Over the past three years, the Sahel, specifically Niger, has become the venue of a military build-up of foreign troops from the US, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada and now, Russia. The ostensible reason is counter-terrorism. But as relations between the former Cold War combatants deteriorate, could this become a flashpoint of conflict? By Jeremy H. Keenan.
Africa’s Sahel is taking on the feel of the “Cold War” era. A combination of bad governance, political instability and the spread of jihadism have all contributed to a deteriorating security situation, which, since 2013, has seen major world powers – the US, France, Germany – increasing their military presence in the region in the belief that militarisation is the solution to the Sahel’s mounting and increasingly complex problems. Not only do these Western powers appear to be establishing a more permanent military presence in the region, but they have been joined by lesser powers such as Sweden and Holland, who have all been keen to jump on the military bandwagon in support of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma), a largely ineffectual 13,000-strong peace-keeping force, which has become little more than a sitting duck for jihadists. Canada is also promising strategic airlift support for France’s “antiterrorism” efforts.
In addition to these Western powers, China has been a major economic player in most of the countries of the region for some time. But now, just as the security situation in the Sahel appears to be deteriorating further, Russia is making its presence felt.
Not to be left out of a potential world trouble spot, Russia is offering military help to Mali’s beleaguered regime. This may turn out to be as welcome to the West as the Kremlin’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. So far, the Sahel situation does not bear comparison with Syria, but warning lights are flashing. Western militarisation of the Sahel began in January 2013 with France’s military intervention in Mali to drive the Islamist insurgents, extremists or “terrorists”, as they were more generally known, out of Mali.
“Neither the security nor the political stability of the Sahel region has improved. Because of this, the militarisation of the region is now being internationalised.”
By January 2013, the insurgents, comprising the jihadist groups of Ansar al-Din, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) had taken control of all of northern Mali and were threatening the capital, Bamako, and the south.
France’s Operation Serval, as it was called, was of only limited success. Many of the jihadists that were scattered by the French military drive across Mali soon regrouped, obliging France to expand its military intervention with the deployment in mid-2014 of a further 3,000 French troops across Mali, Niger and Chad. This second phase of French intervention was called Operation Barkhane.
Western concerns over the Sahel have been increasingly apparent since late 2015, following jihadist attacks on hotels in Bamako (Mali), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and Grand Bassam (Côte d’Ivoire) in November 2015, January 2016 and March 2016 respectively, with contingents of several hundred Dutch (c. 400), Swedish (c. 250), and German (c. 650) troops being sent to the Sahel to support Minusma and the French forces.
However, since mid-2016, there has been a worrying escalation of Western military intervention in the Sahel.
CONSTRUCTING A US BASE AT AGADEZ
In late September 2016, Pentagon spokeswoman, Michelle Baldanza, announced that the US was financing the construction of a new 3km runway and associated infrastructure for a drone base at Agadez (Niger). The US already has drones, including MQ-9 Reaper drones, stationed at Niamey to support France’s Operation Barkhane.
While Baldanza estimated US investment in the Agadez base at $50m, other sources have put the figure at nearer $100m. According to declassified Pentagon documents, Niger is “the only country in the region accepting to host MQ-9 US drones that can conduct air strikes.”
According to the same source, Niger “has positioned itself to become a crucial base for US operations in the region. Agadez is a bridgehead for launching reconnaissance and surveillance against a plethora of terrorist groups.” The US will use the Agadez base to conduct reconnaissance operations over Niger and Chad, as well as Libya and Nigeria, and further afield.
Adam Moore, at the University of California (UCLA), who studies US military activity in Africa, says: “There is a tendency to a greater (US) commitment and a more permanent presence in the Maghreb and Sahel.” The investment in Agadez, he added, “suggests that Niger is becoming, after Djibouti, the second-largest African country for US anti-terrorist operations.”
AND A GERMAN BASE IN NIGER
A few days after the Pentagon’s announcement, on 5 October, Germany’s Ambassador to Niger, Bernd von Muenchow-Pohl, announced that Germany will be building a military base in Niger (near the Mali border) to support the UN mission in neighbouring Mali. “The base,” said the Ambassador, “will be a new chapter in our cooperation with Niger. […] Niger is a central partner, a key country, for us in the fight against terrorism and illegal migration from West Africa.” The base is expected to see another 850 German troops in the Sahel.
Von Muenchow-Pohl’s announcement came five days before Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, arrived in Niamey from Bamako. No sooner had Merkel returned to Berlin from her whirlwind trip to Mali and Niger than she received Chad’s President Idriss Déby. On 14 October, two days after her meeting with Déby, Merkel hosted Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari. As with Mali, Niger and Chad, the main subjects on Merkel’s agenda were the fight against terrorism and curbing migration.
Aside from migrancy, Niger is beginning to be seen by security and counter-terrorism officials in the US and Europe as the key “crossroads” position in this part of Africa. It stands between Libya and Nigeria and between the increasingly troubled Mali to the West and the equally vulnerable Chad to the east.
According to the White House, there are roughly 200 US soldiers in the Sahel. Agadez residents believe there are as many as 500 US personnel “hidden” in the airport barracks. In Niger, there are also small contingents of US forces alongside at least 60 French Special Forces at Aguelal (close to the Arlit uranium mines) and also at Zinder and Dirkou, in addition to those at the drone base at Niamey. The French already have bases at Niamey and Madama, close to the Libya border, as well as contingents at Arlit-Aguelal and Diffa in the far southeast.
The US has also deployed 300 specialists from the US Air Force and intelligence services to the military air base at Garoua in northern Cameroon, where their helicopters lift and further train Cameroon’s Israelitrained Rapid Intervention Battalions (BIRs) in the fight against Boko Haram. The US has also trained an elite 250-man police unit for deployment against Boko Haram in the Diffa region of south-east Niger. The number of US military personnel in Chad and Mali is not known, but thought to be relatively small and limited largely to intelligence and surveillance.
THE FRENCH MILITARY INTERVENTION
This US commitment to join Europe in the increased militarisation of the Sahel coincides, perhaps not surprisingly, with signs that jihadism in the Sahel is spreading. It is also because France’s military intervention, after nearly four years, has not been able to end “terrorism” across the region.
France, as Laurent Bigot, a former French diplomat and independent consultant, recently warned (Le Monde, 10 October 2016), is closing her eyes to the Sahel. To paraphrase Bigot: “All is well in Niger, as President Issoufou is a friend of President Hollande. So, too, all is well in Mali, as President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta [IBK] is also a friend of Hollande.”
France, says Bigot, is making no intellectual effort to understand what would bring about a real and lasting stability in the Sahel. The same could be said of the US. “This stability argument,” wrote Bigot, “has cost us dearly in the past, because it was through this same type of reasoning that we supported dictators like Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, who all ended up by causing the collapse of their country.”
The statements of France’s politicians, especially the military leaders of Operation Barkhane, do give the impression that “all is well” in the Sahel. For example, General François-Xavier de Woillemont, the commander of Operation Barkhane, said in midSeptember that the jihadist groups in the Sahel did not have the tactical ability to take a town and hold it. He explained that there were no longer any more terrorist groups capable of conducting large-scale actions in the Sahel. “Contrary to the impression that one might have, the armies of the G5 countries (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad) and Barkhane have won major successes against terrorist groups,” he said.
General de Woillemont may be correct in the narrowest and most technical sense that the Sahel’s jihadists probably could not take and hold a town; nor are they capable of “industrialised terrorism”. But to try and suggest that the French military has had great success against terrorism in the region, or that the region is now stable, is misleading.
The uncomfortable truth for France is that its military intervention in the Sahel has not been a total success. Neither the security nor the political stability of the region have dramatically improved. Because of this, the militarisation of the region is now internationalised.
INCREASING JIHADISM ACROSS THE SAHEL
The second reason why the West is internationalising its militarisation of the Sahel is because there are strong signs that jihadism in the region is not only spreading but that the region’s Al Qaeda oriented groups may be joining forces with Islamic State (IS).
The Sahel’s deteriorating security situation and spread of jihadism were brought into focus in July by two particular events. The first was the Bastille Day (14 July) terrorist attack in Nice in which at least 84 people were killed. Although there were no direct links to the Sahel, Nafeez Ahmed wrote: “The persistence with which France is being targeted can only be explained by the escalation of a secretive war with IS being carried out just across the Mediterranean in the Maghreb. Over the past half-decade, Islamist militant factions affiliated to both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have dramatically expanded their foothold in North Africa. Spurred by the vacuum left from the aborted NATO war on Libya … Islamist groups have found a new base there. Libya is now the perfect springboard for Islamist militants to expand their reach across North Africa and the Sahel. The result is a patchwork of rapidly growing cells of jihadists loyal to multiple terrorist franchises: Ansar al-Shariah, Al Mourabitoune, Boko Haram, AQIM and IS.”
Nathaniel Powell, a specialist in the history of French military interventions, noted that France’s military intervention in the Sahel “may be doing more harm than good, since it provides crucial support to the governments that are at the heart of the Sahel’s problems.”
Although unrelated to the Nice attack, the first week of July saw the UN agree to increase the size of Minusma by another 2,500, to 13,000. Whether this increase will do more than provide the jihadists with more targets is doubtful.
The second event that brought the Sahel back into focus took place on 19 July, when Ansar al-Din, led by Iyad ag Ghali, attacked a Mali military base at Nampala, killing at least 17 soldiers. This was quickly followed by another Ansar al-Din assault on military posts in Mopti. Since then, jihadist attacks against the Mali army and police, UN peacekeepers and French Barkhane forces themselves, have become frequent.
Mali’s political and security situation has been made progressively worse by the May 2015 peace process between former Tuareg rebels and the government. The result is that there are now at least six, predominantly Tuareg, armed militia groups in northern Mali (Azawad), with almost weekly attacks by either the armed militia or jihadist groups on the French, the Mali security forces and the UN peacekeepers.
On 6 November, unidentified armed men attacked and took over an army camp in the Timbuktu region. On 29 November Mourabitoune jihadists attacked Gao airport, which is protected by both UN and French forces, while a few days later Ansar al-Din knocked out a French armoured car near Abeibeira.
THE IS IN THE GREATER SAHARA, ANSAR AL-DIN AND BOKO HARAM
Since late October, jihadism across the Sahel has escalated further. In a very confused and fast-changing scene, at least three strands can be identified. The most recent is Abu Walid al Sahrawi, a former leader of MUJAO, who has now sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State. A group of jihadists, known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), is now operating in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and possibly further afield. ISGS has been responsible for at least three attacks since early September: two in northern Burkina Faso and one in Niger. Its expansion into Niger is particularly alarming as it threatens to link up with Boko Haram.
With the emergence of ISGS, the rivalry between Al Qaeda and IS is being brought into the Sahel. This explains why Ansar al-Dine, recently reported to be considering a ceasefire, has now denied such speculation and is making it abundantly clear that it is not prepared to renounce its share of the violence.
The real danger posed by the emergence of ISGS is whether it will link up with Boko Haram. In 2015, Boko Haram’s then leader Abu Bakr Shekau announced his allegiance to IS’s al-Baghdadi, who quickly accepted Shekau’s loyalty oath and rebranded Boko Haram as the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). However, the ISWA now looks like a bit of a misnomer as the ISGS, which grew out of MUJAO and then al-Mourabitoune, is more directly associated with West Africa than Boko Haram. However, if a meaningful alliance between ISWA and ISGS does develop, then we can expect to see a possible westwards expansion of Boko Haram activity from its current core regions of north-east Nigeria, south-east Niger, Cameroon and the rest of the Lake Chad region.
There is also the question of how and to what extent ISGS may get involved in Boko Haram’s new schisms. These began on 2 August, 2016 when IS announced that Boko Haram had a new leader – Abu Musab al-Barnawi, allegedly the son of Mohamed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram. Shekau was said to be out of favour with IS for killing moderate Muslims. However, two days later, Shekau appeared in a video denying al-Barnawi’s claim and affirming that he was still in control of Boko Haram’s armed fighters.
While many analysts see this schism as militarily weakening Boko Haram and possibly accelerating its self-destruction, an alliance between either faction and ISGS could see an expansion of IS jihadism into central and western Niger, as well as Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and perhaps further afield.
“Libya is now the perfect springboard for Islamist militants to expand their reach across North Africa and the Sahel.”
STRONG RUSSIAN DELEGATION VISITS BAMAKO
If the situation in the Sahel could not get much worse for the Western powers, they had failed to count on the machinations of the Kremlin. The arrival of a high-level Russian delegation in Bamako through 11-12 October cannot have been comforting for Western powers. The Russian delegation was led by Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and President Putin’s Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa. After meeting Mali’s foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, Bogdanov said it was for Malians to define what assistance Russia can make to the consolidation of Mali’s unity and stability. “We are prepared to support all decisions made by the President of Mali in the dialogue between the various components of the Malian population,” Bogdanov said.
Bogdanov stressed that the countries’ two presidents, Keïta and Putin, “have a genuine desire to give new impetus to the “historic cooperation” between their two countries.” He also emphasised that the two countries share similar problems in their “fight against terrorism”. Moreover, Bogdanov reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to Mali’s unity and territorial integrity, saying: “The Russian authorities have heard the call of the majority of the Malian population that wants Moscow to be more involved in resolving the crisis in Mali … Russia is ready to help Mali fight against terrorism and to ensure its economic development.”
IBK’s biggest problem is that his army, being trained by the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), a multi-nation effort led by Germany, is still unfit for purpose. IBK has therefore been unable to unleash his own army in northern Mali, as he would have liked. Russia might fill that breach. Indeed, as Bogdanov explained, “President Putin is … prepared to provide military equipment and training to rehabilitate the [Malian] national army.” For the West, this would be the start of a potential nightmare.