The West African nation contributes to regional counter-terror initiatives, is located within the geographic reach of al-Qaeda infiltration, and plays host to an ISIS presence.

In recent months, Senegalese authorities arrested three individuals suspected of having ties to ISIS. Among those detained were two Moroccans who were remanded into custody in Dakar on 29 March. A Nigerian national was similarly arrested in the capital on 1 April. While details were not readily provided on the detention of the former, the Nigerian national was described as being a member of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – aka Boko Haram – which was purportedly recruiting for the Islamist sect among Senegalese youth.

Despite the primacy of its insurgency in Nigeria and the wider Lake Chad basin, Boko Haram has long been accused of having ties to Senegal. The first of these connections was publicised in 2012 when the the Grand Imam of Bignona claimed Boko Haram had actively been recruiting in the town. Claims of the sect’s Senegalese connections were further bolstered in February 2016, when four imams were arrested in Kaolack on suspicion of proselytisation and recruiting on behalf of the group. Their arrests were allegedly initiated by the November 2015 detention of Senegalese national Makhtar Diokhané, who was detained in Niger along with a number of Boko Haram operatives and subsequently transferred to Senegalese authority for prosecution. Most recently, three suspected Islamist extremists were arrested in the Yoff-Tonghor area of Dakar on 24 June. Following their interrogation, the suspects allegedly confessed to Senegal’s Criminal Investigation Department (DIC) that they were among 23 Senegalese nationals in Boko Haram’s ranks. 

In addition to Boko Haram, Senegalese ties also extend to the sect’s Levant-based patron, namely ISIS. In addition to the 29 March arrests, it is estimated that between 10 and 30 Senegalese nationals may have travelled to the battlefields of Syria, Libya, and Iraq to defend and expand ISIS’ so-called caliphate.

While Senegal’s ties to groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS will undoubtedly be cause for concern, it is the country’s relation to al-Qaeda which could most influence the country’s short-to-medium term outlook. In February 2017, two Malian nationals were detained in Dakar by the Brigade d'Intervention Polyvalente (BIP) on suspicion of being tied to al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Mourabitoun commander Mohamed Ould Nouini. The Malian-borne Ould Nouini is believed to have masterminded the March 2016 attack on the Grand Bassam beachfront in Cote d’Ivoire, which killed 19 people and wounded 36 others. His arrest followed the 2013 apprehension of Senegalese preacher, Imam Babacar Dianko in Kédougou – an alleged associate of al-Qaeda-aligned Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) leader, Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou. 

The site where four female suicide bombers blew themselves up near a bus station in Maiduguri, Nigeria. 

But while the aforementioned arrests infer that Islamist extremists may be using Senegal as an important recruitment and logistics hub, is the country itself at risk of being targeted in a terrorist attack by such actors? Despite the lack of Islamist extremist violence in the West African country, there are several factors indicating the prevailing status quo may not persist indefinitely.

First, the country remains a key ally of Western governments such as France and the United States, with Senegal assisting the aforementioned countries in their ongoing counter-terrorism operations in West Africa. Highlighting this, Senegal is a member of the US-sponsored Trans-Saharan Counter-terrorism Initiative (TSCI) which, using both civil and military agencies, is working to fight terrorism in the region.

Moreover, Senegal is also a host country of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) continental counter-terrorism exercise, Operational Flintlock, and recently signed a defense cooperation agreement with the US military. Senegal is a contributor to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which has specifically been mandated to counter the activities of AQIM and its affiliates there.

In its latest pledge of support to the fight against Islamist extremism in its next door neighbour, the government of President Macky Sall sanctioned the deployment of a rapid intervention force of Senegalese troops to central Mali in May 2017 on the request of UN general for peacekeeping operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix. Further delineating its support for counter-terrorism operations in Mali and the wider region, Senegal hosts operational and logistical support bases for France’s Operation Barkhane mission - a multipronged military initiative aimed at countering terrorist activity across several Sahelian states. 

It is Senegal’s direct and tacit support of counter-terrorism initiatives which has raised concerns about the country potentially serving as an attractive target for retaliation by extremists. Senegal’s spatial proximity to Mali is another factor which makes the country susceptible to attacks, particularly those aligned to the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) network. As has been witnessed in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists are seeking exploiting factors such as porous borders, in addition to transnational ethnic and familial linkages, to establish an operational presence in countries located proximate to their operational core in Mali. Associated acts of violence can be explained as both retaliation for Mali’s neighbours’ involvement in French-led counter-terror efforts and also as a means of signalling al-Qaeda’s intent to expand its operational footprint across the wider West Africa region.

With Senegal both an active contributor to regional counter-terror initiatives and located within the geographic reach of al-Qaeda infiltration, it stands to reason that a terrorist attack within its borders, either attempted or successful, may be more a question of when, than if. 

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.