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Responding to the Rise in Violent Extremism in the Sahel

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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.


  • Violent activity involving militant Islamist groups in the Sahel—primarily the Macina Liberation Front, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and Ansaroul Islam—has doubled every year since 2015.

  • Employing asymmetric tactics and close coordination, these militant groups have amplified local grievances and intercommunal differences as a means of mobilizing recruitment and fostering antigovernment sentiments in marginalized communities.

  • Given the complex social dimensions of this violence, Sahelian governments should make more concerted efforts to bolster solidarity with affected communities while asserting a more robust and mobile security presence in contested regions.

The Sahel has experienced the most rapid increase in militant Islamist group activity of any region in Africa in recent years. Violent events involving extremist groups in the region have doubled every year since 2015. In 2019, there have been more than 700 such violent episodes (see Figure 1). Fatalities linked to these events have increased from 225 to 2,000 during the same period. This surge in violence has uprooted more than 900,000 people, including 500,000 in Burkina Faso in 2019 alone.

Three groups, the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and Ansaroul Islam, are responsible for roughly two-thirds of the extremist violence in the central Sahel. Their attacks are largely concentrated in central Mali, northern and eastern Burkina Faso, and western Niger (see Figure 2). Multiple security and development responses have been deployed to address this crisis. While some progress has been realized, the continued escalation of extremist violence underscores that more needs to be done.