Fighting terrorism in Sahel in time of Corona

24th Mar 2020
Fighting terrorism in Sahel in time of Corona

Ahmed Rajab

With the world leaders’ attention focussed on battling the COVID-19 menace, France’s Emmanuel Macron is also engaged on another front fighting the West African affiliates of either al-Qa’ida or of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh).

The footprints of the terrorists have increasingly been visible in the Saharan sand since they were dislodged from their self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

The mayhem in Libya following the ousting of Mu‘ammar Qadhafi in October 2011 has also assisted the Islamists’ foray with their easily-acquired weaponry into the Sahelian countries.

Since 2012 the al-Qa’ida and Daesh theatre of operations in the Sahel has encompassed Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, all former French colonies. The US and much of the West consider the region as the new front in the war against international terrorism.

The Sahel is an expansive area which includes swathes of northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, southern Algeria, Niger, parts of northern Nigeria, parts of Cameroon and Central African Republic, central Chad, central and southern Sudan, parts of South Sudan, Eritrea and parts of northern Ethiopia.

It is an area rich in history and culture with pockets which are endowed with natural resources, but poor as far as indices of human development are concerned. Droughts and food shortages are endemic, and they are blamed for fuelling hostilities in northern Mali.

Terrorist organisations are to be blamed for much of the instability in the impoverished region, which has increasingly become volatile, lawless and violent. The violence, on its part, has been aggravated by climate change, population growth and land degradation.

Terrorist groups operating in the region include Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, which sacked northern Mali in 2012, Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimin, believed to be Al Qa’ida’s affiliate in West Africa and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara).

Some of these groups coalesce. An example is Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimin, an amalgam of Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al Din, Al Murabitoon, and the Macina Liberation Front. Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimin was formed in 2017 under the leadership of Iyad Ag Ghali, also known as Abu al Fadhl.

Ag Ghali has been involved in Tuareg rebellions against the Malian Government since the 1980s. A member of the nobility of the Ifogha tribal group, an influential tribal clan in the Kidal region, he founded the separatist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.

He also founded and led Ansar Dine in 2012. Known for his strategic thinking in the early 2000s, he emerged as one of the Malian diplomats to Saudi Arabia.

Another group, Ansaroul Islam, which was founded in 2016 and which has carried out most of the attacks in northern Burkina Faso is known to work in tandem with a number of “Islamist” groups in Mali.

The capture of northern Mali by Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb in 2012 and their subsequent atrocities has led France to dispatch 4,500 troops to the Sahel.

The United Nations has also sent a 13,000 peacekeeping force. Both forces, however, have yet to defeat the terrorist groups and a renewed insurgency has raised questions about their effectiveness.

Invariably, the role of France in the Sahel has been hotly debated in the region where many have questioned the intent of the former colonial power denouncing it as neo-colonial.

An exasperated Macron has let it be known that he was aware of this. While visiting Niamey, Niger, in December he said he abhorred sending troops to countries where they were “clearly not wanted” as they were seen as “neo-colonialists and imperialists.” These sentiments were shared even by some politicians and officials in Sahelian governments.

Hemmed in at home by the never-ending transport strike against pension reform, the longest railway workers strike for decades, and the insidious scourge of the coronavirus, Macron’s much-touted Operation Barkhane in the Sahel is at a critical juncture.

Last year, discouraged by the lackadaisical attitude of some of the Sahelian governments in combatting the terrorist groups, Macron threatened to pull out French troops from the region.

In recent months the violence has been spiralling out of control. According to the NGO, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, last year in Burkina Faso alone the terrorist groups killed 860 people compared with 600 killed by national security forces.

During the same period, more than 4,000 people were killed in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, nearly a fivefold increase since 2016.

At a summit held in Pau, France, in January France and five African countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania) agreed to relaunch their anti-terrorist military campaign in the Sahel.

Highlights of the Pau Summit include the formation of a new Coalition for the Sahel. This includes France, the five Sahelian countries and whoever may want to join. A European special force called Task Force Takuba is also envisaged.

For their revamped strategy France is sending an addition 220 troops to buttress its Operation Barkhane. This came in the wake of several victories scored by armed “Islamist” groups in the region. Last November 13 French soldiers died when two French helicopters crashed in northern Mali. They were in pursuit of insurgents in the area.

The Daesh group claimed responsibility for provoking the collision of the two helicopters. With the death of the 13, the total number of French soldiers killed in the Sahel to date is 41.

The United States is sending mixed signals on its stance on the Sahel and Africa in general. It had earlier indicated that it would withdraw its 6,000 troops from the continent.

However, early this month it appointed Peter Pham as its new special envoy for the Sahel region.

France hugely relies on the United States intelligence and logistics for its operations in the Sahel.

Security analysts fear that if the terrorist groups are not roundly defeated the violence could spill over into hitherto peaceful Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Togo and Benin.

The European Union too fears that insecurity in the Sahel could lead to further acts of terrorism and fuel increased migration from the region to Europe. According to the European Union, most of the 2.5 million asylum seekers to its member states in 2015-2016 trekked the Sahel to reach the North African coast.

Ahmed Rajab,
Strategic Director, Ocean Mass-Media and Associate, Gusau Institue
Kaduna, Nigeria

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