America Should Not Overcommit Forces in North Africa

An army officer stands in a parade during a ceremony marking Nigeria's Armed Forces Remembrance Day in Lagos January 15, 2013. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

The past sixteen years have illustrated that combating a force as nebulous as “terrorism” is exceptionally difficult; there is little reason to believe that expanding the war will end it.

Nearly two months after four American servicemen were killed by terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State in Niger, there is a growing concern among counterterrorism experts that the collapse of ISIS in the Middle East will result in the group shifting its focus to Africa. An area of particular concern is the Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara spanning from Mauritania and Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east, and dipping as far south as Nigeria. While the urge for the American military to pursue ISIS into Africa is heavily embedded within the fabric of its counterinsurgency playbook, the United States would be wise in exercising restraint by not committing significant resources towards targeting terrorists in the Sahel. If the United States is concerned with the rise of terrorism in the Sahel and wants to allocate military resources to the region, Washington should instead adopt a strategy designed to positively empower regional allies while eliminating the systemic problems that create the conditions for terrorism to thrive in the first place.

There are a number of factors that make the Sahel particularly ripe for the Islamic State’s brand of terrorism. Countries such as Mali, Niger, Chad, and Nigeria have long suffered from internal ethnic, religious, and tribal fractures that ISIS has previously exploited to its advantage and incite local Muslim populations to violence. Furthermore, the Sahel is littered with Tuareg and Arab militias who have already proven effective in utilizing their ISIS-friendly interpretations of Salafism as a call to arms, and could follow the lead of Boko Haram and other groups in aligning themselves with ISIS. Finally, the Sahel is home to over forty-one-million people under the age of twenty-five who face significant economic hardship which, combined with growing frustrations towards ineffective and corrupt local governments, could motivate them towards radicalization.

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These trends suggest that ISIS may be poised to establish a greater foothold in the Sahel, and it seems as though the United States has taken notice. Not only has the United States already stationed nearly 800 military personnel on the ground throughout the region, but Washington has also recently committed $60 million towards the creation of a UN-backed counterterrorism force in the Sahel—even as it proposes $3 billion cuts in humanitarian aid to Africa. Additionally, the United States has active drone bases in Chad and Niger that are dedicated to American counterterror efforts, and has plans to deploy MQ9 Reaper drones in Niger. These efforts were in place before American troops were killed in Niger, and will likely be accelerated in its aftermath. Sen. Lindsay Graham’s recent comments reinforced the push for  expanding the war on terror to new battlefronts, warning that, “we don’t want the next 9/11 to come from Niger.”

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Unfortunately, it is unlikely that expanding American counterterror operations in the Sahel will meaningfully reduce the risk of such an attack. As the past sixteen years of the war on terror have illustrated, combating a force as nebulous as “terrorism” is exceptionally difficult, particularly when both the ideology and practitioners of this form of warfare are so easily transferable across international lines. Just as the defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq saw many of the group’s members transition their allegiance to the Islamic State, the disruption of terror cells in Mali and Libya has seen members of those groups migrate throughout the Sahel and embed themselves within other extremist groups in the region. Defeating ISIS in the Middle East did not stop them from re-emerging in the Sahel, and there is little reason to believe that disrupting ISIS’ operations in Africa will prevent them from successfully migrating elsewhere.