What’s next for Sahel amid deteriorating security situation?

According to Germany’s Defense Ministry the security situation in Africa’s Sahel is deteriorating, with terrorism threatening both soldiers and civilians. How do you assess security trends in the region, could jihadi groups create a broader area of instability? Read few comments.

Sergio Altuna, Associate Analyst, Programme on Violent Radicalisation and Global Terrorism, Elcano Royal Institute

There is currently a shared opinion, based mainly on statistics, which points clearly to a sustained deterioration of the security situation in the Western Sahel. However, causes pushing to the rise of violence are not being tackled in a comprehensive way. First, with regard to the security approach adopted by the numerous countries working in transnational cross-border security whose strategies remain insufficient taking into account that counterterrorism cooperation between the different Sahelian countries has historically been forged over disagreements and is characterized by mutual distrust and a clearly perceptible heterogeneity of the security policies applied in each country,  that weighs down on efforts to build a robust security policy. All this without forgetting the difficulties and challenges linked to the coordination -and sometimes interoperability- of the large mosaic of security missions, international forces, peacekeeping operations and other counterterrorism initiatives that currently flourish in the region.

Having said that, it is important to note that the problem in the region is not only security, but governance. It is essential to increase initiatives trying to strengthen the different states in the region, mostly perceived as non-performing and deeply corrupt. Because the military response, especially when it comes from the West and it’s often perceived as a sort of neocolonialist interference, or when it is comes from the armed forces of a state with little to no legitimacy beyond the capital, tends to produce unwanted effects.

With regard to the area of instability that different terrorist groups may end up generating, it can certainly increase as we’ve seen in the past. In fact, in recent months we have seen that a relatively safe country as Burkina Faso has witnessed how a jihadist insurgency ingrained in its territory and how it has rapidly evolved to reach a point where it is able to maintain high levels of violence in a sustained manner over time. We must not forget that many of the states that make up the eastern Sahel are fragile states in all the meaning of the word. It cannot be ruled out at all that what happened in 2012 in northern Mali could happen again in one of the many remote and sparsely populated areas of the region.

Asfandyar MirPostdoctoral Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University

The Sahel region’s security situation has been deteriorating since 2018 now. December has been violent with the toll on civilians very troubling. The consolidation of Al-Qaida affiliate JNIM through the 2018 merger of important groups is partly responsible for this. ISIS-affiliate, ISIS-GS, has been deadly as well. These groups appear to have expanded their capability over time, most notably in north and central Mali, Burkino Faso, and the Tri-border region. They also seem to thwart the counterterrorism efforts of the regional states, the multilateral coalition of the G-5, and the French forces.

That said, these jihadi groups do not betray obvious transnational aspirations. For example, there is limited evidence of al-Qaida affiliated groups, like JNIM, plotting attacks in Europe or the United States. It is possible that observers like myself just don’t know about the plots. Or that this is a deliberate strategic choice on part of, say, al-Qaida’s central leadership to let the regional affiliate focus on the local battlefield to create a favorable base of operation. Whatever the case may be, the US government is also skeptical of the transnational ambitions of the groups in the Sahel, which is why it is scaling back its counterterrorism footprint in the region.

Going forward, the threat of both al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliates will remain a major problem for the regional states, even if their challenge to the security of European nations and the United States is less obvious. The counterterrorism capabilities of the regional states, the G-5, and the French military need a substantial upgrade. Last week, the French military announced its first-ever drone strike. The French will need to pour a lot more resources to develop and execute the counterterrorism system involving drones the US has mastered to blunt its non-state foes.

Ahmed Salah HashimAssociate Professor of Strategic Studies, Deputy Coordinator in the Military Studies Programme, The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University

State and military institutional capacities in Sahel countries are very low and have not improved much since the Mali scare and French operation Serval. Much undergoverned space there as as well poverty that provides oxygen for jihadists. Success of Boko haram in Nigeria inspires those in Sahel to emulate. Transmission of skills from more sophisticated Middle Eastern battle space coming to Sahel.

Christopher AnzaloneVisiting Scholar, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University

The security situation in the Sahel, and across Africa more generally with regard to the current status of militant Islamist (jihadi) organizations, is complex and is fed by preexisting social, ethnic, political, and economic tensions in different regions, such as in parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Algeria, and, outside of the Sahel, in Somalia, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The longer-term presence of strong jihadi organizations such as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimeen (JNIM), which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and different segments of Islamic State’s “West Africa Province” (ISWA), including Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (which has been officially grouped under ISWA by Islamic State’s core leadership and media apparatus) also does not bode well for the security situation because these organizations are well entrenched and capable of exacerbating preexisting ethnic and social tensions as well as launching destabilizing asymmetric warfare.  Approaches that are heavily or even primarily focused on military solutions to the security situation do not address the broader sociopolitical dynamics and issues at play and are thus unlikely to result in lasting improvements to the security situation.  While military strikes can degrade the jihadi organizations they do not in the longer term address the serious sociopolitical issues at play and may even exacerbate them further.  The continued debates among different EU states, such as France and Germany, regarding their ultimate goal(s) in the Sahel also confuses the situation as different states pursue their own interests and sets of goals, leading to an un-unified approach that further benefits the jihadi groups.

AQIM, which has decreased in power in much of Algeria, has enjoyed a resurgence with the emergence and successes, relative as they are, of the JNIM coalition, as has Islamic State “Core” with the continued lethality of ISWA.  In addition to providing AQIM and IS and ISWA with fertile ground to sow further insecurity, JNIM’s and ISWA’s prominence has also been a media victory for both AQ/AQIM and IS “Core.”

Magnus NorellAdjunct Scholar , The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Senior Fellow, European Foundation for Democracy (EFD)

I tend to agree with the assessment of the German Defence Ministry. The attempts to calm the situation and defeat the various Islamist groups and organizations active in the Sahel, has not been very effective. Neither MINUSMA or EUTM has been able to show real progress in the sense that the militants have been pushed back or cut down to a more manageable size.

When the G5 Sahel group was established, hopes where high that this would be able to break through and create an opportunity to beat back the Islamists, but this has not happened either.

The most successful initiative is the French operation (Barkhane), but it’s more a question of holding the line than turning the tide.

So yes, I think that it might get worse before it gets better. And it won’t get better without some serious re-assessment on coordination and cooperation, both within the G5 Sahel and between G5 and the Europeans.

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