The threat from terrorism in the Sahel region

Understand more about the threat from terrorism in the Sahel region and how to minimise the risks to your safety.


Violent extremist groups in northern Mali continue to fuel mounting insecurity across the Sahel. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its network of Mali based affiliates remain the dominant force within this region.

There was an increase in attacks during 2016, which is likely to continue as the group remains intent on demonstrating capability and increasing influence across the region. This has been demonstrated by the March 2017 merger of AQ-M Sahel, Ansar al-Dine and al-Murabitun into the new group ‘Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen’. The threat to western interests in the region remains.

The threat from terrorism in the Sahel region

There’s a high threat of kidnap in the Sahel and surrounding region. The Sahel region includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. The kidnap threat extends to other countries including Algeria, Cameroon, Libya and Nigeria.

The porous nature of borders in the Sahel region means terrorist groups such as AQIM are able to operate across borders and carry out attacks anywhere in the region.

Following French/African military intervention in Mali in January 2013, there’s a high threat of retaliatory kidnap or attack against western interests, especially in neighbouring countries which are members of MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping initiative in Mali.

There are several hostages currently being held in the Sahel and surrounding region, some of whom have been held for several years. Victims in the region have included construction workers, humanitarian workers, tourists and diplomats of various nationalities, often people travelling under tight security arrangements. Many hostages have been murdered, including nine British nationals since 2009.

The long-standing policy of the British government is not to make substantive concessions to hostage takers. The British government considers that paying ransoms and releasing prisoners increases the risk of further hostage-taking and finances terrorist activity. The Terrorism Act (2000) also makes payments to terrorists illegal.

Who are the terrorists?

The terrorist threat in the Sahel and surrounding region comes from a number of groups, including Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen. These terrorist groups aspire to establish Islamic law in the region and to attack western interests. Groups pledging allegiance to Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL) are also present in the area and seek to attack westerners.

The groups carry out kidnappings of westerners for financial gain, prisoner exchange and to exert political pressure on governments. Kidnapping for ransom is AQIM’s primary source of finance. AQIM and regional Islamist groups operate in the border areas of northern Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria. They have proven capability of travelling long distances to carry out attacks, including in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Criminal gangs also carry out kidnappings for terrorist groups in return for financial payment.

Staying safe if you’re working in the region

British government officials serving in areas where the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) advise against travel often work under strict security rules. The ability of the FCDO to provide consular assistance in some countries in the region is severely limited. In some cases the FCDO won’t be able to provide any direct assistance.

If you do choose to work in an area where the FCDO advise against travel due to the high threat of kidnapping, you will need a high level of security. Make sure you:

  • ask your employer about their security arrangements and make sure they’re able to provide you with an adequate level of security for the threat from terrorism and kidnapping
  • follow your employer’s local security guidelines
  • maintain a high level of vigilance at all times
  • keep others informed of your travel plans
  • vary your routines and routes
  • consider pre-deployment training on travelling under close protection
  • regularly consult the FCDO’s travel advice and sign up for email alerts

Terrorist groups routinely use kidnapping as a tactic and view those engaged in humanitarian aid work or journalism as legitimate targets. If you’re detained by a terrorist group, explaining the reason for your presence in the region won’t serve as protection or secure your safe release.

Attending festivals in the Sahel region

A number of festivals take place in the Sahel region every year. If you’re planning to attend a festival in the region, consult the country travel advice and check whether it is in an area where the FCDO advise against travel. Some festivals have been cancelled due to security concerns including the 2017 Festival au Désert in Timbuktu.

In February 2017 the US embassy in Mali issued a warning to its citizens of the threat of terrorist attack against large gatherings, including music festivals. Festivals in other parts of the region are vulnerable to attack.

A British national was among a group of tourists kidnapped from the Mali-Niger border after attending a festival in Mali in 2009 and later killed.

Rally racing in the Sahel region

Some rallies in recent years have been cancelled or rerouted because of the risk. One of the most famous rallies in the region, the Paris-Dakar Rally, now takes place in South America due to the threat of kidnap in the Sahel. However, other rallies continue to go through areas where the FCDO advise against travel. If you do choose to take part in a rally that travels through areas where the FCDO advise against all or all but essential you should consult the country travel advice pages when planning your route.

Published 3 May 2017