ISIS Eyes Sahel As Next Safe Haven

ISIS has lost approximately 95 percent of the territory it once controlled across Syria and Iraq. The group may now set its sights on establishing safe havens across the Sahel, a threat that has drawn considerable attention from the U.S. government.

  • The U.S. has been historically inconsistent in its involvement in Africa – swaying from active involvement in Somalia during the 1990s to near complete withdrawal of overt military presence in the following years. The 2007 establishment of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) based in Stuttgart, Germany, signaled an accelerated U.S. military tempo on the African continent, with the primary goals of neutralizing al Shabaab in Somalia, containing Boko Haram, degrading violent extremist groups, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Mugreb (AQIM) in the Sahel, and interdicting illicit trafficking in the Gulf of Guinea.
  • The region is characterized by internal instability primarily from religious, cultural and resource-based conflicts among the inhabitants, and indigenous militant groups have sought to hitch their movements to broader terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda and more recently ISIS. The State Department designated terrorist organizations in the region include: AQIM in Algeria, Mali and Niger; ISIS in Libya and Nigeria; Boko Haram and Ansaru in Nigeria; Ansar Dine in Mali; and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya. Numerous splinter groups, such as the AQIM’s Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), remain undesignated but constitute a real threat to the region.
  • Early last month, a group of Islamic extremists ideologically linked to ISIS and al Qaeda ambushed a joint U.S.-Nigerien patrol along the Mali-Niger border to the northwest, killing four U.S. troops and five Nigerien soldiers. The news drew the attention of many around the world, most of which were not aware that there were some 800 U.S. forces stationed in the western African country with a predominantly Islamic population of about 21 million.

The landlocked, uranium-rich country of Niger is at the nexus of several recent conflicts in neighboring states – such as Chad in 2008, Nigeria since 2009, Libya since 2011 and Mali since 2012. The United States may see the country gearing up for what could become its own internationalized conflict. Its surrounding borders are experiencing the spillover of neighboring unrest, with local terrorist-affiliated groups seeking to hitch on to resident grievances.

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