The Destabilizing Dangers of U.S. Counterterrorism in the Sahel


Sub-Saharan Africa has long been a strategic backwater for American foreign policy. Until the mid-2000s, American engagement in the region was sporadic and limited to areas of Cold War conflict or humanitarian crisis. However, the October deaths of four U.S. Green Berets and five Nigerien soldiers in Niger has thrown a public spotlight on a growing U.S. military presence in Africa. At present, AFRICOM, the U.S. military command responsible for Africa, oversees the activities of some 6,000 troops on the continent, of which over 800 are based in Niger. Apart from the large base at Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, the United States maintains a dozen or so “cooperative security locations,” i.e. small semi-permanent military installations across Africa. This will soon include a substantial $100 million dollar base in the central Nigerien city of Agadez to host and support drone operations.

This African presence is neither new nor secret, but it is not well-publicized. It encompasses a variety of missions, ranging from classic security assistance to counterterrorism operations. AFRICOM’s activities also bleed into areas typically the preserve of civilian U.S. government agencies such as public health, medicine, and humanitarian response.

In recent months, the Pentagon has indicated it aims to intensify its counterterrorism-related operations on the continent. This includes a loosening of rules of engagement to allow “status-based targeting” which authorizes the killing of “terrorist suspects” even in the absence of direct or imminent threats. In that vein, the American and Nigerien governments have agreed to the use of armed drones in the country, in contrast to previous U.S. drone activity, which was limited to surveillance missions. Such a policy would be counterproductive and deeply destabilizing, because it is largely premised on a flawed understanding of the political dynamics of conflict in the region. The United States also vastly overestimates the capacities of its forces, or any external actors, to improve regional stabilization and good governance. Finally, the policy poses a serious moral hazard problem by undercutting the connections between local and national elites and their domestic constituencies.

First, American counterterrorism policy in the Sahel is based on a dangerously simplistic and security-centric view of threats to regional stability. The Sahel is simply not a vast territory of “ungoverned space” prone to the infiltration of global jihad. Though some armed groups have adopted jihadist ideologies, the proliferation of these groups remains an intensely local phenomenon. The central cause of conflict in most cases is the behavior of state actors, not the spontaneous appearance of foreign jihadists. The region’s armed conflicts are direct products of political and economic marginalization and repression of peripheral communities. The jihadist groups that do operate in the region, even those affiliated with international organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIL, are interwoven with local uprisings against exploitative and alienating state authority. Especially for the rank and file of these local groups, jihad is a negligible consideration.

Terrorism is not a useful lens for understanding violence in the Sahel, nor is counterterrorism a proper policy response. Viewing conflicts in the region as part of a global “war on terror” is redolent of Cold War-era policies that viewed a plethora of local and regional conflicts in starkly internationalized East-West terms. Most jihadist and other armed groups in the Sahel are guerrillas. Their success and growth emerge from the strategies that states in the region use to maintain political orders favorable to national elites. Armed groups in the Sahel will continue to employ terrorism, among other forms of violence, as a political strategy as long as states there continue to govern as they do. For example, the Malian state’s inability and unwillingness to manage conflicts over land and pasturage, combined with brutal human rights abuses by government security forces, has fueled major conflict in central Mali. This has provided vital openings for jihadist and other armed groups to establish themselves as viable alternatives to state authority.

Expanded counterterrorism operations can do nothing to alter these dynamics. They may even backfire by alienating key individuals and groups necessary for resolving local and national conflicts. The United States and France, which is heavily involved in the region with Operation Barkhane, a large-scale military operation aimed at stabilizing regional states, should acknowledge this.

Second, American policymakers should understand that external military actors are fundamentally limited in their ability to constructively intervene, and often make things worse. Various security assistance efforts have provided good examples of how interventions fail, particularly in Africa. In part this is due to their frequently narrow and technical focus on training and equipment at the expense of a broader political strategy. The collapse of the Malian Army in 2012, despite significant American security assistance and training, is a prime example. Subsequent French and European training efforts in the country have also generated limited results.

Targeted efforts to train host nation armies cannot overcome what is ultimately a political problem linked to national identity, state legitimacy, and the distribution of resources. At best, security assistance may offer marginal improvements, but it can also miscarry. In much of Mali, particularly in the north, human rights abuses by the national army mean it is often viewed with suspicion, if not hostility. Simply improving the army’s operational capacities does little to change this: Better units, in the absence of a clear political process and oversight, may simply become better oppressors. For instance, in Chad, French assistance has helped create an elite ethnic militia that serves as a praetorian guard with a terrible human rights record. Despite this, Chad remains a major French client, and has also become an important partner in American counterterrorism efforts, despite the Trump administration’s recent travel ban.

In Niger, the effectiveness of American security assistance is threatened by a serious crisis of civil-military relations. Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, has accused the army of a coup attempt in 2015. He subsequently purged or marginalized a substantial proportion of senior officer corps whom he accuses of collaborating with former Prime Minister Hama Amadou. At the same time, Niger’s fight against Boko Haram and other armed groups has led to an explosion in defense spending. This has multiplied fivefold since 2012, from $73.1 million to over $370 million in 2016, 11 percent of the country’s budget. In 2017 this increased to 15 percent. The defense spending increase has been accompanied by dizzying levels of corruption that have deprived units of needed equipment while Issoufou’s presidential guard receives favored treatment. Furthermore, a 2016 survey suggests that many within the Nigerien army and security services, of all ranks, resent the presence of American and French troops. This could aggravate tensions between the army and civilian authorities in a country that has seen four military coups. This context should give U.S. policymakers pause as they aim to make Niger a centerpiece of regional security assistance efforts.

Finally, and relatedly, the American commitment to counterterrorism in the Sahel poses a moral hazard problem. Major security obligations to regimes whose practices are the main causes of conflict risk exacerbating the very instability such commitments aim to combat. External support incentivizes local strongmen to avoid the reforms necessary to de-escalate conflict. As long as Sahelian leaders know the survival of their regimes is a priority of Western policymakers, they have little reason to alter their behavior. On the contrary, money and other resources derived from the “war on terror” provide lucrative alternatives to engaging with local and regional stakeholders, discouraging governance reform. This dynamic has often characterized external support to African regimes, particularly during the Cold War.

Chad offers an illustrative example. The country has hosted a number of important military exercises organized by the United States, receives U.S. security assistance, shares intelligence, and plays a key role in international efforts to combat Boko Haram. All of this has made Chad’s dictator, Idriss Déby, a vital Western partner. Unfortunately, his regime commits serious human rights abuses, violence is endemic, and Déby has effectively used international security assistance to consolidate his rule.

In Niger, though nominally more democratic than Chad, external actors, including the United States, may also undermine the effectiveness of longstanding mediation mechanisms that previously kept the country more peaceful than its neighbors. Cash and other kinds of support that flow into an increasingly corrupt government radically distort existing patronage networks and institutions that help to regulate local conflicts. This can alter crucial relationships between actors in the center and periphery, and erode incentives for accountability and transparency.

The United States and other international actors, including France, need to significantly limit their military and security commitment in the Sahel. The region’s security problems have their roots in corrupt and predatory states, not the infiltration and expansion of jihad. Reforming governance and radically restructuring state-society relations are the only ways to address these deep-seated issues. Unfortunately, the processes of building national-level legitimacy and accountable governance must start within the countries themselves. Outside actors can do little to help this process along, but can do much to damage it. Counterterrorism is perhaps the most harmful approach outsiders can take. Despite its intentions, it targets communities rather than jihadists, and strengthens the worst elements of state predation. This is because it encourages national government counterinsurgency practices, which often lack the means, or the desire, to discriminate between terrorists and other armed groups, and between armed groups and the communities from which they spring.

America and its allies should focus on areas where they can help, recognizing that their value may only be at the margins. First and foremost, international humanitarian efforts, particularly in the Lake Chad region, are underfunded. This shortfall should be addressed, with further commitments made for the coming years. The United States and its partners could invest more in local and regional peacebuilding entities, such as Niger’s Haute Autorité à la consolidation de la paix (HACP), and encourage the creation of analogous bodies in Mali. The United States could also get involved in funding demobilization programs, facilitate the work of civil-society organizations promoting transparency and independent press outlets, and work through international fora to achieve more equitable trade relations between the region and the rest of the world. By maintaining its terrorism-centered focus, however, America risks repeating the same mistakes it and others made during the Cold War. Long-standing support for authoritarian or repressive regimes prolongs wars, increases instability, and sows fertile ground for terrorism and conflict.


Nathaniel K. Powell is a Research and Teaching Associate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His research focuses on French security policy in Africa and he is currently completing a book on the history of French military interventions in Chad. He has a PhD from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

Image: U.S. Army/Christopher Klutts