There are numerous al-Qaeda and ISIS factions active in the Lake Chad and Sahel region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique and other West African countries. The threats posed by these terrorist groups have international and local impacts.
In the early 2000s, the pro-ISIS Boko Haram group was the first radical Islamist group to become a dominant force for change through large-scale extremism and the implementation of a sustainable terrorist agenda.
Violent radicalism continues to spread in Africa, and armed actors involved in violent extremism there are primarily associated with extremist groups and organizations. These groups are seriously expanding in the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin and the Horn of Africa to the coastal West African countries and central South Africa.
The presence of ISIS militants in particular and the complex relationships between jihadist organizations cause growing concern among observers and governments. The causes of violence and insurgence in African countries vary greatly since the continent is vast and known for its great cultural and linguistic differences.
However, some factors play a role in the Sahel region. Countries such as Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso had successive weak governments tarnished by public perceptions of corruption, impunity, and chaos.
Most governments of Western and North African countries have failed to provide security for their people. The military forces in the Sahel countries are often poorly trained and equipped.
Corruption has also led troops to rebel or flee, as in Nigeria. Soldiers are often weak and rarely fight against other nations, and they are instead deployed to protect the ruler.
Multinational efforts to fight extremist groups in the Sahel region have been facing many serious challenges. The military in Mali, where about 400 British forces are deployed, staged a second coup in only nine months, sparking wide condemnation by the region’s leaders. As a result, French President Emmanuel Macron threatened to withdraw all the 5,100 troops deployed in the West African country as the junta carried out its proposal to conclude a deal with the Islamist rebels the French forces have been fighting.
In the North, Spain withdrew from the US-led multinational African Lion training exercise due to its dispute with Morocco. The Sahel region is considered a major transit route for migrants from North Africa attempting to reach Europe, and for jihadists and drug and arms trafficking.
In mid-June 2021, France began withdrawing its forces from north Mali in line with a plan to carry out a major “transformation” and drawdown of its military presence in the Sahel, where soldiers operate under its Operation Barkhane. In north Mali, the Kidal, Tessal, and Timbuktu bases were closed and handed over to the army, but the air support will remain.
France launched the Malian mission in 2013 to help support local governments and their poorly equipped forces fight an ever-growing Islamist insurgency that has left thousands dead. Barkhane operation’s political objectives remained unclear, and perhaps its forces aimed to contain the military threat posed by extremist groups and create appropriate conditions for political progress under the financial peace agreement and security solutions.
However, the capacity-building approach adopted by the European Union Mission in Mali showed modest results in the absence of political reform. Meanwhile, the implementation of the peace agreement or other forms of political change remained unattainable.
Takuba Special Forces
The European special forces, known as Task Force Takuba, was first revealed on January 13, 2020, during a meeting in France’s southern Pau city. The heads of state for the G5 Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania) expressed then their will to fight jihadist terror groups in the region and agreed to focus on the tri-border area under the joint command of Operation Barkhane.
Participants stressed that ISIS in the Greater Sahara has become the primary enemy of France and European countries in the Sahel region and therefore announced the formation of an international coalition to confront it.
On January 26, France launched consultations with its European partners in the Takuba Task Force in Mali. Meanwhile, the ruling Malian transitional government, or the coup generals, have reiterated that Denmark is not welcome in Mali, prompting the European country to pull its troops out of the country.
EU countries are responding to France’s call for an increased deployment of troops in the region, in light of the spread of a “jihadist” insurgency across the Sahel. The contributing elements are elite special forces units from every European country working with the regular French forces that have been deployed since 2013 as part of Operation Barkhane. Germany, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Greece, Italy and other countries sent additional special forces to Mali.
After nearly seven years, France announced the end of Operation Barkhane and the launch of an international coalition to fight terrorism in the region.
The French-led Takuba is a European special forces mission, whose name is originated from the takuba sword that is used across the western Sahel.
Three major factors explain France’s decision to reduce its military presence in the Sahel region:
- The staging of two military coups in Mali in less than a year, both led by Colonel Assimi Goita, who was declared president on May 28, 2021. In addition was the death of Chad’s President Idriss Déby in April 2021, who was succeeded by his son soon after.
- Holding demonstrations in Bamako in January 2021 to protest against the French military presence in the country.
- Launching the 2022 French presidential election campaign in early 2017, during the last presidential campaign.
Russian Influence in West Africa
The Kremlin has alarmed Western policymakers in recent years by filling political voids and taking advantage of the “failures” or troop withdrawals of the United States and European countries.
Moscow is keen to address the fears and ambitions of local regimes, and trying to enrich itself along the way. While the Russian activity is part of a broader campaign to establish substantial power, most of its policies are characterized by seeking opportunities rather than being based on a greater strategy.
Russia’s influence is considered significant in various aspects in the war-torn African countries. Moscow deployed military forces and engaged with actors beyond the reach of Westerners, making itself a major power broker.
The US partial forbearance from supporting African countries has prompted other major world powers to replace it, especially Russia, which has been seeking to return to its top position during the Soviet Union era.
Russia’s aspiration to consolidate a new foothold appeared at the first ever Russia-Africa Summit, which was held in the Russian city of Sochi on October 23, 2019. The event touched on bolstering Russian-African ties in various strategic, political and African fields.
In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed deals with Mozambique that included resources in which Russian companies could invest, but instability in the north of the country halted progress.
In order to fill the security vacuum, a Russian-backed special military group known as the Wagner Group provided a variety of services to countries that lost economic and military support from the US, Europe and other countries.
According to Wagner and Russia, Mali is generally considered another major source of the growing strategic tensions with the West.
Radical groups are likely to take advantage of the economic and political marginalization in areas not controlled by local governments to recruit militants and establish new safe havens.
The expansion of extremist organizations in West Africa led to the displacement of hundreds of people, which will likely increase in the future. These extremist groups seek to control new territories in West Africa and use them for supplies.
Partners of the West African countries and the Sahel region need to re-evaluate their deployment mission and play a greater role in conflict areas, in light of the increased insecurity in new areas. Russia seems to be using Wagner to invade and fill the void since 2019. The group most likely operates in the Mozambique’s natural gas-rich Cabo Delgado region in order to search for natural resource contracts for Russian companies.
The US and EU ineffective efforts in the African Sahel region were aimed at providing military training to counter terrorism. The western-trained military forces were behind the successive coups in Mali and have left a power vacuum in various areas which extremist groups were keen to fill.
Eliminating extremism and terrorism requires understanding the ethnic, social, religious, political and economic contexts in which radical groups operate. They benefit from social grievances and take advantage of the political and security vacuum.
In order for the counterterrorism efforts to succeed in the long term, including prevention programs, the means and methods of radicalization and recruitment must be acknowledged. International and regional actors must shift their primary focus from defeating the terrorist group militarily to addressing government mismanagement and helping countries develop. This way they can achieve stability in countries affected by terrorism. They should provide political and economic solutions, in line with the military actions.
Jassim Mohamad is a researcher who focuses on international security & counter-terrorism; his work covers Europe, Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Iran and Yemen), and African Sahel. He is the Head of the European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies ECCI.