Dakar (AFP) - Jihadist groups are swelling their ranks by recruiting disenchanted groups of young sub-Saharan Africans across the region's borders, militants and experts say, and training them to mount deadly attacks on civilian targets.
After Bamako in November and Ouagadougou in January, it was the beach resort of Grand-Bassam in Ivory Coast that came under attack from gunmen armed with grenades and rifles on Sunday, killing 19 people.
The three attackers identified so far were black, sub-Saharan Africans, part of a new generation of homegrown fighters in a shifting jihadi landscape once dominated by Arabs.
In a statement claiming the attack, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) referred to two of its "knights" as "al-Fulani", referring to a group of people, many of them pastoralists, spread across the region.
A third attacker had "al-Ansari" after his name, meaning a native of the area, as opposed to "al-mujaher", which would indicate a foreigner.
It is known that AQIM, founded by Algerians, operates across borders and recruits from multiple ethnicities, but the profile of its fighters is evolving, mirroring a similar phenomenon seen in the Boko Haram movement operating inside Nigeria and its neighbours.
The shift was most visible in Mali, where AQIM put down deep roots before it was routed by French-led forces in 2013 from several northern towns that it had occupied in allegiance with a Tuareg rebel faction.
"AQIM and what is now MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) had already integrated locally: in Mauritania, around Timbuktu and Gao," Sahel expert Yvan Guichaoua told AFP, referring also to another armed Islamist group threatening the region.
- 'Very young cadets' -
He added: "The recruitment base grew during the (Islamist) occupation, however, through the enrolment of very young cadets in training camps in Gao."
AQIM has openly discussed its diverse network of fighters. Its Sahel region commander Yahya Abu el-Hammam even boasted how the group has increasingly carried out operations in Mali's centre and south, extending AQIM's reach beyond its northern stronghold, eliminating the need to dispatch fighters from the north.
"Today, the mujahideen have built up brigades and battalions with sons of the region, our black brothers, Peuls (Fulani), Bambaras and Songhai," Hammam said in an interview with Mauritanian website Al-Akhbar, referring to three West African groups that have been targeted for recruitment.
The Bambara and Songhai peoples live primarily in Mali but have smaller presences elsewhere in the region.
- More female attackers -
Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based Islamist insurgent group that pledged allegiance to Islamic State, is also adapting its recruitment strategy to remain the most formidable armed group in the region.
Active in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, Boko Haram's seven-year insurgency has left at least 17,000 dead and displaced more than 2.6 million people.
A sub-Saharan force from its inception, its fighters now count many more female attackers among their ranks.
A twin suicide bombing at a mosque in northeast Nigeria by two women disguised as men killed at least 22 people on Wednesday.
Boko Haram has "changed the profile of adult male suicide bombers," even strapping suicide vests to children, according to FBI supervisory special agent Victor Lloyd, speaking during the US-led Flintlock military exercise for African countries held in Senegal and Mauritania last month.
The countries battling Boko Haram are reinforced by France's Operation Barkhane, which has at least 3,500 soldiers deployed across five countries in the region to combat the raging jihadist insurgency.
AQIM directly threatened France and its allies in the region after the Ivory Coast attack, warning that nations involved in Barkhane and the 2013 French-led Operation Serval in Mali would "receive a response" targeting their "criminal leaders".
When French forces entered Mali in 2013, they encountered "very, very young local fighters," said Sahel expert Guichaoua.
It is now feared that neighbouring Niger could also become a potent source of homegrown jihadists.
Religious experts there have warned that the ultra-conservative Wahhabist strain of Islam is taking hold in urban areas although Niger's government insists that it is "closely monitoring" the issue.
Governments in the region are grappling with a lack of alternatives for an entire generation of young west Africans.
Unemployment is sky high and opportunities for education are often very limited, creating fertile ground for jihadist recruitment, US Special Operations commander for Africa Donald Bolduc told reporters recently during the recent US exercise in the region.
He said: "If someone's going to be there to provide you with some training, provide you with a gun, provide you with a purpose, provide you with a wife, in the absence of good governance, that's more compelling."