The Sahel’s uphill battle to halt the expansion of Islamist extremism in 2020 - Part II

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The Sahel’s uphill battle to halt the expansion of Islamist extremism in 2020 - Part II

Jessica Moody

21 Jan 2020

6min min read
  • Border security

s Islamist extremist groups become more adept at launching devastating attacks with alarming frequency in the Sahel, the pressure is on countries in the region, as well as international allies, to curb the violence. But countering the expansion of Islamist extremism will be far from straightforward. Despite playing host to a growing number of military forces, including France’s Operation Barkhane, a UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) and the regional G5 Sahel force, extremist violence has risen and the number of fatalities has increased every year since 2016

Part II of the Africa Portal’s essay on Islamist extremism in the Sahel unpacks the opportunities and challenges for the regional and international security effort in the year ahead. Part I examined the capabilities and intent of militant groups in the Sahel and the threat these groups pose to regional stability.

The trials and tribulations of the G5

The G5 Sahel Force, comprising troops from Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania has repeatedly fallen short of its objectives. The mission was first established in 2014, but did not launch its first operation until October 2017, due to funding deficiencies and a lack of troops. Although it has steadily begun to mount more operations, the G5 is still suffering from severe funding shortfalls and in the absence of more permanent financing, questions persist surrounding the sustainability of the force. 

It will continue to face such challenges in 2020, while it will also grapple with ongoing coordination disputes between troop-contributing countries. The G5 was set up to improve security and development cooperation in the region, mitigating the risk that militants would flee from an attack in one country to safety in another. To this end, the G5 regulations stipulate that army units can pursue militants up to 50km into another country’s territory. Yet, in practice, insurgents continue to be able to flee between countries and tensions have flared where one nation has sought to pursue perpetrators across frontiers. Recent months have shown few indications of improvements in this area. In November 2019, Burkina Faso’s government accused Mali of unauthorised military operations on its soil.

The lack of willingness to work more closely together has undermined attempts to create an effective regional armed force. Rather than working together in areas most affected by violence, the G5 countries have largely chosen to continue operating as singular units. This is demonstrated by the failure to deploy the strongest armies within the G5- those of Chad and Mauritania- to the most dangerous areas of the mission along the border between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Instead, the weakest armies are charged with tackling the worst violence, and the benefits of access to additional, stronger militaries are lost.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

There is hope that decisions reached at a G5 summit in the French city of Pau in January will help to rectify some of these difficulties in 2020. That meeting saw France announce the deployment of an additional 220 troops to the Sahel, while also agreeing to the creation of a new structure: The Coalition of the Sahel. This is intended to bring the 4,000 G5 soldiers and the 4,500 French forces, as well as any future troops, under a single command, to facilitate joint operations, greater intelligence-sharing and quicker response time, especially for French forces working in border areas where violence is at its worst. If used well, the establishment of the coalition could help to overcome some of the G5’s long-standing coordination challenges.

Moves to increase international forces’ presence in the region could also assist in stemming the tide of violence. In November, the European Union said it planned to increase its presence in the Sahel and the support it provides its partners fighting terrorism there. Additionally, a new task force, called Takuba, will be created in the coming months to incorporate special forces from European countries. This will supplement those already providing logistical support such as the UK, Denmark and Germany. These forces should take a more proactive role in training and working with regional security forces in the field, in turn freeing up French military personnel from Operation Barkhane to focus on pursuing insurgents in the field.

Persistent challenges

Although the arrival of more, better trained troops to the region should bolster stabilisation efforts, a number of challenges will remain. The Pau G5 Summit allowed French President Emmanuel Macron to reaffirm West African interest in French military presence in the region by asking the presidents of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to publicly declare their preference for France to remain militarily active in the region. The fact that Macron felt the need to have such a discussion, however, is indicative of worsening anti-French sentiment in the region.

"The battle for hearts and minds is far from being won by foreign troops who are perceived to have failed to halt the violence."

Protests against the French and even the UN military presence have mounted, particularly in Mali. On 9 October over 1,000 people assembled in Sevare, Mali to protest the presence of foreign troops. Three days later civilians looted a MINUSMA storage facility in the same town. In early January hundreds gathered in Bamako calling for the departure of France, with some depicting President Macron as Hitler.

Resistance to French and international involvement in local conflicts complicates their increasing deployment there. The paradox is that these are the troops that are most likely to be able to stabilise the situation in the short-term, yet their presence enables extremist Islamist groups to create a neo-colonial narrative surrounding France’s involvement in the region, reframing their jihad as a second war of independence. These groups are then able to draw on a wider pool of recruits of those citizens who are fed up with French, and international involvement in their country’s affairs. 

The latest protests underscore the fact that the battle for hearts and minds is far from being won by foreign troops who are perceived to have failed to halt the violence. This is compounded by the human rights violations thought to be caused by the heavy-handed approach of frustrated domestic troops in the Sahel. Over the course of 2019, military operations in Mali forced more than 80,000 people to flee their homes. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reported in March 2019 that between mid-2018 and February 2019, the Burkinabe military undertook more than 115 summary executions of unarmed men accused of having aided or sheltered terrorists.

Finally, though the arrival of more foreign troops should help immediate stabilisation efforts, it is likely to be too slow to make much of a difference in the next six months. Operation Takuba for example, is still being set up and is unlikely to be fully operational until the middle of 2020. While these lengthy preparations are taking place, persistent, ferocious jihadist attacks are likely to persist unabated, illustrated by an attack on a Nigerien military base in early January killing 89 soldiers at the western town of Chinagodrar.

Tackling the underlying causes of violence

In the longer-term seriously halting the spread of the scourge is unlikely to be solely a military endeavour. The ability of these armed groups to provide services and access to employment in areas where the state has long failed them gives a powerful incentive to residents to join these armed groups and this will almost certainly continue to be the case in 2020. Where residents are not tempted by the economic possibilities these groups offer, they could be intimidated into joining these insurgencies to protect their families in regions where security services are non-existent. 

Both Barkhane and the G5 do include some economic development programmes aimed at tackling this underlying problem and the Sahel Alliance, launched in 2017 by France, Germany and the EU will also disburse funding in the region over the next year. It says it has earmarked 800 projects to be implemented in G5 countries over the next five years.

But, as crucial as these initiatives are, they will also struggle to make significant improvements without simultaneous advances in the security domain: It is difficult for even the best-intentioned development programmes to make much progress in regions beset by insecurity. 

This leaves the outlook for the Sahel for 2020 looking rather bleak. Even with the decision to increase troop presence and nominally augment collaboration between different forces, the extremist militants are likely to remain one-step ahead for at least the next six months. The increasing virulence and regularity of their attacks highlights the growing strength of the opposition the regional and international militaries are facing. So far, these forces have not shown themselves to be capable of tackling it effectively to the detriment of the populations in the Sahel, who will now face yet another year of intensifying Islamist extremist violence.

(Main image: Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) of the French Army are seen as they stop to spend the night in a temporary base during the Bourgou IV operation in the Soum region in northern Burkina Faso on 9 November 2019 - Michele Cattani/AFP via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.