If you're worried about terrorism, worry about the Sahel
by Gabrielle Debinski
Last week, Mali, an arid desert country in Western Africa with a predominantly Muslim population of 19 million, was struck by one of the deadliest jihadist terror attacks since Islamist groups took over its northern frontier some seven years ago. Islamic State militants later claimed responsibility for the attack on a military post that killed at least fifty-four people. The episode reflects a larger surge of jihadist violence in the vast Sahel region, which stretches across the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Unrest there has already reverberated far beyond Mali.
How did jihadist violence come to the region? The Tuareg ethnic group in northern Mali, one of the largest nomadic tribes in the Sahara, has long agitated for independence. In 2011, when neighboring Libya descended into civil war, many Tuareg rebels went to fight on the side of Colonel Muammar Qadafi. Amid the chaos that followed his death, the Tuaregs returned to Mali with a cache of powerful weapons.
Soon after, Tuareg separatists rose up, declared an independent state, and joined forces with al-Qaeda and its local offshoots to push out the state's military who they both despised. Jihadist groups — many of which spilled out of the the civil war in neighboring Algeria during the 1990s— have operated in the area for decades, gaining influence by exploiting local conflicts. In 2012, they imposed Sharia Law across northern Mali, undercutting much of the Tuareg rebels' newfound autonomy.