USA – U.S. to Ramp Up Counterterrorism Efforts in Sahel Region

FP | Robbie Gramer | December 20, 2020

The Trump administration is preparing to create a new special envoy position and task force to deal with security threats in the Sahel region of Africa, reflecting a growing alarm in Washington about the rise of extremist groups in West Africa, including ones affiliated with the Islamic State.

The measure comes as extremist groups carry out increasingly deadly attacks in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso and spread their reach further south. Officials and experts warn that the extremist groups are gaining strength despite U.S.-led special operations raids and drone strikes, and yearslong efforts by Western countries and West African governments to root out the groups.

The administration is preparing to appoint a special envoy who would head an interagency task force composed of officials from the State Department, the intelligence community, the Defense Department, and other agencies to better coordinate the U.S. response to the extremist groups in the region, current and former officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter tell Foreign Policy. One official cautioned that the details of the plan are still being hashed out and the move has not yet been made official. The administration is also drafting a new strategy for the Sahel to guide the work, several officials said. 

The expected move comes as senior U.S. and United Nations officials raise alarm bells about a rapid surge in violence in the Sahel, a sparsely populated expanse of land south of the Sahara desert. 

“We say we have wiped out the Islamic State in Iraq, in Syria. Do people ask the question, where these people are going?” Mahamat Saleh Annadif, a senior U.N. envoy for the region, said in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year. “There is a breeze going toward the Sahel.”

Spates of violence involving extremist groups have doubled in the region each year since 2015, according to the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies. There have been 700 violent episodes in 2019 alone, including a high-profile and deadly attack on a military base in western Niger this month that killed over 70 Nigerien soldiers. 

“I think [the Sahel] is the most difficult and challenging situation we have now in the continent,” the top U.S. diplomat on Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy, told reporters in a briefing last month. “The threat of terrorism and violent extremism is expanding. It’s not anymore in north Mali only. It is going down to Burkina Faso and countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin are all on alert.”