Muneer Binwaber, journalist and documentary filmmaker researching Yemen and the Gulf states.
Human Rights Watch recently released a report detailing acts of violence and terrorism in Mali during 2019. According to the report, the most deadly attacks in central Mali were perpetrated by Dogon militiamen, including the worst single atrocity in Mali’s recent history: the massacre of at least 150 civilians in Ogossagou village on 23 March. At least 400 civilians have been killed in incidents of sectarian violence in central and northern Mali, and more than 85,000 civilians have fled their homes. Across the year, the human rights situation in Mali deteriorated.
Groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) are working in tandem to take control of territory across a vast stretch of West Africa, sparking fears the regional threat could grow into a global crisis. The militants have wielded increasingly sophisticated tactics in recent months as they have rooted themselves deeper into Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
In response to the growing threat of violence, the heads of state of the five African Sahelian states, during a one-day summit of the so-called G5 Sahel group last month, renewed their determination to continue their efforts in the fight against terrorism. These countries—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—have formed an institutional framework to strengthen the bond between economic development and security.
In January this year, the presidents of G5 Sahel countries and France formulated a new framework for expanding military operations against Islamist terrorism in the Sahel region. The new framework has become necessary not only because of the dramatic increase in terrorist activity in the region but also because of the Pentagon’s plans to reduce the U.S. military and intelligence presence in West Africa.
In 2019, Mali ranked the 13th in the global terrorism index, making it the most affected country between the Sahel 5G countries, followed by Niger, which ranks 23th and Burkina Faso at ranks 27th.
Burkina Faso did not suffer from terrorist and extremist incidents before April 2015, however from that date until October 2016 the country witnessed nearly two-dozen attacks. That was the beginning of a series of attacks that continue to this day. One of the most audacious attacks was the January 2016 siege on a luxury hotel that killed 30 people in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. The attack was carried out by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The attacks reached such a scale in Burkina Faso in 2016 that it was forced to notify the United Nations that it was removing soldiers it had deployed as peacekeepers in Darfur, Sudan, in order that they could bolster security back home. “We have a great need of battle-hardened soldiers, men of experience, men who have been on the ground”, Foreign Minister Alpha Barry said that May. “So the troops that will come from Darfur will be precious for securing our borders”.
Burkina Faso is on the frontline of a jihadist insurgency advancing in the Sahel. Since 2015, about 750 people have been killed and about 600,000 people have been forced from their homes. According to the United Nations, the worsening security situation in Burkina Faso has made the country one of the “fastest-growing humanitarian crises in Africa”. The most recent violent attacks occurred on 17 February 2020, where a group of unidentified “armed terrorists” ambushed a Protestant church in Pansi, northern Burkina Faso. The attack killed 24 and wounded 18 others.
According to UN figures, nearly 4,000 people were killed in jihadist attacks in Burkina Faso and neighboring Mali and Niger last year. Furthermore, some of the Islamist groups deliberately target schools and teachers, leaving hundreds of thousands of children without access to education, exposing an entire generation to illiteracy, poverty, and radicalization.
The bloodshed has escalated despite the presence of thousands of troops from the UN peacekeeping force, comprised of the affected countries and France. “More than ever, the Sahel requires heightened and coordinated attention from states in the region and the international community to break the spiral of violence,” said Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El-Ghazouani, who chaired the recent summit of the G5 Sahel group.
Despite “frustrations” among Sahel leaders, “we cannot deny the ground that we have covered since 2014,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the summit. He also said the meeting in the Mauritanian capital was considered by France to be a key phase in implementing decisions made at a France-Sahel summit in January.
As the security situation on the African Sahel worsens, the joint force of the countries of the region needs, more than ever, to receive support from the international community, a senior UN official told members of the UN Security Council in November last year. “The joint force alone cannot secure the Sahel. There is a lot to do to prevent further deterioration of the situation,” she added.
Both Mauritania and Chad are a examples of effective regional and international cooperation in combating terrorism and extremism, in addition to preventive measures.
Mauritania was one of the first countries in the region to leverage partner capacity-building programs offered by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). In particular, it was an early and central participant in the U.S.-initiated Trans Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP). And Chad played a strong role in military operations in neighboring countries. The Government of Chad continued its active participation in anti-terrorism training courses in 2018. Chadian National Police continued to seek U.S. government training on investigations, crisis response, and border security.
The Sahel states are, therefore, capable security partners—if enabled to be. At present, they suffer from a lack of funds, lack of equipment, and insufficient training. Investment from the international community now, and extending assistance to these countries, will ultimately save money and lives later.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.