There are three things to understand about the crisis in the Sahel. First is that the region’s insecurity, though driven by Islamist groups affiliated with international jihadist movements, feeds off of local conflicts and resentments the way a forest fire feeds off of built-up dry vegetation. The Islamists are remarkably adept at exploiting local cleavages.

Second, the speed with which that fire has spread—first in Mali and more recently in Burkina Faso—has exposed just how vulnerable these countries have long been, despite appearances. Analysts including myself got the region wrong, in part because of assumptions about Sahelian politics, religion and society that turned out to be incorrect. Looking at the coastal countries, there is evidence of comparable fragility in some areas. There is no reason to believe with certainty that the intercommunal fighting in central Mali couldn’t happen in parts of Ghana, or that terrorists could not perform daily attacks in Dakar. Local conflicts of the type Islamists excel at exploiting abound. Ideas, people, and small arms flow freely across borders that, one must remember, British and French bureaucrats and diplomats set down with no regard for who lived where. These countries also share a problem: Their post-colonial governments have catered to certain elites while doing a terrible job of delivering for the people at the periphery.

Third: Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, clustered at the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index, have extremely limited means to deal effectively with any conflagration, let alone one at the scale we are seeing now in Mali and Burkina Faso. Imagine if Australia had only a few bucket brigades and garden hoses with which to fight its catastrophic bush fires.

More Engagement in West Africa Could Blunt Looming Crisis | RAND