Counterterrorism on the Shores of the Sahara

 /  Jan. 2, 2018, 11:18 p.m.


In late October of 2017, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley informed the UN Security Council that the United States would be pledging up to sixty million dollars, pending congressional approval, to support the G5 Sahel Joint Forces (Sahel G5), a multinational counterterrorism force in the Sahel region of Africa.

Sahel is an Arabic word meaning shore, referencing the southern “shore” of the Sahara desert that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean, to the Red Sea, to the Indian Ocean. The Sahel region spreads from Africa’s Western tip at Senegal and Mauritania, all the way to Eritrea and parts of Ethiopia in the east. The Sahel G5, a security coalition comprised of five Sahel countries, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad, is on the front lines of the counter-terrorism effort against Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and other extremist Islamic groups competing and merging for power in the region. In March 2017 the four primary terror groups operating in the region coalesced under a common banner; AQIM and Al Mourabitoun originally merged in 2015, and both combined in early 2017 with the Macina Liberation Front and Ansar Dine into Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims.” This cohering showcases the changing dynamics that are a part of the tumultuous situation.

The terror threat posed by these groups in the Sahel should not be understated. In 2016 alone, AQIM and al Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for a three man assault on an Ivory Coast beach resort that claimed the lives of fifteen civilians and three special forces soldiers. Similar attacks were coordinated in other Sahel countries. Conflicts pervade across national boundaries—the border between Niger and Mali is known as the “red zone” by locals, due to the high number of terrorist organizations, armed groups, and smugglers operating out of the area. Overall, the violence has left tens of thousands of deaths and millions of displaced people in its wake.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram targeted a mosque using two young girl suicide bombers. The mosque attacks killed twenty-four people and wounded another eighteen attempting to flee the scene. Women and girl suicide bombers are part of a ploy to generate international outrage, and use “expendable” targets. Women bombers from Boko Haram are more likely to target civilian areas, while male bombers are more likely to target Christian and pro-government institutions. Boko Haram also claimed responsibility for the 2014 slaughter of fifty-nine young boys at a secondary school in the Nigerian town of Buni Yadi. Boko Haram’s death toll has been deadlier than that of ISIS over the past few years, and the group was responsible for 6,500 deaths in 2014 and 11,000 deaths in 2015.

More recently in 2017, four US special forces officers were killed in an attempted mission to track down a local terrorist leader known as Dandou, affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS News of the deaths furthered existing criticisms of the overall mission and purpose behind the deployment of troops in the Sahel region. Even more controversy was created at the delay in the return of Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson’s body from Niger, as many argued over President Trump’s handling of the phone call for condolences to Sergeant Johnson's family. These stories reveal the lasting cost of terrorism at the individual, familial, community, and regional level, and the political challenges that arise when missteps are made.

Headquartered in central Mali, the Sahel G5 nations are a five-thousand-strong counterterrorism force for the Sahel. Their mission is divided into three sectors: the Liptako-Gourma region that includes the connecting borders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger; the border between Mali and Mauritania; and the border between Niger and Chad. They are also the only African led transborder counter-terrorism force in the region. It’s a crucial strategy: by coordinating across national boundaries, and with  possession of close knowledge of the ground level situation, the Sahel G5 are able to address the problems of terror in a way that the French military and the UN’s peacekeeping missions cannot. The overarching goal is to have all three actors support one another, to cover for each other’s weaknesses as they maneuver to defeat the persisting terror threat.

The problems posed by terrorism are not the only ones that the Sahel G5 nations must contend with. Rising populations, food insecurity, rampant poverty, underdeveloped infrastructure, and lacking political coordination are also substantive threats to the general welfare of Sahel’s civilian populations. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and French President Emmanuel Macron, have affirmed their commitment to military operations in the region, though not necessarily direct humanitarian relief, in the name of long-term security and stability for the Sahel G5 nations. Domestic political reforms in the Sahel nations are thus an essential component of the overarching counterterrorism mission.

Burkina Faso for example, has recently embraced fairer democracy and political reform. In 2015, it ended twenty-seven years of dogmatic rule, too often characteristic of African nations, by electing a former President of the National Assembly Roch Marc Christian Kaboré to office. Kaboré’s campaign mission sought to address the challenges of income inequality, and to promote access to healthcare, education, and jobs. These legislative priorities work to root out the insecurities that are too often an in for terrorist propaganda, and to bolster the trust of the people in their government. In this way, the G5 governments are uniquely suited for a public policy driven counterterrorism effort, beyond the scope of military action or aid from outside actors.

To this point, international aid can be limited by the political concerns of political leaders in the giving nation. Haley stated that the US government has “reservations” about proposed efforts to expand the reach of the UN peacekeeping mission: “The Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali” (MINUSMA). The reservations represent motives to limit an overreach of UN authority, the expanding scope of militarized humanitarianism, and the granting of military authority to an inexperienced peacekeeping force without the offensive capacity of a European or Sahel G5 state. The inefficiency of MINUSMA operations has further fueled US concerns about the overall success of UN peacekeeping missions: In January of 2017, $600 million was cut from the UN peacekeeping budget, under pressure from the Trump administration. Haley made it clear, stating that “anything that seems to be obsolete and not necessary, we’re going to do away with.”

MINUSMA’s inefficiency has been well documented. It was established to provide post-war security after Mali’s 2012 rebellion and civil war, and has grown to become the most dangerous of the UN’s sixteen peacekeeping missions around the world. It currently acts in a non-offensive capacity as a Mali civilian defense force, against the armed groups in the northern parts of Mali. In 2015, MINUSMA worked  to establish a peace agreement between two armed nationalist groups and the Malian government, known as the Agreement of Peace and Reconciliation. At the time the agreement led to a ceasefire, joint patrols of northern Mali territory, and a common fight against Islamist extremists fighting in the north, but it has grown brittle in recent years. As skirmishes persist, the success of further peace negotiations is threatened, as is the safety of the people in the north of Mali.

MINUSMA itself is also acting to provide support for the other existing counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, but it is without official UN authorization to engage offensively. In the past, the Security Council has vocalized support for a more “proactive and robust posture” for the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, Darfur, and the Golan Heights, which is geo-politically a part of Syria. Concerning the current missions in the Sahel, Haley argued that there was insufficient military experience, jurisdiction, or planning for a UN directed initiative, and reaffirmed Secretary Tillerson’s original pledge directly for the G5 nations.

The stance in favor of direct Sahel G5 funding is motivated further by the inclusion of Chad as part of President Trump’s travel ban. Chad’s inclusion in the travel ban was met with domestic and international critics. Domestic voices also criticized the lack of inter-agency coordination between the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department as the travel ban was announced. As a consequence abroad, the militarily formidable Chad began to wean off its support for the counterterrorism project in Niger, reshifting soldiers to the northern border that it shares with Libya.

If the United States chooses to direct financial support to Chad and Niger, without the middleman of the inexperienced UN peacekeeping force, the move may assuage the post-travel ban frustrations of the Chadian government. Further, it could address the domestic concerns of those who expect a more robust counterterrorism force in Niger, particularly after the death of Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson. Additionally, the Sahel G5 was established relatively recently in of June 2017. The relative youth of the coalition may be a reason to prioritize direct funding and operational support at this time.

France has been a strongly involved actor in the conflict, and endorsed the United States’ $60 million pledge. They were the strongest proponents of the establishment of the Sahel G5 coalition, and has already committed thousands of troops in its largest overseas military operation: Operation Barkhane. The operation works to establish proper multilateral coordination between the G5 governments, and is only acting in a military capacity for the sake of security. In December 2017, President Macron hosted a summit in Paris to attract support for the counterterrorism project.

The fight of French special forces is also aimed in part at eliminating the domestic concerns in France raised by refugees fleeing the Sahel’s instability. As a former colonial power France has strong economic and security interests in the region, but could contribute to long lasting structural problems in the Sahel if it does not create a pressure for domestic policy reforms as a qualification for military or financial aid. As the Malian situation shows, there must be robust institutional redevelopment, community rebuilding, access to secure housing, environmental resource protection, career training and education, technological modernization, and a flushing out of political corruption, for success to be reached in the fight against terror. These developments in substandard communities are essential for nations in the Sahel facing critical concerns of regional violence and instability, but are also crucial for the development of other poor and wealth-disparate African countries, particularly those operating in a post-colonial context.

It is essential that the underlying problems of the terror threat be addressed with proper multilateral coordination and specific plans of action. There are pervasive structural concerns to be considered as a breeding ground for terror, including government corruption and inadequate conflict resolution strategies in states like Chad and Mali respectively. If the United States, France, and the UN have a vested interest in the long term sustainability and independence of the G5 nations, military solutions may prove to be an essential component of this mission. Other important considerations include the concerns of infrastructure, poverty, human trafficking, and transitional justice that must be addressed by political actors to benefit those victimized by the terror threat in the Sahel.

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising fourth year in the University of Chicago studying Political Science. He has served as an Intern in the Office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri, and as an Investigations Intern for the Law Office of The Cook County Public Defender. All of these experiences have taught him that everybody deserves an advocate, and that being cynical is overrated.


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