Jihadi groups in the Sahel have not yet won any of the insurgencies in which they have been involved, yet they remain the most adaptive and resilient of all insurgent groups. Ansar al-Dine, Al-Mourabitoun, and the Sahara branch of Al-Qa‘eda in the Islamic Maghreb have shown remarkable staying power, defying predictions that their military rout by France in 2013 in northern Mali would be a crippling blow. What explains the endurance and proliferation of Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel?

Since Algerian terrorist groups relocated to northern Mali during the first decade of the century, rebel leaders in the Sahel have become more inclined to adopting Salafi-jihadism as a means of survival and recruitment, and to outcompete other armed actors. In contexts of contending warring groups, ethnic or religious divisions, and state misrule, a basic challenge of rebel mobilization is the collective action problem, because the natural inclination of individuals is to stay out of conflicts, given the high costs of participation. Insurgent groups try to mitigate this problem by providing material benefits—protection, money, social services—in return for becoming a supporter or fighter. Extremists also have the advantage of using ideology wrapped in religious ideas to motivate, coordinate, and retain recruits.

Violent extremism helps draw the most devoted recruits on the cheap. This is important in contexts of intense rebel competition where switching sides and the realignment of alliances is more the norm than the exception. In such fractured environments, extremist groups can also become appealing to moderates, as they appear as the only ones able to follow through on their commitments to reshape state-society relationships. This is critical in the early phases of conflict as recruits tend to flock to groups that have the potential to win and a fearsome reputation for enforcing law and order.

It is not a coincidence that an essential theme in the discourse of jihadi groups is morality, honor, and justice—values that individuals and communities who are repressed, exploited, and discriminated against crave. For example, in analyzing a trove of unearthed documents by the so-called Islamic State group, New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi revealed how the group used a rough and ready dispensation of justice to win over the population it controlled, including those whom it abused. The Islamic State also distinguished itself by its willingness to hold its own fighters to account. It is this revolutionary character—backed by a moralizing and revolutionary language—that builds the credibility and reputation of jihadis as enforcers of order and purveyors of security.

Armed jihadi groups in the Sahel have quickly learned that ideological purity and religious zeal can act as a useful branding strategy to differentiate themselves from rival groups. The case of Ayad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar al-Dine and a Machiavellian fixture of Tuareg insurrections in northern Mali, is revealing in this regard. According to several observers, Ag Ghali’s embrace of extreme ideology was determined by the fast-moving events that led to the January 2012 uprising launched by the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) against the government of Mali. Ag Ghali had wanted to be the movement’s secretary general but was rebuffed in November 2011, leading to his marginalization during the crucial preparatory stages of the rebellion. It is a matter of conjecture whether Ag Ghali’s radical trajectory would have been the same had he been allowed to lead this revolt against the Malian state.

Regardless what one might think about Ag Ghali’s 2012 reinvention as a firebrand intent on imposing an extreme form of Islamic law, the adoption of a radical jihadi posture allowed him to differentiate himself from the MNLA, while at the same time benefiting from the critical material support of violent extremist organizations operating in northern Mali. The result is that a few months after the start of the northern Mali conflict in early 2012, the charismatic Ag Ghali emerged as the most prominent leader of the Tuareg insurgency. An appreciable number of those who joined him did not share the radical ideology he had set for his organization. Alghabass Ag Intallah, the son of the hereditary chief of the Ifoghas, who first joined the MNLA, acknowledged that his defection to Ansar al-Dine was based on the group’s power and better organization. Ag Intallah also reportedly mocked the conversion of Ag Ghali into a radical jihadi.

The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a jihadi group active in southern Algeria and northern Mali between 2011 and 2013, had an even more ambivalent relationship with religion. A non-negligible portion of its members was made up of drug traffickers not known for radical religiosity. Their primary objective was to secure their position in the bitter competition over access to trafficking revenues and control over trafficking routes, “without any particular regard to the harsh religious dogma held by the organization they lead,” as Mathieu Pellerin, a French specialist on Africa, has written.

In an environment marked by intense fear, uncertainty, and competition among insurgent factions, the leaders of MUJAO understood that the embrace of radical ideology could quickly yield a critical early advantage in attracting the most dedicated fighters. This was necessary for building a winning force that could, over time, attract the support of a population that was often religiously moderate. A nonideological wing and a hardcore religious wing came together in MUJAO, recalling what had occurred in Iraq with the Islamic State, where religious zealots joined with aggrieved Arab Sunnis, including officers from Saddam Hussein’s secular army.

The importance of radical ideology in the Sahel stems from its instrumental value and normative commitments. For rebel leaders, radical ideology helps their groups recruit and stand out from the rest of the pack. For aggrieved communities, there are situational incentives in joining a winning coalition. It is not the presumed religious radicalism of young men that determines alignment choices. Rather, it is the strategic gains to which leaders and their followers aspire that determine which are the armed groups that individuals or communities choose to join or support.

This publication was produced with support from the X-Border Local Research Network, a program funded by UK aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.