Desert Wars of Sahel

Photo Source: BBC
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

The black flag of the Islamic State is flying high on the frontlines of Sahel, on the southern bounds of the Sahara. Since seven years, national and international forces of France, United Nations, United States, and G5 Sahel Joint Force have tried to stop the jihadism spreading. So far they have failed in their efforts, as the allies are divided by language, culture and experience.

As Britain has also to step up its political, military and humanitarian involvement in Sahel, spending over four hundred fifty million pounds in the last five years, it is widely believed that Sahel has eclipsed the Middle East, as a new battleground for Islamic extremism.

Despite repeated French airstrikes, jihadist groups claiming allegiance to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, such as Nusrat al-Islam, Ansar ul Islam Burkina Faso, and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have expanded their influence beyond the borders of northern Mali. They have taken the bloody war to central Mali, conducted massacres in churches and villages in neighbouring Burkina Faso, and also taken their war in the desert of Niger.

A coalition of al-Qaeda loyalists called JNIM has as many as two thousand fighters in west Africa, according to a U.S report.  The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, is also thought to be recruiting combatants in northeastern Mali.

According to ACLED, a charity that monitors death tolls, around five thousand three hundred thirty six people were killed across five countries of the Sahel including Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania in 2019. Around thousand people have died in 2020.

Many commentators, such as Annadif Mohammed Saleh, UN secretary general’s special representative to Mali, believe that if this war continues, it will engulf even stable states on West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea coastline. General Dag Anderson, who commands US Special Forces in Africa, further ascertains that if jihadists continue to strengthen their hold on the region, they could easily use it as a launch pad to launch extremist attacks in the West.

The spreading conflict has already forced more than one million people to flee, and more than ten thousand west Africans have died. That’s why Europe sees the chaos in the Sahel as a major factor, in pushing thousands of people to seek refuge in Europe, a trend that has influenced far right wing political parties there.

Today, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger remain predominant hotspots in Sahel. In recent years, jihadists have attacked villages, police barracks, and hotels where Westerners stay. Places such as Northern Mali, have plunged into a blend of jihadist groups and Tuareg rebels since 2012. The Malian army has been unable to regain control of the area, even with French intervention.

The French embassy in Burkina Faso was also attacked in 2018. Then, in an orgy of violence, in July 2019, Burkina Faso saw its infrastructure, and economic centres, such as crops and bridges targeted that isolated the local populations. These attacks were inspired by violence happened in Mali.  One of the militant groups had established control of a gold mine, and criminal networks, allowing them to expand their influence over key economic corridors. The strategy also enabled them to tax local civilians, much as the Islamic State did in Iraq and Syria, when it took over vast swaths of those countries in 2014. After that, they targeted military bases, forcing security forces to flee, and executed local leaders.

People seen as banding together with the French are targeted for death. For example, a Malian farmer recently interviewed on French television was killed after he spoke out against jihadists.

Activists in Niger have been calling for action against attacks by armed groups in the Sahel region. In the recent past, there had been a deadliest attack on Niger’s army, in the village of Inates on an army camp, leaving seventy-one soldiers dead. On the other hand, Mauritanian government is also trying to counter violent extremism at its roots, creating de-radicalisation programs, and building trust with local populations, by providing basic services.

The United States had been considering removing many of its troops from western Africa, and closing a new air base in Niger that the Americans had built, at the cost of one hundred ten million American dollars. United States, now, wants to focus on China and Russia, leaving the fight to the French, who now have a pivotal presence in the region. As of now, about four thousand four hundred American troops are based in East Africa, where the U.S. military advises African forces fighting al-Shabab.

Lawmakers such as Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, have spoken out against the potential exit, urging that such a move would further aggravate the security situation in this region of West Africa, where deep religious and ethnic divisions, climate change, poverty, and vast ungoverned spaces provide an ideal breeding ground for extremism.

At the present moment in time, France’s military mission faces growing criticism as an imperialistic enterprise, and has sparked protests in Africa. It is also because French military campaign has likely worsened relations between ethnic groups and communities. In the early stages, French forces were successful in driving jihadists out of towns, they had occupied, and the French were celebrated as saviors. The intervention was very popular, but now it is turning sour, and resentment against them is clearly out there.

France is also trying to recruit new allies: Estonia and the Czech Republic have already signed up to send troops, while talks are continuing with Sweden, Finland and Norway. At the same time, French commanders interviewed in Mali and Niger have said that they are concerned about the annual loss of forty five million American dollars worth of transportation, air refueling and drones that the U.S. contributes to the French mission, which costs one billion American dollars annually. French military commanders are also of an opinion that ISGS could easily be defeated by European and African armies, as they do not hold any territory, and have no longer roots in the local communities. They want to keep the armed groups on the run, so they cannot settle in with the local population.

With regards to locals, they are too terrified in sharing information about the armed groups, as they fear to be executed. But, as of now, battle has taken a toll on everyone, as tens of soldiers get killed after a major attack, every now and then. It is because due to long, standing ethnic and tribal ties, leaders from al Qaeda and the Islamic State cooperate wisely, enabling more sophisticated attacks.

According to an Oped by Ruth Maclean in the New York Times: ‘the armed groups have enjoyed such success largely because they have exploited deep anger against the state governments, which many in the region say they see as hostile, self-interested and corrupt. Their militaries are often accused of feeding these grievances, by committing grave human rights abuses against the population.’

The armed groups are thriving owing to a combination of weak state authority, an abundance of firearms, and the steady erosion of local dispute resolution mechanisms. The military strategy, however, of backing armed proxies like Self Defense Group and Imrad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA) or Movement for the Salvation of Azawad in the Mali-Niger border area is also stirring up inter-communal conflict.

One cannot also generalise easily about why many Africans join jihadist groups. Some are strictly local, having taken up arms to fight over farmland, or against corrupt local government. Some adopt the “jihadist” label only because they happen to be Muslim. Many young men who join such groups do so because they have been robbed by officials, or beaten up by police, or seen their friends humiliated in this way.

West African officials ascertain that the groups in the Sahel are thought to communicate with their counterparts in the Middle East, but evidence of fighters flowing into the region from Syria and Iraq is lacking.

Malian army believes that militia leaders are known to meet in forested hideouts, particularly near the tri-state border of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, to plan ambushes, share intelligence and exchange battle tips, including how to make roadside bombs.

In the recent past, after French sent troops to Mali, in early 2013, upon request of the Malian government, after an insurgency erupted in the poorer areas, weapons and jihadists began pouring into Mali from Libya, which had fallen into civil war, after overthrow of Gaddafi. Initially, the French wanted to foster peace talks in an age-old conflict in Mali between Fulani herdsmen and Dogon farmers.

In 2014, France’s mission in the Sahel had changed too: it expanded its fight into Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, places where French had a presence both as colonisers and post-colonial power. Critics say that France could be in the region for next thirty years, to ensure security, according to their perspective. But, it also hints about France’s desire to not lose control over former colonies, where it has lot of business interests. To the end, France is willing to support autocratic governments, and their armies, even though they have been accused of human rights abuses, and deep corruption. By staying in the Sahel, France also wants to sharpen its military ambitions, and prevent spread of violence and instability into Algeria, a nation that has close ties to France. Alongside United Kingdom, France is Europe’s biggest military power, which also has involvement in the civil war in Libya and Syria.

Around the time of French expansion, Europeans also understood that Sahel had become a place where jihadists and criminal groups ran lucrative corridors trafficking humans, drugs and weapons, as people fled towards Europe.

Experts believe that Sahel needs peace negotiations that involve granting autonomy to several regions: In Mali, the government and France need to consider giving the large Tuareg population autonomy within the Mali state. In 2012, Tuareg rebels rose up against Malian army, and declared the region including the cities of Gao and Timbuktu independent; they subsequently dropped their claim to independence, and called on the Mali government to enter talks over autonomy.

Marie-Roger Biloa, an African columnist and television host based in France said that the French need to do more to equip and empower the national armies in the Sahel, as some Malian soldiers don’t even know what a compass is, don’t have weapons, and that commanders don’t even know the size of some units.

The worsening situation in the Sahel is also making it harder for development, and humanitarian agencies to help the battered populations. It has also scared away investors.


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