Armed Islamists on motorcycles in central Mali. Screen grab from video received by Human Rights Watch on January 22, 2020. © Private 2020

Since at least 2015, Islamist armed attacks on villages, markets, restaurants, convoys and churches in West Africa’s Sahel region have left a wake of blood, contributed to the displacement of over a million people, and reversed progress on health and education.   

France, the United States and the European Union have for years bankrolled the fight against these groups and the humanitarian fall-out with support for military operations, development aid, and a United Nations peacekeeping force.  Yet their efforts have not stopped these abusive forces, whose attacks in recent days spread to the Ivory Coast.

When they gather on June 30 for the G5 Summit in Mauritania, in the presence of Emmanuel Macron, the countries in the Sahel coalition, including those footing the bill for counterinsurgency efforts there, would be smart to ask why. 

For over a decade I have documented the spread of Islamist armed groups in West Africa. These groups, allied to both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, start out by exploiting local grievances against government corruption, banditry, and competition over land and water, to garner recruits.

But dozens of community leaders and village chiefs, as well as armed Islamists themselves, have told me that it is vengeance over extrajudicial executions and other abuses by soldiers and pro-government militias that –  more than anything else – is driving recruits into the Islamist ranks.   

Since 2012, the Islamist armed threat in the Sahel has spawned vast military operations by the armies of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, as well as by 5,000 French troops, supported by the United States, and by the G5 regional counter terrorism force. Plans for a 3,000-strong African Union force and Operation Takouba, involving 400 European special forces, are underway. Meanwhile, millions of dollars and euros to address chronic underdevelopment and humanitarian aid, and for what has been described as the world’s most dangerous United Nations peacekeeping operation, in Mali, continue to flow.

Yet, while military operations have “neutralized” hundreds of members of armed Islamist groups, they continue to carry out brazen and complex attacks in which hundreds of soldiers have perished. The attacks and photographs of weapons, ammunition and armored cars looted from army bases have shocked governments and their partners.  

So why are so many men leaving their villages to join these groups? A young man from northern Burkina Faso texted me after soldiers executed his 78-year-old father in 2018: “we found him next to the path with two bullets in the head.” Weeks later, when I was unable to reach him, a family member explained, “He has gone north and is being trained by the Islamic State, as are his two brothers and a few cousins.” Sources have told me he has since taken part in attacks on both soldiers and civilians.

Governments, the European Union, and the United Nations, that regularly and rightly denounce atrocities by armed Islamists, have too often remained shamefully and oddly silent on security force abuses, despite ample credible reporting that implicates them. Their timidity has not only appeared to embolden the offending government forces, but also disappointed victims and civil society activists.     

The killing of the young man’s father mentioned above, is one of hundreds by the security forces in the Sahel I’ve documented since 2015. In April, Burkinabè  security forces allegedly executed 31 men in Djibo. And in June, Malian security forces were accused of killing 43 villagers.

These killings were war crimes whether or not any of the executed men supported the armed Islamists – they were all last seen in the custody of government security forces and found hours later shot in the head or chest. Many of the killings directly followed army losses after Islamist attacks. 

I know over 15 men, from Burkina Faso and Mali, who similarly joined the armed Islamist ranks after seeing a loved one executed by the security forces. A Burkinabè  elder told me, “They aren’t joining out of religious commitment, not at all, rather to exact revenge.”

“Driving them is not only anger, but also fear that they too will wind up with a bullet in the head,” a herder from central Mali told me.

A man from northern Burkina Faso, who joined one of the groups in 2019 after a government massacre of 16 villagers told me, “We used to fear the jihadists, but after your child or friends are killed, you no longer feel joy in your life, and so you take up a gun.”

A few months ago, a woman abducted and held for months by armed Islamists in the Sahel described their recruitment strategy, gleaned from conversations she overheard in their camp. “The jihadist commander talked about the army abuses all the time,” she told me. “As did so many other jihadists who were there because their fathers, brothers, even grandfathers had been killed.”

Many villagers cited the execution of village elders, including respected religious leaders, as a driver of recruitment: “When soldiers kill the family head, they’re essentially pushing his sons and nephews straight out the village and into the bush with the men in beards and short pants,” one told me.  

Those footing the counter-terrorism bill in the Sahel should use and raise their voices about security force abuses and the chronic lack of follow up on the many promised investigations into atrocities. They should also increase support to the long-neglected judiciary and military justice systems.

Because so many army atrocities appear to be reprisal killings in direct response to the deaths of soldiers, something the commanding officers should prevent, concerned governments should push for better command and control of front line units, support the deployment of provost marshals responsible for ensuring discipline in operations, and ensure soldiers receive adequate medical and psychological support.  

Governments in the Sahel face a legitimate threat as Islamist armed group attacks on civilians rise and spread deeper into West Africa. But when the security forces summarily kill suspects in the name of security, it is as counterproductive as it is unlawful. It is driving recruitment into these groups, stoking the fires of already-explosive communal tensions, and depriving the state of crucial trust.

Corinne Dufka is the Sahel director at Human Rights Watch.