France will lead a joint effort in the war against terrorism in the Sahel region

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From 2019 to early 2020, the G5 Sahel Group (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger) suffered painful losses caused by the activities of regional terrorist organizations. In January, the United Nations envoy for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, told the Security Council that since 2016, attacks have increased five-fold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 only (Al Jazeera, February 2). Aside from civilians, the local armed forces (trained by France and the United States) continue to suffer significant losses. Nearly 300 Nigerians, more than 180 Malians, 30 Burkinabè and 20 Chadians were killed (Africa News, January 14; France24, March 20). After having suffered the heaviest military losses since 1983 following a collision of ‘Tiger’ and ‘Cougar’ helicopters in Mali in November 2019, France – the most influential external actor in the region – has decided intensify its ongoing fight against terrorism in the region (Lefigaro.fr, November 26, 2019). Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly says stability and eradication of the terrorist threat in the Sahel are essential not only for local governments and France, but for the EU as a whole, because regional instability breeds terrorism and illegal migration (Opex360. com, March 28).

Pau Summit: “Coalition for the Sahel” and new steps

On January 13, the heads of state of the G5 Sahel member countries and the French president met in Pau, France. The meeting resulted in a new framework entitled “Coalition for the Sahel” which identified complex measures aimed at combating regional terrorism. First, target the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS) as the main regional threat (to be adopted under the aegis of Operation Barkhane in progress). Second, the strengthening of the military capacities of regional actors through military and practical training, which must include – in addition to France – other regional actors such as the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of African States from West (ECOWAS). Third, strengthen the rule of law through reforms to the criminal and judicial systems. It is important to do this through the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel (P3S), promoted by France and Germany – an initiative concerning the training and deployment of personnel in civil administration, security interior and justice. Fourth, the main role in the stabilization process will be played by the Sahel Alliance (Franco-German initiative) and the G5 Sahel Priority Investment Program (PIP) (Diplomatie.gouv.fr, January 13).

Following the meeting, between January and February 2020, France committed to intensifying its current military presence (4,500 soldiers) in the border area connecting Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger with 850 other soldiers in order to “Reinforce the pressure against the Islamic State – GS” by participating directly in the anti-terrorist operations and “supporting them [governmental forces] in combat ”(Al Jazeera, February 2). In addition, the AU has announced the temporary deployment of a force of 3,000 men to the Sahel. According to Smail Chergui, head of the AU Peace and Security Commission, this contingent should work closely with the G5 Sahel armed forces and ECOWAS (Al Jazeera, February 27).

Without doubt, the most decisive step was taken on March 27 with the creation of the Takuba (saber in Tuareg) Multinational Task Force, composed of European Special Operations Forces (SOF) from Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Mali, Niger, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and United Kingdom . The task force is expected to confront terrorists in the area of ​​activity of the Liptako-Gourma region (Lake Chad Basin) of the ISGS and the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin Group (JNIM). Takuba is said to be part of the “Coalition for the Sahel” (first pillar of the Pau Accord) and to be placed under the command of Operation Barkhane. Above all, this mission is to harmonize its actions with G5 Sahel partners, the United Nations mission (MINUSMA) and the EU missions (EUTM Mali, EUCAP Mali and EUCAP Niger). According to the statement, Task Force Takuba plans to have its first operational capability by the summer of 2020, and should become operational in early 2021 (Defense.gouv.fr, March 27).

The most important question is: will these actions be enough to break the back of regional terrorist organizations, given the depth and complexity of the problem and the growing uncertainties both within the G5 Sahel group and in France?

Conclusion: mission (Im) possible?

One of the main obstacles that could hamper the above initiatives is the growing distancing of G5 Sahel members themselves. Surprisingly, Chadian President Idriss Deby said the Chadian army would no longer participate in military operations beyond its borders – a statement he made during a visit to the Lake Chad area, where Boko Haram is very active (Africa News, April 11). This decision was influenced by the loss of 152 Chadian soldiers over several weeks. Commenting on the decision, Deby said that “Chad felt alone in the fight against Boko Haram” (Newsverge.com, April 13). The main problem with Chad’s decision – which has the most powerful and respected security forces in the region – is that it is likely to affect the resolve and determination of other G5 members. Meanwhile, the Nigerien armed forces also suffered losses as a result of the attack near Sanam, which led to President Issoufou Mahamadou’s decision to fire the chief of staff of Lieutenant-General Ahmed Mohamed ( Africa News, January 14). This suggests that the situation within the Nigerian armed forces is becoming more and more tense. In addition to this, another serious problem seems to be emerging in France. As pointed out by Dominique Moisi, founding member of the French Institute of International Relations, “the shadow of a doubt has appeared among the French elite as to the meaning of the purpose of the operation in the Sahel region, given its lack of efficiency ”(DW, January 13).

The renewed efforts in 2020 should yield positive results in counterterrorism operations in the Sahel region. If the new measures do not succeed, the resolution of local authorities will be damaged, which will lead to a fragmentation of efforts. Likewise, the lack of progress will increase doubts and arouse a negative feeling in France, to the excitement of third parties, like Russia, whose cooperation with African countries is based on the main pillar of “security export” .

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