Sahel Jihadists Move to Nigeria, Seeking Wealthier Terrain

A report released on Wednesday revealed that jihadist fighters who have long been active in Africa’s volatile Sahel region have established a presence in northwestern Nigeria after crossing from neighboring Benin. This move marks the latest trend of militants relocating to wealthier West African coastal nations.

These extremists, believed to be associated with al-Qaida, crossed from Benin’s heavily affected northern region in the past year and settled in Kainji Lake National Park, one of Nigeria’s largest, where other armed groups have also gained access. This information is based on a report by the Clingendael Institute think tank, which has extensive experience researching the Sahel region.

Locals residing near the park informed The Associated Press that the facility, which harbors one of West Africa’s rapidly declining lion populations, has been closed for over a year due to security threats posed by armed groups targeting nearby villages and roads.

“Previously, it served as a tourist destination, but now people find it difficult to travel through the area,” said John Yerima, a resident near the park in New Bussa town. “The road leading to the park is impassable. It’s extremely dangerous.”

Kars de Bruijne, a senior research fellow at the institute and one of the report’s authors, described the security situation at the 2,000-square mile park in Niger state and along the nearby Benin border as “spiraling out of control” and “a much more volatile situation than we had anticipated.”

The “persistent presence” of these armed groups in the park signifies the first evidence of a connection between the groups responsible for a decade-long insurgency in Nigeria’s northern region and al-Qaida-linked militants from the Sahel, the vast arid expanse south of the Sahara Desert, Bruijne explained.

Their presence presents an opportunity for these extremists to claim widespread success in both countries, which have already suffered from deadly attacks in recent years, he added.

The Sahel region, recognized globally as a hotbed for violent extremism, has witnessed a worsening security crisis alongside military coups that have overthrown democratic governments. As these military governments struggle to contain the violence, they are increasingly distancing themselves from traditional security partners like France and the United States while seeking support from Russia.

In northwest Nigeria, security analysts have previously warned that the region’s remote territories, characterized by limited government presence but rich mineral resources and high poverty rates, offer an opportunity for expansion to jihadi groups operating primarily in the Sahel, as well as the Islamic State group, whose fighters hold sway in the Lake Chad basin.

“A link between Lake Chad and the Sahel is a significant development and allows the Islamic State to enhance their image as leaders in global jihad,” the report stated.

Conservationists also express concerns about the presence of armed groups in the park, which could further endanger the remaining lion population, already declining due to poaching and climate change. They point out that the park and most protected wildlife areas in Nigeria lack adequate patrols, making them vulnerable targets for armed groups.

“The security situation has become the primary concern regarding the lion populations in Nigeria,” said Stella Egbe, senior conservation manager at the Nigerian Conservation Foundation.

The Nigerian military often conducts aerial bombardments and deploys personnel to criminal hideouts in the conflict-ridden northern region. However, security forces, fatigued by the decade-long war in the northeast, are still outnumbered and outgunned in these remote villages, and the underlying causes of the conflict, such as poverty, persist.

The Clingendael report notes that the motives of the Sahel extremists in the park and their relationship with other armed groups present remain unclear. Security analysts suggest that this situation presents opportunities for logistics and increased influence amidst booming illicit trade across the porous border.

“The Sahelian jihadis could potentially use northwestern Nigeria as a platform for fundraising, logistics, and attempting to influence the local jihadi groups as part of their own competition,” stated James Barnett, a fellow at the Hudson Institute whose work in northwestern Nigeria was cited in the report.

Across numerous villages in Nigeria’s northwest, banditry, not jihadi fighters, remains the primary security threat, Barnett explained.

In the past, bandits have occasionally collaborated with jihadi fighters as separate entities in carrying out attacks. However, even in these rare instances of collaboration, Barnett warns, “the consequences can be extremely deadly.”