A few years ago, one of the nearly 1,500 satellites orbiting Earth took a picture of the Nigerien desert. On that particular day, the picture contained far more than just sunbaked sand. The image exposed one of the U.S.’s most covert ventures in the world: the construction of a drone base in the middle of the Nigerien desert. The photograph, reported by The New York Times, is the latest in an installment of stories with regards to Niger, bringing this landlocked African country to the forefront of American media consciousness. And there is good reason for this: America’s next major battlefront in the War on Terror may have already been decided, even as the focus on the Middle East intensifies with every given day.
Home to groups such as Boko Haram, a powerful (and growing) al-Qaeda affiliate, and, more recently, ISIS fighters that have fled from their losses in Iraq and Syria, Africa’s Sahel region is beginning to attract serious attention from Western foreign policymakers. The ballooning terrorist violence in the region is also an unfortunate byproduct of the extreme instability in Libya caused by a civil war and a very strong ISIS presence.
The Sahel (and greater West Africa) has recently found itself afflicted by severe and highly visible attacks, such as the March 2016 attack carried out by Al-Qaeda on a beach resort in Côte d’Ivoire that left 19 dead, 33 wounded, and many absolutely horrifying stories: The Center for Strategic and International studies reported that “among the victims was a boy shot at point-blank range while kneeling in the sand and pleading for his life.” Not only are brutal attacks like these becoming more common, but their nature is changing as well.
Al-Qaeda-linked attacks on the fortress-like French Embassy in Burkina Faso signal a divergence from traditional assaults on so called “soft targets” like hotels and resorts, thereby painting a picture of a region with growing appeals for new, more expressly politically-oriented extremist groups. Attacks against administrative and otherwise high-security targets demonstrate increased sophistication in logistics, planning, and access to resources characteristic of larger, better funded terrorist organizations.
This transition has, for good reason, produced much alarm from defense and security officials already struggling to contain extremism in the Middle East. However, their response has been more or less limited to training national militaries and local opposition militias. The most significant initiative undertaken by the West has been to support the creation of the G5 Sahel Joint Force (G5 SJF) in February of 2017, a partnership among five states in the Sahel region (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad) that have been struggling with organized terror. By far the largest supporter of the G5 SJF has been France, which has strongly backed the program since its inception and has deployed 4000 soldiers to the region. The program was further legitimized by the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution welcoming the creation of the force. Unfortunately, this is where the key issue lies for a certain critical global actor: the United States.
While the U.S. has pledged 60 million dollars to the G5 SJF, it is adamant that there should not be U.N. involvement of any kind. According to a U.S. spokesperson, “The U.S. is committed to supporting the African-led and owned G5 Joint Force through bilateral security assistance, but we do not support U.N. funding, logistics, or authorization for the force.” But the U.S.’s involvement in the Sahel goes far beyond simple funding activities, and Americans found this out the hard way.
Most Americans were not fully aware of the extent of their nation’s involvement in the region until the now-infamous death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in an ambush in Niger last October. The tragedy, which was one of the first known instances of U.S. personnel actually engaging in direct hostilities in the region, created a national uproar and widespread inquiry as to the true nature of the American counter-terrorism strategy.
The escalation of American and Western funding, both French and American troop presence , as well as base construction such as the American drone base mentioned at the beginning of this article indicate that Western defense officials are preparing to mount a serious challenge against what they predict will be ballooning terrorism in the region. There are a few causes for concern, however.
The first concern is that the West may become too thinly spread across the Middle East and Africa to effectively combat terrorism in either area. If the burgeoning violence in both areas cannot be checked effectively, conflicts in the two regions will inevitably worsen. This is not to say that the transitioning threat in the Sahel should not be addressed before Middle East peace is achieved: if that approach were adopted, the Sahel would be ignored indefinitely. Rather, Western nations should simply try their hardest to keep an eye on both balls at all times by working to divide commitment amongst states and cooperating closely with regional allies.
A second concern is that the traditional counterterrorism strategy of the West, and the U.S. in particular, may not be best suited for the region. Generally, the U.S. has led a counterterrorism strategy that places complete annihilation at the forefront, with threat mitigation and long term stability considered secondary objectives. Adoption of this strategy in the Sahel could further destabilize Sahel countries, whose very security is currently needed as a buffer to prevent the drainage of terrorism further down into Africa. On that note, the strategy of chasing terrorist groups until they are completely annihilated in fact does risk pushing terrorism down the African continent and compromising additional states.
The upshot is this: the U.S. and other Western nations should exercise prudence and caution in this particular situation. A careful balance must be struck between ensuring that nations in the Sahel region are able to withstand the shift in the distribution of terrorism and ensuring that foreign military involvement remains limited. At this point in time, it would be exceedingly easy to escalate military involvement to the point of creating another Afghanistan-esque “forever war.” Finally, as mentioned, Western states must be able to effectively manage large-scale counterterrorism operations in two distinct regions of the world and absolutely must alter their strategy away from total annihilation and towards threat mitigation and long term stability, both of which are much more conducive to lasting success.