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Sounds of the Sahel

November 28, 2018


Cultural heritage lies at the heart of the Sahel region, home to “the world’s largest collection of prehistoric art,” as French archaeologist and explorer Henri Lhote remarked in the mid-20th century [1]. More recently, the United Nations has described the Sahel as “[p]otentially one of the richest regions in the world with abundant human, cultural and natural resources.”[2] These include  Algeria’s famed Tassili-n-Ajjer rock art, just one location amid an estimated ten million prehistoric paintings and engravings throughout the Sahara.

A belt of dry grasslands located between the dunes of the Sahara to the north and tropical Savanna to the south, the Sahel region stretches across the African continent, and from east to west includes Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and parts of Southern Algeria. Far from a barren desert, the Sahel is home to ancient and diverse cultural wonders, including rich artistic and musical traditions and myriad UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Tomb of Asia, Mali. Photo copyright: OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection via UNESCO.
Tomb of Asia, Mali. Photo copyright: OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection via UNESCO.

Unfortunately, this region has also seen the determination and endurance of extremist groups and transnational criminal networks that extend far beyond one city or country and which have proven tenacious throughout the Maghreb, Sahel, and Sahara. While this piece is by no means an exhaustive look at the Sahel, it is intended as an important reminder that this region is threatened by the very extremists that have destroyed lives, culture, and heritage throughout the MENA region.

Showcasing stunning bucolic landscapes, exceptional ancient Malian adobe architecture, and the cultural vibrancy of the Sahel region, Oscar-nominated 2014 film Timbuktu explores the devastating effects of extremism on local communities. The film follows the story of a cattle herder and his family during the Islamist occupation of Mali around the year 2012. This juxtaposition of brutal violence amid pastoral idylls illustrates the tragedy that has befallen the Sahel and the ability of these groups to shatter livelihoods and destroy the tangible and intangible culture that breathes life into the region itself.

Niger has increasingly become a major crossroads in the renewed fight against extremism, as it is home to large-scale French and American military operations. In 2016, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) killed 30 people in an attack in Burkina Faso. Boko Haram continues to terrorize communities throughout Nigeria and in parts of Burkina Faso. Mauritania is another potentially upcoming hotbed of conflict and is a country to watch as the conversation expands beyond Niger, Mali, Tunisia and into other countries. The growing instability and terrorist threat in this region have not been lost on those in the counter-terrorism and foreign policy communities.

French soldiers patrol Timbuktu, Mali. Photo: Phillippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images.
French soldiers patrol Timbuktu, Mali. Photo: Phillippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images.

Keïta in the Capital

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta recently visited Washington, DC, where he gave a speech at the Brookings Institution on fixing fragility in the Sahel. President Keïta struck a positive tone on the country’s outlook, touting his years of experience in politics and diplomacy as an assurance that Mali would survive this trying period. Nevertheless, the country continues to rank among the world’s poorest, and instability, internal displacement, and the return of foreign extremist fighters threaten to prolong conflict throughout the broader Sahel region. Inherent in the President’s remarks, however, were countless mentions of the cultural fabric that stands to unite this region.

President Keïta was quick to mention the Timbuktu Renaissance Initiative, a heritage festival of sorts founded in the wake of a 2012 al Qaeda regional takeover that saw the banning of books and music–a profound tragedy in the country known as the birthplace of the Blues. The French military presence, along with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), were ultimately successful in regaining coalition control of the area in 2015, although terrorist attacks still occur after the peace deal. In October 2018, two U.N. peacekeepers were killed and eleven were injured in an attack in Mali.

Trafficking in the Sahel

From human trafficking to wildlife trafficking, in recent years this region has made international headlines as a hub for illicit trades. In 2015 during the attempted Islamist takeover of the country, Mali saw a significant uptick in elephant poaching. A recent study found that conflict in the Sahel had increased over 565% since 2011 and was in turn devastating the region’s biodiversity, a resource the Sahel cannot afford to lose.

Crime in the Sahel has skyrocketed since 2016. Source:
Crime in the Sahel has skyrocketed since 2016. Source:

The existence of established trafficking networks, combined with a significant rise in extremist groups and terrorist cells, could signal enduring risks to the region’s cultural heritage, which ranks among the world’s most unique [3]. Jeremy Keenan warned back in 2006, “there is scarcely a corner of the Sahara which has not been looted or vandalised…Extensive areas of the Sahara have been subjected to what can best be described as systematic ‘vacuuming’ by professional looters to such an extent that the archaeological landscape of much of the Sahara has not simply been damaged, but ‘sterilised’.” With the proliferation of armed ideologues throughout the region, we should care now more than ever about protecting cultural heritage and promoting peace in the region.

Who are the Players?

A diverse assortment of terrorist cells exist throughout the region, varying and vacillating in rhetorical extremes. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which itself has roots in the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s, is mostly composed of former foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Algeria, Libya, and elsewhere. AQIM currently maintains terrorist cells throughout the Sahel region; each cell often takes on its own localized character. Another major player in the region is Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM), or “Group to Support Islam and Muslims.” This jihadist group operates throughout the Maghreb and into parts of the Sahel. JNIM was formed out of the unification of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and is the official branch of al Qaeda in Mali. The number and endurance of these groups is gravely concerning.

Foreign Fighters Return

8,000-year-old ancient Ennedi cave paintings in Chad, which have been defaced with graffiti. Photo: BBC.
8,000-year-old ancient Ennedi cave paintings in Chad, which have been defaced with graffiti. Photo: BBC.

While Daesh (ISIL) has lost much territory in Iraq and Syria, its dissolution there has presented myriad of problems in other regions, including the Sahel. One major problem is that the group’s foreign fighters are returning to their home countries, where they continue to sow seeds of instability, in some cases forming their own extremist groups. This includes groups affiliated with al Qaeda, such as the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), Libyan Islamist Combatant Group (GICL), al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and other, often small groups. The return of foreign fighters again underscores the need for strong community ties to withstand the return of disillusioned militants, and expansion of existing sources of employment, such as tourism and cultural heritage initiatives. Such projects not only provide economic resilience, but also unite a diverse region often controlled by nebulous and shifting terrorist groups.

Another problem in the region is fluctuating support for al Qaeda versus Daesh. A recent policy brief, published by Morocco-based OCP Policy Center, on the birth of a third generation of terrorism finds that support for al Qaeda versus Daesh has vacillated over time, and that this period could be one in which local populations solidify their support for one group over the other. In other words, it remains to be seen whether the return of foreign fighters will help strengthen Daesh or bolster al Qaeda throughout the Maghreb and Sahel.

Working with Local Leaders

At a recent at-capacity event held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, international policy experts discussed the inclusion of religious extremists in peace and conflict dialogues in the Maghreb, which offers many valuable takeaways for the neighboring Sahel region. These takeaways underscore several important lessons for those fighting cultural racketeering and the exploitation of rich cultural heritage by extremist and terrorist organizations.

First, conflict transformation through religious bodies and influencers is key, as leaders possess three crucial tools within local populations: access, authority, and legitimacy. In other words, having a “credible voice” on the ground can help engage across generations, religions, and peoples. Implementing this seemingly intuitive advice to partner with a “credible voice” would also benefit those combating looting and destruction in conflict zones.

Another issue endemic to the Maghreb that is also present in the Sahel is enduring unemployment and joblessness, which are often among the highest factors fueling extremism. As this World Bank study illustrates, lack of economic opportunity perpetuates the ability of extremist organizations to recruit members. However, despite the high social standing of religious leaders in communities, religious leaders rank among the lowest individuals for helping youth find employment. Therefore, partnering with religious leaders should be a space for cultural heritage professionals to help encourage jobs in this domain, thus reducing risks for future conflicts.


A rock painting dating back 12,000 years at Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria. Photo © Mohammed Beddiaf.
A rock painting dating back 12,000 years at Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria. Photo © Mohammed Beddiaf.

Daesh has repeatedly made headlines in recent years for its involvement in cultural racketeering. Not only did the group systematically destroy some of the world’s most heralded heritage sites, but it engaged in the large-scale looting of national treasures. In Iraq and Syria, the extremist group pillaged and plundered museums and sold ancient artifacts to acquire arms and prolong the region’s conflicts. This piece, far from an exhaustive look at the Sahel, is intended as an important reminder that this region is threatened by the very extremists that have repeatedly destroyed lives, culture, and heritage throughout the MENA region. The international community must remain diligent to ensure that the same systematic destruction does not occur throughout the Sahel.

[1] Lhote, A la De ́couverte des Fresques du Tassili (Paris: Arthaud 1958, 1973); translated as The Search for the Tassili Frescoes: the Story of the Prehistoric Rock-Paintings of the Sahara (London: Hutchinson 1959).
[2] UN Support Plan for the Sahel. May 2018. United Nations CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Johannes Zielcke.
[3] For a more in-depth look at the parallels between wildlife trafficking and the illicit antiquities trade, see our blog.