Five African nations who formed a new counterterrorism force conducted their first joint operation this week in the tri-border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
The purpose of the Oct. 30 mission was to show the force is “operational,” Mali’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Abdoulaye Diop, told The Cipher Brief.
African nations are trying to demonstrate they’re taking control of their own security, as they face a rising threat from instability and militancy. As ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria, and al Qaeda is pushed out of Afghanistan, both terrorist groups are looking to Africa for safe haven. The continent is Europe’s neighbor and boasts major U.S. allies like Niger and Djibouti, home of America’s only permanent military base in Africa.
“We see in Africa a number of local insurgencies that rebranded themselves and pledging [sic] allegiance to ISIS over the last year,” said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford at a press briefing last month on the Oct. 4 Niger attack that killed four U.S. service members.
There are now three battalions from the new counterterrorism force, called the Joint Force Group of Five (G5) Sahel, in the tri-border area where Monday’s operation was launched, minister Diop said on Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
The G5 Sahel – comprised of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania – is also placing two battalions in the border area between Niger and Chad and two others between Mali and Mauritania, he said.
African nations don’t want to wait for ISIS to attack. “We have also to bring the fight and the terror to them,” said Diop, who is also Chair of Ministers of the G5 Sahel.
The idea for this force dates back to 2015, but it was officially launched in February. The stated purpose is to combat the growing threat of extremist groups in the Sahel, along with human traffickers and drug smugglers, who are often intertwined with extremist groups.
The UN Security Council met on Monday to discuss how it could support the G5 Sahel force.
“The situation in the Sahel challenges us all,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the 15-member body.
The United States on Monday already pledged $60 million to support the Sahel force.
“This money will bolster our regional partners in their fight to ensure security and stability in the face of ISIS and affiliated groups and other terrorist networks,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a statement. The funding is pending consultation with Congress.
In addition to the new U.S. funding, the European Union has pledged nearly $60 million, France has pledged $9 million bilaterally and the G5 nations have pledged about $60 million.
The G5 Sahel hopes to receive $450 million in total by next year, following a donor conference in Brussels this December.
The money will be used to help the 5,000 troops that constitute the force – all from the G5 countries – to be well-equipped and well-trained.
The vision is to have small, specialized teams of high quality, rather than high quantity, said Foreign Minister Diop. He noted, though, that the 5,000 troops are an initial response, and that number could eventually increase to 10,000.
But some remain skeptical. In an open letter to the United Nations Security Council in April, CEO of the International Crisis Group Jean-Marie Guéhenno wrote that the benefits of adding another security force to the region are “unclear.”
“Their deployment risks aggravating what amounts to a security traffic jam,” he wrote, noting the French “Barkhane” counterterrorism operation, the UN mission “MINUSMA,” Malian security forces, and various armed groups that are all active in the region.
“The issue is the extent to which the G5 Sahel security force actually does anything,” former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell told The Cipher Brief. “Or is it a fig leaf by which weak, unresponsive governments cover their inability to address the drivers of popular support for jihadi movements?”
Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.