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The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
Tombs in a Muslim cemetery are silhouetted during sunset in the village of Karateren near the Aral Sea, in southwestern Kazakhstan, April 2005. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Briefing 72 / Europe & Central Asia

Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia

The Islamic State (IS) is attracting Central Asians to Syria and fostering new links among radicals within the region. Unless the five Central Asian governments develop a credible, coordinated counter-action plan, including improved security measures but also social, political and economic reforms, growing radicalism will eventually pose a serious threat to their stability.

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I. Overview

Growing numbers of Central Asian citizens, male and female, are travelling to the Middle East to fight or otherwise support the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL orISIS). Prompted in part by political marginalisation and bleak economic prospects that characterise their post-Soviet region, 2,000-4,000 have in the past three years turned their back on their secular states to seek a radical alternative. IS beckons not only to those who seek combat experience, but also to those who envision a more devout, purposeful, fundamentalist religious life. This presents a complex problem to the governments of Central Asia. They are tempted to exploit the phenomenon to crack down on dissent. The more promising solution, however, requires addressing multiple political and administrative failures, revising discriminatory laws and policies, implementing outreach programs for both men and women and creating jobs at home for disadvantaged youths, as well as ensuring better coordination between security services.

Should a significant portion of these radicalised migrants return, they risk challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan form a brittle region, sandwiched between Russia and Afghanistan, Iran and China. Each suffers from poor governance, corruption and crime. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan resemble authoritarian police states. Kazakhstan has some wealth, but its regions are in disrepair, and its political system is autocratic. All five fail to deliver quality social services, particularly in rural areas. Their security services – underfunded, poorly trained and inclined to resort to harsh methods to compensate for a lack of resources and skills – are unable to deal with a challenge as intricate as radical Islam. Rather than promoting religious freedom while safeguarding secular constitutions and attempting to learn from European or Asian experiences in rehabilitating jihadis, the five fuel further radicalisation by using laws to curb religious growth and the police to conduct crackdowns.

Recruitment to the extremist cause is happening in mosques and namazkhana(prayer rooms) across the region. The internet and social media play a critical but not definitive role. The radicalisation of women is often a response to the lack of social, religious, economic and political opportunities afforded to them in Central Asia. Economic reward is not a motivation for those drawn to IS-controlled territory. For some, it is a personal adventure; for others it is a call to arms. Many find themselves providing support services to more experienced fighters from the Caucasus or Arab states.

Ethnic Uzbeks, including citizens of Uzbekistan, are most numerous among the Central Asians with the Islamic State, but Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Tajiks are also well represented. Some are recruited at home; others are radicalised abroad, often as migrant workers. The problem is acute in southern Kyrgyzstan, where the risks are amplified by the alienation of the Uzbek community since the violence in Osh in 2010.

The appeal of jihadism in the region is also rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change. Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female, there is no single profile of an IS supporter, but fatigue with social and political circumstances is an important linking thread. Uzbekistan is particularly exposed. Frustrated and excluded, people who would not have considered fighting with the longer-established Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or the Taliban in Afghanistan perceive the Islamic State as the creator of a novel and ordained political order.

The number of Central Asians receiving combat training and progressing through IS command structures is increasing, as are the jihadi networks of which they are a part. Although most Central Asians find themselves in jamaats (factions) organised loosely along ethnic and linguistic lines, these form larger regional battalions of cooperating fighters from across the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang region. The risk is rising that these connections will gather pace and purpose in Central Asia, blindsiding governments ill-prepared to respond to a security threat of this type.

Russia and China are already concerned and have urged the Central Asian states to address the problem of radicalisation in light of the rise of IS. The region’s other international partners, including, the EU and the U.S., should recognise that Central Asia is a growing source of foreign fighters and consider prioritising policing reform, as well as a more tolerant attitude to religion, in their recommendations for combating the problem. Without a concerted effort on the part of the Central Asians, including their security services with respect to intelligence sharing, however, the response outside powers seek will likely flounder.

Bishkek/Brussels, 20 January 2015

Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat

With jihadists and armed groups exploiting political and security vacuums across the Sahel, Mali and neighbouring states will continue to face insecurity. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to rethink international development strategies and to support local government initiatives that combat radicalisation.

 

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Despite significant international sweat, the Sahel remains on a trajectory toward greater violence and widening instability. Jihadists, armed groups and entrenched criminal networks – sometimes linked to national and local authorities – continue to expand and threaten the stability of already weak states. Across the region, citizens remain deeply disenchanted with their governments. International actors must review their current strategies, which tackle the symptoms of the Sahel’s problems without addressing their underlying cause: central governments’ long-term neglect of their states. In particular, they should act urgently to prevent the collapse of the peace process in Mali – a genuine danger this year that would have serious implications for security across the Sahel.

Widening Cracks in Mali’s Peace Process

At the heart of the Sahel’s instability is Mali’s long-running crisis. It is spilling over into Burkina Faso and spreading to fragile Niger and more stable Senegal. Twenty months since the government and armed groups signed the Algeria-brokered Bamako peace agreement in June 2015, implementation is faltering and the deal’s collapse is a real possibility. Despite publicly claiming to support the process, Malian parties lack confidence in a deal that was signed under international pressure and has serious shortcomings. It does little to tackle the violent war economy in which prominent businessmen rely on small private armies to protect trafficking routes. It also fails to restore a viable balance of power between northern communities and leaders who compete for resources, influence and territory.

Map of Sahel. International Crisis Group

The recent fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), has seen the creation of new community-based armed groups, such as the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad and the Congrès pour la Justice dans l’Azawad, and may further aggravate insecurity. More worryingly, the appointment of interim local authorities and the launch of mixed patrols comprising army soldiers and former rebels in the north have failed to demonstrate much positive impact at the local level.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine and al-Mourabitoun, remain active. Having been chased out of major towns, rather than trying to hold urban areas they are striking provincial and district centres from rural bases. Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the bombing on 18 January that killed 61 personnel of the mixed unit in Gao region.

Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas.

At the same time, insecurity is rising in areas long neglected by the state such as central Mali, which is not included in the northern Mali peace process. Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas. Bamako still has no effective response to the jihadists’ strategy of threatening or killing local authorities or civil society members that stand against them. In addition, the rise of a new group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and the possible influx from Libya of defeated Islamic State (IS) fighters are further sources of concern.

Jihad Sans Frontières

Despite international military intervention including by UN peacekeepers, jihadists are making inroads into other Sahelian countries. In late 2016, jihadist fighters based in central and northern Mali launched attacks in western Niger and northern Burkina Faso, underscoring the region’s vulnerability and the serious risks of overlapping conflicts across the greater Sahel. On 6 February, the G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) met in Bamako to announce the creation of a regional force to tackle terrorism and transnational crime. It remains to be seen how effective this ambitious project will prove.

Mali’s neighbours are right to point out that Bamako is responsible for failing to prevent radical groups using its territory. However, they should also pay closer attention to their own internal dynamics. These include years of state neglect and poor political representation of certain communities – especially nomadic Fulanis in the region of Djibo in Burkina Faso and Tillabery in Niger. Chronic resource limitations hobble Sahelian states’ ability to respond effectively: Niger’s state revenue, for example, is €1.7 billion, about as much as France invested in stadiums to host the 2016 European football competition.

In 2016, Burkina Faso suffered eight attacks originating in Mali and it remains the most vulnerable of Mali’s neighbours. The ousting of former President Blaise Compaoré in 2014 left the security apparatus in disarray. National authorities have been slow to rebuild the intelligence system and they lack a defence strategy to help security forces adjust to rapidly evolving threats. Despite recurring attacks, military posts in the country’s northern Sahel region remain poorly protected. With limited resources the government will struggle to meet demands for significant social development, which partly drove the October 2014 uprising, and, at the same time, increase spending to revamp the security forces. Should Burkina be tempted to use the social welfare budget to plug security holes, it could face new protests.

Reviving the Malian Peace Process

International forces have been slow to adjust to changing ground realities and for now there is little appetite in Bamako or the region for a major course correction. However, further deterioration – such as jihadist groups expanding westwards into Ségou region in the centre – would require a response. The European Union (EU) and its member states should anticipate this and encourage Malian parties and the Algeria-led mediation team to meet again before the process loses all credibility. New talks would offer all parties an opportunity to express their concerns about the implementation of the Bamako agreement and reenergise it. They should agree on additional appendices that include a new timetable and mechanisms to ensure that each party respects its commitments. To limit the risk of further armed group fragmentation, discussions should also focus on ways to bring splinter groups into the process. This could mostly be done by integrating them into one of the existing coalitions, the CMA or Platform.

The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure.

To avoid the further spread of violence in Mali, the EU and its member states should encourage and support central government and local authorities to mediate local conflicts. They should also assist local authorities, through training and direct support, to provide public services and ensure the equitable sharing of natural resources. Such peacebuilding support should not be framed as preventing or countering “violent extremism” (P/CVE) as these concepts lack clarity, mask the complex dynamics of jihadist recruitment and risk stigmatising communities that receive such assistance.

Vital too is the need for a shift in international development strategies. The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure. The EU and member states should pay particular attention to assisting the state’s local-level redeployment through programs that support public services. They should encourage and assist the government to improve its draft “Plan for Central Mali” and make it a useful tool to coordinate government efforts.

They should also ensure that the EU’s capacity-building mission, EUCAP Mali, closely collaborates with authorities at both central and regional levels to make Mopti region in the centre a pilot site to test policies aimed at improving local security, and specifically reforming the local police. Lessons drawn from here could be applied in northern Mali and other Sahelian regions.

Halting Jihadists’ Cross-border Spread

The EU and its member states should pay more attention to Burkina Faso, which faces a real threat from armed groups. In particular, member states with a military presence in Mali should deploy forces near its border with Burkina Faso, and provide the Burkinabè security forces with helicopters so that they can conduct aerial surveillance of the long shared border. Although the link between underdevelopment and radicalisation is complex and indirect, increasing aid in health, education and professional training particularly in areas affected by attacks, could potentially improve relations between state authorities and communities and therefore undercut an important grievance that extremist groups often exploit.