While its Middle East “caliphate” has been shattered, the Islamic State has regrouped and quickly gained a significant foothold in Africa’s unstable, impoverished Sahel region — and experts say the U.S. is taking a serious foreign policy gamble by steering clear of major military intervention to address the growing terrorist threat.
The Islamic State’s massacre this month of 71 soldiers in Niger came on the heels of other shocking attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere across the western part of the continent. The violence has transformed sub-Saharan Africa into perhaps the world’s most fertile breeding ground for Islamic State, al Qaeda, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), and a host of other terror organizations that prey on economic desperation and take advantage of dysfunctional governments.
The recent attacks highlight the dangerous military capabilities of those extremist groups and also shine a light on the inability of regional militaries to effectively fight back.
While the French and other American partners have launched major counter-terrorism operations in the region, the U.S. military so far has mostly played a secondary role centered on training and advising local forces.
Even as the terror threat rose, last year the Pentagon announced plans to cut its number of troops in Africa, dropping from roughly 6,000 to about 5,400. The cut is expected to be carried out over the next two years.
Specialists say that move underscores the broader foreign policy approach of a Trump administration that now considers the greatest existential threats to the U.S. to be traditional powers such as China and Russia, not non-state terror groups in Africa or the Middle East.
But that strategy carries its own dangers, particularly if Islamic State or other groups are given the space and time needed to grow into legitimate ground armies capable of holding major territory — a real possibility, specialists say, given current trends.
“Right now if you look at the U.S. National Defense Strategy and national security strategy shift away from counterterrorism to competition with the Chinese and the Russians, … I think at the moment the U.S. has been willing to take some risk, particularly in areas like West Africa,” said Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threat Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. is willing to risk the situation getting worse at the moment and respond if it has to, if the situation gets bad enough.”
A new analysis by the Crisis Group think tank said that political and institutional weaknesses, particularly in Burkina Faso, is already posing a growing threat to the stability of countries along Africa’s western coast.
“The specter of jihadism reaching toward the Gulf of Guinea haunts West Africa,” according to the Crisis Group survey, which said the inability of the countries in the region to coordinate their response was only fueling the crisis.
“Militants often act more out of opportunism, exploiting turmoil, than sophisticated strategy,” the report warned. “They could draw strength from coastal states’ own fragility.”
Relocating and revamping
The deteriorating situation in Africa comes just as a U.S.-led campaign across Syria and Iraq has virtually eliminated ISIS’s once-vaunted physical caliphate, underscoring how a determined terrorist organization can relocate and revamp its strategy even after years-long, blistering American military offensives.
While rarely generating the same media attention as incidents across the Middle East or Asia, the attacks in the Sahel have become more frequent, brazen and deadly in 2019.
Last week, 71 Nigerien soldiers were slaughtered by terrorists in a coordinated assault on a military base near the Niger-Mali border.
The Islamic State’s West Africa branch quickly claimed credit for the assault, which led Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou to declare that the militants had become “professionals in the art of war.”
The attack followed another incident in July in which 18 Nigerien soldiers were killed by terrorist fighters. In November, more than 50 soldiers from Mali’s army were killed in clashes with terrorist fighters.
Other attacks have rocked Burkina Faso and other nations in the region, despite an increased military presence from European nations. France, for example, has thousands of troops on the ground across the Sahel and has led a multinational campaign to push back on terror groups.
Specialists say the French-led military offensives themselves have been well-planned and executed but have failed to spur lasting change. While direct U.S. military involvement in the region has been minimal, America did suffer casualties during a shootout with Islamic State forces in October 2017, raising questions about the nation’s secretive role in the Sahel and making it much more difficult politically for the Pentagon to ramp up its presence there.
Four U.S. Green Berets and four Nigerien soldiers were killed in the 2017 ambush by Islamic State fighters.
The U.S. forces had deployed alongside their Nigerian counterparts in pursuit of a militant affiliated with the Islamic State. Unable to locate the target, the forces began to return to their bases but were ambushed near the village of Tongo Tongo in what appeared to be a pre-planned enemy assault.
‘Missing the threat’
In the two years since the Niger attack, the Trump administration has ramped up its financial investments and other efforts to bring stability to the region.
But faced with the reality of a massive spike in high-profile terrorist attacks, U.S. officials and lawmakers admit there’s been limited success, and there are deeper questions about whether the U.S. is allowing the seeds to be planted for a much more serious crisis down the road.
“It’s been very difficult for us, even with a considerable level of resources, to really move the needle at all in terms of strengthening the rule of law, establishing independent judiciaries, and creating conditions where some of the other more traditional … military-sponsored programs can actually succeed,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security, at a hearing last week on the threat of extremism in Africa.
While at the moment the situation would seem to pose little direct threat to the U.S., analysts say groups such as Islamic State could use their success across Africa to rebuild their ranks and develop new tactics. Afghanistan, analysts note, was a backwater barely on the U.S. security radar when al Qaeda forces used the country as a base to plan and launch the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
While Islamic State is clearly the most prominent, specialists say there are at least 10 distinct extremist organizations operating across the region.
“Once again, U.S. leaders are missing the threat of the global Salafi-jihadi movement,” Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a recent piece examining terror across Africa. “Once these groups win their ‘near war’ — the local fight — they will invariably turn their eyes toward Europe and even to the U.S. At that point, they will have trained and experienced operatives, field-tested terror tactics, and the sanctuary within which to combine the two with deadly results. Defeating or even weakening the groups on the ground will be much costlier in the future.”
Indeed, analysts argue that the rash of attacks is part of a more ambitious plan on the part of Islamic State and other extremist groups to gain more physical ground. If the militaries and governments across the Sahel are weakened enough, the opportunity to once again create a physical quasi-state could present itself.
“I see an interest in creating emirates in those areas,” said Mr. Jones, the CSIS analyst. “That is, establishing a pretty extreme version of Shariah Islamic law across a chunk of territory in West Africa — the bigger the better.”
“It’s an extreme emirate they’re pushing for. And they have it in some areas,” he added.
Despite the light footprint in the Sahel and seeming unwillingness to get directly involved, the U.S. still is carrying out counterterrorism missions on the other side of the continent in Somalia. On Dec. 16, for example, the U.S. carried out an airstrike against al-Shabab fighters in Dujuma, Somalia, one of dozens of American airstrikes across the country this year.
The number of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia — targeting both al-Shabab and the Islamic State affiliate operating in the region — has increased dramatically over the three years President Trump has been in office.