Ahmed Murad (Cairo) - West Africa is witnessing a noticeable increase in the influence and activities of the Al Qaeda terrorist organisation, especially after the recent departure of French forces from Mali and the announcement of the United Nations (UN) forces’ withdrawal by the end of this year.
The terrorist organisation has imposed its control over some villages in the Azawad region in northern Mali and has been besieging the city of Timbuktu since last August. Due to the ongoing siege in Timbuktu, the historic city faces a severe humanitarian crisis that has forced thousands of its residents to flee.
Al Qaeda has also succeeded in extending its influence and activities in the border triangle between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The former assistant to the Egyptian Foreign Minister for African Affairs and a member of the Panel of the Wise in COMESA, Ambassador Suad Shelbaya, explained that West Africa is a major centre for the terrorist groups’ activities, the most prominent of which is “Boko Haram”, which has become part of Al Qaeda.
“Boko Haram” was a local group that mostly focused its activities within Nigeria. Al Qaeda also includes the “Jama’at Nusrat” group, which was established in Mali in 2017.
“Jama’at Nusrat” consists of many individuals belonging to various terrorist organisations and armed movements who declared their integration into one umbrella structure and pledged allegiance to Ayman Al Zawahiri, the then-leader of Al Qaeda.
Shelbaya told Aletihad that the withdrawal of French and UN forces from West Africa amplified the influence of terrorist organisations, including Al Qaeda, which is trying to spread in border areas between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Some regional and international estimates show that Al Qaeda’s control over areas in northern Mali extends southward, deep into Burkina Faso, even reaching the borders of Togo and Niger.
The rise in influence has been intensified by the group’s possession of large quantities of weapons, thousands of followers and fighters, and their quick rate of raiding and disappearing, causing severe losses to the armies of the region’s countries.
The African affairs expert emphasised that the West African region, rich in natural resources and mineral wealth, is a primary target for the terrorist groups. These groups exploit political disturbances, frequent military coups, increasing tribal and ethnic conflicts, weak border control, and economic deterioration.
All of these factors drive the unemployed youth to join terrorist organisations.
According to the Global Terrorism Index issued by the Institute of Economics and Peace, West Africa is one of the world’s main hotspots for terrorism. The four out of the top ten countries most affected by terrorism are Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria. Egyptian researcher Munir Adeeb, who specialises in terrorist movements affairs, said that the change of ruling regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger in recent years has significantly contributed to the growing influence and activities of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations in West Africa, in addition to the noticeable decline in the presence of international and UN forces.
Adeeb told Aletihad that the spread of terrorism in the West African region not only poses a threat to Africa’s security, but also to the entire world, including Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Therefore, the international community must recognise this issue and act effectively to confront it, the expert stressed.