Despite France’s many military counter-terrorism initiatives in the African Sahel, terrorist attacks and the influence of terrorist groups continue to rise. On March 27, 2020, nearly two months after the heads of State of France and the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) assembled at the Pau Summit to address this ongoing challenge, 13 States[1] announced their support for the creation of a special European military force to support counter‑terrorism operations in the region. This has raised many questions about the drivers, opportunities, and challenges involved in the new French strategy.

Outline of France’s new military strategy

The strategy aims to strengthen the French security role in the region by:

  • Obtaining political support from the G5 Sahel heads of State: At the Pau Summit on January 13, in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s request for political support for the French presence in the region, the G5 Sahel leaders expressed their desire for France’s continued military involvement in the region.[2]
  • Leading European military efforts:  Since the terrorist threat in the Sahel fuels illegal migration to Europe,[3] France has encouraged European States to cooperate in the fight against terrorism in the region. As a result, 11 European States, together with Mali and the Niger, have backed the creation of a special European force called the Takuba Task Force, which will operate under the military command of France’s Operation Barkhane.[4]
  • Rebuilding confidence in France’s security role in the region: The country needs to regain trust – domestically, in Africa, and internationally – and to channel the support of European allies. The Takuba Task Force is expected to become fully operational at the beginning of 2021, working mainly in the Liptako-Gourma region bordering Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.[5]
  • Strengthening the French military presence: In February 2020, the Government pledged to bolster its current military presence (4,500 soldiers) with an extra 850 soldiers,[6] and to send around 50 special forces personnel to form the core Takuba Task Force, which currently comprises around 300 soldiers from the participating States.[7] The new task force will complement the G5 Sahel Joint Force, which is expected to have seven battalions once it reaches full operational capacity – two each from Mali and Niger and one each from Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania.[8]

Drivers of the new strategy

The key drivers are:

  • Increasing terrorist operations: Despite multiple initiatives, attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger since 2016. Nearly 300 soldiers from Niger have been killed, more than 180 from Mali, 30 from Burkina Faso, and 20 from Chad, in addition to 13 French soldiers killed when two helicopters collided in Mali in November 2019.[9]
  • Escalating anti-French sentiment: The wave of protests in Mali against the French military presence is rising, with almost 80% of respondents in a Malian survey citing low confidence in Operation Barkhane’s ability to protect civilians. With this and mounting criticism at home, French officials are keen to stress that the Takuba Task Force is not “a new initiative” but a reshaping of the existing security strategy.[10]
  • Russia’s growing interest in the Sahel: Russia has become a competitor to France’s security and economic presence, particularly in view of the growing calls from some local political powers for Russian counter-terrorism intervention in the Sahel. Russia is involved in security agreements with Chad, Niger, and other States in the region, and it concluded a military cooperation agreement with Mali in June 2019. It has also been highlighting its counter-terrorism capabilities in an attempt to provide a balanced alternative to the French security approach.[11]

Opportunities for counter-terrorism efforts under the new strategy

The most important are:

  • Intensified confrontations between terrorist groups: Between January and April 2020, there were more than 40 violent battles between Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM, or “Group to Support Islam and Muslims”) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in Burkina Faso and Mali.[12] This came after the leaders of the two organizations failed to agree on power‑sharing arrangements and territorial demarcation when they met in September 2019.[13]
  • JNIM defections: Disagreement about whether to negotiate with the Malian Government saw a number of Katibat Macina militants defect from JNIM and form a new group at the Mauritanian border, which has pledged allegiance to ISGS. This has enabled ISGS to penetrate deeply into Katibat Macina territory, leading to clashes with JNIM.[14]

Threats to counter-terrorism efforts under France’s new strategy

Perhaps the most important are:

  • Growing political friction within the G5 Sahel: The President of Chad has criticized weak regional cooperation on counter‑terrorism and declared that Chad’s army would no longer participate in military operations beyond its borders, after 152 Chadian soldiers were killed in Boko Haram attacks. However, the main issue is the impact of Chad’s decision on the resolve of the other G5 Sahel members.[15]
  • Political controversy in France: There has been much domestic debate about the purpose of the Takuba Task Force, with some believing it should focus on the provision of support, advice, training, and combat guidance, rather than direct engagement or the execution of independent military operations.[16]
  • Competition and conflict of interest regarding the French-led Takuba Task Force: While some member States such as Sweden and Denmark have demonstrated strong commitment to contributing forces and weapons, others like Germany and Norway have only given political support and have apologized for not contributing military forces.[17]
  • Expanding influence of terrorist organizations: These groups are increasingly operating beyond their territorial boundaries, especially in the Gulf of Guinea, where they have more scope for hit­‑and‑run tactics.
  • War and instability in Libya: This provides a favorable climate for smuggling fighters and weapons, which boosts the activity and resilience of terrorist organizations.

Conclusion

France’s  military counter-terrorism strategy in the Sahel faces growing challenges. If its efforts stall, the resolve of the Sahel States to continue to cooperate with France will weaken. Furthermore, failure to achieve progress will fuel hostility towards the French presence in the region and will give new international powers such as Russia the chance to play an alternative security role.

References

[1] Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Mali, the Netherlands, Niger, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and the UK.

[2] Ahmet Berat Çonkar, Development and Security Challenges in the Sahel Region, NATO Parliamentary Assembly (April 10, 2020), p. 14.

[3] Sergey Sukhankin, “France to Lead Joint Effort in War on Terrorism in Sahel Region”, Terrorism Monitor (The Jamestown Foundation), vol. XVIII, issue 10 (May 15, 2020), p. 5.

[4] Krzysztof Danielewicz, “Task Force Takuba – nowe siły w rejonie Sahelu” [Task Force Takuba – New Forces in the Sahel Region], Security in Practice, April 23, 2020. Available at: https://securityinpractice.eu/task-force-takuba-nowe-sily-w-rejonie-sahelu/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sergey Sukhankin, op. cit., p. 5.

[7] Ahmet Berat Çonkar, op. cit., p.14.

[8] Krzysztof Danielewicz, op. cit.

[9] Sergey Sukhankin, op. cit., p.5.

[10] Ann Schmauder, Zoe Gorman, and Flore Berger, “Takuba: A New Coalition for the Sahel?”, The Clingendael Spectator, June 30, 2020. Available at: https://spectator.clingendael.org/en/publication/takuba-new-coalition-sahel.

[11] Hamdi Abdalrahman, “Al-Sāḥel al-Ifriqī…Ta’athur Faransī wa-Ṣu’ūd Rūsī [The African Sahel: The French Falter and the Russians Rise], Future for Advanced Research and Studies, December 17, 2019. Available at: https://futureuae.com/ar/Mainpage/Item/5146.

[12] The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, Regional Overview: Africa, 12–18 April 2020, April 22, 2020. Available at: https://acleddata.com/2020/04/22/regional-overview-africa12-18-april-2020/.

[13] Flore Berger, “Sahel – A New Battlefield between IS and Al-Qaeda?” The Africa Report, June 4, 2020. Available at: https://www.theafricareport.com/29184/sahel-a-new-battlefield-between-is-and-al-qaeda/

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sergey Sukhankin, op. cit., p.6.

[16] Elin Hellquist and Emma Sjökvist, Accompanying Partners During Military Operations Early Expectations For Task Force Takuba, Swedish Defence Research Agency, June 2020.

[17] Finabel European Army Interoperability Centre, “Task force Takuba: An Illustration of European Solidarity?”, April 23, 2020. Available at: https://finabel.org/news-flash-task-force-takuba-an-illustration-of-european-solidarity.

 

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