Violence and Extremism in the Sahel

Krishnadev Calamur, writing in The Atlantic, on the Wednesday, October 4 attack in Niger of three US soliders and one solider from an unnamed country. 

No one has yet claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack. The ambush occurred in the village of Tongo Tongo, about 125 miles north of Niamey, the capital, and about 20 miles from Niger’s border with Mali, where attacks by Islamist groups have surged in recent months, according to the UN. It’s unclear what U.S. training forces were doing in an area so close to a region with known militant activity.

“Where U.S. Special Forces operate in these parts of Africa, they are generally active in training,” Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “But … this is where this incident in Tongo Tongo seems to sow some potential confusion: It was reportedly a training exercise very close to where jihadist groups are very active, forcing a response to the attack with the Nigerien counterparts.”

He added: “It does show how blurry these lines can be.”

Terrorism and Violent Extremism in Africa
Congressional Research Service, July 14, 2016  
[Thank you, Every CRS Report.] 

Conflict in Libya has spilled over its borders, generating new flows of arms and combatants into Tunisia and West Africa’s Sahel region. Instability in North Africa has also drawn African recruits seeking to join groups based in Libya, or seeking to transit through North Africa en route to other global hotspots. Mutual distrust among North and Sub-Saharan African governments has inhibited counterterrorism cooperation, as have bureaucratic divisions within some donor governments.

Violent Extremism in the Sahel
Center for Strategic & International Studies

In the last three years, both Boko Haram and AQIM have come under increasing pressure, a result of regional and international military interventions and a UN peacekeeping deployment into northern Mali; French forces in particular play a critical role across the region. Both extremist groups have suffered significant losses in men and matériel, and they no longer control or administer territory in their respective areas.

However, there is a very long way to go before the appeal and the threat of violent extremism in the West African Sahel is suppressed. Violent extremist groups, particularly in Mali and the upper Sahel, are just some of the many armed and militant groups competing and collaborating in pursuit of personal, ethnic, social, regional, and economic interests. Extremist groups blend with a broader infrastructure of competition, conflict, and insecurity and cannot be understood—or addressed—in isolation from it.

Governments of the region counter these extremist threats predominantly through military force, without committing to tackling the drivers of militancy or changing how they connect with their citizens in marginalized communities. External partners should avoid reinforcing a singular emphasis on military solutions that only enables national governments to sidestep the difficult path of accountability and reform. At the same time, military services need more training, appropriate equipment, and professionalization for occasions requiring force.