Counterterrorism yearbook 2019: West Africa and the Sahel
2 Apr 2019|

The trends in terrorist activity and counterterrorism efforts observed in the Sahel and broader West African region over the course of 2018 were far from encouraging and paved the way for further instability. The picture is compounded by a troubling humanitarian situation: across the entire region, there are high numbers of displaced civilians, thousands of whom are in urgent need of assistance.

The region has two epicentres of instability. The first is in Mali and its immediate neighbours, Burkina Faso and Niger, in the western Sahel, which are home to multiple affiliates of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, some of which have in recent years switched allegiance to Islamic State. The second is the Lake Chad Basin comprising Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, which is battling what was initially a Nigeria-specific problem—Boko Haram, a group that sympathises with al-Qaeda, though it’s never been a member of the franchise—that has spilled over into neighbouring countries. Today, it also includes a splinter group aligned with IS.

In 2019, the region is likely to be beset by continued fighting and the targeting by jihadists of both security forces and civilians. Jihadists, who already have a propensity for infighting, splintering and mergers, will continue to contribute to a fluid security scene featuring terrorism, insurgency, conflict and criminality, including human trafficking and smuggling. The announcement in October of a six-month extension of Mali’s state of emergency and the heightened tempo of attacks in Nigeria in the latter part of the year are all indicators that more violence is to be expected. Indeed, the Nigerian presidential elections in February 2019 were marred by jihadi attacks in addition to other forms of electoral violence.

Given this level of activity it comes as no surprise that the region as a whole has undergone a process of securitisation in recent years, which has resulted in a multitude of forces and stakeholders becoming involved on the ground.

The coexistence of multiple missions and the presence of many international partners, each with its own priorities, translate into coordination challenges. Above all, the experience in the Sahel has highlighted the lack of consolidation among EU missions and the need to better integrate ad hoc programs into a broader strategy under the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy.

In addition, it has become apparent that the ever-growing focus on counterterrorism , underscored by significant international (Western) efforts, has taken the focus away from implementing the Algiers Peace Accord in Mali, which is crucial not only for a security solution but also for a political solution to the conflict. Similarly, the influx of foreign support and resources to address security challenges such as terrorism and human trafficking appeared to fail to address much-needed reforms in state behaviour, governance and justice, which are significant factors in driving violence and radicalisation.

Simply put, tackling security challenges without providing viable employment alternatives for local civilians fuels likely resentment towards the foreign presence. At the same time, international partners should be wary of falling prey to local authorities that, on occasion, might be using the counterterrorism or migration discourse to position themselves as essential partners in need of ever-growing support while using expanded security mandates to harass domestic political opponents or to curb civil liberties and freedom of the press, as seen in Niger and Nigeria, respectively.

This behaviour fosters mistrust in the authorities and is compounded by civilians’ resentment as more reports of human rights abuses by local troops emerge, including multiple cases of arbitrary executions, at times targeting women and children. This disturbing trend undermines counterterrorism efforts, and so do governments’ limited responses to these allegations. In the immediate term, this behaviour further alienates the population and therefore makes the collection of human intelligence, which is essential in the counterterrorism context, very difficult.

Also undermining success is discontent among troops, as exemplified by instances of military personnel refusing to take part in operations or abandoning their posts. Insufficient training and a lack of ammunition, together with militants’ prowess, contribute to low morale. It would seem unrealistic to expect any significant improvement on this front in the short and medium terms, partly because of funding constraints and delays for some of the missions, such as G5 Sahel.

These challenges and shortcoming shouldn’t detract from the progress made by local and international troops; rather, they should act as a reminder that complacency is dangerous and the road to sustainable stability across the region remains a long and insidious one.