May 1, 2013  

Conundrum in the Sahel

From strategy to teamwork, the U.S. must do better

With America’s war in Iraq officially over and the one in Afghanistan drawing to a close, U.S. strategists must resist the temptation to refocus funds and national attention away from the Long War on terrorist networks. As the National Security Strategy says, we must press al-Qaida and its affiliates as they attempt to establish new safe havens — for example, in Yemen, Somalia, the Maghreb and the Sahel.

Yet the strategy, at least as it pertains to the Sahel, contains gaps and disconnects. Furthermore, current initiatives there are disjointed, unevenly funded and fail to take advantage of partnerships with regional and international institutions such as the African Union, European Union and NATO.

Additionally, the March 2012 coup in Mali, and the subsequent unrest caused by an influx of Tuareg soldiers fresh from fighting for the failed Gadhafi regime in Libya, has radically changed the calculus of risk. An uncertain strategy, constrained resources and growing threats are converging to present the United States with a conundrum.


A semiarid strip of land between the Sahara Desert to the north and the Sudanian savannas to the south, the Sahel extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Literally the “shore” of the Saharan “sea,” it is one of the poorest and most environmentally degraded areas on Earth. Although the area is vast, relatively little is trafficable by humans, so all activity — licit or otherwise — uses the same routes, water points and fuel stations. Little wonder that locals, armed rebels and smugglers interact at these nodes.

In 2007, the Algerian terrorist organization Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat aligned itself with al-Qaida to produce al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Pressed by the Algerian government, the group moved southward to the largely ungoverned territory in northern Mali. There the group found safe haven to establish several bases, which it uses to launch attacks, smuggle drugs and kidnap foreigners.

Recent suicide-bomb and armed attacks deep into Mauritania and a bomb attack in the Malian capital of Bamako show AQIM’s growing operational capacity. According to Senate testimony, AQIM is expected to expand activities in the Sahel to target Western interests in order to maintain their connections to the larger jihadist global movement.

Meanwhile, AQIM is cultivating deeper roots in the Sahel. The group recruits from disenfranchised local populations and criminal organizations. It has built connections with the local communities by leveraging corrupt local officials, drug traffickers and rebel groups. Perhaps most extraordinary, it has intermarried with the local tribes in order to forge lasting ties with regional nomadic groups that control major smuggling routes.

And AQIM is hardly the only terrorist organization operating in the Sahelian no-man’s land. Others include Somalia’s al-Shabaab (“The Youth”) and the Nigerian rebel group Boko Haram (colloquially translated as “Western education is sin”). Fighting for a Nigerian Islamic state and sharia courts throughout the country, Boko Haram is suspected in the 2010 and 2011 Christmas bombings that killed scores of Christians. Furthermore, U.S. officials said in 2011 that there is evidence these groups have formed alliances; for example, AQIM is believed to have helped Boko Haram organize and execute a sophisticated attack on a police headquarters, a prison break and a propaganda campaign.

Moreover, Islamic militancy is spreading in parts of the Sahel. In April 2012, for example, militants captured more than half of Mali’s land mass. This “ability to seize and control vast territory for extended periods of time has prolonged and obstructed the process of state-building in Somalia, while in Mali it severed the northern from the southern half of the country and exacerbated a political impasse in Bamako,” Terje Østebo, assistant professor with the Center of African Studies at the University of Florida, wrote last year.

In northern Mali, there are two main Islamic militant groups — regionally focused, locally based movements, as distinct from al-Qaida’s international outlook and makeup. These are Ansar al Din (Defenders of the Faith) and the Jama’at Tawhid Wal Jihad fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJWA). Their members are primarily Tuaregs, Mauritian and Malian Arabs, and sympathizers from Nigeria and other Sahelian countries. Working in loose cooperation without a deep base of popular support, they seek to impose religious purity upon themselves and others. Their literal adaptations of sharia law, demonstrated by punitive stonings and amputations, is not endearing them to the local population.

Still, some say al-Qaida’s influence in the Sahel is limited, first because the region is so vast and second because, despite all its efforts, it still lacks deep support among local populations. Al-Qaida’s “ideology has not found support among many critical African sources of influence. That is, the leaders of local clans, tribal and other kinds of ethnic groups — individuals who arguably matter most to Africans — do not find global jihad appealing, and many view Al-Qaida as an entity that must be resisted,” terrorism expert James Forest wrote in 2011.

But AQIM has used the chaos that followed the Arab Spring to re-establish itself in northern Africa as transitional governments rebuild state institutions. Fragile northern states, especially Libya, could allow weapons and trained fighters to infiltrate the Sahel. And although the group has largely failed in its efforts to make common cause with the Arab Spring protesters, who generally rejected the group’s ideology and violent methods, AQIM is among the voices insisting on the establishment of pure Islamic governance. If these experiments in people power fail, al-Qaida will be positioned to exploit the disaffected.


The primary U.S. vehicle for counterterrorism in the region is the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. Officially listed as the U.S. government’s third-priority counterterror effort, TSCTP is led by the State Department and composed of experts from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Defense Department and other agencies. The U.S. military provides support for the effort through U.S. Africa Command’s Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara, or OEF-TS, primarily implemented by Special Operations Command Africa. Much of its effort is aimed at building regional partner capacity and capability through programs such as Foreign Military Financing, International Military Education and Training, etc. The exact budget for TSCTP is hard to determine because it is not directly funded by Congress but through various appropriation accounts of USAID, State and DoD. Still, TSCTP funding averages about $100 million annually, and OEF-TS received more than $55 million in 2010.

The good news is that doing better does not necessarily require spending more.

First, the U.S. must stop the unforced errors. A 2006 peace-building program in northern Mali was suspended for lack of U.S. funding, an embarrassment that Congress might prevent by directly funding the TSCTP. In another instance, DoD officials suspended some activities because they disagreed with State about the number of personnel permitted in a given country. In 2008, a Government Accountability Office report on TSCTP found that the agencies involved had no common strategy. Instead, each agency’s plan, while reflecting some interagency collaboration, focused on its own mission. Sensibly, the report recommended State, DoD and USAID forge a common strategy with clear goals, objectives and milestones.

Second, the U.S. needs to step up cooperation with regional partner nations and organizations. This makes fiscal and strategic sense: The U.S. cannot do the job alone, and indeed, few things will scuttle good efforts faster than a perception that Washington is acting unilaterally. Fortunately, the region features two main intergovernmental organizations: the 53-member African Union and the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Unfortunately, both rely on the donor community and are poorly funded, especially for military action. But the U.S. can, and should, pitch in. Presidential determinations currently authorize the African Union and ECOWAS to receive defense articles and services under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Arms Export Control Act.

Other partners include NATO and the European Union. NATO, which has long recognized the African Union’s desire to develop regional security capabilities, is helping build capacity and run peacekeeping missions. The EU has been at the forefront of international support to African peace and security, and has funneled more than 740 million euros through its African Peace Facility.

Third, the U.S. can buttress the special operators doing much of the military’s work in the Sahel with National Guard and reserve experts in disaster response and consequence management. Already, the National Guard is part of a $13.5 million program in Africa, which Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called a “low-cost, high-impact, very valuable high-leverage program that is very relevant to our new defense strategy,” according to a DoD news release. Thanks to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, the service secretaries are pre-cleared to mobilize 60,000 reserve-component personnel for up to 365 days as part of missions already included in the defense budget to support combatant commands. This drives down the cost and compresses the timeline for mobilization.

Fourth, improving our understanding of the micro-politics of the Sahel would pay off almost immediately. Many security analysts examine the Sahel from a global perspective, zoom into national-level politics and stop there. This is insufficient in a region where ethnic, clan, family and personal ties often trump allegiance to a government. Moreover, local politics often blur the difference between state and nonstate actors. Politicians from Mauritania border regions have used their influence to further their private or clan’s business interests. Malian and Algerian officials use their positions to feed their tribes’ state money. In the Tuareg-inhabited zones of Mali, smugglers and customs officials often belong to the same clan. Some AQIM leaders are Algerian and find it difficult to navigate this complex human terrain without help from the locals, but their concentrated efforts to understand and embrace the micro-politics of the region are allowing them to expand and generate more influence.

Fifth, the U.S. can improve how it builds teams that include military and nonmilitary members. Some fixes require changes to U.S. law, such as the new Title 10, Section 1050a, which allows the U.S. to pay personal expenses for defense personnel from Africa. But more needs to be done to address training issues related to interagency staffs of the AU, the African Standby Force and other security organizations where police and civilians are involved. In general, agencies need more flexible funding tools, rather than just bilateral funding, to support regional organizations effectively.

Finally, and most importantly, the U.S. can — and must — develop a cohesive new strategy for the Trans-Sahel. The national strategy toward the region is currently articulated in two documents: the National Security Strategy and the National Strategy for Counterterrorism. The former mentions the Sahel only in a section about denying safe havens and strengthening at-risk states, but the latter lists it as an area of focus. Declaring that the “pre-eminent security threat to the United States continues to be from al-Qaida and its affiliates and adherents,” the NSCT prescribes short-term counterterrorism efforts and a long-term effort to build up the ability of vanguard and ancillary states to confront AQIM. It also calls to “bolster efforts for regional cooperation against AQIM, especially between Algeria and the Sahelian countries of Mauritania, Mali and Niger as an essential element in a strategy focused on disrupting a highly adaptive and mobile group that exploits shortfalls in regional security and governance.”

These and other national-level strategies are meant to interlock into a whole-of-government approach, but as separate documents under different proponents, they likely will not. Articulating a national direction and consolidating the various strategies into a concise grand strategy that allows clear linkage to future national defense and military strategies is paramount.

Col. John C. Case is an Army reservist and commander of 1st Brigade, Gulf Division, 75th Training Command at Fort Jackson, S.C. He previously served as headquarters element chief with the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force liaison officer with Special Operations Command-Joint Forces Command, and as commander of the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or U.S. government.