institutions. Rather, political and security vacuums are filled by myriad ‘violent entrepreneurs’ using their capacity for physical violence to monopolise economic licit and illicit opportunities in exchange for providing a modicum of political order. Much of the Sahel’s current instability may be explained through the lens of rival ‘violent entrepreneurs’ competing for control over lucrative trade routes and nodes. Despite significant commentary on the emergence of crime-terror nexus, whereby militant groups such as al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS) fund their insurgencies by engaging in illicit economic activities including racketeering, smuggling and kidnapping for ransom, jihadist groups are just one of the many factions which derive revenues from organised crime. Separatist rebels, pro-government ethnic militias, self-styled vigilante groups and private militias of local ‘Big Men’ such as Hanoune Ould Ali or Dina Ould Daya all harness their capacity for violence to assert control over trafficking routes, levy informal taxes on extractive industries such as artisanal gold mining or establish protection rackets for those involved in criminal activities. 

Looking Ahead: Africa’s Forever War

Looking ahead, recognising the centrality of violent entrepreneurship, transnational organised crime and broader economic dimensions of violence will be crucial in addressing instability across the Sahel. Studies illustrate that violent conflict is most intense astride major trafficking routes and competition over key nodes of illicit economic activity in ‘Sahara towns’ such as In-Khalil in Northern Mali. Given the Sahel’s geographical location bridging multiple trans-regional illicit economic networks, there exists a tendency for instability to metastasize and proliferate unchecked. Recently, jihadist groups have expanded into northern and eastern Burkina Faso to exploit an artisanal gold mining boom, with militant attacks increasingly correlating with major gold mining areas. In 2019, militant groups reportedly conducted repeated incursions into the wildlife reserves of northern Benin, possibly lured by potential profits from the lucrative exotic wildlife trade. As jihadist groups expand to exploit new economic opportunities, the risk of violent spillovers increases, particularly worrying the coastal states along the Gulf of Guinea. France’s decision to scale back counterterrorism operations and Washington’s desire for a global disengagement from ‘forever wars’, especially in strategically marginal areas such as the Sahel, only increases the risk that the cycle of violence fuelled by illicit economic activities will continue to accelerate.

Categories: Africa, International, Security

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