French Counterterrorism in the Sahel: Implications for U.S. Policy

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    Feb 4, 2014

    The Government of France is poised to readjust its military presence in the Sahel region of Africa. Prompted by perceived terrorist threats and risks to French and European interests, the re-organization may have significant implications for future U.S. Government policy and French-American cooperation in the region.

    Q1: What are the threats in the Sahel region, and why are the French concerned?

    A1: The Sahel touches parts of many former French colonies such as Chad, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. The region is characterized by instability from religious, cultural, and resource-based conflicts among its diverse inhabitants.

    Terrorist threats in the Sahel region are varied. In the past year, the U.S. State Department has added three additional Sahel-based groups – including Boko Haram, Ansaru, and al-Mulathamun Battalion – to its growing list of foreign terrorist organizations. These three African groups are increasing their rhetoric, capabilities, and influence within the region; for example, last week, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for 74 deaths in a northeastern village in Nigeria. Spillover instability in North Africa from conflict in Libya, continuing volatility in Mali, and activity of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) also affects the region. The French Defense Minister has expressed particular concerns that illegal trafficking across the continent will empower extremist groups and catalyze the spread of militancy outward from existing hotspots in northern Mali and southern Libya. 
    While security issues in the Sahel do endanger U.S. interests, economic interests remain relatively negligible. On the other hand, colonial history, presence of French nationals in the region, trade and investment concerns, as well as greater physical proximity to militancy, make French interests in the region far more vulnerable.

    Q2: What is the new French approach in the Sahel, and how does it differ from French involvement in the past?

    A2: Relative to its other commitments and to other European nations’ focus on the continent, France is relatively active across Africa. Of 8,150 military personnel deployed overseas in January 2014, 810 were in West Africa, 3,565 in the Sahel-Saharan band, and 1,600 in Central Africa. Though the new initiative may not be a significant departure from French policy in Africa, it would reinforce France’s growing emphasis on Africa, demonstrated by recent military interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic. 

    The adapted approach – not yet publicly announced – is likely to focus on combating extremist groups and preventing established terrorist sanctuaries. Though not adding any additional troops, the 3,000 French soldiers already stationed in the Sahel would be re-organized into “specialized posts.” A post in Ivory Coast would be used for logistics, a second in Chad for air power, and a third in Niger for unmanned aircraft like the French Harfang and newly-purchased American Reaper drones. Strategically located, these posts could increase efficiency by reducing the time needed to deploy troops and supplies in potentially chaotic zones. In a recent visit to CSIS, Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian indicated that the new effort would apply important lessons learned in Mali, and seek to thwart the establishment of similar militant strongholds to achieve regional, as well as European, security.

    Q3: Will the French posture have implications for U.S. policy and involvement in the region?

    A3: The re-organization of French troops includes a not-so-subtle pitch for U.S. assistance, including a recent visit to Washington by Minister Le Drian and an upcoming visit by the French President Francois Hollande. While visiting CSIS last month, Minister Le Drian said, “The United States is an essential partner for France, because we share the same vision of the security challenges in Africa and of the solutions to seek.” Specifically, France is seeking continued intelligence support, as well as training and assistance for African militaries.

    Historically, U.S. interest in and support for Africa has been inconsistent. Following an unsuccessful intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s, U.S. policy for many years was to avoid military involvement in Africa. In recent years, the United States has pursued a more balanced approach that is still constrained by limited means and will. For example, recent U.S. involvement in the Sahel is still small, including the addition of a base for unmanned aerial systems in Niger (established at the behest of Nigerian and French governments) and training support for local militaries engaged in peacekeeping or counterterrorism missions. There is, however, evidence that the Pentagon is shifting focus to the continent as a whole, such as using the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa’s facilities on Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti as the center of a future “constellation” of smaller facilities across the continent.

    The United States and France are no strangers to military and counterterrorism cooperation. In this past year alone, the United States has been peripherally involved in recent French interventions in Mali (providing aerial refueling and soldier transportation) and the Central African Republic (furnishing financial support and provision of non-lethal equipment). However, the French push for increased U.S. commitment comes at a time when the Obama Administration favors a small footprint approach to engagements abroad. Therefore, while it is unlikely the United States will become heavily involved in the Sahel with boots on the ground, the new French posture offers a unique opportunity to foster security in the region through partnership.

    Meredith Boyle is a research intern with the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Stephanie Sanok Kostro is acting director of the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

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