The Sahel, the region of transition between the Sahara and the savanna is now a haven for extremist organizations and criminal organizations with international reach. Desertification, pastoral-agrarian conflicts, marginalized communities, inadequate governance, harmful intervention of international powers, and under sourced security forces have all contributed to the unstable conditions that allow these types of groups to thrive. Al-Qaeda and IS-related groups have gained significant influence with communities through fear or persuasion while criminal groups have continued to extend and strengthen their illicit activities. These groups not only threaten global stability, but will disrupt the human potential of the next generation of Sahelian communities. The human cost will only grow unless effective action is taken to untangle the knot of crises.

A Snapshot of the Security Conditions

While a variety of illicit activities take place, migrant smuggling and trafficking in persons, arms, and drugs prove the most profitable. [1]

The trans-Saharan trade routes have been used for licit and illicit commerce for centuries. The Sahel has historically facilitated trade between the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East and is now engaging more actively with China and Russia. Transnational criminal organizations have been present since the beginning and will not disappear. They are both capitalizing and contributing to the instability of the region. Instability is good for business. Conflict means security forces are focused elsewhere allowing for greater freedom of movement. Borders are easier to cross. Military and police units that are under supported and poorly paid are ripe for bribery. Internally displaced persons and refugees fleeing conflict will pay money or trade services to escape. The youth, seeing no viable licit opportunities, will be seduced by the recruiting efforts of extremist groups or criminal organizations. International powers flooding the region with arms only amplify the effects.

The sharp increase in extremist activity that commenced in Mali in 2012 [2] and has now extended to Burkina Faso, the border regions of Niger, and even to small sections of the coastal states, has evolved to the point where formerly stable countries are essentially ceding vast swathes of territory to jihadist control. Extremist groups, specifically AQ and IS related groups, have seized extensive ground throughout the region over the last decade by leveraging existing armed groups and exploiting socio-economic seams already present in communities marginalized for various ethnic, religious, or communal reasons. One prime example of a communal seam was the long standing tension between agrarian and pastoral communities exacerbated by the desertification pushing herders towards farming lands. Herder communities, often living in the remote border regions far from the capital, were mostly under served by the national government. Few resources, security forces, and essential services were extended to these pastoral nomads. This led to a high level of community distrust towards the central government and susceptibility to seeking opportunity and security with illicit armed groups. The most visible examples of this dynamic were the Azawad National Liberation movement (MNLA) in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria who both grew roots in pastoral communities.

The average citizen of a Sahelian country is faced with the dual challenges of climate change and conflict. [3] Both factors disrupt agrarian and pastoral activities, making it nearly impossible to sustain livelihoods. The government can do little to help as it too is facing the same multiple, concurrent crises. Often the only remaining options for a family are either to leave the region or to join an illicit organization.

Security Solutions

While complex, untangling the Sahelian knot is not impossible. Mauritania provides an excellent case study on how attentive and adaptive security reforms can promote stability. [4]

Algerian extremist elements, the Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), gained safe haven in the tri-border region of Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria. The regional group evolved over time into an Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) entity. To combat this growing threat, Mauritania invested significant resources and attention to security sector reform.

On a foundational level, the government increased pay for soldiers which improved morale across the board. Looking to the long term, Mauritania revamped its professional military education and leveraged international expertise from France, the US, and NATO to develop impressive defense education capabilities.

They innovated the development of specialized forces such as the creation of Special Intervention Groups (GSI), commando units designed for sustained independent operations in remote desert regions. They were able to maintain steady pressure on the extremist groups. These operations were coordinated with the intelligence collection capabilities of the Nomad Group (GN), camelborne units meshed with new radar technologies. Furthermore, efforts were made to integrate ground forces and air intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) assets to rapidly deploy units to precise targets, thus minimizing negative collateral impacts.

In addition, Mauritania effectively augmented its security efforts with development activities. To gain trust, the GN units often facilitated the delivery of essential services to remote communities. The government made a strategic outreach to the pastoral community leaders and persuaded them to consolidate their non-nomadic members into makeshift desert cities. This consolidation made it far easier to defend against extremist activity. This type of effort required a significant level of mutual trust but proved to be highly beneficial to the overall stabilization effort. Finally, the government made the controversial decision to always maintain formal communications with the extremists. While not popular, this allowed for negotiated settlements and the reintegration of former fighters.


Oft overlooked, the Sahel has a hidden impact on global geopolitics. Ignoring the region will only result in costly reactions to the ripple effects of instability. Choosing to deliberately invest in proactive and preventive stabilizing measures will yield sustainable results. Untying the Sahelian knot will require a combination of local and international expertise and resources. A stable Sahel is worth the effort, for a more secure world, and more importantly, for unlocking the potential of countless communities.


  1. US Aid, Bureau for Africa (2020), ‘Strengthening Rule of Law Approaches to Address Organized Crime Criminal Market Convergence’
  2. Organised Crime in the Sahel, an Inextricable Puzzle? by Fabiana Natale
  3. Caught Between Climate Crisis and Armed Violence in Burkina Faso by Sam Mednick
  4. Keeping Terrorism at Bay in Mauritania by Anouar Boukhars