Chris Wozniak is an independent analyst. He holds a BA in Political Economy from the University of Washington. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of Rising Extremism in the Central Sahel
Date Originally Written: May 15, 2019.
Date Originally Published: July 8, 2019.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a civilian analyst with an interest in national security, diplomatic, and development issues. This article is written from the point of view of a United States committed to its strategic objective of denying transnational terrorists safe havens in ungoverned spaces.
Summary: Violent extremist organizations in the Central Sahel (the Fezzan in Libya’s south, Niger and the Lake Chad Basin) are exploiting environmental change, economic grievances, and longstanding social cleavages to recruit and expand. United States Africa Command is explicitly tasked with countering significant terrorist threats but fluctuating resources and underuse of diplomatic and economic tools risks allowing extremists to consolidate their gains and establish safe havens.
Text: The 2018 National Defense Strategy advocates for the use of multilateral relationships to address significant terrorist threats in Africa. Tasked with the execution of this goal, the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) has adopted a “by, with, and through” approach emphasizing partner-centric solutions in a challenging operating environment. Africa’s population is expected to nearly double by 2050 while climate change continues unabated. These twin pressures increase food insecurity and exacerbate social cleavages, providing opportunities for violent extremist organizations (VEOs) to operate, recruit, and expand. African governments struggling to respond to the threat find themselves resource constrained, lacking training, and derelict in their governance of vulnerable areas. As one of the regions most vulnerable to these pressures, the Central Sahel is a key area for USAFRICOM to mobilize its limited resources in the global campaign against extremism in order to deny terrorists access to ungoverned territory where they can consolidate their organizations.
USAFRICOM faces intensifying VEO activity in the Central Sahel and efforts to stem the violence have centered primarily on joint exercises with partner nations. The number of reported violent events linked to militant Islamist group activity in the Sahel has doubled every year since 2016, with 465 instances recorded in 2018. Reported fatalities have also risen from 218 in 2016 to 1,110 in 2018. Joint training exercises such as the annually recurring Operation Flintlock incepted in 2005, are designed to enhance the capabilities of the G5 Sahel nations (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger), foster coordination with regional and western partners, bolster the protection of civilians, and deny VEOs safe havens. Mali’s 2012 crisis underscores the need for these exercises. In the absence of adequate training and security coordination between Sahel and western nations, a coalition of extremist Islamist groups and separatists – chiefly Al Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine and Tuareg separatists – were able to cooperate and seize several cities. It ultimately took a multiple brigade, eighteen-month unilateral French military intervention to oust the extremists. Mali remains the epicenter of violence in the region, accounting for roughly 64 percent of the reported events in the region in 2018.
Mali is not only the focal point of violence in the Sahel, it is also exemplary of how efforts to stamp out VEOs must address the inter-communal conflicts, lack of economic opportunity, and poor governance that fuel them. Operating in central Mali, the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) has exploited these factors to operate, recruit, and expand. Invoking the memory of the 19th century Macina Empire – which was primarily composed of the Fulani ethnic group – the FLM has exploited the absence of economic opportunity available to Fulani herdsmen to drive a wedge between them, local farmers, and the Malian government. FLM leadership relentlessly propagandizes longstanding tensions between Fulanis and farmers with whom they compete for land, pasture, and water resources in an increasingly arid environment. The growing intensity of competition increasingly boils over into tit-for-tat ethnic violence, driving desperate herdsmen into the arms of VEOs in search of security and a reliable wage. Malian government attempts to provide security and basic services in the area have been followed by complaints of corruption, poor oversight, and retaliatory violence. Similar cleavages exist in all Sahel nations and the cost of economic, environmental, and governance problems that drive VEO recruitment in the Central Sahel are quantifiable; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was the only operational group in 2012 compared to more than ten active groups in 2018.
USAFRICOM’s capability to address this proliferation of VEOs has been complicated by fluctuations in resources and autonomy that the command is able to wield in the region. Currently USAFRICOM commands approximately 6,000 troops supported by 1,000 civilians or contractors, but plans to cut personnel ten percent overall by 2022. This reduction will disproportionately affect operations troops, who will experience a fifty percent reduction. Cutbacks in special operations troops will be keenly felt given that they are well suited to carrying out the training and assist operations core to USAFRICOM’s strategy. Over the same timeline, the United States plans a tenfold increase of military equipment support for the Burkinabe military totaling $100 million from a total of $242 million in military aid to the G5 Sahel as a whole. The effect of reducing training resources yet increasing equipment and funding remains to be seen. However, the memory of a well-equipped Iraqi army’s 2014 defeat by Islamic State militants is still fresh. Operational autonomy within USAFRICOM has also been curtailed following the widely publicized 2017 Niger ambush that left four American Special Forces Soldiers killed in action. Restrictions stemming from fallout of the ambush include a requirement for sufficient Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) resources and stricter mission planning. USAFRICOM can expect a reduction in the number of operations it can conduct overall due to the frequently limited availability of ISR platforms. Fewer personnel and tighter oversight could make it more difficult for AFRICOM to provide a healthy security environment crucial to any diplomatic or economic project addressing the causes of VEO proliferation.
Nearly twenty years into the war on terror, VEOs continue to thrive and proliferate amid escalating violence in the Sahel. USAFRICOM’s multilateral strategy has enhanced the Sahel G5 nations’ ability to cooperate and mitigate the risk of campaigns analogous to Mali’s 2012 crisis. However, the strategy has been slow to address underlying causes of extremism. U.S. diplomatic and economic instruments will play a key role in any future moves to address the environmental pressures, economic grievances, and governance issues plaguing the region and fueling extremist activity. Reducing the U.S. footprint in the area does not signal USAFRICOM will be equipped to provide the security environment necessary for such projects. If the United States neglects the increasingly stressed Central Sahel region, it risks allowing extremist exploitation of ungoverned areas that has historically enabled VEOs to consolidate, train, and launch international attacks.
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