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Sahel: Questioning Counterterrorism?

AfricaFocus Bulletin
March 22, 2021 (2021-03-22)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

“In the context of complex and protracted conflicts, it is time to rethink the role of the international community and acknowledge its limits. Today, success depends first and foremost on the willingness (much more than on the capacity) of corrupt leaders to reform and renew their social contract with citizens, especially in rural areas. International efforts will fail as long as impunity prevails and local armies can kill civilians and topple governments without consequence.” - Chatham House Research Paper

The critique is not new (see, for example, earlier reports in Africafocus in 2017, 2009, and 2007). What is new is that the critique now seems to be the consensus in elite Western policy circles, as reflected in the report cited and excerpted below from Chatham House in London and two very similar analyses from CSIS in Washington and the International Crisis Group in Brussels.

All seem to agree that Western counterterrorism policy in the Sahel has been both over-militarized and ineffective. All suggest, in slightly varying language, that policy must be “rebalanced” or “rethought” to emphasize governance and diplomacy, including “talking with terrorists.” The emphasis on governance as well as military action has long been part of the rhetoric of the international community and of the powers most engaged in the region. But the tone is now clearly different and the recognition of the failures to date is widespread.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that the policy in practice is still unlikely to follow the rhetoric, as the institutions invested in military solutions have far more influence due to their bureaucratic weight and untested assumptions such as that military success must come first. Attention to the realities of national governments and local communities is sporadic and inconsistent in contrast to globally reinforced counterterrorism dogma. And there are strong incentives for policy makers to resist the realization that their military action is not only ineffective but in fact often accelerates violence.

This is now painfully being illustrated across the continent, as the United States and other Western powers are moving to provide new military support for Mozambican government forces in Northern Mozambique fighting against a brutal Islamist insurgency there. This comes against the advice of virtually all knowledgeable about the conflict (see new reports last week in the New York Times and in the well-informed newsletter on Mozambique edited and published by Joseph Hanlon).

In addition to excerpts from the Chatham House report on the Sahel, this AfricaFocus Bulletin contains brief excerpts from three new reports on U.S. counterterrorism interventions in the Sahel and elsewhere in Africa, as well as excerpts from a report from the New Humanitarian on new secret negotiations with jihadist insurgents in Burkina Faso.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on peace and security, visit http://www.africafocus.org/intro-peace.php

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AfricaFocus Bulletin is a strategic partner of the new US-Africa Bridge Building Project, and will periodically be including excerpts and short links related to that project.

Introducing Tax Justice Network Africa

Interview with Farah Nguegan, Manager, Communications, Campaigns and Outreach

March 2021

The Tax Justice Network Africa (TJNA), founded in 2007, has been one of the most active and successful of the regional federations working to stop tax evasion and illicit financial flows. Since 2015, the Mbeki report from the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the civil society Stop the Bleeding Africa campaign brought much wider recognition of the fundamental importance of tax justice to solving the critical problems both of Africa and of a grossly unequal world. Yet Covid-19 has made it clear that inequality is still being deepened, while a global elite continues to control a larger and larger share of the world’s wealth.

We asked Farah Nguegan of TJNA to answer a few questions. Click here to read the interview. — Imani Countess

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U.S. Counterterrorism Operations in Africa

Nick Turse, “Stunning Classified Memo Details How U.S. Commandos Are Getting Beaten By Terrorists in Africa,” Vice, March 18, 2021

Full article at https://www.vice.com/en/article/4adzpb/secret-plans-detail-failures-of-us-commandos-in-africa

Excerpt: Special Operations Command Africa “is responsible for countering the VEO threats in Africa,” reads a formerly secret set of plans obtained by VICE World News. This “foundational document” laying out SOCAFRICA’s “campaign activities” over the years 2019 to 2023, not slated to be declassified until May 2043, details how the command intends to “achieve its mission of degrading, disrupting, and monitoring violent extremist organizations over the next five years.”

But halfway through their campaign, America’s commandos are already failing, according to a recent Pentagon report. That analysis, authored by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research institution, paints a troubling portrait of the security situation on the continent, showing a 43 percent spike in militant Islamist activity and sharp increases in violence in 2020 as part of a steady and uninterrupted rise over the last decade.

Nani Detti, “Assessing counterterrorism operations in the Sahel,” Center for International Policy, US-Africa Policy Monitor, February 23, 2021

Full article at:https://mailchi.mp/debbf09e76a5/the-continent-us-africa-policy-monitor-23-february-13356971?e=ab1b4c604e

Excerpt: For the last two decades, the U.S. has provided nearly $1.4 billion in security assistance to the G5 Sahel, and in the past few years, France has spent 600 million euros annually to sustain its military operations in the region. But despite their costly military expenditures, neither the U.S. nor France have been successful in stopping the increase in extremist violence in the region. The time is long past due for both France and the U.S. to reassess their militarized foreign policy in the Sahel and initiate a different approach.

“Why the US’s counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel keeps failing,” by Frank Andrews

Mail & Guardian, 16 Feb 2021

Full article at: https://mg.co.za/africa/2021-02-16-why-the-uss-counterterrorism-strategy-in-the-sahel-keeps-failing/

Excerpt: In mid-2011, Matthew Page and his team at the United States Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) began to suspect something was awry in Mali.

As the DIA’s senior analyst for West Africa, Page had access to highly-classified signals intelligence from the National Security Agency and reports from the department of defence (DOD) and CIA. Together, they told a troubling story: one of corruption and discontent in the Malian military, a long-term beneficiary of US training and weapons that had recently sustained brutal losses to armed groups in the northern deserts.

But Page, now an associate fellow with the Africa programme at Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, felt the diplomatic cables coming out of the US embassy in the capital, Bamako, were painting a far rosier picture.

“We were pretty sceptical of how all this training and engagement had magically transformed the Malian military into a much more professional fighting force,” he said.

So, at their huddle of desks in the DIA headquarters in Washington DC, Page and his colleagues wrote several reports on the fragilities in Mali’s military.

“This narrative was really not welcomed by the ambassador at the time,” said Page, referring to then-US ambassador to Mali, Gillian Milovanovic, who “really savaged the assessment we made”.

She declined to answer questions about her recollection of this exchange.

Analysts sometimes get pushback from ambassadors, said Page, who spent more than a decade in government as an intelligence analyst covering West Africa and Nigeria.

Page’s concerns proved to be well-founded. In March 2012, Amadou Sanogo, a Malian captain who had trained in the US, overthrew Mali’s democratically-elected government. It was a disaster for the US, who for a decade had pumped tens of millions of dollars in counterterror training and weapons into Mali.

“Nine months after [the embassy] received our note,” said Page, “the elite unit had killed the other half of the elite unit we had trained and buried them in shallow graves.”

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Rethinking the Response to Jihadist Groups Across the Sahel

The solution to insurgency in the Western Sahel lies in human security and better governance, not military action

Chatham House Research Paper

2 March 2021

https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/03/rethinking-response-jihadist-groups-across-sahel

Dr Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos

Senior Researcher, Institut de recherche pour le développement

The dominant narrative of a global jihadi threat has overshadowed the key role played by military nepotism, prevarication and indiscipline in generating and perpetuating conflict in countries of the Western Sahel. This narrative has pushed the international community to intervene to regulate local conflicts that have little to do with global terrorism or religious indoctrination.

Mali offers a clear example of how structural failings that long predate the ‘war on terror’ – evident in poor governance and weak state security mechanisms – have been the main driver of the growth of insurgent groups over the past decade. By contrast, the recent experience of Niger, which shares many of the structural and historical challenges faced by Mali, demonstrates that progress is possible where deliberate steps are taken to achieve more inclusive governance.

External actors – national and multilateral – see engagement in the Sahel as critical, but a primary focus on insurgent groups as terrorists limits the policy options available to them to help promote regional stability and limit human suffering.

Reframing responses away from ‘hard’ counterterrorism towards a more holistic view of human security, and an emphasis on tackling underlying challenges of governance, impunity and development, may offer a more durable route to peace and stability in the Sahel.

Summary

Rather than the ideology of global jihad, the driving force behind the emergence and resilience of non-state armed groups in the Sahel is a combination of weak states, corruption and the brutal repression of dissent, embodied in dysfunctional military forces.

The dominant narrative of a global jihadi threat has overshadowed the reality of the key role played by military nepotism, prevarication and indiscipline in generating and continuing conflict in the Sahel – problems that long predated the ‘war on terror’. Moreover, it has pushed the international community to intervene to regulate local conflicts that have little to do with global terrorism or religious indoctrination.

Mali offers a clear example of this. The widespread use of poorly controlled militias, the collapse of its army, two coups – in 2012 and 2020 – and a weak state presence in rural areas, on top of a history of repression and abuse suffered by its northern population, has done much more to drive the growth of insurgent groups than did the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, Salafist indoctrination, or alleged support from Arab countries.

It is time to rethink the role of the international community and acknowledge its limits in this context. Today, success depends first and foremost on the goodwill (much more than on the capacity) of political leaders to reform and renew their social contract with citizens, especially in rural areas. International efforts that seek to support military action against armed groups will fail as long as impunity prevails and local armies can kill civilians and topple governments without consequence.

The recent experience of Niger might not offer a model that can be replicated in its entirety in Mali, or elsewhere in the Sahel, but it demonstrates that there are possibilities for improvement. Though by no means perfect, Niger’s democratic experience shows that it is possible for states in the region to overcome the legacy of their bloody and divided past.

01 Introduction

Structural problems that long predate the ‘war on terror’ underline that poor governance and the weakness of state security mechanisms lie at the root of violence in the Sahel.

The liberation war of Mali is over. It has been won. The intervention of the French military has helped this country to recover its sovereignty, restore its democratic institutions, organize elections, and foster national unity. - Jean-Yves Le Drian, 2014 [French Defense Minister at the time]

Rather than the ideology of global jihad, the driving force behind the emergence and resilience of non-state armed groups in the Sahel is a combination of weak states, corruption and the brutal repression of dissent, embodied in dysfunctional military forces. These are structural problems that long predate the ‘war on terror’, and they serve to underline that bad governance and the weakness of state security structures, including police and justice, lie at the root of violence in the region.

Mali offers a clear example in this regard. The collapse of its army, two coups – in 2012 and 2020 – and a weak state presence in rural areas, on top of a history of repression and abuse suffered by its northern population, have done much more to drive the growth of jihadist groups than did the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 or the rise of so-called ‘radical Islam’, the power of Salafist indoctrination and alleged support from Arab countries. By contrast, the relative resilience in recent years of Niger, a country that shares many of the structural and historical challenges faced by Mali, demonstrates that progress is possible if more inclusive governance can be built.

In such a context, international responses that seek to support military action against armed groups without tackling deeper challenges of governance, especially in the domain of police, defence and justice affairs, are very unlikely to succeed. The dominant narrative of counterterrorism and religious extremism obscures underlying political grievances and dysfunctionality, and the widespread use of poorly controlled state-aligned militias to tackle insurrection – in the absence of effective state military capacity – has only served to fuel violence and worsen intercommunity tensions.3

Figure 1. Jihadist group presence in the Western Sahel

Source: Map extract by the author and Eric Opigez, IRD-CEPED, based on map published in Pérouse de Montclos, M.-A. (2018), L’Afrique, nouvelle frontière du djihad? Paris, La Découverte, pp. 20–21; translations for this extract by Chatham House staff.

Note: The boundaries and names shown and designations used on the map do not imply endorsement or acceptance by the author or Chatham House.

It has also resulted in the pursuit of ineffective and often counterproductive policy by international actors, which risks building resentment among Sahelian governments and citizens alike, and which over time may undermine the political will to maintain costly military cooperation at all. Undoubtedly, insurgencies in the region are a pressing issue. The ‘terrorist’ threat is the main driver of foreign support in the Sahel. Yet it might not be as global a threat as it is perceived to be, and its existence does not justify why other unstable African countries receive less attention. Moreover, international support always risks providing a security net that deters the military and the ruling class from reforming governance. In Mali, for instance, strong international support did not prevent a coup in 2020 or the expansion of so-called jihadi groups since 2013. Reframing policy away from hard-edged counterterrorism towards a more inclusive view of human security, and an emphasis on tackling the underlying challenges of governance, impunity and development, may offer a route out of the acute policy dilemma faced by those seeking peace in the Sahel.

07 Conclusion: the end of military cooperation?

In the context of complex and protracted conflicts, it is time to rethink the role of the international community and acknowledge its limits. Today, success depends first and foremost on the willingness (much more than on the capacity) of corrupt leaders to reform and renew their social contract with citizens, especially in rural areas. International efforts will fail as long as impunity prevails and local armies can kill civilians and topple governments without consequence. Prospects for peace in the Sahel should not exclude any option in this regard, from negotiating with jihadists to ‘naming and shaming’ those responsible for abuses perpetrated by national armies or their proxies, strengthening aid conditionality, or even considering the possibility of disengagement.

A change in international community policy in the Sahel is inevitable. France’s intervention in the Sahel has become increasingly difficult due to resentment that has built up against the former colonial power, particularly in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso with strong anti-imperialist sentiment dating back to the Cold War era. Over time, French troops who were initially seen as liberators have begun to be perceived as an occupying force, amid suspicions that France is trying to gain control of resources and markets: this view is echoed by some external observers. In 2013 the French government even blocked the Malian authorities from sending troops to Kidal – to avoid the risk of Malian soldiers massacring civilians in revenge for the killings of Malian soldiers there – by withholding the technical support, security and transport that the Malian military needed in order to carry out its planned operation. This act of obstruction was subsequently publicly denounced by President Keïta in an interview with the daily newspaper Le Monde.

Not only does this damage the all-important goodwill that will be necessary for meaningful reform. There is an additional risk that continued setbacks will undermine political support within France for continuing these international efforts. Operation Barkhane, in particular, seems to have reached a peak in terms of public support in France, given the difficulties experienced by the French army in terms of recruitment, logistics and renewal of equipment. More than 50 soldiers have been killed while deployed to the operation since 2013, and some members of the French parliament have challenged its continuation. Addressing the deep-rooted governance and development challenges that drive violence in the Sahel, and the replacement of a counterterrorism imperative with counter-insurgency approaches that focus on human security, and recognize the importance of winning hearts and minds, may be long overdue.

There are signs that some in the international community are beginning to recognize these imperatives. In a report published in 2015, for instance, members of the French parliament highlighted the contradiction of spending €1 billion a year on Operation Barkhane while cutting development budgets without tackling the root causes of the crisis. Some senators went even further in recognizing that ‘justice and the fight against impunity’ were probably ‘the first demand of the people, before education or economic prosperity’.

Niger might not offer a model that can be replicated in its entirety in Mali, or elsewhere in the Sahel, but it demonstrates that there are possibilities for improvement. Not least through a high voter turnout, the most recent presidential election, which took place over two rounds in December 2020 and February 2021, has so far confirmed the democratic foundations of the country. Though by no means perfect, the experience of Niger shows that it is possible for states in the Sahel to overcome the legacy of a violent and divided past. Sahelian governments and their external partners alike need to learn the lessons of history, both recent and of earlier decades, in order to avoid a repetition of past mistakes.

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Burkina Faso’s secret peace talks and fragile jihadist ceasefire

‘For us not to return to the jihadists, we expect the government to help us and stop killing us.’

Sam Mednick, Freelance journalist covering Africa

New Humanitarian Exclusive, March 11, 2021

https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2021/3/11/Burkina-Faso-secret-peace-talks-and-jihadist-ceasefire

Djibo, Burkina Faso

In early October, Abu Sharawi got a call from his commander to lay down his gun. He had been fighting for more than three years with a jihadist group in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region but was told an agreement had been reached with the government to stop the attacks, which have killed thousands of people and driven more than one million from their homes.

“[They said] ‘We decided to stop fighting. It’s time to sit and discuss. Many people have died, and animals and resources were lost. Using guns will not solve the problems’,” recalled 28-year-old Sharawi.

Three men sit on the ground under a shelter, looking up at the camera. The community in Djibo say they are caught in the middle between the security forces, volunteer fighters, and the jihadists. (Sam Mednick/TNH)

Seated in a restaurant in the capital, Ouagadougou, the now-former jihadist said he was instructed to spread word of the ceasefire to fellow fighters in his al-Qaeda-linked Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and return home. The New Humanitarian is using Sharawi’s jihadist name to protect his identity in case of government retaliation.

The government of Burkina Faso is publicly opposed to negotiating with “terrorists”, yet a months-long investigation by TNH reveals a series of secret meetings between a handful of high-level officials and jihadists, beginning before November’s presidential elections.

That has resulted in a makeshift ceasefire in parts of the conflict- hit West African nation with some of the extremist groups under the JNIM umbrella, according to diplomats, analysts, jihadists, and aid workers familiar with the discussions.

What remains unknown is what the overall goal of those negotiations are, whether they extend beyond a ceasefire, and whether the dialogue includes the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – the other major transnational extremist group operating in Burkina Faso.

The dialogue has nevertheless coincided with a sharp drop in fighting.

Since 2016, jihadist-linked violence has been roiling Burkina Faso, getting worse by the year. But according to research by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) – made available to TNH – there were nearly five times fewer clashes between jihadists and security forces from November 2020 to January 2021 compared to the same period a year earlier.

Secret talks

In the months leading up to the November 2020 general elections, several rounds of truce talks are believed to have been held in the heart of JNIM’s area of violence, near Djibo town in Soum province. They have been so secretive that even community leaders – normally consulted on such issues – say they’ve been left in the dark.

TNH visited Djibo in February, becoming some of the first journalists to do so in years, as the town is off limits due to the security situation. Local residents said the jihadists, who used to come to the market to kill people, were now coming to trade cattle and buy motorbikes. Government officials and the police, who had fled the town, were also beginning to return.

Since the beginning of October, locals say at least 50 unarmed jihadists have been coming regularly into Djibo from surrounding villages, or from camps in the bush. TNH spoke to two of them, and both said they were ready for peace, as long as the army stopped killing civilians – especially young Fulani men.

Soum province is a predominantly Fulani region. It’s a community JNIM has allegedly drawn the bulk of its recruits from, with the promise of a more equitable society and protection from both the security forces and volunteer groups armed by the government who have targeted Fulani men.

“For us not to return to the jihadists, we expect the government to help us and stop killing us,” said Mohamed Taoufiq, a 27-year-old fighter who told TNH he joined JNIM in late 2018 in revenge for the army’s killing of civilians. Again, TNH is using only his jihadist name to protect his identity.

What remains unclear is why the militants – whose leaders say they are fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state across West Africa – have agreed to the government's ceasefire offer, and how long-term that peace can be.

Militarily, JNIM has been a particular focus of French-led Operation Barkhane, a counter-insurgency mission aimed at uprooting jihadist fighters across the Sahel. The al-Qaeda-linked group has reportedly sustained significant losses, and there is speculation they may need to reorganise, an analyst – who asked not to be named – told TNH.

Changing positions

News of the fragile ceasefire and peace talks with the jihadists in Burkina Faso does not come entirely out of the blue.

President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré has repeatedly stressed the need for national reconciliation. In January, Prime Minister Christophe Dabiré signalled for the first time he might be open to talks, saying that for the five years of ever-worsening violence to end, the government might have to “engage in discussions with these people”.

Although government spokesman Ousseni Tamboura told TNH no negotiations were underway, he said the government was encouraging religious and community leaders to reach out to jihadist recruits in their areas to urge them to lay down their weapons and help rebuild the country.

Community leaders, though, say they have received no guidance on how to handle any potential local peace agreements – or on the reconciliation and reintegration of defecting fighters. “We haven’t received any information from anyone,” Boukari Belko, the chief of Djibo, told TNH. “We are so confused.”

Until the government gives them the official “go ahead”, residents in the town and nearby villages said they were too afraid to speak with the jihadists – even though many of them are local and known to them. They are worried the army might still accuse them of having links to the extremists, and arrest them.

Human rights groups are also concerned that without a coordinated response from the authorities on how to deal with returning jihadists – and a clear strategy for their reintegration – the frustrated expectations of ex-combatants could reignite large-scale violence.

“Even though there are negotiations today and people are coming back, if they have nothing to do, they’ll return [to the fight],” said Mamoud Diallo, executive secretary for Tabital Pulaaku, an international Fulani rights group.

[more]


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter. For an archive of previous Bulletins, see http://www.africafocus.org,

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