G5 Sahel Joint Force to Combat Terrorism in Africa

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Written by Sarah Jones

Mali says the G5 Sahel Joint Force to Combat Terrorism should be fully operational in the next few months, despite its current budget shortfalls. The task force is a regional effort to address terrorism and violent extremism which includes five member states: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Members say they can’t do it alone.

The Chief of the Malian Armed Forces General M’Bemba Keita say international efforts have been “hampered by an inadequate mandate to fight terrorism and limited capabilities in an extensive area with little state control.” He hopes the new joint force will help fill in the shortfalls by focusing on transnational crime and terrorism.

“The destabilization in Mali is a direct consequence of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime” says General Keita. The borders drawn during colonization between Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, and Niger broke down the tribal unity of the ethnic Tuaregs. The mostly Sunni Muslim, non-Arabs who once controlled the caravan trade routes across the Sahara Desert are semi nomadic and over 1.5 million strong. Since 1962 they have tried to resist the Malian government’s attempts to bring them under the control of the then newly independent state and have alleged enduring ethnic cleansing. After extreme droughts in Mali between the 1960’s and 1980’s many immigrated from Northern Mali to take advantage of the oil boom in Libya. Gadhafi began recruiting the Tuaregs who were allegedly being treated as second class citizens. He even offered citizenship to the Tuaregs in 2005, creating a sense of loyalty.

People without borders, allegedly marginalized by their homeland, were armed by Gaddafi. And after the fall of the Libyan dictator some returned, poorly funded but highly armed and ready to fight for self rule and independence from the Malian government. But some ethnic leaders made deals with the more highly trained and funded religious extremists in hopes of seizing a win due to an unstable government. But not all doors that are easily opened are easily shut.

General Keita says “the instability in Libya contributed to an increase in the trafficking of arms and illegal goods in the region. The difficulty of patrolling the borders has led to terrorist organizations operating transnationally with relative ease. The activities of al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram continue to pose serious threats to state and human security in the Sahel.”

He adds that the “fragile security situation in the Sahel has been aggravated by the evolving threats including violent extremism, transnational organized crime, and the proliferation of arms,” says General Keita. “The porous borders and environmental challenges have undermined effective control of the Sahel’s frontiers, and criminal activities have reached a level that poses a threat to governance and social stability in the entire region and beyond.”

Terrorist and militant groups in the Sahel region are not bound by borders the way governments or security forces are, says an IHS Markit Senior Analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. Otso Iho says, “a joint international approach is critical to effectively combating militant group in such a broad area.”

“The G5 Joint force represents a long-desired Africanization of international efforts,” says General Keita. And he believes it may one day create an exit strategy for Operation Barkhane and the UN forces in Mali. Sahel regional expert Andrew Lebovich says “security sector reform is very important to governance because you can’t govern effectively if your security forces engage in abuse and other criminality.”

Part of the G5 Mandate includes efforts to combat human trafficking and drug trafficking. But experts say many armed groups reportedly rely on these illegal markets for funding. And some of these groups are involved in the ongoing peace process. General Keita says it’s difficult to target these illegal markets without also threatening the funding to armed groups in the region and “prompting further violence and instability.” Otso Iho says the real difficulty lies in the G5 targeting its efforts: “does it want to go after trafficking networks as a whole, or does it want to focus on the portion of networks that are funding groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)?”

General Keita paints a complex picture when he discusses the threats to Mali’s security and stability. “Armed groups hamper development and we are very concerned,” says Keita. Their strategy  is to “break people’s trust in national authority and it is up to us to follow the situation closely and to listen to the people.” He says while armed groups are recruiting young people Mali must focus on a long term approach with a focus on education, inclusive economic development, and job creation. Especially amid a backdrop of rising inter-community tensions, and growing fear among populations displaced by fear, violence, and disrupted harvests.

Some have criticized Mali counter terrorism efforts when it comes to addressing the complex and diverse needs and demands of the local population that are not linked to any armed group. Andrew Lebovich who is a visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations says this is a difficult issue: “members of the Malian security forces have committed abuses repeatedly in the last several years in parts of northern and particularly central Mali, and while some parts of the security forces have improved their treatment of civilians, the memory of these abuses remains strong.” General Keita says the “current conflicts in Central Mali are mostly related to the technical and operational conditions for resource exploitation, the difficulties in defining and delineating ago-pastoral areas as well as the increasing expansion of the conflict that erupted in Northern Mali in 2012.”

Lebovich says the security situation across the Sahel is at its worst. General Keita says it’s this volatility that  “underscores the need for considerable costs to be borne and why the stakes for Europe and the West remain high enough for the international community to accept some responsibility for them.” But the head of the Malian Armed Forces says although many concrete proposals are out there the problem is funding. “The priority is to assist in the rebuilding of internal security forces and institution to deploy the authority of the state over the whole national territory.”

About the author: Sarah Jones is an award winning journalist and one of the Top Twenty North American Young Leaders chosen by Friends of Europe. For the last three years Sarah has been a Skoll World Forum Delegate and Online Media Awards judge. She is also behind the international moment of silence and online event to help remember fallen journalists with co-partners like the Committee to Protect Journalists and the UN Foundation’s Plus Social Good.