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Africa: Global Terrorist Killings in 2023 – Burkina Faso Suffers in First Place

Ashley Gilbertson/UNICEF

A military convoy on a counter-terrorism patrol in the Sahara Desert.

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interview By Boakai Fofana

Monrovia — The Institute for Economics and Peace has released its latest report on the state of terrorism around the world. The 2023 report, dubbed the Global Terrorism Index, shows a dramatic rise in the number of terrorism-related deaths while revealing that the Sahel region of Sub-Saharan Africa witnessed more deaths from terrorism than the much-publicized Middle East.

AllAfrica’s Boakai Fofana (BF) spoke with Thom Morgan (TM)Associate Research Director at the Institute for Economics and Peace, and one of the report’s authors…

Interview edited for clarity and brevity

TM: I think there are a couple of key findings to take away from this year’s report. First and foremost, is about the increase in terrorism. And so the fact is in 2023, we had the largest number of terrorism deaths that we’ve seen since 2017. We actually had a number of years when the level of terrorism was decreasing, but that’s reversed in 2023. And I think the important one to take away from the increase in deaths is this is not something that’s evenly distributed across the world. So the vast majority of the increase has happened in a handful of countries.

This is the first time in the history of the index that we have a country, other than Afghanistan or Iraq, being the most impacted by terrorism. So this year Burkina Faso is the country which has the most deaths from terrorism, and accounted for almost a quarter of all deaths from terrorism worldwide. And more broadly, in the Sahel region, we see that accounts for almost 50% of deaths from terrorism. So you’ve seen an increase in the sort of switch in the epicenter of terrorism out of the Middle East, and North Africa, and into Sub-Saharan Africa.

Then, of course, one of the other key findings of the report is that the Hamas-led attacks on October 7 in Israel. So that’s the largest terrorist attack since 911. And, of course, that has had, you know, severe repercussions in the Middle East, but also repercussions elsewhere. So we’re seeing a large wave of protests in the wake of the war in Gaza, an increase in the risk of terrorism in Europe, and so on. But then I think the final point to take away is that it’s, despite the overall increase in terrorism, there’s been a decrease in terrorism in a number of areas. So if you look at the Middle East, even though the number of deaths increased, the number of attacks decreased. I think it’s something that sort of emblematic of this is, if you look at Iraq’s performance on the index, it’s had a 99% drop in deaths from terrorism since 2007. And then if you look at Western democracies, you’ve also seen a reduction in terrorism there. So the number of incidents and the number of deaths in Western democracies are lower than they’ve been since 2007. It’s a story about an increase in terrorism but also a story about the shifts in the dynamics of terrorism, where it’s happening, and who are the people who are most impacted and affected by it.

Thank you for that overview. You know, when you think of terrorism, it is almost stereotypical that some people will instantly think of the Middle East. That isn’t what this report is reflecting. Are you saying there has been a shift toward the Sahel region of Africa?

You are correct. Traditionally, people would perhaps think of the Middle East, and North Africa as being the epicenter of terrorism. But the shifts with the decline in terrorism in the Middle East and the increase in terrorism in some ways are related. So we saw after the end of the Syrian civil war, a decline of the Islamic State in Syria, they controlled a large amount of territory in Syria but that was greatly reduced.

And so what we’ve seen is a shift in resources and material out of those areas and into the cell. So what we’ve seen in the Sahel and particularly Burkina Faso this year is that you already had existing conflicts, conflicts between different ethnic groups between rebel groups and the government, between farmers and pastoralists. But those conflicts in the Sahel have started to become sort of drawn into a larger narrative around terrorism. You have these groups and extremist groups in the central Sahel region, who have started to become aligned with or pledged allegiance to al Qaeda or Islamic State, and the rise of Islamic State’s affiliate groups throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. And then you have groups like JNIM (Jama’at Nas al Islam Wal Muslim), which are formally aligned with al Qaeda. So what once were specific regional conflicts or events have become part of this broader narrative around transnational terrorism

What hope do you think there is for sub-Saharan Africa or specifically the Sahel region? What is your prediction for countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, or others that are affected, and what could be the possible solution, you think?

That’s a good question. It’s a very tricky question. And I should point out as well, because sometimes you look at these kinds of reports, and you see that there’s sort of an overwhelmingly negative focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, I think it’s important to point out that the majority of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa either have no terrorism or very low levels of terrorism. So this is not a problem that is sort of equally affecting every country in the region. Most countries have very low levels or no levels of terrorism in the central Sahel region. And so the situation for the next couple of years, it looks pretty, pretty tough. We certainly wouldn’t expect to see a decrease in the level of violence for a number of reasons. One, there’s just been continued political instability in the region. So you’ve had a number of coups and political instability. Over the past couple of years, you’ve had countries in the central Sahel sort of moving away from their ties with France and asking for formal withdrawal of UN peacekeeping troops, and withdrawing themselves from Ecowas. So that situation there, given the lack of state control over large portions of territory in these countries, it looks like for the next couple of years, we’re going to see the same levels of violence we’ve seen over the past two years. So unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there will be an end to that level of violence over the next couple of years.

So you think the violence is expanding because of the level of political instability, you think if that is handled by the states, sort of having democratic governments…..

I mean, there’s never one thing, never one solution that’s going to completely solve the problem of terrorism. But definitely state stability, the rule of law is absolutely a precursor necessary for the governments of these countries to regain control of the territories that they’ve lost. Without that, if you’re still seeing a large amount of violence and conflict over territory, it’s very unlikely that you’ll see reductions in violence without that problem being solved.

Do you see the possibility of expansion of insurgencies beyond the Sahel region?

That’s a really good question. There’s a very limited amount of data, recent data, which shows an increase in attacks in coastal West African countries, a very limited amount of data, which shows an increase in activity in coastal West African countries, from groups that are operating in Burkina Faso and Mali. But again, this tends to be close to the border regions with Burkina Faso and Mali. So it’s too early to say whether there’ll be an expansion of this level of violence, and in fact, a number of coastal West African states have done a very good job in reducing the overall level of violence and political instability over the past decade. So it’s by no means a short thing that we’ll see an expansion of that violence, but there are a few signs which are at least initially worrying.

How does the Wagner group contribute to all of this?

The Wagner group is operating in Mali with the Malian government. Some suggest that there may be some activity or that the government can reach out to them. I think the situation is too complex to say that the Wagner group is doing. Having said that, there have been many documented reports by different groups of human rights violations by the Partner Group operating in the central Sahel region. There are concerns that as governments in the region turn away from transnational organizations like the UN and towards the Waggner Group that could potentially lead to an increase in instability and increase in violence. So you can’t definitively say that they are the sole cause of the violence or that necessarily inflaming the situation. But I think their presence certainly doesn’t help in terms of the overall security situation, levels of violence, and the potential for reprisal attacks.

There are some indications that maybe the level of insurgencies in the Sahel region must have upticked because of the use of different kinds of technology than was done before by the traditional militants that previously operated in a region.

Yeah, and again, that kind of thing is difficult to exactly quantify, to the extent to which new technologies are having an impact. I think, first and foremost, when you look at in terms of the number of deaths increasing, and the number of average deaths per attack increasing, it’s not necessarily just a function of technology, it’s also the fact that you just have larger tasks, better coordination between groups, for example.  There’s been some suggestion with a certain amount of attacks in Burkina Faso, that you actually were seeing cooperation between armed extremist groups. For Instance, JNIM working with Islamic State – which is something that hadn’t been seen previously because there have been clashes between the groups. Again, hard to hard to confirm those reports. But that’s certainly something that we’ve heard. So that suggests that it’s sort of an increase in scale, rather than a necessary use of new technologies. Having said that, we have been looking more broadly and looking at some of the other research, we’ve done an increase in the use of certain types of technologies in the Sahel region that you weren’t seeing previously. So that the use of drones by state actors -there has been an increase in drone imports into the region. That could exacerbate the conflict moving forward.

So ultimately, what do you think African governments need to do? What actions do they need to take? Should they come together regionally or should they take individual national actions?

It’s a very good question and a very difficult question to answer. I think certainly regional cooperation within you know, coalitions of states within Sub-Saharan Africa, is a development that we want to encourage. I think certainly that there’s been some suggestions that that’s helped with the security situation in coastal West Africa. You know, the intervention from countries such as France and Russia, and even the UN. There are always going to be certain issues around that. So I think encouraging cooperation between African states is that one of the best ways to combat the problem, and then it comes back to ensuring political stability, the rule of law, in controlled territory but that’s an easy thing to say. In reality, in practice, that’s much more difficult. So it’s one thing to identify what needs to be done. It’s another thing for governments to be able to do that.

You mentioned the French intervention, You know that created some friction with some of the countries in the Sahel. We saw something similar with a multinational force in Mali. Is the intervention of these foreign forces helping or worsening the situation?

Well, I think that there’s been a complete French withdrawal from most of the countries in the region. There are Some suggestions that the French troops are still operating (in some parts); that’s kind of difficult to know exactly what the security situation is on the ground. Again, it’s hard to say definitively whether it’s helping or hindering the situation. I think certainly looking more broadly, and looking at trends over time, if peacekeeping missions are well-resourced, then they do have an impact on reducing conflict. So if you look at some of the evidence related to the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops, if those missions are well-resourced, they definitely have a positive impact in reducing conflict. One of the things that we have seen over time is that if you look at missions in the region now compared to previous missions, in terms of the number of peacekeeping troops deployed per capita, that number has come down. So those kinds of interventions can help as long as they’re properly resourced.

Anything you think we should know before we end this interview?

No, I think that’s kind of all the major trends from the report. But again, just to emphasize that the report on what’s happening in the central Sahel region. But in fact, if you look at the data for many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, there’s very low levels of terrorism or no terrorism. So they are certainly areas of concern, but it’s not a bad news story across the board.

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