Fostering Security in the Sahel: A Critical Challenge

Fostering Security in the Sahel: A Critical Challenge


Throughout the past few years, policymakers, scholars, analysts, and researchers have become increasingly concerned by heightened extremist violence throughout the Sahel and Western Africa. As of today, groups like Boko Haram, the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWA), and al Qaeda in the (AQIM) have swept across countries such as Nigeria and Chad, spreading fear, insecurity, and sociopolitical unrest throughout both urban and rural communities. According to a report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Violent extremist organizations have expanded their ambitions, capacities, and geographical reach into the Sahel and West Africa, extending an Arc of Instability across an area of strategic interest for the United States and its allies.” The threat post by violent extremists in the region continues to rise. Failure to meet this emerging and evolving threat with effective countermeasures could prove disastrous.

Though steps have been taken throughout the past four years by countries such as France and the United States in close coordination with local actors, it is critical that further steps are taken by the international community to counter terrorist groups in the region in the short term while addressing the complex social, economic, and sectarian conditions that allowed them to emerge in the first place. Failure to do so could result in heightened threats to security across the African continent, an exacerbation of already fragile economic conditions, and the fueling of ethno-sectarian tension. As we have learned throughout the past few years, given the right conditions and failure to address them, terrorist and violent extremist groups are capable of spreading far beyond the borders of the countries in which they emerged.

The heightened levels of violence and instability that have characterized the region throughout the past few years highlight the urgency of international commitment and resolve in efforts to address this emerging threat. The same social, political, and economic conditions that facilitated the rise of groups like ISIS in the Middle East are widespread in the region. Failure to adequately respond to the threat of these groups could lead to heightened insecurity and violence throughout countries far beyond the places in which these groups currently preside. As of today, efforts to counter terrorist groups have been substantial yet inadequate. They require renewed commitment and cooperation from various actors throughout the international community. This research project aims to outline the recent historical context of terrorism in the Sahel, international involvement in the region, recent developments, and the challenges that remain. Additionally, suggestions will be provided on the options available to the international community in their efforts to counter the evolving threat of terrorist groups in the Sahel. Understanding the complex challenges facing the region, what has been done successfully, what has failed, and what could lead to progress in the future, are all critical components of our scholarly understanding of war and peace in the Sahel.


The Threat and its Origins

For nearly two decades, groups of violent extremists have continued to heighten their presence and influence throughout the Sahel. According to Jennifer Cooke and Thomas Sanderson in a CSIS report on violent extremism in the Sahel, violent extremist organizations have expanded their ambitions, capacities, and geographical reach into the Sahel and West Africa with a devastating impact on human security and economic development.” Heightened attention and concern were attributed to the region from countries and international organizations when strategically significant cities, villages, towns, and territories in Northern Mali fell to the control of al Qaeda and other linked groups in 2012. International actors began to realize that a combination of poor governance and historic animosity throughout populations in the north had resulted in decreased state legitimacy and authority.

Following the fall of Muammar el Qaddafi in Libya, Tuareg groups fighting as mercenaries alongside the government of Libya returned to Mali to take part in an insurgency against the national government. Throughout the years prior to the civil war in Libya, these groups had fought for a mixed set of objectives for the northern region of Mali ranging from heightened autonomy to independence. A military coup in Bamako resulted in higher levels of cooperation between these Tuareg groups and other Islamic extremist groups who jointly aimed to establish control over northern Mali. As the religious extremist groups became stronger, the Tuareg groups began to play an increasingly small role in operations given the divergence of their social, military, and political objectives. These groups had established the strong financial base necessary to wage an effective insurgency through the trafficking of illicit goods and services in addition to carrying out kidnap for ransom operations. They quickly began to destroy historic artifacts such as mosques, ancient manuscripts, statues, and tombs. Further, they implemented strict religious regulations on local populations. Later, in 2013 jihadist groups began to carry out operations beyond the north and started to take control of cities in central Mali. In response to this, the French military initiated Operation Serval. Aided by international funding, intelligence sharing, and assistance from local authorities, the French military intervened in central Mali and then proceeded to assist the national government in its reclamation and stabilization of the north.

Cooke summarizes the challenges faced by the region in another report claiming that…“throughout the Sahel, a complex web of transnational criminal networks and militant groups thrives in an environment of weak states, porous borders, and humanitarian crisis.” According to a report from the UN, Bintou Keita, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations claimed that “adding to the urgency for sustained support, an already dire security situation in the Sahel was worsening.” According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the group known as Boko Haram killed approximately 17,500 civilians throughout 2014 and 2015. This was greater than the number of civilian deaths caused by ISIS in Iraq and Syria during the same timeframe. It is likely that many other civilians were killed but simply undocumented. Other groups pose similar risks. The same attention and concern associated with countries such as Iraq and Syria should be given to countries throughout the Sahel.


The Consequences of Instability & Violence

The socioeconomic consequences that violent extremist groups in the region have brought to already fragile communities are significant. Terrorist groups have exacerbated the already high levels of poverty and low levels of economic development. Furthermore, they have contributed to the worsening of conditions necessary for foreign direct investment from external actors that would benefit stability and economic development. As a result, the conditions that enabled extremist groups to emerge, gather support and resources, and flourish in poor governance continue to worsen. This has facilitated the spread of extremist groups exponentially. National governments have faced heightened challenges in administering their territories and providing basic goods and services for those who inhabit them. This has resulted in heightened legitimacy and support for violent extremist groups in the region that claim that they will provide for civilians ‘forgotten’ by national governments.[1]

Important strategic cities and villages throughout Mali and Nigeria have become inaccessible by government authorities. As a result, impoverished communities have seen a decrease in the availability of already limited critical goods and services such as water, education, and health. Local economies have been damaged significantly which has had spillover effects on linked communities outside of the control of groups such as Boko Haram.[2] As in many cases, extremist groups have presented themselves as entities fighting for the people of countries in the region and have used military operations against them as false proof of their idea that they are under attack from corrupt and illegitimate regimes and the West. Further, they have attempted to garner support from the communities that they control through the provision of services that local governments were unable to provide to them. People living in desperate conditions often accept these groups as a preferable alternative to ineffective national governments that struggle to provide for rural communities. It is argued by many, that violent extremist groups played a significant role in the state failure of Mali.[3]

According to General Thomas D. Waldhauser from the United States Marine Core “In Africa with all the challenges of the youth bulge, poverty, the lack of governance, wide open spaces, these are areas where violent extremist organizations, like ISIS or like al Qaeda, thrive.”[4] Efforts must be adopted in the short term in order to counter the spread of such groups. Throughout the future, the international community should work in close cooperation with regional authorities, politicians, economists, and other actors in order to address conditions such as poverty, corruption, poor governance, and ethnic tension that make countries in the Sahel susceptible to the spread of violent extremism and terrorism.

Fostering Peace, Stability, Security, & Economic Development: Efforts and Outcomes

Following a series of terrorist attacks in the capitals of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Nigeria, the international community adopted measures in order to meet the emerging threat of violent extremism with firm opposition.[5] It was believed that if the international community responded to the spread of groups such as ISWA and AQIM sooner rather than later, a great deal of time and resources would be saved by the entities which would eventually be called on to counter such groups. The Sahel region has seen heightened efforts by international security forces to counter violent extremist groups throughout recent months.[6] Through cooperation with international organizations, local governments, and actors such as France, countries in the region have been able to identify and disrupt the sources of weapons and finance possessed by these groups. International security forces have also carried out operations aimed at better understanding the internal dynamics of these groups while identifying and eliminating their leadership. Though progress has been made, much work remains to be done.

Prior to 2014, Operation Serval played an important role in efforts to collect strategic information on violent extremist groups in the region while coordinating efforts to counter them. In August of 2014, this was replaced by the French Operation Barkhane. French politicians and security personnel supported this operation claiming that it would be less costly and problematic to address the conditions that fueled mass immigration from the Sahel region at their roots. Further, France depicted itself as a defender of human rights that would not tolerate the brutality that characterized the activities of the violent extremist groups in the region. As of today, Barkhane is the largest overseas French military operation aiming to enhance security throughout the region through partnerships with local actors and joint operations with Mali, Niger, and Chad. Though the operation focuses primarily on counterterrorism operations, it also strives to train local security forces to carry out operations on their own when thought to be appropriate. This permits legal authorities to use their cultural and geographical expertise to carry out more effective counterterrorism operations.

In early November of 2014, the G5 Sahel Joint Force conducted its first operation in the region in an attempt to heighten border security along previously porous borders and strengthen cooperation in efforts to detect, disrupt, and dismantle, transnational criminal networks. It was hoped that through cooperation between the international community and local security authorities it would be possible to more effectively counter transnational terrorist groups and other criminal networks in the region. The force is made up of five countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad) in the Sahel that have been particularly threatened by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS in addition to their brutal attacks.[7] Throughout the past few months, the operation has proven effective in fostering higher levels of security along borders in the region while strengthening cooperation and intelligence sharing in efforts to counter the terrorist groups that have caused bloodshed and havoc throughout the Sahel.[8] The international community must continue to support this operation as to ensure that it is able to continue on this progress.

The G5 Sahel force has received a significant amount of support and assistance both financial and logistical from the government of France which is currently very active in the region. Approximately 4,000 publicly declared French troops are present throughout the Sahel with the objective of assisting regional militaries, intelligence agencies, and other entities in countering active terrorist groups. French forces are also authorized to engage terrorist groups directly upon necessity. Other special forces groups from European countries and the United States are also active throughout these territories and working actively along French and African authorities. Though the United States was initially reserved in its support for the G5 Sahel force given concerns what was claimed to be an unclear strategy, $60 million were provided by the US government in order to support its operations. The United States should continue to support the G5 Sahel force through financial assistance, military cooperation, and intelligence sharing.[9]

UN led and administered country specific efforts have contributed to enhancing security in the region as well. Formerly the Economic Community of West African States, the UN Multinational Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has strived to heighten security and foster stability in Mali. It is currently made up of approximately 2,000 police officers and 10,000 troops. The United Nations was charged with authority over the operation in the year 2013 which resulted in heightened support and oversight from various members of the international community.[10] The entity’s operations were expanded to include supporting the reestablishment of the Malian government’s authority, fostering national reconciliation and dialogue, and the protection of civilians from security threats throughout the country. The operation has been beneficial, but has not reached its intended objectives.[11]

Throughout the past few months, processes aimed at heightening dialogue between the government of Mali and influential northern political groups have failed time and time again due to disagreements on administrative issues and security arrangements. MINUSMA’s contributions to counterterrorism have so far been limited due to the fact that efforts to fight transnational terrorist groups are not included in its mandate. However, though it has not often carried out offensive operations against terrorist groups, it has had to engage them directly on numerous occasions in which officials, bases, and convoys have been attacked by terrorist groups. The mission has suffered 80 recorded casualties as of the writing of this report. The United Nations and other actors with the necessary financial means should heighten their commitments to preserving the security of critical missions such as MINUSMA and those in surrounding countries.[12]

The international community has contributed to the efforts outlined above on through bilateral efforts on multiple different occasions as well. Though these contributions have proven effective, they have been inadequate and little has been done to address the factors that fueled the spread of violent extremist groups in the first place. A variety of different actors have contributed through military training and assistance. Operation Enduring Freedom–Trans Sahara (OEF-TS) was established by the United States in 2007 with the primary objective of ensuring that regional militaries were adequately trained and equipped to combat insurgent, terrorist, and violent extremist groups effectively.[13] Since then, the United States has heightened its commitment to the region substantially. The United States deployed 1,000 troops to the region shortly after the initiation of Enduring Freedom and established drone bases in Burkina Faso and Niger. Through the U.S. Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) the United States has taken other steps in order to strengthen nonmilitary governance as well. The EU has contributed to counterterrorism efforts as well through military training and support missions. The EU currently has two active training missions in Mali called EUTM and one in Niger called the EU Capacity-Building Mission (EUCAP).[14]


Jennifer Cooke states that “despite this regional security traffic jam [referring to the great deal of operations aimed at countering violent extremist groups and insurgencies] the fight against terrorism has stalled, and extremist groups have proved nimble and resilient.”[15] Though efforts to counter violent extremist groups and transnational terrorist organizations have proven effective, they have not adequately addressed the conditions that facilitate the rise of such groups in the first place.[16] This has resulted in these groups and other splinter groups rapidly rebounding from losses in terms of territory, membership, financial resources, infrastructural development, and sources of weaponry and technology.[17] Measures should be adopted in order to heighten security around key potential sources of revenues such as mines, banks, and gas extraction plants. Further, steps should be taken in order to strengthen local governance and heighten the resilience of law enforcement authorities in the region. Corruption and lack of accountability are also conditions that result in the failure to achieve long term, feasible, and sustainable peace and stability in the region as well.[18] Relevant UN agencies and specialists from legal institutions around the world should strive to help countries in the region strengthen key financial and corporate institutions. Independent observers, advisors from countries such as the UK and Britain, and appropriate officials from international entities such as the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and the United Nations should strive to help countries in the region develop stronger legal systems capable of ensuring accountability for corruption, mismanagement of state funds, and the trafficking of drugs, humans, and arms.

In addition to these, many other challenges to the preservation of regional stability remain. Failure to reach a political settlement between the government of Mali and armed groups in the country has exacerbated social unrest, instability, and insecurity in the country. Further, it has made it more challenging for MINUSMA to achieve the objectives it has set for itself throughout recent years. Though the EU has been able to train approximately 10,000 soldiers in Mali, progress in rendering them operational and prepared for combat has not been as efficient as hoped for. Though the French government has reiterated its commitment to Operation Barkhane, domestic priorities within France have made it difficult for the country to expand its efforts and commitments to fostering peace in the region. [19]

According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “the stability of the entire region, and beyond, is in jeopardy, leaving millions of people at risk of violence.” The challenges ahead to peace, security, and stability in the Sahel remain significant. International cooperation has proven effective but inadequate. As stated in a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “trafficking in arms, drugs, and human beings continues unabated, creating a thriving criminal economy.” This in turn fuels the violent groups that sew unrest and violence throughout communities in the region. Violent extremist groups continue to reemerge and spread due to the failure of local governments and the international community to address the conditions that make territories vulnerable to the spawning of violent extremist groups. We have seen this in the emergence of groups such as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims) and an AQIM splinter groups that proclaims itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Understanding the complexities of the region is the first step towards being able to achieve peace and stability throughout it. This report is a humble attempt to provide scholars, academics, and policymakers with a clear, concise, and comprehensive overview of the region, its complexities, and where we stand in our common efforts to bring much deserved peace to its people.




















[1] “Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Peacekeeping in Mali | Crisis Group,” accessed December 9, 2018,

[2] Rudolph Atallah, “Crisis in the Sahel: Overview,” Atlantic Council, accessed December 9, 2018,

[3] “Mali: Extremism & Counter-Extremism,” Counter Extremism Project, last modified March 7, 2016, accessed December 9, 2018,

[4] “U.S. Wants Sahel Force Strategy before Giving Money: Officials,” Reuters, October 28, 2017, accessed December 9, 2018,

[5] “Understanding the G5 Sahel Joint Force: Fighting Terror, Building Regional Security? | Center for Strategic and International Studies,” 5.

[6] “The Paradox of Modern Jihadi Insurgencies: The Case of the Sahel and Maghreb – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,” accessed December 9, 2018,

[7] “Understanding the G5 Sahel Joint Force: Fighting Terror, Building Regional Security? | Center for Strategic and International Studies.”

[8] Anouar Boukhars Wehrey Rasmus Boserup, Michele Dunne, Intissar Fakir, Dalia Ghanem, Jimam Lar, Faraj Najem, Amy Niang, Manal Taha, Frederic “Militancy and Conflict in the Sahel and Maghreb,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed December 9, 2018,

[9] “Understanding the G5 Sahel Joint Force: Fighting Terror, Building Regional Security? | Center for Strategic and International Studies.”

[10] “Successful Elections, New Peace Pact in Mali Foster Hope for Stability Despite Spread of Extremism across Sahel, Peacekeeping Chief Tells Security Council | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases,” accessed December 9, 2018,

[11] “Understanding the G5 Sahel Joint Force: Fighting Terror, Building Regional Security? | Center for Strategic and International Studies.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara (OEF-TS) / Operation Juniper Shield,” accessed December 9, 2018,

[14] Bernardo Venturi, “The EU and the Sahel: A Laboratory of Experimentation for the Security–Migration–Development Nexus” (2017): 20.

[15] “Understanding the G5 Sahel Joint Force: Fighting Terror, Building Regional Security? | Center for Strategic and International Studies.”

[16] “Does Washington Have a Stake in the Sahel?,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed December 9, 2018,

[17] “Democracy in Development: Food Insecurity and the Future of the Sahel,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed December 9, 2018,

[18] “Militancy and the Arc of Instability: Violent Extremism in the Sahel – Jennifer G. Cooke, Thomas M. Sanderson

[19] “France’s Macron Returns to Mali to Boost Regional Anti-Terrorism Force,” France 24, last modified July 1, 2017, accessed December 9, 2018,

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