Despite the elimination of ISIS’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Islamist extremism has remained a potent threat to the civilized world. Think only of the jihadist groups battling for power in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Sinai, Lebanon, Gaza – some of them supported and supplied by Iran. And yet the fight against jihadism is shifting focus. While the Middle East remains a hotbed of battling terrorist groups – some attempting to overthrow established governments, some fighting between themselves for superiority – a new front is opening up in a hitherto under-reported region. It is developing so rapidly that it may soon eclipse the Middle East as the hub of the global struggle.
The Sahel is the collective name for a belt of territory on the southern fringe of the Sahara. It spans the entire width of the African continent, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea – a vast and underpopulated stretch of arid semi-desert. The zone, some 5,400 km long and up to 1000 km wide in some places, runs through eight countries from Senegal and Mauritania in the west, to Sudan and Eritrea in the east. And it is here that the fighters of extremist Islam have been assembling in ever-growing numbers under the black flag of ISIS.
For years three international forces have been trying to stem the advancing tide of Islamist extremism – one under French control, one under the UN, and the third drawn from the governments of the region. Independently and collectively they have failed.
The security crisis started in 2012, when an alliance of armed Islamist groups took over northern Mali. France, the former colonial power, stepped in to stop their advance towards the capital, Bamako, which could have resulted in a total collapse of the Malian state. For some time French troops were able to control the situation, but in recent years armed jihadist groups have expanded their reach. According to the UN, attacks have increased fivefold since 2016 in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
The two main Islamist organizations involved are the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin) and the ISIS-affiliated ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara). Despite repeated French airstrikes, they have expanded their reach beyond their strongholds in northern Mali to unleash bloodshed well outside the country’s borders. Other groups include al-Mourabitoun, Ansarul Islam, Plateforme, Ansar al-Din and Boko Haram.
Reliable sources report nearly 5,400 deaths in 2019 across the five countries of the Francophone Sahel, also known as the G5 Sahel regional body – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. A further 1,214 have died so far this year.
The deteriorating situation has prompted action at last in a variety of quarters.
In September 2019 leaders of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), in recognition of the fact that a number of West African countries have also been hit by attacks, announced a billion-dollar plan to help in the fight against armed groups. The financial aid is expected to run between 2020 and 2024.
A France-G5 Sahel summit in January ended with leaders agreeing to the creation of a new structure aimed at bringing the two parties’ forces together under a single command. The idea was to facilitate joint operations and improve intelligence-sharing. In support, France announced in early February that it was expanding its 4,500-strong military presence in the region by an additional 600 troops.
Now Britain is stepping up to the plate.
It is doing so in response to clear warnings that the crisis could soon engulf even stable states on the Gulf of Guinea coastline. In addition, General Dag Anderson, who commands US special forces in Africa, warns that if the jihadists consolidate their hold on the region, they could easily use it as a launchpad to carry out terrorist attacks in the West.
“We know that al-Qaeda especially has the will and desire to attack the West,” he said.
More immediately, more than a million people have so far been forced to flee. Given that Africa’s main people-smuggling routes cross the Sahel, continued bloodshed could prompt a new surge of desperate refugees into Europe.
All this has led Britain to announce that it is to augment the 11,620-strong UN force in Mali, known as MINUSMA, by 250 troops. This may not sound particularly significant, but Lt Gen Dennis Gyllensporre, MINUSMA’s Swedish commanding officer, has said that the British contribution will play a vital role in his efforts to turn around a mission that, until now, has widely been seen as a failure.
He is planning a total change of tactic. Up to now MINUSMA has been unable to to protect civilians or stabilize the country, because it exerts only the most tenuous authority in the northern towns in which it is based. Outside the towns, the jihadists roam at will, while targeting MINUSMA itself. Executive Riccardo Maia reckons that the UN base in Timbuktu has come under attack 41 times since he arrived there in 2015. Twelve peacekeepers were killed when jihadists overran the MINUSMA base in Aguelhok last year.
Now Gyllensporre plans a radical adaptation of peacekeeping norms.
He will split his force into two tiers. One will play a traditional peacekeeping role, with UN troops stationed in bases near important towns, as they are today. The second, which will be spearheaded by the British contingent, will carry out long-range reconnaissance patrols of up to 30 days deep into jihadist territory and be on standby for rapid deployment anywhere in the country.
“With a manoeuvrable force,” Gyllensporre is reported as saying, “we can be more proactive in anticipating attacks…and going in where there are confrontations. This will be a more robust, versatile part of the force that will enable us to respond decisively. The British contribution will be the tip of the spear of our adaptation.”
After eight years of struggle against Sahel’s jihadists, and with the situation worsening, out-of-the-box thinking is undoubtedly called for. Allied to more decisive action from other anti-jihadist players, it is perhaps not too late to prevent the Islamist threat from getting completely out of control.