March 25, 2019
The U.S. is handing over the counterterrorism mission in West Africa to local partners. But to some, those partners are worse than the terrorists
The Trump administration is drawing down the U.S. military presence in Africa in order to pivot to great power competition and claim success—prematurely—on the many fronts of the war on terror. This drawdown requires local partners, like Mali and Burkina Faso, to continue a counterterrorism mission that is far from complete. But these states, among the poorest in the world, are not only incapable of completing the fight against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)- and Islamic State-linked groups. They are part of the problem.
On Saturday, a militia associated with the Malian Army massacred more than 130 people in two villages in central Mali. The attack was a collective punishment response against members of the Fulani ethnic group. It was retaliation for an earlier attack on a Malian Army base by the AQIM affiliate in Mali, Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM). Mali’s president since disbanded the militia and fired top military brass, but official changes are unlikely to end the killings.
Saturday’s massacre is the most extreme episode in a cycle of violence that is driving recruits to Salafi-jihadi groups like JNIM and allowing them to expand across West Africa. The ethnic violence stems from inequities of state access and land use, made worse by climate change. JNIM and its ilk have exploited the violence by promising justice and protection to vulnerable communities. JNIM claimed the attack last week as revenge for the Malian government’s crimes against the Fulani people. Fulani communities facing the threat of potential genocide have few alternatives and little ability to resist coercive Salafi-jihadi groups.
We should recognize this playbook. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), famously conducted sectarian attacks designed to incite retaliation that would drive support to AQI. The Islamic State, AQI’s successor, likely recognizes the opportunity and is highlighting its presence in the Sahel as it seeks to mitigate its losses in Syria.
This crisis spreading beyond central Mali. A Salafi-jihadi insurgency in neighboring Burkina Faso is now causing a humanitarian crisis, threatening the vital mining industry, and showing early signs of spreading southward into Ghana, Benin, and Togo. Burkinabe security forces stand accused of retaliating against civilians like their Malian counterparts. All of this is happening amid reports that the cocaine trade through this region is increasing, benefiting Salafi-jihadi groups directly.
We are fixated on whether or not the Islamic State is defeated in Syria and Iraq (spoiler alert: it’s not), but we are missing the risk of a massive, and lucrative, expansion of the Salafi-jihadi movement in West Africa. The Malian and Burkinabe armies’ responses are feeding into the crisis. France is trying to disengage from the region and is consumed by its domestic challenges. The U.S. must not abandon its military role in the Sahel, and should consider increasing its diplomatic efforts, to prevent a humanitarian and security disaster.