The security landscape has taken a new turn across the Sahel. During the first six months of 2022, in an area already ravaged by numerous interconnected armed conflicts and jihadist insurgencies, figures show a dramatic increase of violent attacks. The epicentre of this crisis is the tri-border region between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. It is now spilling over towards the Gulf of Guinea, particularly in Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast. Civilian populations in particular are paying the price for the growing violence, with internally displaced persons reaching into the millions in the Western Sahel.
However, nowadays political developments seem to raise the highest concerns among observers and decision-makers. In particular, the “wave” of military coups d’état, which have taken place across the Sahel over the last two years, are putting into question the security strategies and the whole system of intervention deployed in the area during the last ten years. As exemplified by the case of Mali, even if social grievances, institutional failures and political mismanagements have always been central factors explaining the ignition and the worsening of violent conflicts in the Sahel, security and counter-terrorism initiatives undertaken in the area have usually privileged a “technical”, military-focused and “quick-fix” approach to the management of the crisis. As a result, politics is now reclaiming a new place by exposing the main limits of the previous approaches and posing new challenges to the stabilisation of the region. We argue that a serious discussion is now needed to better identify and address the political tensions that have clear implications on how counter-terrorism operates in the Sahel.
Indeed, after a decade of security efforts, and to a lesser extent institution-building and economic investments, recent political and diplomatic issues are now questioning military, and specifically counter-terrorism, initiatives in the Sahel. Military and security cooperation among Sahelian countries and with European partners has been a priority during this period, so much so that the Sahel has been considered a perfect ‘laboratory for experimentation’ for European and international security initiatives that have generated what has been called a ‘patchwork of counterterrorism’.
Yet, what we are witnessing today is an uncertain political reconfiguration at multiple levels of governance concerning national, regional and international politics. This is particularly evident in Mali, which, until recently, served as a critical hub of the international counter-terrorism initiatives in the Sahel. Between August 2020 and May 2021, the country experienced two consecutive coups d’état led by a group of army officials, able to exploit the mounting popular discontent vis-à-vis an internationally-backed, but ultimately weak and corrupt, civilian regime. The narrow focus on counter-terrorism and the fight against illegal trafficking pursued by Mali’s international partners has indirectly participated in reinforcing the clientelist and predatory system of governance built by the previous regime. This has happened mainly through two mechanisms, namely the almost unconditioned material and symbolic support guaranteed to the Malian government, and the attention dedicated to the reinforcement of local security forces, whose abuses and lack of accountability have been among the main elements leading to the delegitimisation of the regime. This has contributed to the collapse of the civilian rule in the country, and to the rise to power of a “populist” government that is intercepting and exploiting the diffused mistrust of the population vis-à-vis the international community.
Politics and counter-terrorism in the Sahel: six points of tension
Overall, we specifically identify six points of political tension in the fight against terrorism across the Sahel that we believe are critically hindering the ongoing counter-terrorism efforts in the area.
First, the bilateral quarrel between the current Malian government and France. The deteriorating diplomatic and political relationship between the two former partners has finally culminated into what seems to be a definite rupture in their military collaboration. This is happening at a moment when anti-French - and potentially anti-European - sentiments are at their peak in the region, with rallies and protests against the French presence in almost all the countries of the Sahel. While high ranking individuals of the French military apparatus have always underlined the effectiveness of the collaboration in spite of the political turmoil, the Malian authorities have now decided to terminate the Defense Cooperation Treaty between France and Mali, as well as the Status of Forces Agreement governing the French and European partner forces involved in the Takuba Task Force. This, in practice, means that the bilateral quarrel has become a multilateral one as both French and European forces can no longer operate within the country - a trend that is now also affecting the UN peacekeeping operation MINUSMA - and complete withdrawal is expected by the end of the summer. This also means that French and other European actors involved in the area have lost the main partner in the fight against terrorism. They have also lost the country representing the symbol of a multifaceted interventionism built through a counterinsurgency governance where challenges (i.e. insurgency and terrorism, development, political instability, and migration) pushed and allowed for the engagement of various governments with different priorities and interests.
This is the link to the second political tension that specifically concerns the cooperation among Europeans. France was quite effective in the past in engaging different actors to share the economic and political burden of the intervention. Yet, some European countries, such as Estonia and Sweden, have now withdrawn, while others, such as Denmark and Germany, have received explicit requests from Malian authorities not to operate in the country, or to do so with serious operational limitations. On 11 April 2022, the Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrel, formalised the decision to halt all EU military training programmes in the country. Such an important decision, which has been also influenced by the increased Russian presence in Mali through the Wagner group, can be read as an attempt to show Malian authorities the risks of losing the support of EU authorities highly engaged in the country, but also as clear evidence of the hesitation on future military and security deployment. European countries seem to be reluctant to be fully engaged in long-term counter-terrorism plans abroad, especially in politically unstable countries. This may be linked to the apprehension of replicating what happened in Afghanistan and fearing shocking withdrawals as the one the world witnessed at the end of summer 2021.
The third point of tension concerns regional states’ armed forces. Indeed, recent events have confirmed historical trends concerning Sahelian security forces. On the one hand, the coups organised by military officials in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad remind us that civil-military relations remain a central political issue in the region. On the other hand, there is a question of historical weakness of these militaries, notability in Burkina Faso, opening up the issue of civilian militias. Further, different accounts and official reports have testified of abuses, misconduct and violence by military officials against civilians in Mali, as well as in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Chad. One example is the recent call by the UN to launch an investigation into the events in Moura Mali, of March 2022. According to the UN, during a five-days large scale military operation the Malian armed forces, with the support of foreign forces, have killed 203 and arrested fifty alleged fighters of armed groups, but also committed rape, arbitrary arrests, looting and theft. This instance of violence against the population, together with an almost complete lack of accountability for the actions of these forces, is not only a serious problem in terms of respect for human rights, political governability and stabilisation of these countries, but it is also a concrete challenge for counter-terrorism purposes. Indeed, literature on counter-insurgency has told us over and over that this type of indiscriminate violence is more likely to increase the support, recruitment capacity, and overall strength of terrorist organisations, rather than effectively fight them.
This relates to the fourth political tension we believe should be seriously considered in this context: the politics among terrorist organisations. The two main ‘jihadist’ coalitions operating across Sahelian countries, the Jama’a Nasrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Mali that also operates in Burkina Faso and Niger, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are now essentially competing for the control of different areas, specifically the tri-border region between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Aware of the lack of air support from French and international forces, ISGS in particular has significantly increased its pressure since March 2022, launching a series of lethal attacks along the southern border. Interestingly, JNIM seems rather cautious, somehow waiting to evaluate their move in relation to the reactions to this new ISGS activity, especially from the local population. Directly connected to this renewed activism of jihadist actors, violence against civilians is reaching a new peak in the area, with deadly massacres registered in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso during the last few months.
Overall, the increased competition between groups, as well as the renewed transnational interest of these organisations is probably even more dangerous now due to what we consider to be the fifth critical political tension: the current diplomatic and political friction between Sahelian countries. Not even ten years since its establishment, the G5 Sahel – a regional, intergovernmental organisation between Sahelian countries - has experienced its first serious crisis. On 15 May, Mali left the organisation due to the refusal of the other Members – Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso – to allow Malian transitional authorities to lead the rotating presidency. These tensions among the countries of the region, already evident after the approval of the economic sanctions on Mali by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to expose the decision of delaying democratic elections, have clear operative implications. Specifically, the ongoing diplomatic and political competition between Mali and Niger is affecting the counter-terrorism response at the border. Nigerien forces, with the support of the French army, as well as of Turkish drones, are indeed the only ones actively responding to cross-border terrorist activities, so far without major success.
These regional tensions, together with the above mentioned open criticism and rupture with European countries, have opened up new opportunities for international competitors which is, to us, the sixth point of tension of counter-terrorism in the Sahel. As briefly discussed, Turkish and Russian actors are highly active today in West Africa and the Sahel, both in terms of military support and broader security assistance. This presence, especially for what concerns the Wagner Company, has exacerbated and accelerated the process of detachment between Mali and European actors illustrated in point one and two above. It has, de facto, also confirmed a general reshaping of political control and international equilibria in the area. European, and broadly speaking Western actors, might soon no longer be the exclusive nor necessarily the most important external security providers of the region. Both military and political cooperation is now likely to be discussed and re-negotiated by Sahelian countries that dispose of a more concrete possibility of diversifying their sources of support for their political and security necessities.
All considered, it is hard to predict how these points of tension will evolve. However, as the six points show, the clash of increasingly diverging political positions and interests across the Sahel is playing an important role in the way counter-terrorism is negotiated and implemented. Political issues and tensions within and between countries are exacerbating the security problems by undermining the legitimacy of existing political structures. They also allow new spaces of action for both armed organisations and international competitors, all factors that are causing increasing physical and psychological suffering for the local populations. On the whole, during the last two decades the Sahel has illustrated some of the main political trends characterising the evolution of counter-terrorism in highly unstable and conflict-prone areas. The new international competition surrounding the Sahel, or the sudden reconfiguration of decades-long security architectures and bilateral agreements, could offer some insights about how multi-level systems of security governance could evolve in other parts of the globe. Far from being a technical issue based on efficiency and efficacy, the Sahel is reminding us that counter-terrorism is a sensitive and an essentially political field of action. Forgetting this lesson can only further a crisis that is now entering in a new, worrisome, and hard-to-predict phase.