Groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, at war with each other in the Middle East, are working together to take control of territory across a vast stretch of West Africa, U.S. and local officials say, sparking fears the regional threat could grow into a global crisis.
Fighters appear to be coordinating attacks and carving out mutually agreed-upon areas of influence in the Sahel, the strip of land beneath the Sahara desert. The rural territory at risk is so large it could “fit multiple Afghanistans and Iraqs,” said Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, head of the U.S. military’s Special Operations arm in Africa.
“What we’ve seen is not just random acts of violence under a terrorist banner but a deliberate campaign that is trying to bring these various groups under a common cause,” he said. “That larger effort then poses a threat to the United States.”
The militants have wielded increasingly sophisticated tactics in recent months as they have rooted deeper into Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, attacking army bases and dominating villages with surprising force, according to interviews with more than a dozen senior officials and military leaders from the United States, France and West Africa.
To avoid scrutiny from the West, the groups are not declaring “caliphates,” officials said, buying time to train, gather force and plot attacks that could ultimately reach major international targets.
A coalition of al-Qaeda loyalists called JNIM has as many as 2,000 fighters in West Africa, according to a U.S. report released this month. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which staged the 2017 attack that killed four American soldiers in Niger, is also thought to be hundreds strong and recruiting combatants in northeastern Mali.
“This cancer will spread far beyond here if we don’t fight together to end it,” said Gen. Ibrahim Fane, secretary general of Mali’s ministry of defense, whose country has lost more than 100 soldiers in routine clashes since October.
The warnings come as the Pentagon weighs pulling forces from West Africa, where about 1,400 troops provide intelligence and drone support, among other forms of military help. About 4,400 American troops are based in East Africa, where the U.S. military advises African forces fighting al-Shabab.
At a U.S.-led training exercise this week in coastal Mauritania, officials said the Defense Department has made no decision as it considers shifting resources to the Asia-Pacific region to counter China and Russia.
France, which has about 4,500 troops in West Africa — the most of any foreign partner by far — has urged the United States to stay in the battle and other European powers to step up. (The United Nations has about 13,000 peacekeepers in Mali alone.)
While al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are enemies in Syria and Yemen, allegiances in West Africa tend to be more fluid, bolstered by tribal ties and practical concerns rather than ideology. The affiliates have common foes — the West and local governments from which they’re trying to wrest control, the military leaders said.
(The shared mission is not without clashes, an Arab intelligence official said: Al-Qaeda leaders were recently “outraged” when the Islamic State affiliate tried to recruit from an area they viewed as their own. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the incident.)
U.S. officials have long worried about the possibility of alliances between the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations, and the concerns have intensified in the months since the collapse of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Both groups are undergoing changes in leadership — Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. commando raid in Syria late last year, and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, 68, reportedly suffers from health problems.
West African officials say the groups in the Sahel are thought to communicate with their counterparts in the Middle East but evidence is lacking that many fighters are flowing into the region from Syria and Iraq.
American agencies watched late last year as al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates launched a seemingly coordinated campaign to isolate Ouagadougou, the capital in Burkina Faso, by periodically seizing control of highways into the city of 2.2 million, said a counterterrorism official in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments.
They bombed bridges and attacked military convoys, managing to halt transit until government forces arrived to reopen the roads, the official said.
The extremists are “more organized and they’re more mobile,” said a high-ranking French military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments. “They’re carrying out professional attacks like we’ve never seen.”
It’s a departure from 2012, when al-Qaeda loyalists planted flags in Mali’s northern cities and then tried to take the capital, Bamako — drawing the ire of French troops, who beat them back.
The militants appear to have learned from that loss, the officials said, and since last July have employed a more “complex” approach to grabbing power, according to unclassified U.S. Africa Command slides obtained by The Washington Post: They’re destroying infrastructure, assassinating local leaders and emptying key army posts in coordinated strikes to separate people from the government.
The militants see an opportunity to drill Islamist values into one of the youngest and fastest-growing populations on Earth, military leaders in the region said. They aim to shape new fundamentalist societies: no art, no popular music, no sports, no modern education.
“They share their tricks and their experiences worldwide — from the Islamic State down to the local actors,” said Fane, the Malian defense official.
Militants recruit youths in the vulnerable countryside with stacks of cash, he said, or at gunpoint after burning villages to dust. They provoke ethnic feuds and then offer protection. They slip through porous borders from one country to another.
Leaders are known to meet in forested hideouts — particularly near the tri-state border of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso — to plan ambushes, share intelligence and exchange battle tips, including how to make roadside bombs, Malian army leaders say.
The militants are gaining ground, said Gen. Oumar Dao, chief of staff for the Malian president.
“We can’t afford to lose any help,” he said. “This is a matter of basic survival.”
The Malian army has about 12,000 soldiers, he said, and plans to expand this year on limited funds.
“Our state is a very poor one,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity to bring water, to bring health care, to bring an effective response.”
Issa Haidera, who leads a militia of 800 people in northern Mali, said his team of mostly farmers and herders is trying to eradicate the scourge themselves.
Most of his men, he said, have lost family members to the extremists. He’s raising five children whose parents died at the hands of the militants. They spend most days tending to rice patches while preparing to fight. War has destroyed most of their livestock and crops.
“Some people with me have nothing left,” he said, and others were lured to the side of “evil.”
“The terrorists,” Haidera said, “will hand young men more money than they’ve ever seen in their lives.”
To his south in Burkina Faso, soldiers face attacks “every week,” said Lt. David Ouedraogo, who heads a Burkinabe Special Operations team.
Desperation and money come up in interrogations with captured militants, he said, but “some talk because they were forced into terrorism. They had to join or the terrorists would kill their families.”
Most of the time, though, “they know nothing about the system,” Ouedraogo said, “or who they’re even fighting for.”