Enablers of political extremism: a checklist for West African countries

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The Sahel – the region just south of the Sahara – is home to the world’s fastest growing extremist group, Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin or JNIM, and the most deadly group, Islamic State in West Africa, according to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index.

The various militant groups in the Sahel have different tactical preferences and operate in specific contexts. What they share is a general ideological commitment to unsettle and obliterate existing state structures, not necessarily to take over the state. Security continues to deteriorate across the Sahel. Groups are expanding their reach and carrying out deadlier attacks, taking hostages, ambushing highways and attacking villages.

This is despite many counterterrorism interventions over the last decade, including various French-led programmes, the G5 Sahel Joint Force, the Multinational Joint Task Force and the United Nations Multidimensional Stabilisation Mission in Mali. The withdrawal of France and its EU partners from Mali signals a counter-terrorism fatigue. Military takeovers in the sub-region also suggest the situation may continue to get worse.

An understanding of the conditions that create political extremism is crucial to unmaking them. In countries that don’t have open extremist groups, it would be wise to watch for such conditions before they threaten to unsettle peace. Future scenario planning is imperative, based on present conditions. The best guarantee of stability is to be proactive and act to prevent extremism, rather than counter it.

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