The spread of Islamic extremism across Africa’s unstable, impoverished Sahel region has reached crisis levels and is likely to get much worse, analysts predict, unless the U.S., France and other outside powers change course and rethink their counterterrorism campaigns on the continent.
Top Pentagon officials who have spent 20 years battling jihadi groups in the Middle East now say the Sahel — a loosely defined geographical stretch across northern Africa encompassing parts of about 10 countries — is quickly replacing the Middle East and North Africa as ground zero in the global war on terror.
Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said over the weekend that a “wildfire of terrorism” is sweeping through Africa and has steamrolled over a coalition of Western militaries and their partners in fragile federal governments across the Sahel.
Seven of the world’s top 10 countries most at risk of terrorism are now in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a study by the British-based consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft. The firm found that Burkina Faso and Mali are now just as dangerous as Afghanistan and Syria, the traditional home bases of al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, respectively.
There is little sign that the situation will improve. With President Emmanuel Macron pulling back France’s long military role in West Africa, and with little political will or public appetite in America for another decade of war with Islamic militants, specialists say the region faces a grim future and could become a breeding ground for extremist groups to plot attacks against the U.S. and Europe.
“The situation will continue to deteriorate, and I don’t see it getting better without additional investments from France, the U.S. and the international community,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies global terrorism and the Sahel region. “Such an investment is unlikely to happen unless there is a major terror threat that requires further intervention.”
Radical groups operating in the theater have brought shocking brutality against civilians, government troops and even children.
Affiliates of al Qaeda and the Islamic State group have established a major presence in and around the Sahel, as has the terrorist group Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, commonly known as JNIM. In Nigeria, Boko Haram, perhaps best known for its mass kidnappings of African schoolgirls, maintains a deep foothold.
The Sahel stretches east through Sudan and Eritrea before meeting the Red Sea. Just outside the region in Somalia, the al Qaeda offshoot al-Shabab controls huge swaths of territory despite a major counterterrorism effort led by African Union and Somali government ground forces and backed by U.S. air power.
Over the past decade, France‘s Operation Barkhane targeted terrorists in Mali, Niger, Chad and elsewhere across the Sahel.
But those efforts have failed to stop extremist groups from expanding their ranks, routinely carrying out horrific attacks and further undermining weak central governments. Even top U.S. military officials acknowledge that their efforts haven’t been enough.
“I am concerned about the security situation across a band of Africa,” Gen. Townsend told reporters Friday during the multilateral Africa Lion military exercise.
Detailing the host of counterterrorism efforts on the continent, he said, “All of that does not seem to be sufficient enough to stop what I call … [the] wildfire of terrorism that’s sweeping that region.”
Roughly 7,000 U.S. personnel are stationed across Africa. In December, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of about 700 troops from Somalia, where they had been leading the fight against al-Shabab.
Those troops were redeployed to other U.S. bases in Africa. They continue to oversee a drone campaign against al-Shabab and carry out special operations elsewhere on the continent.
In October, U.S. Special Forces troops rescued 27-year-old American Philip Walton, who had been taken hostage by gunmen near the Nigeria-Niger border.
The Pentagon under Mr. Trump explored ways to lower the U.S. troop presence in Africa, parts of a larger push to reorient U.S. military strategy to the “great-power” challenge from China and Russia. But the Biden administration reportedly is weighing a plan to send at least several dozen troops back into Somalia. The move could signal that the U.S. is prepared to ramp up its fight against al-Shabab.
Elsewhere in Africa, however, there are worrying signs that the manpower may not meet the seriousness of the threat.
Mr. Macron announced this month that the France-led Operation Barkhane will end. France has about 5,000 troops in Africa, though they, too, have failed to contain the expansion of Islamic terrorism.
In some ways echoing President Biden’s rationale for the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr. Macron said it was time to accept that the approach wasn’t working.
“The time has come. The continuation of our commitment in the Sahel cannot be in the same way,” he said.
Mr. Macron said an international military campaign will replace the French effort.
Just days before Mr. Macron‘s announcement, militants killed at least 132 people, including seven children, in the Yagha province in Burkina Faso, near the border with Nigeria. No specific group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
In March, 33 government soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack on the town of Ansongo in Mali.
Such attacks have continued unabated for years. In December 2019, terrorists slaughtered at least 71 Nigerien soldiers in a coordinated assault on a military base near the Niger-Mali border.
In 2017, Islamic State fighters killed four Green Berets near the village of Tongo Tongo in Niger.
The rate of such violence has skyrocketed over the past five years. In 2015, at least 381 attacks in Africa targeted civilians.
Last year, at least 7,108 attacks killed at least 12,519 people, according to figures compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria and Sudan are among the hardest-hit, data shows.
As evidenced by Gen. Townsend‘s warning and Mr. Macron‘s announcement of a change in France‘s approach, specialists say a purely military solution in the Sahel isn’t practical. The region is too big and the economic and social ills too deep to solve the terrorism crisis solely with force.
U.S. personnel “would be best as enablers for a civilian-led approach, giving a platform and support to a menu of foreign assistance engagements designed to resolve local conflicts, restore governance, and return resiliency to local populations now poisoned by these terrorist groups,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “We all pay lip service to addressing the issues outside of the military domain, but have little invested in actually working to improve the conditions.”