Commentary: 'Who Thinks Wins': How Smarter U.S. Counterterrorism in the Sahel Can Pay Dividends for Great Power Competition.

AuthorFaulkner, Christopher

African leaders must be feeling host fatigue. This year, a cavalcade of foreign officials traveled to Africa, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (1) The United States sent a months-long parade of officials, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Vice President Kamala Harris, and CIA Director William Burns, among others, visiting countries across the continent. (2) These charm offensives reflect a reassessment of foreign interests in Africa, from Macron's rhetorical commitment to scale back France's defense commitments to Lavrov's eagerness to shore up Russia's image as a global player to twin U.S. concerns about great power competition and the expansion of terror groups. As much as U.S. officials would like to focus on the former, in the short term, the latter will present the most challenges and requires a serious reevaluation.

The United Nations recently labeled sub-Saharan Africa as the "new epicenter of violent extremism," one that has drawn in U.S. forces--from Somalia to Niger and beyond. (3) Scholars and policymakers are also engaged in a parallel discourse on whether we are witnessing a "new scramble for Africa" or even a "new Cold War" amid great power competition between the United States, China, and Russia, which supposedly led to the deployment of Russian mercenaries in several African countries. (4) This tension between power politics and counterterrorism is not new to Africa watchers. As argued in these pages not long ago, "Despite the United States' desire to shift toward near-peer competition, abandoning the fight against the jihadi groups that now proliferate on the continent runs counter to U.S. interests." (5) Near-peer competition in Africa and counterterrorism cannot, and should not, be decoupled. In order to compete with other powers, the United States will have to conduct security assistance well, especially in the counterterrorism space.

Policymakers will need to be much more intentional, building unique regional strategies, while determining the degree to which a military approach is even necessary.

This article examines the nexus between counterterrorism (CT) and great power competition in sub-Saharan Africa, with a central focus on the Sahel. The article first surveys the state of terrorism in the Sahel and then secondly discusses U.S. counterterrorism efforts over the past 20 years. The third part of the article outlines the role of great power competition in Sahelian counterterrorism, primarily examining Russia's growing engagement. The final section concludes with some ways forward for U.S. policymakers in their efforts to assist African countries with their most acute security challenges in the Sahel, without exacerbating great power dynamics or undermining support for economic growth and democratic governance.

Surveying the Terrorist Landscape in the Sahel

For all the hand-wringing about Russia and China, neither is the biggest threat to U.S. interests in much of Africa. Threats from militant groups have continued to evolve and escalate. Africa is host to over 20 percent of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). (6) Stalwarts of the FTO list include organizations like Boko Haram, which has plagued Nigeria for over a decade, and al-Shabaab, the al-Qa 'ida-affiliated militant organization that remains an enduring threat to Somalia despite an African Union peacekeeping mission there and persistent counterterrorism support from the United States.

And it is Africa's Sahel region, where al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliates have carved out significant influence, that is most concerning. The State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations recently noted that the Sahel "experienced more terrorist attacks than any other part of the world in 2021." (7 )That trend has only continued, leading to increasing distrust between government and civilians, triggering coups, and fomenting a willingness among at least one of the region's regimes to partner with Russian mercenaries.

Mali, for instance, has struggled to contain an ever-expanding group of terrorist threats from the al-Qa 'ida-affiliated Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) as well as the Islamic State's Sahelian Province. An August 2020 coup only exacerbated that insecurity. (8) The new Malian regime expelled long-term security partners such as France--choosing instead to contract the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company that has been making gains across the continent. (9)

The militant threat is much the same in neighboring Burkina Faso where the ruling junta recently ended its five-year-long military accord with France. (10) Like Mali, Burkina Faso has struggled to grapple with simultaneous campaigns from the Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP) and JNIM. 2022 saw the highest number of fatalities since the onset of militant violence circa 2015. (11) Dismissing partners and surging violence have led to speculation about a potential Wagner deployment similar to Mali, though Burkina's junta has denied that it needs Wagner to win and has still invoked a desire for U.S. support. (12)

Though the pace of violence is nowhere near the levels seen in Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger has also had to grapple with insurgent attacks. To its southeastern border, Boko Haram and the Islamic State's West African Province conduct attacks while JNIM and ISSP have threatened its western flank. (13)

Violence in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger are quickly becoming a regional problem, bleeding into coastal West African states. Benin, Cote d'lvoire, Ghana, and Togo are dealing with more extremist activity, particularly around their northern borders. (14 )Porous borders and deteriorating security situations in Mali and Burkina Faso put significant pressure on these littoral states to contain the operational reach and tempo of JNIM and the Islamic State's regional affiliates. (15) These warning signs have prompted a renewed sense of international and domestic urgency in West Africa. In November 2022, the Accra Initiative, comprising Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d'lvoire, Ghana, Niger, and Togo, reached an agreement to establish a 10,000-troop Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF/AI) in an effort to curb jihadi spillover violence. (16 )Meanwhile, Vice President Harris' recent West Africa trip started with a $100 million pledge to security assistance in the region. (17)

U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts in Africa

For the past two decades, U.S. counterterrorism efforts across Africa might best be described as 'lackluster at best... harmful at worst." (18 )Indeed, while successive presidential administrations have invested in counterterrorism on the continent, the U.S. modus operandi has primarily consisted of a light physical footprint; a concoction of special operators to "advise, assist, and accompany" African partners, training programs designed to build the capacity of African militaries and relevant security forces, and direct targeting of terrorist operatives. (19)

The U.S. military has sought to engage Africa-based terrorist threats through the 2001 AUMF, an authorization used against al-Qa 'ida affiliates, and various congressional authorizations including the 10 U.S.C. [section] 333, which gives DoD-wide purview to "train and equip" foreign forces and 10 U.S.C. [section] 127e, which authorizes "DoD provide 'support' to foreign partners, state or otherwise, who in turn are 'supporting' authorized U.S. counterterrorism operations." (20 )The United States also steadily backed France's efforts in the Sahel, offering logistical support and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assistance to French counterterrorism interventions since the onset of Operation Serval in 2013 Qater Operation Barkhane).

U.S. non-kinetic approaches to counterterrorism in Africa have focused on security assistance and capacity building since 2002. These include the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) in four Sahelian countries and the $100 million East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (EACTI) for six East African countries. (21) These programs aimed to bolster the counterterrorism capacity of host nations, and both expanded into broader programs, eventually encompassing 17 more countries through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) and Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (PREACT). (22) (a) Most accounts assess these interagency programs as overly militaristic, carried out and implemented by AFRICOM after its establishment in 2007- (23 )Several also note that the United States has been overly focused on these capacity-building missions, assuming that it is African militaries' lack of capacity to combat terrorist threats and not more systemic governance issues such as corruption that have been key sources of legitimacy/strength for extremist organizations. (24)

The U.S. counterterrorism approach also has a kinetic angle. For instance, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, has increased dramatically since 2007 (25) Perhaps the most wellknown U.S. counterterrorism tactics on the continent have been those directed at al-Shabaab in Somalia, where the use of drones and piloted aircraft to conduct targeted killings is a staple of the U.S. counterterrorism approach. Yet, despite 16 years of airstrikes and an intermittent SOF presence, the effectiveness of such tactics has been questionable. (26)

Effective counterterrorism operations are notoriously difficult, and over-the-horizon operations (i.e., those done from a distance) can increase the complexity of operations, as occurred against al-Shabaab and similar groups. Moreover, operations from a distance, while increasing the security of operators, can degrade other aspects such as confidence in intelligence. Such operations can also lead to errors, including civilian harm. In response to growing concerns over DoD mishaps, the FY 2019 NDAA included a requirement that the Secretary...

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