Sahel: a Factory for “Systemic” Terrorism

The fact that most of the past years’ attention was primarily focused on events related to the Islamic State has led to a lack of understanding by the international community of new terrorist dynamics in certain areas of the African continent, and, primarily, in the Sahel.

There, in a general situation of geopolitical instability, enduring patterns and peculiar circumstances have enabled certain terrorist groups – mainly linked to the “jihadist galaxy” of groups orbiting around, and generally depending on, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (or AQIM) – to define new dynamics of terrorist action and, therefore, create never-before-seen ways to manifest themselves. After a violent first phase of territorial settlement in certain areas of the Sahel, AQIM, the most structured terrorist organisation in the area, has started a progressive infiltration in the fabric of local society, that, in time, has led to a real socio-economic system based on actual governance mechanisms.

The territorial control, which enables the group to play a key part in illegal trafficking, and a remodeled ideological imposition that could be tolerable by the native populations, are the two pillars of a new social framework existing in an extensive area of the region. The subsequent inclusion of “locals” in the illegal supply chain, skillfully coordinated and shared with transnational organised crime, enables the raising of an illegitimate, but still existing, state structure, able to create legitimisation and commonality from the “bottom”. An additional powerful element of this strong and well-aware jihadism is the integration of militants in the social context.

This strategy has always been used to forge strategic alliances and obtain favorable positions, vis-à-vis enemies or competitors. In the Sahelian belt, in order to better penetrate and manage the peculiar tribal and clan institutions, the rule of thumb is to promote arranged marriages between jihadists and local women. A practice that, according to the strict tribal rules, is a downright consecration that de jure inserts the groom not only in the bride’s family but also inside the social context of the tribe, with everything that it entails. Thanks to this process, the terrorist organisation, or its members, to be exact, become a fundamental part of the local fabric, being assimilated in a new context through a real process of social integration. All of this leads to a system of aggregation where the features of jihadist ideology (obviously toned down to better suit the context) become pervasive and could even replace the pre-existing traditions in local cultures.

The step that follows is an osmosis process that sees the inclusion of the young tribal generations within the jihadist organisation. These young people essentially consider joining the terrorist group as a concrete working opportunity. Therefore, the necessity to adopt a common code of membership comes as a consequence of this situation. This means a radical religious outlook derived from the jihadist ideology, through a rapid process of radicalisation, which is seen as an “instrumental” step to join the group itself.

Thanks to this process, the terrorist organisation creates a new cultural perception of itself through the exercise of some sort of governance, that, when accepted, generates a real legitimacy mainly depending on the ability to thoroughly answer the most basic human needs (livelihood, assistance and security) in exchange of ideological loyalty, which is very well depicted, in sociology, by Maslow’s pyramid.

It is self-evident that the economic aspect is the real “glue” of this process of remodeling terrorist organisations and the social realities that are involved in these logics. Gaining popular support not by the use of coercion mechanisms, but through inclusive policies which often have to do with illicit trade (and more), seems to be the winning recipe of this “hybrid” form of terrorism, to the point of defining a real fusion between two different social realities and establishing a new cultural order where social groups, in turn, create cultural processes.

It is clear that the international community should act in a rapid, integrated and decisive way by providing alternative governance models and laying the foundations of a different economic cycle, alternative to the illegal one, thereby limiting this persuasive criminal power that increasingly feeds off economy rather than pure ideology.

Andrea SperiniPhD in Geopolitics / Economic Geopolitics at the Guglielmo Marconi University in Rome. Specialist in terrorism in the African continent, in Peacekeeping and Security, and in Intelligence and Security. He specialised at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzlyia (Israel). Former collaborator of the Ce.MiSS, he conducted research on the implementation of the intelligence cycle through the use of Social Media Intelligence (Socmint). He is a lecturer and author of publications on terrorism, terrorism financing and intelligence.