- Africa’s Sahel region has emerged as a hotspot for terrorism, with several groups killing and displacing thousands of people.
- The United States and European countries have contributed troops and resources to combat these groups, but France has taken the lead.
- A recent French strike in Mali killed an ISIS-affiliated leader responsible for the deaths of four US troops in Niger in 2017.
In August, the leader of Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) killed a French counter-terrorism in northern Mali, avenging four US troops killed in Niger in 2017.
French President Emanuel Macron revealed in September that a French drone attack killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the ISGS leader, while a French special operations force stormed the terrorist camp where al-Sahrawi was hiding.
The elimination of such a high goal focuses on the quiet but intense war waged in Africa against terrorist groups. Several European countries, the United States, have contributed to the struggle, but it is France that has taken the lead.
Hotspots for terrorism
Africa has developed several hotspots for terrorism. Boko Haram in West Africa, al-Shabaab in East Africa, ISGS in the Sahel and other ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked groups in North Africa have killed hundreds and displaced thousands.
France’s involvement in the Sahel dates back to 2012, when Islamist militants surprised the world by capturing almost all of Mali in a rapid campaign.
France deployed more than 5,000 troops to the region in a mission called Operation Barkhane and managed to defeat the jihadists, who regrouped and launched a revolt.
The G5 Sahel – a regional grouping of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger – still faces a serious terrorist problem, with ISGS posing the clearest threat.
ISGS and other terrorist organizations use the area to carry out attacks in the region, but also to train individuals to attack Western countries. The terrain – desert and forest – makes the police in the region extremely harsh.
“It’s a harsh environment. Very long distances with very few people. The terrorists are very mobile and use Toyota’s [with mounted guns] and motorcycles to move. The days are long and we rarely [sic] find the terrorists. But when we find them, we destroy them, “a French Foreign Legion paratrooper with several combat calls to Africa told Insider. The paratrooper and others spoke anonymously to describe their operations.
Due to its deep ties to the Sahel countries, many of which were French colonies, France has taken the lead in the fight against terrorism in the region.
In addition to deploying conventional troops, Paris has launched an international special operations unit, Task Force Takuba, to combat terrorism by both training local troops and conducting strategic reconnaissance missions and raids.
Several countries, including Ireland, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom, have handed over commands to the task force. The United States has also joined and deployed Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces operators to the region to train and advise local military and conduct their own operations.
Such an operation in October 2017 went tragically wrong. A group of American and Nigerian soldiers returning to their base were attacked by ISGS fighters. Five Nigerian soldiers, two U.S. Green Berets and two U.S. troops providing direct support were killed.
Al-Sahrawi’s killing almost five years later shows how France and its partners have continued the fight.
A valuable alliance
While relations between the United States and France have sometimes been tense — the latest spit that came after the defense agreement between the United States and Britain and Australia had concluded a French submarine agreement with Canberra — cooperation between Washington and Paris has been extremely valuable, especially in Africa.
“The Americans have been very important,” the French Foreign Legionnaire told Insider, referring to the United States ‘dedicated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, which the French do not have, and the United States’ drones, which the French have few of.
“We are working together on one goal. We have the soldiers in Africa, but they have the technology. So we support each other. It is a wonderful relationship and it is good to have them by our side,” the legionary added.
Intelligence is probably the most important element in conducting operations in an area as large as the Sahel.
Finding an individual or small groups of militants on their own is almost impossible in such a vast space, making intelligence critical to finding and hitting their training camps or bases.
This information comes mainly from two sources: human intelligence and signals intelligence.
Special operations troops are the key to achieving human intelligence. They conduct raids and capture terrorists who can provide more information to enable more raids. Reports suggest the French killed al-Sahrawi based on intelligence from captured jihadists.
“The French are a great ally. We work with them regularly in joint operations,” in Africa, a special forces operator assigned to an army in the National Guard told Insider.
The French “know their stuff and are pretty relentless, and they have a good reason to be. Over the last six or seven years, hundreds of their civilians have been killed by Islamist terrorists,” the operator said.
French forces “have a strong connection to the area and can operate much more clearly than us sometimes. They know the culture, the history and the language. It has been a privilege to fight with them,” the green beret added.
However, that cooperation in Africa may be coming to an end. This summer, Macron announced that France would significantly reduce its military presence in the Sahel and cut 2,500 to 3,000 troops out of the 5,000 deployed there.
Some local partners have followed suit and decided to curtail their own military presence. Chad has halved its counter-terrorism force in the region.
The United States has also reduced its military footprint in Africa, but US special operations forces remain in high demand in the region.
When an ISIS offshoot threatened to destabilize Mozambique, the government turned to the United States and its special operations forces for help in counter-terrorism.
While efforts to combat terrorism by the United States and its partners in the Middle East have often received the most attention and resources, ISIS and Al Qaeda, their affiliates and other groups pose an equally serious, if not a major, threat to African countries.