The Sahel is the world’s terrorism epicentre


The Sahel has emerged as the epicentre of global terrorism, with the region accounting for more than 40% of global terrorism-related deaths in 2022, the latest Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report has revealed.

The report, compiled by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), reveals that the Sahel has witnessed a steady rise in conflict-related fatalities since 2011, with a pronounced spike from 2017 onwards. This troubling trend can be attributed to the emergence and intensification of conflicts in countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso. The Sahel has witnessed 22 074 fatalities in 6 408 terror attacks between 2007 and 2022.

The GTI noted that the increase in terrorism in the Sahel has been dramatic, rising by over 2 000% in the last 15 years. The political situation in the Sahel compounds this increase, with six coup attempts since 2021, of which four were successful. The underlying drivers are complex and systemic including poor water utilisation, lack of food, ethnic polarisation, strong population growth, external interventions, geopolitical competition, pastoral conflict, the growth of transnational Salafi-Islam ideology and weak governments. Most of the terrorist activity occurs along borders where government control is weakest.

The two faces of terrorism in the Sahel

Historically, two categories of terrorist groups have operated in the Sahel. The first category focused on local issues, framing their actions within an ethnic-nationalist-religious framework. Groups like Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun, and the Katiba Macina embodied this category. However, these groups have largely faded into obscurity, giving way to the second category: transnational jihadist groups. These groups maintain official affiliations with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.

Recruitment amidst intercommunal violence

Intercommunal violence has surged in the Sahel, further facilitating the recruitment efforts of jihadi groups, particularly the Islamic State (IS) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). Several Sahel countries, now at the epicenter of global terrorism, only recently grappled with terrorism. Burkina Faso, currently ranked second on the GTI, experienced its first terrorist attack in 2015. Chad had been free from terrorist attacks for half a decade until 2015, after which it witnessed 210 terrorism-related deaths over the following five years.

Environmental challenges

The Sahel confronts severe ecological challenges, including food insecurity, inadequate access to water, and rapid population growth, featuring some of the world’s highest population growth rates. Climate change further exacerbates these threats, acting as an amplifier for pre-existing ecological vulnerabilities. The 2023 Global Terrorism Index flagged environmental challenges as one of the drivers of terrorism and conflict.

Resource competition and conflict

Competition over resources, particularly between pastoralist and farming communities, has fueled intercommunal violence and ethnic polarization. Research by the IEP shows that a one-degree temperature change has increased the likelihood of conflict in regions with mixed pastoral and agricultural land use by 54%, compared to a 17% increase in areas without mixed land use.

Sub-Saharan Africa

According to the latest GTI, Sub-Saharan Africa recorded the largest increase in terrorism deaths, rising by 8% in 2022. Sixty per cent, or 4 023, of all terrorism deaths globally occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Four of the ten countries with the largest deteriorations in the Global Terrorism Index score are located in sub-Saharan Africa: Togo, Djibouti, Central African Republic and Benin.

North Africa, meanwhile, along with the Middle East, recorded a 32% decrease in terrorism-related deaths in 2022, the lowest number in the region since 2013. Attacks almost halved in the last year, from 1 331 in 2021 to 695 in 2022. The IEP found a substantial drop in suicide bombings in the Middle East and North Africa, with just eight deaths in 2022 compared to 1 947 in 2016.