Africa’s Sahel region ‘sinking into chaos’ as terror spreads

Special to

metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The recent killing of four U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers in Niger tragically highlighted a quiet but lethal conflict in sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel region.

Here in the confluence of the arid and largely forgotten lands of Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania lay a vast land plagued by endemic poverty and wracked by drug and human smuggling, ethnic violence, and now emerging as a hotbed of Islamist terrorist groups.

France sponsored a special UN Security Council session which addressed the clear and present danger of this brewing crisis; UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stressed the meeting was aimed at “preventing the region form sinking into chaos.”

SahelAdmitting that the region’s “weak institutions, exclusion and marginalization of certain groups were exploited by extremists and terrorists,” the Secretary General warned adding, that “porous borders facilitated human trafficking, as well as arms and drug smuggling.”

Regional states, have formed a security agreement the Sahel G 5 to combat the menace. This joint force supplements the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) as well as the ongoing French military counter-insurgency operation Barkhane.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put the matter into clear focus, “Terrorist groups in the Sahel represented a global threat” which was financed by drug trafficking and human smuggling. He added, “Those groups were determined to spread terrorism across the region.”

Minister Le Drian stated, “facing the menaces the Sahel knows, the response can only be in the nature of security, there can’t be a durable peace without durable development. A effort must be made to stabilize the region.”

Speaking later at the Council on Foreign Relations, Minister Le Drian recounted, “In 2013, there was an attempt by Islamist groups to take over Mali and to transform Mali into a kidnapped state.

It would become an Islamist state with all the consequences that you can imagine.” He added, “France intervened then upon request by the government in Mali and with the support of the U.S. to prevent this from happening. And then we had to extend our military action because terrorism, of course is borderless and groups don’t stay in one country.”

The current French Operation Barkhane force stands at 4,000 troops. The UN’s Mali peacekeeping mission numbers 13,000.

Calling for America’s continued commitment to multilateral missions, Minister Le Drian advised, “In the beginning of this century, we are extending our alliance by fighting together in the Sahel and in the Levant… I think today that America has few allies who have at the same time the political determination and the capacity to do that, and France is one of these allies.”

The Sahel crisis has equally underscored the danger and breadth of human trafficking and illegal migration; smuggling networks have kept a stream of West African migrants streaming into Libya in the hope of entering Italy.

Relating to this danger, Italy’s Ambassador Sebastian Cardi warned that the security threats of terrorism and illegal trafficking “had a devastating impact on an already fragile political situation and were a threat to the entire world.” He noted the “devastating face of that situation on the shores of his country.”

While pledging is country’s continued contributions in the fight against terrorism, Chad’s Foreign Minister Hissein Brahim Taha stated, “significant international support must come in a timely fashion.”

American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley warned that the threats from terrorism and organized crime in the Sahel “were daunting” and thus pledged $60 million towards the Sahel G5
security group.

What does this mean for the USA? As Islamic State is being shattered in Syria and Iraq by U.S. and allied military forces, the terrorist threat has metastasized from Syria to the Sahel.

Amb. Haley advised, “The United States is committed to stabilizing the Sahel region… But we believe that the G5 force must be, first and foremost, owned by the countries of the region themselves.” She added, “We expect that the G5 countries will take on full regional ownership of the force within a period of three to six years, with continued U.S. engagement.”

In other words the USA will play a supporting role, but regional African states themselves must bear the military burden.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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