Assessing counterterrorism operations in the Sahel

A French military helicopter over the Nigerien town Madama, which serves as a forward operating base for the French, Niger and Chad armies. (Photo: Thomas Goisque)

On February 15–16, a G5 Sahel Summit was held in N’Djamena, Chad. The Summit brought together leaders of 5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) as well as the French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss the growing security issues in the region. The Summit comes at a time when the Sahel is experiencing a surge in violence from jihadist groups. In his remarks at the Summit, President Macron ruled out an immediate reduction in France’s 5,100 troops in the region, and noted that “other important operations” will be launched in the coming months against targeted groups in collaboration with the G5 Sahel countries. Over the past few years, France has played a dominant role in counterterrorism efforts in the region. The G5 Sahel or GS5 is an intergovernmental cooperation framework launched in 2014 to fight insecurity and promote development in the Sahel region.

Source: French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

As the Sahel continues to experience a rise in violence, many are now wondering whether France’s counter-terrorism operations are effectively addressing the security threats that the G5 are facing.

French military involvement in Sahel

In January 2013, France launched a military operation in Mali called Operation Serval to stop the advancement of Islamist militants to Bamako. France carried out the military intervention upon request from the government of Mali, and the military intervention marked the beginning of France’s counterterrorism operation in Mali. In 2014, Operation Serval was replaced with Operation Barkhane, allowing France to provide broader support to Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. Operation Barkhane, along with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), currently supports the G5 Sahel in their counterterrorism efforts. Operation Barkhane is France’s largest overseas operation and France currently has 5,100 military personnel deployed in the Sahel.

Rise of militant Islamist groups in the Sahel

Despite continued military efforts by France, little progress has been made in stopping the rise of militant Islamist groups in the Sahel. According to the African Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), in 2020, African militant Islamist groups set a new record in ther violent activities, with 4,958 violent events being recorded.

Compiled by the U.S. Department of Defense African Center for Strategic Studies

The sharpest increase in violence was in the Sahel, especially by groups such as the Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), operating in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. According to the United Nations Office of West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), terrorist attacks in those three countries accounted for the deaths of more than 4,000 people in 2019, a five-fold jump from the numbers reported in 2016.

Just days before G5 Sahel Summit took place, an attack in Central Mali by unidentified militants resulted in the death of one UN peacekeeper and wounded 27 others. The United Nations’ Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack, and said that the attack on the peacekeepers “may constitute a war crime.” Just this past week, at least 18 people were killed in northern Burkina Faso and Central Mali. Despite France’s vow to “decapitate” the growing number of militant Islamist groups in the Sahel, there is an increasing concern that France’s militarized approach to counterterrorism is doing more harm than good. Additionally, over the past year, dissatisfaction has grown over France’s heavy military presence in places like Mali, with protesters taking to the streets to call for the withdrawal of French troops. Just about a month ago, protests were held in Bamako to oppose the French military’s presence, which many viewed as having failed in stopping the attacks by Islamist militants in the country.

The U.S. posture regarding the G5

France is not the only country that is currently engaged in counterterrorism operations in the Sahel. The United States is also involved in counterterrorism operations in the Sahel with an unknown number of troops operating in the region, and it provides security assistance to G5 countries to combat the militant groups. According to the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor, between 2000 and 2019, the G5 Sahel received nearly $1.4 billion in U.S. security assistance. During the G5 Sahel Summit, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that the US “was concerned about rising violent extremism, governance challenges, and humanitarian concerns in the region” and that it would “build on existing efforts in West Africa and share lessons in the global fight against violent extremism.” Much like France’s counterterrorism efforts, the US’ militarized approach to fighting terrorism in the Sahel is failing.

Recommendations

As criticisms mount regarding the failure of France and the US to stabilize the Sahel, experts are weighing in on what a better strategy for tackling extremism would look like. The International Crisis Group’s latest report on the Sahel recommendations for how external actors like France can play an effective role in the fight against Islamist insurgency in the Sahel. These include:

For the last two decades, the U.S. has provided nearly $1.4 billion in security assistance to the G5 Sahel, and in the past few years, France has spent 600 million euros annually to sustain its military operations in the region. But despite their costly military expenditures, neither the U.S. nor France have been successful in stopping the increase in extremist violence in the region. The time is long past due for both France and the U.S. to reassess their militarized foreign policy in the Sahel and initiate a different approach.

Nani Detti

Communications Intern,

Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement