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The terrorist threat is expanding in the Sahel

HR/VP Blog - Terrorist attacks are increasing in the Sahel, particularly in Mali. While there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from the international community about its actions in the region over the past ten years, the refusal to coordinate internationally and the choice of a purely security response relying on private mercenaries has only made the situation worse. As the threat spreads, the Sahel urgently needs a collective response.

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As the terrorist threat spreads, the situation in Sahel urgently requires a collective response.

 

For a decade now, the European Union has been engaged in the Sahel alongside its African and international partners in the fight against terrorism. This fight is of course primarily an African affair, but it also concerns Europe and the world. In fact, the destabilisation of the Sahel constitutes a direct threat to the Union not only in terms of security and terrorism but also in many other areas such as trafficking of all kinds. This is why, since the beginning of my mandate, I have been regularly involved in this issue, notably by visiting the region in April 2021.

As the last soldiers of the Barkhane force, deployed by France, are leaving Mali, the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate significantly in recent weeks, with an increase in terrorist attacks affecting both soldiers and civilians. Beyond the particularly heavy human toll, especially recently for the Malian army, it is both the increasing geographical spread of these attacks and the increasingly sophisticated operating methods used by the terrorists that should alarm us.

 

"Beyond their particularly heavy human toll, the increasing geographical extension of terrorist attacks and their increasingly sophisticated operating methods should alarm us.”

 

In reality, in the Sahel, but also now in the Gulf of Guinea, terrorists are increasingly aiming to isolate the populations of the capitals of the countries of the region, as shown by the explosion of the Woussé and Naré bridges in Burkina Faso last July. The roads linking Niamey, the capital of Niger, and Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, are no longer secure, yet they are the main connections to and from the countries of the Gulf of Guinea. The symbolic, political and material isolation of the populations is reinforced and they become prone to recruitment by terrorist movements. 

This deterioration is due firstly to the progressive sidelining of African and international actors whose mandate is precisely to help restore peace and security in the region. It also confirms the failure of a purely security strategy: the fight against terrorism cannot be won solely on the military front. As I have said on many occasions, to win this war we must also win the peace.

Regional and international coordination are weakened

The deterioration of the security situation is due in particular to the failure of the policy pursued by the Malian authorities following the coups of 2020 and 2021: fragile states are never strengthened by long transitions. The G5 Sahel, created in 2014 to coordinate the action of the authorities of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, has been constantly weakened in recent months. The withdrawal of Mali, announced last May, has dealt this organisation a near-fatal blow, even though regional coordination remains the indispensable foundation of an effective fight against terrorism and for the development of the Sahel.

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), set up by the Security Council in 2013, has also become increasingly fragile. Due to the attitude of the Malian transitional authorities, it cannot implement the new mandate entrusted to it by the Security Council last June: these authorities have in fact forbidden the Blue Helmets to enter certain parts of the territory - in particular those where abuses have been committed by the Malian Armed Forces and the Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries. In addition, last July they arrested 49 Ivorian soldiers who are still being held for unclear reasons. Despite attempts at mediation by the United Nations and the Chair of the African Union, the Malian authorities have just charged them with "attempting to undermine state security". In the first days of August, the transitional authorities had also demanded the withdrawal of the Spanish and German helicopters used by MINUSMA and the EU training mission. As a result, Germany had to temporarily suspend its participation in MINUSMA.

 

"The counter-terrorist fight is undermined by the activities of foreign private mercenaries who are more notable for their abuses against civilian populations than for their ability to fight effectively against the jihadists."

 

Our European missions EUTM Mali and EUCAP Sahel Mali, which have trained around 18,000 Malian soldiers since 2013 (i.e. half of the country's military personnel), are also increasingly sidelined by the transition authorities. Finally, the withdrawal of the Barkhane force, deployed by France, and of the Takuba force, which brings together special force soldiers of nine European countries, completes the picture of a very weakened counter-terrorism strategy. Its effectiveness is further undermined by the action of private foreign mercenaries who are more famous for their exactions against the civilian population than for their will and capacity to fight effectively against the jihadists.

The limits of the 'all-military' approach

The increase in terrorist attacks in the Sahel in recent months is also a reminder of the failure of a counter-terrorism strategy based on a mainly military response. For our part, we had already noted such a failure: to be sustainable, any military gain must imperatively be consolidated by actions that benefit the most vulnerable populations. This is true in the Sahel, but also elsewhere in the world. This was the meaning of the "civil and political surge" that we had decided on with our Sahelian partners before the coups d'état undermined this strategic turning point.

 

"In the Sahel, terrorism must be tackled as much as its root causes, namely the weakness of the rule of law and the absence of basic services for all, throughout the territory.

 

The fight against terrorism as the EU understands it and accompanies it in the Sahel must indeed tackle terrorism as much as its root causes, namely the weakness of the rule of law and the absence of basic services for all, throughout the territory. This is undoubtedly a long-term task. Reinforcing our support for programmes focused on access to basic services and putting this civil and political surge at the heart of the fight against terrorism by supporting credible political transitions and democratically legitimised authorities is the priority of European action in the region.

This approach is certainly not that of Wagner's private mercenaries. The 'hit-and-run' actions carried out by the Malian armed forces and Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries assisting them appear to be thought of and executed as punitive expeditions against certain populations. This can only fuel, in the Sahel as elsewhere, a cycle of violence and endless reprisals.

The fight against terrorism cannot be improvised, nor can it be delegated to mercenaries with unclear motivations. The events of the last few weeks have clearly reminded us of this fact.