Nearly two months after four American servicemen were killed by terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State in Niger, there is a growing concern among counterterrorism experts that the collapse of ISIS in the Middle East will result in the group shifting its focus to Africa. An area of particular concern is the Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara spanning from Mauritania and Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east, and dipping as far south as Nigeria. While the urge for the American military to pursue ISIS into Africa is heavily embedded within the fabric of its counterinsurgency playbook, the United States would be wise in exercising restraint by not committing significant resources towards targeting terrorists in the Sahel. If the United States is concerned with the rise of terrorism in the Sahel and wants to allocate military resources to the region, Washington should instead adopt a strategy designed to positively empower regional allies while eliminating the systemic problems that create the conditions for terrorism to thrive in the first place.
There are a number of factors that make the Sahel particularly ripe for the Islamic State’s brand of terrorism. Countries such as Mali, Niger, Chad, and Nigeria have long suffered from internal ethnic, religious, and tribal fractures that ISIS has previously exploited to its advantage and incite local Muslim populations to violence. Furthermore, the Sahel is littered with Tuareg and Arab militias who have already proven effective in utilizing their ISIS-friendly interpretations of Salafism as a call to arms, and could follow the lead of Boko Haram and other groups in aligning themselves with ISIS. Finally, the Sahel is home to over forty-one-million people under the age of twenty-five who face significant economic hardship which, combined with growing frustrations towards ineffective and corrupt local governments, could motivate them towards radicalization.
These trends suggest that ISIS may be poised to establish a greater foothold in the Sahel, and it seems as though the United States has taken notice. Not only has the United States already stationed nearly 800 military personnel on the ground throughout the region, but Washington has also recently committed $60 million towards the creation of a UN-backed counterterrorism force in the Sahel—even as it proposes $3 billion cuts in humanitarian aid to Africa. Additionally, the United States has active drone bases in Chad and Niger that are dedicated to American counterterror efforts , and has plans to deploy MQ9 Reaper drones in Niger. These efforts were in place before American troops were killed in Niger, and will likely be accelerated in its aftermath. Sen. Lindsay Graham’s recent comments reinforced the push for expanding the war on terror to new battlefronts, warning that, “we don’t want the next 9/11 to come from Niger.”
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that expanding American counterterror operations in the Sahel will meaningfully reduce the risk of such an attack. As the past sixteen years of the war on terror have illustrated, combating a force as nebulous as “terrorism” is exceptionally difficult, particularly when both the ideology and practitioners of this form of warfare are so easily transferable across international lines. Just as the defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq saw many of the group’s members transition their allegiance to the Islamic State, the disruption of terror cells in Mali and Libya has seen members of those groups migrate throughout the Sahel and embed themselves within other extremist groups in the region. Defeating ISIS in the Middle East did not stop them from re-emerging in the Sahel, and there is little reason to believe that disrupting ISIS’ operations in Africa will prevent them from successfully migrating elsewhere.
The problem of migration is particularly pronounced in the Sahel. Millions of Africans cross through the region’s porous borders every year, and local governments have proven largely incapable of providing meaningful border security. The Sahel is not only perfectly designed to facilitate the spread of jihadist fighters from east to west, but, should ISIS gain control of the valuable gold and uranium deposits throughout the region, it could also allow the organization to easily funnel the resources it extracts and sell them in exchange for weapons. The United States, which has historically faced great difficulty in combating terrorist groups operating in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, would face similar challenges in the Sahel, which would be exacerbated by our well-documented struggles in sharing critical intelligence with regional partners.
Additionally, the problems facing American cooperation with regional allies go far beyond poor intelligence sharing. Soldiers from Mali and Burkina Faso were accused of torturing and executing civilians while conducting counterterror operations, while Nigeria left over 100 civilian casualties after it accidentally bombed a refugee camp it mistook for Boko Haram insurgents. These heavy-handed tactics have been criticized for bolstering extremist organizations instead of disrupting them, and the United States has thus far proven unable or unwilling to effectively corral its regional partners. Despite the multinational coalition of forces that have spent years targeting Boko Haram, the region has seen a marked increase in the number of suicide attacks committed by the group this year.