2018/07/13 – There has been no “Mission Accomplished” moment celebrating the defeat of Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. But the American and other allied troops who helped crush IS are quietly heading home, and their generals are packing away their counter-insurgency field manuals. They deserve credit for a job bravely done. However, IS’s brutal ideology is not dead. A form of it is taking root in and around the Sahel.
Even at the best of times this arid, sparsely populated belt of land that runs along the southern fringe of the Sahara desert is poor and badly governed. Some countries broadly along this belt, such as Somalia or the Central African Republic, have not seen peace for decades. In the past few years the sparks of jihad have been struck in this tinderbox. In lethality, the jihadists in Africa have already overtaken their Iraqi comrades. Last year they killed some 10,000 people, mostly civilians. That compares with about 2,000 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. They are also more numerous. Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a Nigerian jihadist group aligned with IS, has some 3,500 fighters—probably more than the original IS now has in Iraq and Syria. It is trying to build a “caliphate” in remote border towns.
To Sahel and back
War-weary Western voters have little appetite for fresh entanglements in distant conflicts. And so far, the threat the Sahel poses to Western interests is limited. But it is growing. Jihadists connected to al-Qaeda and IS have attacked Western embassies, hotels and oil facilities in the Sahel. Some with ties to the region have struck in Europe, too. A suicide-bombing in 2017 that claimed 23 lives in Manchester has been linked to Libya. So too was an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016 that killed 12 people. The risks of more such attacks will grow if jihadists are allowed to hold territory and establish camps, as al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan before September 11th 2001. Moreover, jihadism in the Sahel destabilises countries with some of the world’s fastest-growing populations. If they fall into chaos, Europe can expect millions more refugees.
The rise of jihadism in Africa is rooted in bad governance, exacerbated by population pressure and climate change. When the state is corrupt and predatory, the insurgents’ promise of religious justice can sound appealing. There is not much outsiders can do to fix this. Africa’s governments need to step up to their responsibilities.
However, outsiders can help contain the jihadists, stopping them conquering turf or building anything resembling a state. This can be done with a light touch, by modest forces, at a reasonable cost. France already has about 4,500 troops in Africa; America has about 6,000. These are not many boots on the ground in so vast a region. Yet they are having an outsize effect by training, supporting and providing crucial intelligence to the African armies that are doing almost all the fighting.
Western forces are helping to hold a fragile region together. Alas, that appears not to be a priority for President Donald Trump. Since the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger in October, American troops have been ordered to take fewer risks. Their commanders have been told to plan for a possible cut of up to 50% in the number of special forces assigned to the region. The signs are that Mr Trump is about to repeat Bill Clinton’s mistake. Mr Clinton pulled out of Somalia in 1993, as soon as dead Americans appeared on television. Somalia later collapsed into anarchy and became a haven for jihadists and pirates. Stopping the Sahel from falling apart would be easier than putting it back together. Western troops are insurance against disaster. Keep paying the premiums.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline « Jihad’s new base »
Sahel-Elite/Image by Africa Command’s