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U.S. to Ramp Up Counterterrorism Efforts in Sahel Region

Despite years of U.S. and international efforts to fight terrorism in the area, extremist groups are gaining ground.

U.N. forces in Mali.
A German medical tank enters a camp after a training mission with U.N. forces in Gao, Mali on March 6, 2017. Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

The Trump administration is preparing to create a new special envoy position and task force to deal with security threats in the Sahel region of Africa, reflecting a growing alarm in Washington about the rise of extremist groups in West Africa, including ones affiliated with the Islamic State.

The measure comes as extremist groups carry out increasingly deadly attacks in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso and spread their reach further south. Officials and experts warn that the extremist groups are gaining strength despite U.S.-led special operations raids and drone strikes, and yearslong efforts by Western countries and West African governments to root out the groups.

The administration is preparing to appoint a special envoy who would head an interagency task force composed of officials from the State Department, the intelligence community, the Defense Department, and other agencies to better coordinate the U.S. response to the extremist groups in the region, current and former officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter tell Foreign Policy. One official cautioned that the details of the plan are still being hashed out and the move has not yet been made official. The administration is also drafting a new strategy for the Sahel to guide the work, several officials said. 

The expected move comes as senior U.S. and United Nations officials raise alarm bells about a rapid surge in violence in the Sahel, a sparsely populated expanse of land south of the Sahara desert. 

“We say we have wiped out the Islamic State in Iraq, in Syria. Do people ask the question, where these people are going?” Mahamat Saleh Annadif, a senior U.N. envoy for the region, said in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year. “There is a breeze going toward the Sahel.”

Spates of violence involving extremist groups have doubled in the region each year since 2015, according to the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies. There have been 700 violent episodes in 2019 alone, including a high-profile and deadly attack on a military base in western Niger this month that killed over 70 Nigerien soldiers. 

“I think [the Sahel] is the most difficult and challenging situation we have now in the continent,” the top U.S. diplomat on Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy, told reporters in a briefing last month. “The threat of terrorism and violent extremism is expanding. It’s not anymore in north Mali only. It is going down to Burkina Faso and countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin are all on alert.”

When asked if international efforts to address the threats were working, Nagy responded: “No, it is not. We need to have a much, much more robust engagement. There has to be much more robust coordination.” 

The extremist groups in the Sahel, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Ansaroul Islam, and the Macina Liberation Front, are exploiting economic and ethnic grievances to gain a foothold in local communities and drive recruitment, perpetuating a crisis that has caused about 1 million people to flee their homes in Mali, western Niger, and Burkina Faso. 

French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to the region this weekend to visit some of the 4,500 French soldiers deployed there and lay the groundwork for a multinational summit on the Sahel next month following recent deadly attacks. 

A patchwork of international forces—including the French troops, U.N. peacekeepers, a regional military force, and a contingent of U.S. troops in Niger—have been unable to weaken the terrorist groups or quell the surge in violence. 

“This is one of the most formidable [coalitions of] extremist groups I have seen in my career,” said Judd Devermont, a former senior CIA analyst who is now director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. “They’re very good at finding ways to embed themselves in communities and find new recruits through ethnic, religious, or economic tensions.”

Devermont said the governments in the region, particularly Mali, need to better address political and economic grievances in communities the extremist groups are working to recruit from. 

The United States coordinates its Sahel policy with the African Union, regional governments, and European allies. Officials and experts say European allies have pushed the Trump administration to appoint an envoy on the Sahel this year so they have one senior official to coordinate with directly. 

Whitney Baird, the deputy assistant secretary of state for West Africa and security affairs, told lawmakers in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last month that the administration was weighing the idea of appointing a special envoy but did not commit to the move. “I know that many of our European partners do have a special-hatted envoy … it certainly is under consideration,” she said. “We’re looking at whatever ways are possible to help influence the situation there in a positive way.”

The United States reportedly has about 800 troops in Niger, and it recently set up a military base for armed drones and aircraft in central Niger. Since 2013, France has 4,500 troops stationed in the Sahel to roll back an Islamist insurgency that threatened Mali’s government. With French and international backing, five countries in the region—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—also established the so-called G5 Sahel Joint Force, comprising 5,000 troops. And the United Nations has a peacekeeping force of nearly 16,000 deployed to Mali. The European Union also has smaller training and capacity-building missions in the Sahel. 

A State Department spokesman declined to comment on plans for a new envoy and task force on the Sahel, referring to the National Security Council. The National Security Council declined to comment. 

The State Department spokesman did address U.S. engagement in the Sahel, saying the United States “closely coordinates assistance” in the region with the EU, France, other donors, and G5 member states. 

“The United States supports the G5 Sahel Joint Force through security sector assistance directly to the G5 members. Our approach is centered on local ownership, sustainability, and coordination with other donors,” the spokesman said. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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