The Sahel Crisis

Strategic developments

  • Insights – The Sahel Crisis

    February again saw more than 600 conflict-related fatalities, with the lion's share distributed between Mali (311) and Burkina Faso (235). The past three months have been the three deadliest of the Sahel crisis, with no signs of the violence abating.

    Both security forces and armed groups continue to target civilians, often based on perceived ethnic allegiances and in retaliation for prior attacks.

    In Mali, President Keita announced that he had established communications with some jihadists, specifically Amadou Koufa and Iyad Ag Ghaly. They are leaders of the katiba Macina of Jama
    a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al Muslimin (JNIM/GSIM), a group that evolved from the merger of several jihadi organizations that participated in the 2012 uprising. JNIM is considered the local affiliate of the al-Qaida network.

    It is not the first time that the government has reached out to Koufa, especially, but past attempts were intermittent and more informal than the format now acknowledged by President Keita. Koufa and Ag Ghaly are both Malians. While their religious fundamentalism is sincere, they also have a history of ethnic and nationalist activism and are rooted in local communities. Keita's administration is probably calculating that these factors will enable some compromise that will lead to Koufa and Ag Ghali renouncing their allegiance to al-Qaida and allow them to integrate into some form of a national dialogue.

    For JNIM, on the other hand, opening a line of communication with the government could allow the group to concentrate more on protecting its turf against other jihadi groups. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has extended its footprint in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger recently, coming into direct competition with JNIM. Its leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi hails from Western Sahara and is probably considered by Koufa and Ag Ghali just much of a threat and unwelcome foreigner as the French or European forces operating on Malian soil.

    The other important initiative of the Malian government has been the redeployment of elements of the Malian army to Kidal and Timbuktu, which was followed by a visit by Prime Minister Boubou Cisse. The units deployed to the north consisted of regular troops and integrated former rebels. The operation forms part of the implementation of the Algiers Agreement signed in 2014 and came eight years after Tuareg rebels ousted the army from the northern part of the country. It is an important step, but a largely symbolic one, as the number of actual troops deployed is small, and rebel forces remain armed and present in Kidal and elsewhere.

Latest news

The Sahel Crisis in five paragraphs

Named after the semi-arid zone that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and links the Sahara to the north with the savanna to the south, the Sahel Crisis directly impacts the countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, with dozens more involved militarily or politically. Instability and violence associated with the crisis have killed tens of thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands, and currently threatens the national integrity of several states. It is arguably Africa's most significant ongoing conflict.

The current crisis is often traced back to the near-collapse of Mali in 2011-2012. But its subsequent escalation can not be explained without reference to earlier socio-political developments. Virtually all countries in the region share their prior colonization by France, mostly gaining independence in a managed process in 1960. With few exceptions, post-independence governments in the Sahel were motivated by elite enrichment and often co-opted by French political, economic, and military interests. Ethnic clientelism quickly developed into the preferred method of political management. Political dissent was often brutally suppressed. This, combined with the remoteness and natural hostility of the Sahel's geography, contributed to the development of large areas where the state wields little formal influence. Smugglers, armed insurgents, and terrorists found refuge in these areas, in many cases providing the best of few economic opportunities to the local population.

The collapse of Libya in the wake of the Libyan revolution and the death of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011 resulted in a significant influx of weapons and fighters into Mali. These fighters were mostly Malian and members of the Tuareg minority. They had a history of rebellion against the Malian government and had served in Gaddafi's security forces as part of earlier peace deals mediated by the Libyan dictator. These forces formed several different armed groups, some of which had a separatist agenda, while others were religiously motivated and, in some cases, affiliated with the al-Qaida network. In late 2011 they launched a new rebellion and quickly occupied all populated areas in the northern half of the country. In 2012 frustrated elements of the Malian army led by junior officers staged a coup d'état against the government. At the same time, tensions within the broader rebel alliance led to a split, resulting in religious fundamentalists taking almost complete control of the rebellion. These developments created the specter of a total collapse of Mali, with immense negative repercussions for the local population, the wider region, and French and European interests.

In early 2013, on request of the Malian government and with support of virtually the entire international community, France staged a military intervention that succeeded in ousting the Islamists from all population centers in Mali. Subsequently, the United Nations and the European Union each deployed military and political missions to help stabilize the country. These missions were strengthened several times in the intervening years. Currently, the French Operation Barkhane has deployed about 4,700 soldiers to the region and regularly engages in combat missions. The EU's EUTM Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger missions jointly contribute about 800 military personnel to train the security forces of both countries. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali has fielded more than 15,000 soldiers and police officers. The G5 Sahel, a regional organization encompassing Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, has pledged up to 5,000 troops to conduct joint missions to secure the region's borders. This is in addition to the existing regular military forces of each country.

Despite these considerable military commitments, the situation has gradually deteriorated. The Malian government has proven incapable of leading an inclusive political process addressing the fundamental problems that led to the escalation of violence in the first place. As in Afghanistan and elsewhere, local and international security forces have failed in forcing a military solution to the various insurgencies brewing in Mali and beyond. With both local security forces and insurgencies preying on the civilian population, ethnic groups began establishing local militias, further contributing to a cycle of violence that by now has spread to large parts of Burkina Faso and parts of Niger. There is currently no coherent strategy to change the dynamics of the conflict, and the creation of such a plan suffers from the number of actors and interests involved. The resolution of the crisis will probably develop out of more localized initiatives instead of a regional grand bargain. However, this will take years to materialize even under the best of circumstances.

Must read resources

General information

  • List of Sahel experts on Twitter (work in progress, recommendations welcome)
  • The International Crisis Group’s Crisis Watch updates

Peace treaties and other diplomatic consultations

International military and diplomatic missions


European Union


G5 Sahel

Comprehensive list of reports and analysis

  • Sahel Crisis Reports and Analysis

    Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence
    International Crisis Group
    The proliferation of armed groups and the expanding footprint of jihadist groups fuelled violence in Burkina Faso in 2019. The government should adopt a more integrated approach to security and tackle the crisis in rural areas by resolving land disputes. (2020-02-24)

    “How Much More Blood Must Be Spilled?”
    Human Rights Watch
    Atrocities Against Civilians in Central Mali, 2019 (2020-02-10)

    Insecurity in the Sahel: Europe’s next fight against jihadism
    European Council on Foreign Relations
    The G5 Sahel has an excessive focus on security issues, as this has come at the expense of the political and governance issues it must deal with to truly stabilise the region. (2020-02-05)

    Conflict in Mali
    Congressional Research Service

    Managing Trafficking in Northern Niger
    International Crisis Group
    Trafficking – a catch-all term for illicit movement of goods and people – has long sustained livelihoods in northern Niger. But conflicts are emerging due to heightened competition and European pressure to curb migration. Authorities should persevere in managing the extralegal exchange to contain violence. (2020-01-06)

    The Risk of Jihadist Contagion in West Africa
    International Crisis Group
    Faced with jihadist breakthrough in Burkina Faso, neighbouring states in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea increasingly fear attacks in their own territories. These countries should improve intelligence sharing, strengthen border controls and regain the trust of local populations. (2019-12-20)

    Violent extremism, organised crime and local conflicts in Liptako-Gourma
    Institute for Security Studies
    This report analyses the links between violent extremism, illicit activities and local conflicts in the Liptako-Gourma region. Addressing regional instability in the long term requires empirical data that helps explain the local dynamics that fuel insecurity. This is the first of two reports, and is based on interviews conducted in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The second report assesses the measures aimed at bringing stability to the region. (2019-12-10)

    Responding to the Rise in Violent Extremism in the Sahel
    Africa Center for Strategic Studies
    Reversing the escalating violence of militant Islamist groups in the Sahel will require an enhanced security presence coupled with more sustained outreach to local communities. (2019-12-02)

    The West Africa–Sahel Connection : Mapping Cross-border Arms Trafficking
    Small Arms Survey
    New Briefing Paper from the Small Arms Survey maps cross-border arms trafficking in West Africa and the Sahel through case studies on Niger, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and the two tri-border areas of Burkina Faso–Côte d’Ivoire–Mali, and Ghana–Côte d’Ivoire–Burkina Faso. (2019-12-01)

    'Hand in Hand': A Study of Insecurity and Gender in Mali
    This SIPRI paper investigates gender dimensions of conflict in Mali by comparing the roles of women and men as observers, victims, actors and agents of change. The study finds region and community type more indicative of observations and experiences of conflict than gender. However, gender remains a determining factor for roles of engagement in conflict and peacebuilding processes. (2019-12-01)

    Getting a Grip on Central Sahel’s Gold Rush
    International Crisis Group
    In Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, a gold boom is offering a new source of funding and potentially even recruits to several armed groups, including jihadists. Sahelian states should reassert their presence in mining areas and take steps to formalise artisanal gold mining. (2019-11-13)

    Burkina Faso
    Congressional Research Service
    Country Report (2019-10-23)

    The Impact of Armed Groups on the Populations of Central and Northern Mali

    Legitimacy of Traditional Authorities: Mali, Niger and Libya

    Sahel: The Basis of a Disaster
    With sluggish economies that create few jobs, soaring demographics, international aid often considered as revenue, and a security apparatus unable to protect national territory and its population, are the Sahel states losing control of their own domestic areas? The failure of military, legal and educational systems leaves little optimism for the future of these countries and the growing insecurity. (2019-09-13)

    Conflict in Mali
    Congressional Research Service
    Mali faces intertwined security and governance challenges. The government signed a peace accord with northern separatist rebels in 2015, but key provisions remain unimplemented. (2019-08-16)

    Speaking with the “Bad Guys”: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists
    International Crisis Group
    War between the state and jihadists in central Mali has led to growing intercommunal violence. To spare civilians additional harm, the government should explore the possibility of talks with the insurgents about local ceasefires and humanitarian aid – while remaining open to broader discussions. (2019-05-28)

    Mapping armed groups in Mali and the Sahel
    European Council on Foreign Relations
    Violence is tearing Mali and the Sahel apart. But who are the armed groups behind the bloodshed? Where are international actors stationed in the region? And what motivates them all? This project maps jihadist and non-jihadist groups and pinpoints the presence of external actors in the region as of May 2019. (2019-05-01)

    “We Found Their Bodies Later That Day”
    Human Rights Watch
    Atrocities by Armed Islamists and Security Forces in Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region (2019-03-22)

    Transnational Organized Crime and Political Actors in the Maghreb and Sahel
    The paper aims at providing an overview on the dimensions of organized crime in the Maghreb-Sahel belt, the economic dependence of border populations on illicit economies, and the extensive connections between smugglers, states, jihadist groups and local communities. (2019-01-29)

    Drug Trafficking, Violence and Politics in Northern Mali
    International Crisis Group
    Conflict among drug traffickers in northern Mali generates levels of violence unparalleled in the region and hinders the implementation of the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreements. Fully eradicating the problem is unrealistic in the short term, but Mali and its partners should work to demilitarise drug trafficking. (2018-12-13)

    “We Used to Be Brothers”
    Human Rights Watch
    Self-Defense Group Abuses in Central Mali (2018-12-07)

    Chad: Defusing Tensions in the Sahel
    International Crisis Group
    Growing discontent among young people in Chad’s Sahel regions risk driving them into the arms of rebels in neighbouring countries. Authorities should end the impunity of individuals guilty of a range of abuses and distinguish between economic migrants and potential rebels. (2018-12-05)

    The Niger-Libya Border: Securing It without Stabilising It?
    Often described as an “ungoverned area”, the Niger-Libya border is nevertheless at the centre of major economic, political and security challenges. Both the Libyan authorities and the Nigerien state are struggling to establish tight control over this particularly isolated area. (2018-11-30)

    Halting ambition: EU migration and security policy in the Sahel
    European Council on Foreign Relations
    The EU should do more to press the governments of Niger and Mali to pursue substantive security sector reform and develop long-term national security strategies. (2018-09-25)

    The Joint Force of the G5 Sahel
    The Joint Force of the Group of Five of the Sahel (Force Conjointe du G5 Sahel or FC-G5S) is the latest initiative by African member states to reduce the threat of terrorism in the Sahel, a region that is often framed as an arc of instability. (2018-09-18)

    The Paradox of Modern Jihadi Insurgencies: The Case of the Sahel and Maghreb
    The importance of radical ideology in the Sahel and Maghreb stems from its instrumental value and normative commitments. For rebel leaders, radical ideology helps their groups recruit and stand out from the rest of the pack. (2018-07-15)

    Resource conflicts and embattled traditional authorities in Mali
    This report explores the lack of governance as a structural driver of resource conflict in the region and identifies a mix of shortand long-term measures to increase the legitimacy of the Malian state. (2018-06-23)

    The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy
    International Crisis Group
    The Nigerien government and its allies’ use of military force and non-state armed proxies to curtail jihadist groups along the Niger-Mali border is stoking intercommunal conflict. Niger should instead adopt a political approach which includes reconciliation, dialogue and, in some cases, pardons for militants. (2018-06-12)

    If victims become perpetrators
    International Alert
    The armed groups linked to jihadism that have been operating in the central Sahel have had a disruptive effect on the fragile social fabric locally. Confronted with this phenomenon, communities have responded in different ways, ranging from rejection to attraction. This study focuses on young Fulani people in the regions of Mopti (Mali), Sahel (Burkina Faso) and Tillabéri (Niger), and analyses the factors contributing to community vulnerability or resilience to violent extremism. (2018-06-01)

    “By Day We Fear the Army, By Night the Jihadists”
    Human Rights Watch
    Abuses by Armed Islamists and Security Forces in Burkina Faso (2018-05-21)

    Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Related Groups
    Congressional Research Service
    AQIM, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), was formed when the Algerian-led Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat formally joined with Al Qaeda and renamed itself in 2006-2007. (2018-03-27)

    Why securitising the Sahel will not stop migration
    This policy brief wishes to problematise this approach by examining the way in which EU policies have crystallised the securitisation of migration and intensified military intervention in the Sahel. The brief analyses the implications of such policies on the ground, paying particular attention to Niger which has become, once again, a strategic country for the EU and its Member States. (2018-01-22)

    New Collective Security Arrangements in the Sahel: a comparative study of the MNJTF and G-5 Sahel
    Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

    Connections between Jihadist groups and smuggling and illegal trafficking rings in the Sahel
    Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

    At the Crossroads of Sahelian Conflicts: Insecurity, Terrorism, and Arms Trafficking in Niger
    Small Arms Survey
    A new Report from the Small Arms Survey’s Security Assessment in North Africa (SANA) project examines insecurity, terrorism, and trafficking in Niger. The Sahel hosts multiple conflicts with myriad armed actors destabilizing the entire region. (2018-01-01)

    Finding the Right Role for the G5 Sahel Joint Force
    International Crisis Group
    Launched in February 2017, the G5 Sahel joint force is an experiment in a region crowded by sometimes-competing military and diplomatic initiatives. Weapons and money will not be enough to resolve the Sahel’s crises, so the force must win the trust and support of both local populations and regional powers. (2017-12-12)

    Mali's fertile grounds for conflict
    This policy brief first analyses different local and regional resource-use conflicts, and their internal ripple effects in the context of Mali. It then investigates the pressures posed by population growth and climate change on resource-use and how these impact agricultural productivity and food security. Finally, the brief concludes with policy recommendations, arguing the case for conflict prevention and conflict-sensitive approaches to be integrated into all natural resource initiatives. (2017-12-07)

    How to engage and with whom towards collective security in the Sahelo-Saharan region and in West Africa?
    Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

    Mali, the G5 and Security Sector Assistance
    Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
    Efforts to enhance regional armed forces are fraught with problems. International partners prefer a capacity-building approach geared to short-term success over security sector reform and lack a coordinated strategy. The Malian government, on the other hand, preserves the status quo and is not prepared to accept its political responsibility. (2017-12-01)

    The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North
    International Crisis Group
    Jihadist violence in the West African Sahel has now spread to the north of Burkina Faso. The response of Ouagadougou and its partners must go beyond the obvious religious and security dimensions of the crisis, and any solution must take into account deep-rooted social and local factors. (2017-10-12)

    The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality
    International Crisis Group
    Settling the place of Islam in Mali’s society and politics is a less visible but longer-term challenge to the state than its rebellious north and stalled peace process. The government should work toward a partnership with religious authorities to enable them to play a stabilising role. (2017-07-18)

    Bringing the desert together: How to advance Sahel-Maghreb integration
    European Council on Foreign Relations
    Global interest in the Sahel has expanded significantly in recent years. The growth of regional terrorism, the collapse of Malian State in 2012, and the migration crisis after 2014 all mean that world must think about the Sahel. Yet despite the newfound attention to the region, regional and international efforts to resolve these crises remain inadequate. (2017-07-18)

    Jihadism in Mali and the Sahel: evolving dynamics and patterns
    European Union Institute for Security Studies
    The Sahel is a crisis polygon. Following the French intervention in Mali in 2013, this vast and sparsely inhabited region has seen the gradual resurgence and the realignment of jihadist armed groups that have extended their operational range further south – across northwest African borders, where they interfere in and interact with already existing conflicts – and increased the challenges for regional stability. (2017-06-29)

    Jihadism in Mali and the Sahel: evolving dynamics and patterns
    European Union Institute for Security Studies
    The peace process in Mali has been deteriorating into a situation of sustained instability and protracted conflict. How has this affected the spread of jihadists throughout the Sahel? (2017-06-29)

    Reconstructing local orders in Mali: Historical perspectives and future challenges
    This report traces the evolution of local orders in Mali. It briefly discusses past governance practices and the outcomes of prior rebellions in the 1960s, 1990s, and 2000s. It then turns to the period following the 2012 peace accords and presents analysis on the current prospects for these agreements, as well as other stabilization and state-building measures. This report also analyzes the ways in which governance shortcomings continue to undermine security in the country. Indeed, existing government and international efforts to make short-term peace in Mali are at odds with long-term stabilization goals. (2017-06-01)

    Security Challenges and Issues in the Sahelo-Saharan Region: The Chad Perspective
    Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

    Mali Conflict and Aftermath
    Human Rights Watch
    Compendium of Human Rights Watch Reporting 2012-2017 (2017-02-02)

    Militancy and the Arc of Instability
    Center for Strategic and International Studies
    An arc of instability stretching across Africa’s Sahel region, an area of strategic interest for the United States and its allies, is plagued by violent extremist organizations (VEOs). (2016-09-27)

    Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making?
    International Crisis Group
    Violence is escalating in Central Mali, often neglected as the world focuses on problems in the country’s north. Radical groups and criminal gangs are exploiting years of short-sighted security policies that have lost the state much of its legitimacy. The government needs to recognise that state authority also rests on public services and dialogue with its people. (2016-07-06)

    Security Challenges and Issues in the Sahelo-Saharan Region: The Burkina Faso Perspective
    Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

    Security Challenges and Issues in the Sahelo-Saharan Region: The Mali Perspective
    Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

    The political economy of the Sahel

    Fix the unfixable: how to bring greater stability to the Sahel
    A broader dialogue must be initiated to identify (1) the most pressing security and economic challenges facing the region, and (2) the actor best suited to lead the coordination of efforts to address these challenges on the ground. (2016-01-08)

    Mali: an endangered peace
    European Union Institute for Security Studies
    The Malian peace process underway is at risk of derailing once again. In order to avoid the mistakes of the past, further international support is needed to curb jihadist terrorist groups and create a more favourable security environment for the demilitarisation of the volatile north. (2015-12-17)

    Mali: Peace from Below?
    International Crisis Group
    Hesitant steps toward peace in Mali have been helped by the recent pacts signed in Anefis by pro-government armed groups and by rebel representatives. While not sufficient or without risks, they are rooted in local initiatives and tackle issues left out of June’s Bamako accord. This offers a serious opportunity to put the peace process back on track. (2015-12-14)

    The Central Sahel: A Perfect Sandstorm
    International Crisis Group
    The Sahel’s trajectory is worrying (2015-06-25)

    A snapshot of Mali three years after the 2012 crisis
    This commentary presents a snapshot of Mali three years after the 2012 crisis by highlighting a number of pertinent political, security and economic trends and assessing their consequences for Mali’s stability in the medium term. (2015-06-08)

    Jihadism in Africa
    Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
    The effects of the multitude of personal ties, recruiting networks and ideological influences connecting jihadist movements are felt across countries, regions and even continents. Yet understanding the specific conditions on the ground remains key to analysing events currently playing out in the so-called African arc of instability that runs from East Africa to Mauritania and extends as far north as Tunisia and south to northern Nigeria. (2015-06-01)

    Mali: An Imposed Peace?
    International Crisis Group
    Fighting recently resumed in Mali, while a peace accord remains a façade. Both sides, with help from international mediators, need to re-open negotiations. They must go beyond prioritising security to include all belligerents and improve access to basic social services, jobs and justice. (2015-05-22)

    The roots of Mali's conflict: Moving beyond the 2012 crisis | Clingendael
    This in-depth study explores the long-term drivers of the Malian conflict and aims to highlight emerging trends that could question the effectiveness of international efforts in the Sahel. (2015-04-13)

    Mali: Last Chance in Algiers
    International Crisis Group
    As the last phase of negotiations resumes on 20 November, the Algeria-led talks between the Malian government and the armed groups in the north should not be rushed as they offer a unique opportunity for a sustainable peace agreement. (2014-11-18)

    Mali: Reform or Relapse
    International Crisis Group
    President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s current legitimacy and a strong international presence give Mali a unique opportunity to engage in serious reforms and inclusive dialogue. However, the window for change is narrow and dangerous political habits are resurfacing. (2014-01-10)

    Niger: Another Weak Link in the Sahel?
    International Crisis Group
    Suicide attacks on military and mining targets, followed by a violent prison break in the capital, revealed Niger’s fragile stability in a crisis-ridden neighbourhood. (2013-11-19)

    France and the Fight against Terrorism in the Sahel: The History of a Difficult Leadership Role
    Except for its extreme poverty and the disastrous effects of a series of droughts, the Sahel region has been largely out of the spotlight of international attention in the past. Yet the rise of terrorism and especially the creation of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007 brought the region into the focus of world politics. Initially, AQIM"s activities in the Sahel mainly posed a threat to the stability of the Sahelian states themselves. In an effort to internationalize its agenda, however, AQIM also started targeting Western countries. (2013-06-28)

    The Weapons and Ammunition of Rebel Forces in Northern Mali
    Small Arms Survey
    A new report that documents the weaponry in use by these insurgent groups. (2013-04-01)

    Mali: The Need for Determined and Coordinated International Action
    International Crisis Group
    Concerted effort by national, regional and international actors at a special Sahel meeting on 26 September, on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, is urgently needed to stop Mali from descending further into chaos. (2012-11-24)

    Mali: Avoiding Escalation
    International Crisis Group
    Calls for military intervention in Mali are increasing but it could sink the state, which is already on the brink of dissolution, further into chaos. (2012-07-18)

    Climate change, water and conflict in the Niger river basin
    International Alert
    This report analyses the links between environmental stress, climate change, human security, conflict and adaptation at different scales and localities along the Niger river. (2011-12-01)