Posts Tagged ‘Sahel terrorism’

My latest column for the Financial Times on Russia’s purported ‘counter-terrorism’ activity in Africa. Not so much CT as counter-influence operations really, none of which bodes well for the underlying problems.

Russian proxies seize the advantage in Africa’s Islamist insurgencies

As western counter-terrorism efforts flounder, Kremlin-backed militias are offering support in Mali and Burkina Faso

Supporters of Ibrahim Traoré after the coup in Burkina Faso. Russian flags were on display when the leader took over the capital Ouagadougou © Issouf Sanago/AFP/Getty Images

When Russia was widely condemned for its illegal referendums in the Donbas at a vote of the UN General Assembly last month, it was notable that a clutch of African countries chose to abstain or stay away. Many of these had benefited from Russian counter-terrorism support; Burkina Faso – still reeling from a coup sparked by the government’s failure to stem an ongoing Islamist insurgency – might be about to ask for it. As al-Qaeda affiliates and Isis representatives converge in the Sahel region and across the continent, Moscow is increasingly bending terrorism to its advantage in the pursuit of political influence.

The terrorist threat picture across Africa has always been a messy one. Most groups are active locally, and the aspiration or capability to launch attacks beyond the continent’s borders tends to be confined to Isis networks in Libya or Egypt and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Terrorist groups across the region target foreigners, with mixed motives: attacking the Westgate Mall or DusitD2 Complex in Kenya, or the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria attracts attention; kidnapping can often be as much about profit as terror.

The situation is even more complex when groups without clear affiliations declare Isis as their inspiration. Almost half the deaths attributed to Isis worldwide in 2021 took place in sub-Saharan Africa. But it can be hard to distinguish between Islamist violence and longstanding regional conflicts. The jihadifuelled insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado appears to have some international links but draws on a long history of local disenfranchisement.

Counter-terrorism support from the west has a chequered history. Former regional colonial powers like the UK and France have played a significant role in countries such as Mali, while the US has funded or trained special forces to varyincreased, degrees across the Sahel to help combat threats. Non-military aid in the region has been targeted at the underlying causes of instability.

Yet none of this has done much to suppress the overall threat and may even have been counter-productive. In September 2021, Guinean forces left their training with the US Green Berets to join the military takeover of Conakry. The 2020 coup in Mali, which led to the eventual breakdown in relations between Paris and Bamako, was led by forces built up by the French army over the previous seven years under Opération Barkhane. This project – established by the French after the near takeover of Mali by Islamist militants in 2013 – was undermined by loosely defined goals. As tensions with Bamako the Élysée finally announced in February a withdrawal of troops.

The result has been a turn by Malian authorities towards mercenaries such as the Wagner Group, which has close links to the Russian GRU intelligence agency. This is not unique to Mali: Wagner forces have also appeared in Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Mozambique. In Bamako, members of this Russian proxy militia are celebrated in the streets. In exchange for their services, Wagner appears to be receiving access to minerals while Moscow wins strategic allies, as evident in UN voting patterns.

But the signature of Wagner deployments tends to be a focus on subduing civilian populations and harshly suppressing insurgencies. While the western approach may have not been as effective as intended, it at least avoids the indiscriminate brutality exercised by Russian-backed forces.

In Burkina Faso, the latest coup leader Ibrahim Traoré seems to be playing both sides: he reportedly told US diplomats that he did not intend to call on Wagner forces, but some of his local suping porters have called for a new strategic partnership with Moscow, and Russian flags were prominently on display as he took over the capital Ouagadougou. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin also posted his support for the takeover on Telegram, saying soldiers had done what was necessary.

Given the failure of many western counter-terrorism efforts, it is hard to see how this battle for influence can be resolved. Moscow is acting both to frustrate the west and benefit itself. It is imperative that the US, UK, France and their allies find ways to continue engaging with Sahelian countries and working to alleviate the disenfranchisement that is often a touchpaper for insurgency.

Security engagement around specific terrorist groups must continue, with better safeguards to prevent it backfiring. And crucially, these efforts must be disentangled from the wider geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the west. Otherwise, the Sahel will remain a region ripe for manipulation.

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies