Catch-22 in the Sahel

Catch-22 in the Sahel

America's fight against terror in West Africa—and its shortcomings.


In the relative backwater of U.S. foreign policy that is the Sahel, U.S. engagement has in recent years has been a function of the vital, albeit limited, national-security interest in countering the threat that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other violent extremist organizations pose to U.S. interests. Yet, U.S. engagement in this part of Africa is much more complex than drone bases and military exercises. In fact, one of the main tools of U.S. engagement in the Sahel and Maghreb, the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), spans the “three Ds”—Diplomacy, Defense, and Development.

TSCTP is an outgrowth of the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI), a post-9/11 initiative that developed from the U.S. government’s concern that the region’s weak states could become a safe haven for terrorist groups linked with Al Qaeda to launch attacks against U.S. interests. Starting in 2002, the United States trained and equipped six company-sized Malian, Chadian, Mauritanian, and Nigerien rapid-reaction counterterrorism forces with an annual budget of $7.75M. By 2004, the U.S. government had decided to expand PSI into a more comprehensive, holistic program that would transcend regional and bureaucratic boundaries, and allow development assistance and public diplomacy to become part of an overall counterterrorism strategy in the region. The new concept, then called the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), was approved in January 2005, and subsequently became a Program of Record called TSCTP. In addition to the original PSI countries of Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, TSCTP expanded geographically so that it now includes Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. Through TSCTP, these countries collectively receive between $90M and $160M per year through a combination of Title 22 (State Department) and Title 10 (Department of Defense) funding authorities such as the Economic Support Fund, International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, the Counternarcotics Program, and Section 1206 (Global Train and Equip)—along with several other accounts.


Despite the program’s narrow focus on counterterrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE), TSCTP engagement across the ten countries in the program is rather broad. For example, in most of these countries, the U.S. military builds the capacity of partner nation counterterrorism forces to “Find, Fix and Finish” violent extremist organizations, and sponsors Flintlock, the annual regional counterterrorism interoperability exercise.

On the law enforcement side of the security sector, the U.S. works with partner-nation gendarmerie, police, and customs and border patrol to strengthen their capacity to protect critical infrastructure, conduct hostage negotiation and post-blast investigation, and secure borders against illicit trafficking. A Resident Legal Advisor in Nigeria works with partner-nation law enforcement on cybercrime and financial investigations, while their counterpart in Mauritania coordinates regional training on countering money laundering and terrorist financing with Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, in cooperation with the African Union. In Morocco, the US Agency for International Development and a representative from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement work with the corrections system to mitigate recidivism and prevent the radicalization of prisoners while they are incarcerated.

In Mali, USAID is working with Malian NGOs on a series of village music festivals and peace forums throughout the country to promote messages of tolerance, reconciliation and national unity, while in Niger, the State Department facilitates public-service announcements delivered by well-known local opinion shapers (i.e., religious leaders, chiefs, media figures) to spread messages of moderation and national unity. In Nigeria and Mauritania, DoD’s Military Information Support Teams develop handbills and billboards advertising the local “911” equivalent and encouraging the population to report security threats to partner nation security forces. USAID engages key leaders and civil-society organizations in Nigeria to develop mechanisms to deepen interfaith understanding and mitigate conflict, while DoD’s Civil Military Support Element in Mauritania builds partner-nation military civil-affairs capacity and delivers services to marginalized populations that may be vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. Finally, through Peace Through Development II , which also includes a counter-extremist messaging component, USAID offers vocational training in Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger to increase opportunities for the social and economic inclusion of at-risk populations and mitigate the recruitment of marginalized populations into terrorist organizations.

From the standpoint of U.S. government TSCTP stakeholders, the program has had some notable successes—although they may be the result of correlation rather than causation. For example, in response to the influx of Tuareg returnees from Libya, the U.S. integrated at-risk male Tuareg youth into ongoing vocational training and youth-engagement programs in Niger. In addition, while many African countries were troop contributors to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, Chad’s U.S.-trained Special Anti-Terrorism Group was the only African force that took part in offensive operations to clear terrorist-occupied northern Mali in early 2013.

Those examples notwithstanding, that the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership is the U.S. government’s primary tool of engagement in the Sahel and Maghreb illuminates a critical weakness of the U.S. approach to the region. By design, TSCTP has a narrow counterterror/counterextremism focus that does not focus on building democratic institutions, tackling public corruption, addressing social inequality, or reforming entire security sectors—areas of engagement that many of the countries in this chronically unstable region need. Using Mali as a case in point, the United States missed the indicators that trouble was brewing—the fact that northern Mali had become a graveyard of unimplemented peace agreements, that there were allegations of government corruption and complicity with narcotrafficking, and that the populace was so politically disengaged that voter turnout had historically been very low. With a narrow counterterror/counterextremism focus, TSCTP could not have been the appropriate tool for the United States to address these drivers of instability. The irony, however, was that the aforementioned drivers of instability detract from the overall effectiveness of the program, as evidenced by the suspension of the program in Mali following the coup in March 2012.

This is not to say that the focus of TSCTP should be expanded into something that looks more like Plan Colombia or the Marshall Plan. In reality, a similar level of engagement would be unlikely given U.S. priorities in other parts of the globe. Therefore, in the absence of high-level U.S. government attention and additional human and financial resources for TSCTP, the limited scope of the program makes it imperative to leverage non-counterterror capacity-building initiatives in TSCTP countries themselves, other U.S. government programs, and bilateral and multilateral partners like the Economic Community of West African States, France, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

In spite of its intentional design flaw, TSCTP has been instrumental in marshaling interagency resources in support of a regional approach to counter terrorism and violent extremism in the region. However, while the program may be necessary, a U.S. government approach that does not address drivers of instability outside the realm of counterterrorism will not be sufficient to prevent the region from remaining a permissive environment for terrorist activity.

Lesley Anne Warner is an Africa analyst at the CNA Corporation and the author of “The Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership: Building Partner Capacity to Counter Terrorism and Violent Extremism.” The views expressed here are her own, and are based on a study conducted while she was on assignment at the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. She blogs atLesley on Africa and you can follow her on twitter:@lesley_warner.