Spate of Islamist attacks puts West Africa's Sahel region on track for deadliest year

LAGOS, NIGERIA (BLOOMBERG) – West Africa’s Sahel region is headed for its deadliest year of Islamist-militant violence.

Insurgents have killed at least 450 civilians in the region this year, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project data shows, compared with 401 last year.

The first three months of 2021 have seen more non-combatant deaths blamed on Islamist groups than the same period last year, according to statistics analysed by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development data analyst Jose Luengo-Cabrera.

At least 1,000 people overall have died in attacks this year, including soldiers and militants.

The highest-casualty attack occurred on March 21, when militants killed 137 people in coordinated strikes on communities in and around the western Nigerian town of Tillia.

Violence has persisted despite a multinational effort to quell the insurgency, which surged in Mali in 2012 and later spread to regional neighbours.

The inability to curb the violence “is the failure of all of us and the failure of the whole coalition”, Nigerian President Mohamed Bazoum told a France 24 interviewer days before his April 2 inauguration.

France has deployed a 5,100-strong force to fight the Islamist militants in Niger and neighbouring countries, while the US has a US$110 million (S$148 million) drone base in the nation’s desert town of Agadez.

Germany and Canada are among other nations participating in the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations in Mali.

Forces from the five most-affected countries – Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali, collectively known as the G-5 Sahel – are also trying to secure the area.

The attacks are being carried out by groups affiliated with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, which have sometimes succeeded in winning the support of deprived communities where the government is virtually absent.

The militants are both “a security threat and a governance competitor for the state”, the International Crisis Group said in a report on the escalation of attacks in Niger by ISIS affiliates.

The insurgent group has gained legitimacy as a force that’s better able to deliver basic services, including security, in the face of persistent inter-communal conflict.

West African leaders have tried everything “from force to persuasion”, but the militants are getting stronger, exacerbating the crisis in the Sahel, the Washington-based advocacy group said in June.

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The Tillia attack came days after a similar assault killed 33 soldiers across the border in Mali.

Separately, a UN report called for further investigation into a Jan 3 French air strike, which it says killed 22 people, including attendees at a wedding in the Malian town of Bounti.

France has denied that civilians were killed in the air strike, saying the operation targeted “terrorist elements”, French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told reporters in the Malian capital, Bamako, on March 31.

“I believe that we can all agree that this is a difficult fight,” she said.

“It’s a demanding fight and it’s a fight that requires a lot of courage.”

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