The Sahel: «The places where Christians and Muslims live alongside one another will be the next target»

In 2015, Olivier Hanne, an Islamologist and Associate Researcher at the University of Aix-Marseille, described what he regarded as «the most probable scenario for 2020 in the Sahel». In his book Jihad in the Sahel co-authored with training officer Guillaume Larabi, he foresaw an expansion of armed terrorist groups in the Sahel at the expense of the national government authorities. Their predictions have already been confirmed by reality.

The interview below was conducted by Thomas Oswald of Aid to the Church in Need, France. 

ACN: Instead of disengaging from the Sahel, France has just announced the sending of further reinforcements of 600 men for Operation Barkhane (the on-going French anti-insurgent operation in the Sahel). Can you see any way out of the crisis in the Sahel?

The armed terrorist groups are set for the long-term. They hold sway over vast portions of the Sahel. They gain a regular revenue, thanks to the extortion of money from local people, but also from illegal trafficking. They control the transit routes for migrants, who are easy prey for their trade in human trafficking. And they also profit from the trafficking of drugs, a major proportion of which come through the port of Lagos in Nigeria and is brought clandestinely into Europe. Cocaine, originating in South America, travels across the Sahara, often hidden inside inflated vehicle tyres.

ACN: But is it not contradictory for groups which claim to be religious to become involved in the trafficking of drugs?
It is quite true that the (Islamists) behind the terrorist groups like to burnish their image as good Muslim believers, and more often than not they don’t dirty their own hands with the drugs. Instead they leave this to groups of criminals from whom they demand a tax. The practice of the zakât , the Islamic tithe on smuggled goods, was judged to be in conformity with the rules of jihad from 2001 onwards by the Egyptian Salafist Al-Tartusî. It’s blatant hypocrisy, of course. Many of the jihadist fighters themselves come from the world of crime. And generally speaking there is not really any coherent understanding among the various armed terrorist groups of the Sahel who describe themselves as Islamic, even if they do refer to the «caliphate», or, in other words, Daesh. The Nigerian army, for example, maintains that the prisoners they have taken from these armed groups are not practising Muslims and do not say their daily prayers.

The author: Olivier Hanne is an Islamologist and Associate Researcher at the University of Aix-Marseille.
The author: Olivier Hanne is an Islamologist and Associate Researcher at the University of Aix-Marseille.

ACN: How do you explain why these groups can gain the support of a section of the population in the areas they control?
The areas in question are completely neglected and abandoned by their own governments. Even before colonialism, they were regions where the economy rested on illegal trafficking. The state is perceived as distant, illegitimate, corrupt. The young Peuls or Tuaregs are very conscious that they are living in a hopeless situation, without prospects. They live in very hierarchical societies, under the domination of religious leaders and heads of families. For them jihad is a means of emancipation. What is altogether striking is that the people to whom they turn initially are the village heads, the elders, in the areas which come under their control. I believe that the success of these armed terrorist groups is explained in large measure by the rise to power of these young men, thirsting for action, wanting to flex their muscles. This is why, in particular, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has had so much success since it was created in 2015. It is more active and aggressive than the other groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, for example.

ACN: How do these armed terrorist groups, who don’t have a great deal of resources, achieve such success in the face of the regular armies?
They are very mobile and don’t need any great resources. They attack and then disperse again with ease. And above all, they take advantage of the state of the forces facing them! In Mali they were able to attack a military post with impunity because the soldiers were not even on guard. However, it’s the general level of military training and when one sees this kind of behaviour after 60 years of military co-operation between France and Mali one becomes pessimistic about the future. There is a lack of trust between the soldiers and their military hierarchy, which leads to disastrous results on the ground. In Burkina Faso the government is beginning to arm civilians, which is a very worrying development. Experience has shown that this is the best possible way to sow the seeds of civil war.

ACN: How is the situation likely to develop from now on?
I fear that over the next five years the territorial expansion of the armed terrorist groups will continue. The trafficking will become more organised and will increase further. After having extended their grip on the Muslim Sahara, the next target will be the places where Christians and Muslims live alongside one another. In Burkina Faso and in Nigeria the equilibrium that has existed hitherto is now under threat. And in the next five years these African states will continue to need the support of the West if they are to avoid catastrophe. Were it not for Operation Barkhane, Mali would already have been cut in two. And the attempted coup d’etat in Chad in 2013 might well have succeeded. This all feeds into the propaganda of the jihadists, who like to play on the anti-French resentment, but there is no other way of preventing the situation from degenerating still more seriously.

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