The Sahel is a narrow semi-desert region located south of the Sahara Desert. It stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea. The region comprises parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea. In broad terms, we can think of the region as consisting of authoritarian states, with great difficulties to assert their authority inside their borders – in some cases, they are simply failed states.

Although all these countries suffer in various degrees from terrorism and related problems, our piece will focus on the key geopolitical security threat faced by the  more western countries. We will also explain how and why the USA and some European countries have been involved there.

Map of the Sahel region

Map of the Sahel region

Conditions for violence

The entire  region offers the same suitable conditions to the spread of terror. Being one of the poorest in the world, the countries located there are impoverished and underdeveloped;. Furthermore, it is subject to severe food shortages and the effects of climate change, which deepen the problems.

Although these countries are, theoretically, democracies, mistrust in the political classes is widespread, and rightly so. As it is frequent in many African countries, corruption is common and the institutions are generally frail. Governance is poor, agriculture will continue to have problems and security forces and foreign military are as feared as they are welcomed. The states are ill-prepared to meet the challenges their populations face.

All  governments failed to have a meaningful presence there,  as these zones are far away from their capitals. Islam being the dominant faith, Islamist radicals have no difficulties in spreading their violent message coupled with solutions to some basic problems, such as water supply and food administration. The region’s chronic poverty and poor education system helps it gain new recruits. Terrorists and radical groups exploit every local problem and conflict in order to expand their reach. The same logic applies to the expansion of terrorist groups in other zones, like Somalia or Mozambique.

Examples of terror

The countries in this part of Sahel have been the stage of various forms of violence in the past decades, described as a “fireball of conflict” that involves multiple armed groups, military campaigns by national armies and international partners as well as local militias. Conflicts have been constant, arising for many different reasons. The recent peak in violence has drawn the attention of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, among several local groups who fight between themselves as well as against local governments. There are constant news and reports of military operations and attacks, and 2019 was the deadliest year so far, with over 4000 deaths.

We will focus on the most recent events, starting with the most important Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram. It is the strongest and deadliest, but by no means the sole actor in the conflict.

Boko Haram’s roots can be traced back to the early 2000s, but it started gaining attention in 2009, with a series of attacks in Nigeria. At the same time, the Arab Spring in the northern African countries and the violence that ensued further destabilized the area. Later in 2014, the group pledged allegiance to ISIS and proclaimed a caliphate in the region. This led to the intervention of a regional military coalition in 2015, (Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, backed by the US, UK, and France) which regained the Nigerian territory previously controlled by the terrorists.

Following this, Boko Haram’s new core presence was in the Lake Chad region, one of the poorest regions of Africa and an ungoverned territory in the frontiers of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger, where it still operates and was able to extend its reach in other anarchic frontier regions.

Following Boko Haram’s example, jihadists in northern Mali also proclaimed a caliphate in 2014. A quick military intervention led by France, authorized by the United Nations and supported by several non-African countries, regained the territory they controlled. France is the region’s former colonial power, and even though there is a pervasive anti-French sentiment,, it has been long involved.

In 2013, the French government expected to conduct only a short intervention in Mali. Seven years later, it remains there. The United Nations, the African Union and the European Union have also intervened, engaging many countries, with western military operations expected to increase in number and dimension in the next years. This will likely happen even though the Trump administration, that last month nominated a special envoy to the Lakes Region, seems keen to reduce their presence there, in contrast to its European allies.

UN forces in Mali

UN forces in Mali

European and American involvement

João Gomes Cravinho, the Portuguese Defense Minister, said last January:

“It is absolutely fundamental to be present in Sahel. We cannot let the deterioration of the situation in Sahel continue because the result will have an impact on Europe […] It would be irresponsible to turn our backs.”

— João Gomes Cravinho

The support is indeed needed because the military of these Western African countries lacks resources, material, training, and education. They could not win the conflict only by themselves,  and stability in the region is the main goal for Europe. Endemic violence and no state control will increase the flow of drugs, arms and human trafficking, illegal migrants and refugees and  terrorist threats against the continent. European countries would pay a high price for not intervening.

The western countries have the resources to militarily destroy much of these groups, but as recent interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan proved, strength is insufficient. A full-out war would in the middle run fail to fill the power vacuum in the Sahel, and other Islamist groups would likely arise. There is a political and diplomatic front as well in this war, and the European Union starts to be aware of that, with commissioner Borrell repeatedly asking for a greater diplomatic and military involvement in  Sahel.

There is a broader political mission to face, which constitutes the hardest challenge. It is about stabilizing communities with a basic step that simply has seldom been undertaken: broad, local dialogues among community groups, police forces and officials can prevent radicalization. Local governments and institutions, the civic groups and the foreign actors should all step in this task. At the same time, poverty has to be mitigated and economic development aided.

However, the prospects are not good. In fact, European presence is vital to defend the European countries from security reasons and can mitigate various threats to the continent. Nevertheless, there are no easy ways to counter the underlying challenges that bolster terrorism and violence in Sahel. As The Economist put it: “unless local governance improves, [the military interventions] will not eliminate the jihadist threat”. Poverty and anarchy seem to be there to stay, and where they are, terrorist groups will too.

Sources: ABC news, Al Jazeera, BBC, Financial Times, Guardian, Institute for Security Studies, jornal I, New York Times, Observador, Politico, Reuters, The Economist, The Telegraph, United States Institute of Peace, Vox.

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