If victims become perpetrators: Factors contributing to vulnerability and resilience to violent extremism in the central Sahel

This research provides guidance to government agents and evaluates the factors contributing to vulnerability and resilience to violent extremism in the Sahel.

The armed groups linked to jihadism that have been operating in the central Sahel have had a disruptive effect on the fragile social fabric locally. Confronted with this phenomenon, communities have responded in different ways, ranging from rejection to attraction. This study focuses on young Fulani people in the regions of Mopti (Mali), Sahel (Burkina Faso) and Tillabéri (Niger), and analyses the factors contributing to community vulnerability or resilience to violent extremism.

One of the key findings of this research is the assertion that violent extremism in the central Sahel is primarily a response to local conflicts, and that the link with international jihadism is more rhetoric than reality.

In fragile and conflict-affected states, there are a number of factors that may influence the behaviour of marginalised young men and women who are confronted with violent extremism. However, this study shows that the most determining factor contributing to vulnerability or resilience to violent extremism is the experience (or perception) of abuse and violation by government authorities – in other words, real or perceived state abuse is the number one factor behind young people’s decision to join violent extremist groups.

On the other hand, the study shows that strengthening social cohesion, supporting young men’s and women’s role in their communities, and mitigating social and gender exclusion could strengthen community resilience.

The research also identifies strategies to deploy to curb violent extremism in the central Sahel. Due to communities’ loss of trust in the defence and security forces, the ‘total security’ approach is doomed to fail. Widespread violence increases community vulnerability and their need for protection, which violent extremist groups exploit to increase their acceptance across communities in the Sahel. In this context, the deployment of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, supported financially and politically by international powers, risks undermining its aim to reduce violence and could instead weaken regional stability and communities’ wellbeing.

To restore trust between marginalised citizens and their governments, international partners need to prioritise efforts aimed at supporting state accountability towards its citizens; improve access to justice, especially transitional justice, and ensure inclusive governance; improve supervision of the armed forces; and promote youth employment, including through migration. Given the possible escalation of violent extremism in the central Sahel, the international community cannot afford to make wrong choices.