Ten Things the United States Should Do to Combat Terrorism in the Sahel

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American counter-terrorism analysts are rightly focused at the moment on Afghanistan: The Taliban, after all, now controls the country, the Haqqani network is providing security in Kabul, and the Islamic State-Khorasan carried out an attack that killed thirteen U.S. servicemembers. However, the United States should not lose sight of developments elsewhere in the world, where events are not on pause just because America is absorbed with instability in South Asia. Jihadist violence in the Sahel region of Africa, the swath of former French colonies on the southern edge of the Sahara stretching from Mauritania to Chad, is going from bad to worse, and the United States and its allies are uncertain about what, if anything, they can do about it.

The U.S. government’s default approach ever since it extended the “Global War on Terror” to the Sahel in 2002, the year it stood up the Pan Sahel Initiative, has been to send in special operations forces in conjunction with various other security assistance efforts, and provide intelligence and logistical support to the French military intervention that began in 2013. Special forces have engaged in “direct action” (i.e., killing terrorists) or, far more frequently, in training or “advise, assist, and accompany” missions. A fatal ambush of Green Berets conducting an advise, assist, and accompany mission in Niger in 2017 largely sidelined U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, but the transition to the Biden administration has encouraged special operations forces to seek to get back in the fight. An agreement signed in July between the United States and France to strengthen bilateral special forces operations in Africa suggests that U.S. Special Operations Command Africa might have gotten its wish.



Given the nature and scale of the terrorism problem in the Sahel, special forces will achieve very little if their activities are not part of a broad, comprehensive strategy. Such a strategy is lacking. The result is that special forces, and the military more generally, will, by default, drive American engagement on the continent. Security assistance and special forces should be a part of America’s counter-terrorism strategy in the Sahel, but only a part. The United States should take care to ensure that security assistance conducted for the sake of counter-terrorism (security assistance often has other legitimate purposes, such as strengthening bilateral relations or simply buying access) has positive effects.

Terrorism Threats in the Sahel and U.S. Interests

All the available indicators — such as casualties among civilians and security forces — suggest that jihadist violence is getting worse in the Sahel. It has spread from northern Mali to central Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. There also have been attacks and other indicators of penetration by Islamists in the littoral states along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Guinea, among them Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Togo. Meanwhile, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is faring poorly in its long-running war against Boko Haram, and is now also suffering from large-scale “banditry” that is spilling into Niger and threatens to converge with jihadism. Meanwhile, Chad’s President Idriss Déby, a pillar of French and American counter-terrorism efforts, died in battle in April, leaving behind a shaky regime that owes much to its international patrons and nothing to democratic legitimacy.

France appears to have lost patience with Mali after a coup in May — the second in less than a year. It also may have lost confidence in the efficacy of its Operation Barkhane, a combat operation in the Sahel that began in 2014 and currently is tying up 5,100 troops. French President Emmanuel Macron in June announced the end of Operation Barkhane and in July detailed how France would reduce its forces to about 2,300 by some time in 2023. Operation Barkhane is not in fact ending, though Paris might change its name. France intends to shift the focus of French forces from a direct combat mission to more of a training, accompany, and assist mission. It also wants to concentrate more on central Mali and the tri-border region connecting Mali with Niger and Burkina Faso. To this end, France is pushing to center stage Task Force Takuba, a special operations forces effort dependent on Barkhane geared toward training local forces and performing accompany and assist missions primarily in central Mali. France, which has been recruiting European countries to contribute special operations forces to Takuba, are hoping the task force’s focus and its European reinforcements will make up for the reduction in the size of the French contingent and yield a greater return on investment than Operation Barkhane’s direct combat role.

France’s European partners have been expressing doubts regarding the European training missions in the Sahel and their support for the U.N. mission there, although some countries, including Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, and Sweden, have signed up to join Takuba. To be clear, European countries’ willingness to join the task force says less about their confidence in the French campaign than it does about their desire to reinforce strong bilateral relations with France (the European Union’s military giant), contribute to the construction of a European defense, and improve the skills of their special forces. Whether the countries contributing to Takuba make a difference in the Sahel is beside the point. One can almost say the same for France, whose enlistment of European militaries serves priorities other than fighting jihadist insurgencies in the Sahel, namely its interest in building and shaping a European defense capability and policy.

The question, then, is what can the United States possibly do to make a difference. Is the answer really just to send in more special operations forces?

Part of the problem with crafting a U.S. counter-terrorism strategy in the Sahel is that vital American interests are not at stake. The probability of made-in-Sahel terrorism striking the American homeland is relatively low, though certainly greater than zero. There is a higher probability that Sahelian jihadists will strike European allies. But there, too, the risk is debatable and not obviously commensurate with the almost 1 billion-euro-a-year ($1.18 billion) price tag of Operation Barkhane.

The most compelling reason for the United States to combat jihadist movements in Africa is the simple fact that the region is home to a large and growing portion of the human population. The World Bank projects that by 2050 one in four humans will live in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria is on track to become the world’s third most populated country by that date. All of those people living in poorly developed economies and often fragile states represent tremendous opportunities and spectacular risks for the rest of the globe. In any case, the world has become far too small for America to pretend that what happens in Africa stays in Africa. And it goes without saying that whatever happens in the Sahel will affect the surrounding states in West and Central Africa and beyond. This is one reason why the United States should resist the temptation to walk away from the Sahel to focus instead on the littoral states, as if one could stand up a cordon sanitaire along the borders.

Whether or not the United States chooses to engage with the Sahel and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, other actors have and will continue to do so. In some cases that is good news, but in many others, it is not. China’s massive investments in the continent, for example, are a notorious double-edged sword in the sense that they are sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive, and sometimes both at the same time. China, however, is only one actor among many: Iran, North Korea, Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and numerous countries from around the world are also engaged in Africa and the Sahel.

America’s European allies are more directly affected by what happens south of the Mediterranean. However, this matters for the United States as well. Aside from the terrorism threat, demographic pressures and migration flows into Europe can upend the continent. The migrant “crisis,” real or perceived, which insecurity in Africa fuels by displacing people and impeding growth, has had a corrosive effect on liberal politics in Europe and encouraged populist reactions ranging from Brexit to the growth of far-right parties, among them France’s National Rally and Germany’s Alternative for Germany. In addition to xenophobia, European far-right parties today share a dislike of American global leadership and a fondness for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Atlantic alliance fundamentally depends on the durability of the political center on both sides of the Atlantic. This is a vital U.S. interest.

What America Should Do

What can and should the U.S. government do about terrorism in the Sahel? How can it shift the focus to governance and politics in ways that work? And what can be done to improve security assistance to U.S. partners in the Sahel? Sending more special operations forces is part of the answer, but only just part. It also matters what exactly special forces do there. The key to crafting an effective counter-terrorism strategy in the Sahel is understanding the degree to which the terrorists there constitute insurgencies and to act accordingly. The armed groups in question consist mostly of locals who have found in radical Islamist ideology a way to make sense of local conflicts and mobilize local grievances. Ideology counts, and the U.S. government and its partners  should explore ways to counter radical ideology, or rather encourage friendly local actors to do so.

The need to improve governance and de-emphasize security force assistance is widely accepted among terrorism experts and Africa watchers to the point of being a truism. However, dealing with these problems is precisely what the U.S. government is bad at, which helps explain why it is more comfortable defaulting to “kinetic” operations aimed at killing terrorists, security assistance in general, or writing checks for well-intended aid programs that are designed to boost governance or economic development yet apparently have had no enduring effect. Below are several suggestions for what the United States should be doing to combat jihadists in the Sahel and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa as well. Underlying these suggestions is an insistence on thinking multilaterally: The U.S. does not act alone in the Sahel and in fact is a bit player compared to France, not to mention the large U.N. and E.U. efforts. This means at the very least striving to be aware of what they are doing to identify ways to complement or balance out those initiatives. Too often the United States acts in isolation and engages in forms of parallel play. This helps explain why the whole of the international effort in the Sahel ends up being less than the sum of its parts. 

Convert Anxiety Over Great-Power Rivalry Into an Impetus for Economic Engagement

The United States should work with African governments on counter-terrorism issues for its own sake, not in order to compete with China or Russia. In fact, the best way to compete with other great powers on the continent is, paradoxically, not by competing overtly, and certainly not explicitly — the Biden administration need never say the word “China” when talking with Africans — but instead by focusing on helping Africa grow. African leaders and the African public remember the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in Africa purely to advance their rivalries with one another, for the sake of which they lavished attention on African states and propped up friendly dictators. They also tend to look favorably upon the Chinese, suggesting that anti-China rhetoric does not play well. American officials should learn to see — or at least to talk about — African development and security as an end in itself.

With respect to where to focus, infrastructure and power are good places to begin. African governments have demonstrated their appetite in particular for classic infrastructure projects, such as road and rail connections, an appetite China is willing to satisfy while Africa’s Western partners remain aloof. That said, there is real utility in questioning the value of aid and exploring new ways to help African economies develop. More of the same thing might not be the answer. Fixing aid programs might require abandoning existing programs in favor of entirely new ones. 

Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic 

As Alexander Noyes, Mary Kate Adgie, and Michael Shurkin argued in a recent RAND study, COVID-19 has not pitched African countries into crisis, at least not yet. However, it has done significant damage and will continue to do so, particularly as more virulent mutations like the Delta variant take hold. Already some are arguing that the pandemic has played an important role in bringing South Africa to the brink, and it is possible that over time the pandemic will prove highly corrosive to African states and societies in multiple, if often imperceptible, ways. Clearly, the pandemic presents important opportunities for the United States to help African countries manage the crisis while also scoring points for itself and, more critically, for African states and institutions. There is value in helping them to weather the pandemic and secure, or at least preserve, public confidence. The absence of this confidence plays a non-trivial role in the progress of movements that are hostile to the existing political dispensation. Basically, anything that can be done to stem the loss of public confidence in state institutions would help in the fight against jihadism. 

Promote Democracy 

The United States can and should engage more with African governments diplomatically and increase the U.S. Agency for International Development work that focuses on democracy and governance, in concert with development and humanitarian aid. Too often, these activities are perceived as peripheral to main lines of effort. That is a mistake: What the U.S. Agency for International Development and its implementing partners do should be understood to be the main lines of effort. Whether such an effort can do any good is debatable, and America’s experience in Afghanistan suggests that democratization may even a fool’s errand. However, autocratic governments and, above all, contempt for the rule of law, undermine state legitimacy and a country’s long-term cohesion, which opens the door to insurgencies. West African states also have more experience with democratic politics than Afghanistan. One would not be starting from scratch. The challenge is that the U.S. must walk a tightrope between encouraging democratization and interfering. There also is the dilemma posed by the stabilizing role of autocrats who at the same time guarantee future instability by resisting democratization. Chad is a textbook case. France and the United States supported Déby (and now his son, Mahamat Déby, who inherited the throne in blatant disregard for the country’s constitution), because of the stability he offered. Yet at every step Déby blocked the development of any form of government other than state capture by the Déby clan, thereby guaranteeing future rebellions, such as the one that took Idriss Déby’s life. Offering international legitimacy to Mahamat Déby is a way to purchase short term stability at the expense of future instability, assuming the son does no more to improve governance than his father. Yet there are no obvious alternatives.

In Mali, the United States should work toward a successful political transition. American diplomats should be in the room with transition leaders, build strong connections with them, and seize whatever opportunities that appear in order to influence Malian leaders to make decisions that will lead to a stronger democracy. At the same time, they should engage with civil society and cultivate Malian democratic culture and practices. The coup in May unfortunately revealed that Mali’s putschists have, at best, a limited vision for how to secure their country’s future other than protecting their own personal interests. It would be appropriate for the U.S. government to establish some sort of conditionality for aid, as well as to be outspoken in public about the importance of democracy and the need for Mali’s military to stay out of politics, however much that message might fall on deaf ears.

Identify and Fill Gaps in Security Assistance to Sahelian Security Forces

For decades, Sahelian security forces have been subject to patchwork and inconsistent training efforts from a motley array of security assistance providers, the United States among them. This training has yet to yield a coherent program that one might reasonably expect to significantly improve the operational readiness and effectiveness of the security forces of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. In this regard, France made a serious mistake by outsourcing training Mali’s security services to the European Union. The French military is far better suited for the task of training a French-speaking force it already has copious experience working with and can integrate that training with operations. In addition, it is more comfortable putting its own people at risk accompanying local forces in the field. E.U. trainers, in addition to being less qualified, are markedly more risk averse. The training they have provided seems to have been insufficiently tied to operational realities and, in any case, insufficient to affect the wholesale improvement of Mali’s military.

Given the multiplicity of training providers, the United States should survey international efforts to identify gaps it could fill. Washington needs to complement and reinforce what others are doing and not simply add to the mix. This would require not just an accurate survey of the training efforts that are underway, but also additional close and regular contact with training providers. It also would require a more coordinated approach between the State Department’s Africa bureau — which holds the purse strings for train and equip and law enforcement training — and U.S. Africa Command. While coordination does exist, there needs to be more uniform and regular interagency coordination between the State Department and Defense Department, including joint access to reporting from staff in the field to headquarters and to the embassies.

Resume Accompany and Assist Missions

The United States should resume accompany and assist missions in the Sahel, which involves not only training security services but accompanying them into the field. The Defense Department ended these missions in the Sahel in 2017 after the Tongo Tongo ambush. The government’s risk aversion is understandable, but it is also unfortunate. This kind of activity may offer the highest return on investment with respect to contributing to the effectiveness of host nation security forces. France should have been doing this systematically, and it did step it up notably in 2020. In some regards, Takuba is an effort to make up for an undersized French effort. That said, Takuba is better than nothing.

U.S. forces should join or otherwise support Takuba while conducting accompany and assist missions separately. This may, in fact, be at the heart of the agreement recently signed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly calling for more robust cooperation between French and U.S. special forces in Africa.

In any case, America should be conscious of the need to coordinate with allies and strive for a measure of consistency regarding what special forces are teaching compared with what everyone else is teaching. The United States should never, however, lose sight of the fact that these sorts of activities are not a substitute for a more comprehensive strategy.

Develop and Articulate Appropriate Strategies and Doctrines for African Security Forces

Sahelian security forces need to be schooled in basic elements of counter-insurgency doctrine and the conduct of population-centric campaigns tailored to their operational context as well as their resources. There is a persistent need for clarity regarding how Sahelian militaries should be structured, how they should be equipped, and how they should fight. Historically, for example, Sahelian armies were designed for state-on-state warfare, often using Soviet doctrines. Internal security and fighting highly mobile irregulars require entirely different approaches, equipment, etc. Sahelian armies also need to be sustainable: Among the many lessons of Afghanistan and of Vietnam before that is the danger of building a military that the host nation cannot sustain and one that fights in a manner that itself is unsustainable because of the resources it requires.

Prioritize Civil-Military Relationships

A critical weakness of many African security forces is their poor relations with local populations, as illustrated by documented cases across the Sahel of human rights abuses against civilians that, among other things, have been shown to fuel jihadist insurgencies. They sometimes seem oblivious of the imperatives of the population-centric doctrines appropriate for countering insurgencies. The work of building better relationships needs to be done by the local security forces. However, the United States, as a key component of the security force assistance it provides, can work to steer local security forces toward making it a priority. At the very least, the United States and its allies can use whatever levels of influence they might have to curtail abusive practices and to encourage host nation security forces to protect local populations rather than harassing or attacking them.

Help Governments Manage Militias

The U.S. should consider some combination of working with local militias or coaching host nations in their use. Local militias of course are exceptionally dangerous given their propensity for human rights abuses and aggravating already deplorable conflicts and thereby fueling insurgencies rather than quelling them. However, recourse to militias is inevitable and possibly necessary, given the impossibility of maintaining a security presence in as vast a region as the Sahel with Sahelian countries’ undersized and under-equipped security forces. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have all been resorting to militias, sometimes with deplorable results. The United States itself has a mixed record when it comes to training militias, which it has done in Latin America and Vietnam but also in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given that Sahelian states are using militias anyway, it might be useful to find ways to make recourse to militias a net benefit rather than just another driver of extremism.  

Open a Dialogue with Insurgents

America and its European allies ought to be open to any type of project or discussion between Sahelian governments and jihadists. This would mean, for example, modifying material assistance laws related to terrorism so that dialogue and other approaches (such as demobilization efforts) could provide incentives for would-be defectors.

The complex nature of Africa’s jihadist insurgent groups means that jihadists have myriad motivations for fighting, many that are far more parochial than global jihad or constructing a thousand-year emirate. Often, jihadists have managed to cultivate influence by exploiting local issues, such as the lack of basic government services and intercommunal conflicts. Consequently, there are opportunities for peeling fighters away or even possibly turning them against fellow jihadists. The process should be led by national actors who decide on the timing, interlocutors, format, and preferred outcomes.

Think Long-Term and Define ‘Winning’ Appropriately

The United States has two related Achilles’ heels when it comes to stabilization or counter-insurgency operations abroad. One is an inability to think in the long-term and to understand that conflicts of this sort can, in fact, be generational. At the very least, they tend to last longer than the duration of a special forces deployment. The other is the insistence that “winning” means achieving a decisive victory. The fact of the matter is that slow-burning civil conflicts are likely to offer no decision at all, or certainly not a battlefield decision. Winning might turn out to be nothing more glorious than managing a crisis the way one might manage a chronic, but incurable, disease. Often, the best one realistically can hope for is to be able to reduce a host nation’s reliance on foreign assistance.


“More special operations forces” appears to be the response the Biden administration has chosen to the growing terrorism problem in Africa. That is not necessarily because the administration is mistaking it for a strategy, but rather because in the absence of a strategy that one activity becomes something of a substitute. More special forces may in fact be necessary, but they will only help if they are part of a larger and coordinated effort that aims to improve America’s standing, address extremist ideology, and respond to fundamental needs, including economic growth and improved governance. Security assistance needs to be better coordinated with allies and partners, and better thought through in terms of what U.S. security assistance providers attempt to instill and the forces they strive to build. In part, because a large-scale counter-terrorism effort is off the table, especially in the aftermath of the Afghanistan war, the United States should make the most of the few resources it will be willing to bring to bear. It can do this by being smart.

None of the suggestions above constitute silver bullets, and in any case success or failure really rests in the hands of the people of the Sahel themselves. However, they are answers to the basic questions of what the United States can do to be of help in the region. Combined with other measures taken by other partners, these recommendations could make a positive difference. Only time will tell. The result of not doing anything, of course, is more certain.



Michael Shurkin is a former CIA analyst and RAND senior political scientist. Currently he is the director of Global Programs at 14 North Strategies — an Africa-focused consultancy — and the founder of Shurbros Global Strategies.

Aneliese Bernard is a former State Department official, who served as the Stabilization Officer for the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, based in Niger from 2017 to 2019. She is currently an independent consultant, most recently having led field research examining the spillover of violent extremism from the Sahel into Littoral West Africa. 

Image: Defense Department (Photo by Sgt. Steven Lewis)