It’s among the most inhospitable and harshest terrain on the plant, but jihadist groups are thriving there. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines an escalating battleground in the war on terror in the Sahel region of West Africa.

Unless you were scouring the French media last week, the chances are you would have missed the story. Most reports detailed how 13 French military personnel died when the two helicopters in which they were flying crashed in the southern reaches of the Sahara in West Africa.

To say that the news shocked France would be an understatement, given that it was the deadliest incident for French troops in more than thirty years. You would have to cast back to an air crash in Djibouti in 1986 and a suicide bomb attack in Beirut in 1983 that killed 58 to find a worse death toll.

Last week’s crash though has once again thrown a rare spotlight on a war that beyond France few people know much about, yet is now at the forefront of the global ‘war on terror.’

This frontline, if it can be called that, straddles one of the most unforgiving landscapes in the world across the Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara that includes parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Purely in terms of terrain alone few places in the world are more inhospitable. In going on forty years of covering conflicts in some of the harshest places, rarely have I encountered such an uncompromising environment than that a few years ago when I first visited part of this desert region near Tahoua in Niger bordering Mali.

So much of the Sahel is nothing but mile after mile of baked sand and rock, with no trace of moisture. Here and there sit empty, abandoned villages. Coming across one such community, I recall a trail of footprints in the sand heading out into the wilderness, the only ghostly clue to those villagers who through hunger, poverty and the prevailing violence around them had no choice but to move on in the hope of survival.

Stepping into the oven-like heat from the rarefied atmosphere of an air-conditioned jeep, I remember pondering what it must be like to draw the short straw in life that means trying to exist in such an unremittingly harsh place.

During that visit the armed gendarmarie who escorted me with their heavy machine-guns mounted on pickup trucks, was a reminder of the threat that since then has growing exponentially across the region.

For as if drought, locusts, environmental degradation, climate-change damage and food shortages were not enough, the Sahel is wracked by insecurity. Recently a spate of deadly attacks again also highlighted the shadowy war unfolding there daily.

Last month, 38 workers of a Canadian-run gold mine in Burkina Faso were killed in an ambush while traveling on buses en route to their worksite. More than 60 others were injured. Foreign staff were spared, apparently only because they were aware of heightened kidnapping and other security risks posed by jihadists and therefore flew to the site by helicopter.

That attack came on the heels of another major assault only days before in which jihadists from the Islamic State group in Greater Sahara (ISGS) killed more than 50 Malian soldiers in Mali’s Menaka region.

Just a few weeks ago in the wake of the attacks, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Mali’s president, warned in a television address: “The stability and existence of our country are at stake.”

The escalating violence has raised fears among European and US allies that the Sahel is rapidly becoming the next haven for fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, particularly after the killing in October of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

As the victims of last week’s helicopter crash served as reminder, France as former colonial power in most of the Sahel, has in recent years led international response efforts to the growing Islamist terror threat.

Currently under what has been dubbed ‘Operation Barkhane’ a 4,500 strong, French-led counter-terrorism force that involves fighter jets and drones is fighting the spread of the jihadist threat in the Sahel. The operation takes its name froma crescent-shaped dune in the Sahara desert, but there is nothing remotely picturesque about this bitter conflict.

“This is quite a nasty theatre of war,” says Francois Heisbourg, a special adviser at the independent French think tank, The Foundation for Strategic Research.

Reflecting last week on the political impact of the French military helicopter crash, he told the Financial Times that the French people were generally supportive of the war in the Sahel given the domestic terror threat in France

“I suspect that this incident will not actually create much of a political problem for the government in terms of the mission against jihadis. But it will sharpen the debate here about what the rest of the Europeans are doing.”

The comparative proximity of the Sahel to Europe and the twin issues of migration and terrorism should make the region an increasingly key area of concern in European capitals say analysts. To date though many regional watchers say the European response has been dogged by lethargy and negligence.

Earlier this year German Chancellor Angela Merkel added to the chorus of concern after a summit with the leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.

“What happens in the Sahel is not only the responsibility of the region, but is also a European responsibility,” Merkel warned.

“If chaos gains the upper hand here, something we want to prevent, other areas would be impacted,” Merkel added. Her comments say some analysts, are signs of an awakening in European circles over the Sahel threat.

“I think people are realising the failure of the strategy that has been used so far to fight violent extremism,” says Mathias Hounkpe, head of the Mali country office of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

Speaking to the online news magazine OZY, Hounkpe points to a tour of the region last week by France’s Defence Minister, Florence Parly, as another sign that the world is beginning to recognise the extent of the problem.

Speaking in Paris, Parly said Operation Barkhane was facing the “very difficult challenge” of asymmetric war in Mali and its neighbours in the scrub and desert of the Sahel, despite help from US intelligence and logistical and military contributions from the UK, Spain, Estonia and Denmark.

“In this war nothing is obvious, it’s an asymmetric war,” Parly told the Financial Times in an interview.

“It’s a war that combines the struggle against terrorism with local situations of ancestral conflicts or tensions between communities.”

Apart from France’s 4,500 strong force, the UN has 13,000 peacekeepers in Mali. The G5 Sahel alliance comprising of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger has also mustered a joint deployment of 5,000 troops. While at first welcomed in many parts of the region, these troops now find themselves under suspicion or criticism in some quarters by locals who accuse them of failure or covert exploitation.

Persistent reports of extra-judicial killings and torture during security crackdowns by troops in Mali and Burkina Faso are stoking distrust of the state among local populations that are already under pressure from the jihadists.

“How can 20,000 foreign troops be unable to defeat 3,000 terrorists?” asked Ibrahim Kebe recently host of a weekly show broadcast by a small Malian anti-establishment station, Patriot Radio.

It’s a question increasing numbers of locals are asking across the Sahel, but the answer of course as history has shown, is that defeating any insurgency or terror group is not always simply a question of military manpower or resources.

So just who are the jihadist groups France and these other troops are up against and what is the scale and nature of the threat they pose?

Analysts can trace the new threat back to 2013 when Islamist groups that were chased out by a previous French military operation ‘Serval’ dispersed, reorganised and spread.

Add to this the fact that previously large swathes of many countries across the Sahel were flooded with arms after the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and became ungoverned, and the Islamists were in prime position to take advantage of security gaps.

Since then they have become increasingly active in the borderlands of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, attacking both military outposts and civilian targets.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, the governments have now effectively lost control over some of their remote border areas. In Burkina Faso especially armed attacks are spreading to the east and southern border areas and the risk of spill over into neighbouring costal countries like Cote d’ Ivoire is growing.

Since 2015 more than 700 deaths and 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDP’S) and refugees have been recorded in Burkina Faso as a result of incursions by armed groups.

“The epicentre of insecurity was first in Mali. Now it is in Burkina Faso that is the heart of the conflict,” says Patrick Youssef, Deputy Regional Director Africa of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The kidnapping of two French tourists in May this year in northern Benin, at the border with Burkina Faso, was also a harsh reminder that jihadists operate across porous borders. These areas are often vast, mostly impoverished and sparsely populated. Tensions in communities there with deep-rooted grievances are growing, exacerbated by the conflicts dynamics and armed groups’ agendas, says the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Often the distinction between jihadist and no-jihadist groups is unclear. The oldest and best-known jihadist organisation is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in the Sahara desert and the Sahel.

Originally formed under a different name to fight Algeria’s secular government in the 1990s, the organisation aligned with al-Qaeda in the 2000s and helped Tuareg rebels capture northern Mali.

In 2017, four groups, AQIM, Ansar Dine, an offshoot called the Macina Liberation Movement and Al Mourabitoune, announced that they had joined forces under a single group and banner known by its acronym JNIM.

Then of course there is the growing presence of the group Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) that claimed responsibility for last month’s attack on the military base in Mali that killed 53 soldiers and a civilian.

While many of these groups have different strategies, fighters are believed to often transit back and forth between the various coalitions according to analysts at the Bloomberg news agency.

ISGS’ leader is said to be Abu Adnan Walid al-Sahrawi, who was born in Laayoune the largest city of the disputed territory of Western Sahara de-facto administered by Morocco. Al-Sahrawi however has not been seen in any ISGS media since 2016.

Prior to then, he was known for co-claiming a major attack on French-run mining facilities in Agadez and Arlit, Niger with longtime Algerian jihadist mastermind, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

The latter is a long time Islamist extremist who travelled to Afghanistan in 1991 to fight with the mujahideen against the pro-Soviet government following the Russian withdrawal from the country. While there Belmokhtar lost his left eye while mishandling explosives. This though did not stop him from organising the attack in 2013 on the Tiguentourine gas field near Amenas, Algeria, in which his group took more than 800 hostages, 39 of whom were killed before a rescue operation by Algerian forces.

Despite parting ways with Belmokhtar, the al-Sahrawi-led ISGS continues to pursue attacks against foreign interests in the region as a significant feature of its operational profile. Back in 2013 at the time of the Amenas siege, Belmokhtar justified the attack as a reprisal for the French intervention that had begun in Mali days before. Since then France has remained embroiled in the region and at ever growing cost.

According to the online security website and discussion platform The Cipher Brief, ISGS lacks the capabilities to target Western countries abroad, but it can do so in the Sahel itself.

It was for example responsible for the 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four US Special Forces members. The recent attack on the Burkina Faso mine was similarly intended to force Western countries out of the Sahel region economically and later militarily, thus paving the way for ISGS’ eventual rule, analysts conclude.

Speaking last month the US State department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Nathan Sales, observed that: “Terrorist fighters are always looking for the next battle ground.

As IS and other jihadists lose ground in the Middle East, they have found in the almost non-existent borders of the Sahel region just that, a new battleground and sanctuary. What for so long has been a semi-covert war conducted mainly by France and the US, might just be about to see other nations being unavoidably drawn into the fray.