A coup in Mali has brought to power a leader who talks of doing deals with ISIS and al-Qaeda and thrown a multinational effort to combat the extremists into jeopardy. Foreign Editor David Pratt looks at what’s at stake...
It’s an area that spans five countries of western and north-central Africa. As I can vouch from experience, it’s a sweltering region, much of it semi-arid or desert.

But it’s here across the often-inhospitable landscape of the Sahel, as it’s known, in the countries of Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, that the battle against both the Islamic State (IS) group and al-Qaeda has increasingly been fought these past years. 

Ever since their setbacks in the Middle East, the Islamist-inspired terror groups have found a new sanctuary in the Sahel which has become a major transit route not just for jihadists, but for arms, illegal drugs and the huge number of migrants making their way northwards to Europe.  

Seen from a European and wider international perspective the threats are obvious. For if violent extremism and instability become the norm in the Sahel then not only would the jihadists have a base from which to plan and mount attacks elsewhere in the world, but the flow of migrants and refugees will inevitably grow as ordinary citizens flee the fighting as well as the poverty and drought that bedevils the region. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that for some time now the Sahel has been the focus of a multinational effort to build a counterterrorism bulwark against the growing jihadist insurgency there.  

But despite the presence of the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the G5 Sahel Force, and French and European Union (EU) missions, the security situation in the Sahel has significantly deteriorated over the last few years.  

These past weeks especially the battle against the jihadists has reached its most critical stage after French president Emmanuel Macron suggested that France, one of the biggest contributors of troops to the region, could withdraw after Mali was subjected to a second coup in nine months and the country’s new strongman, Colonel Assimi Goita, talked of doing deals with the jihadists.  

Goita’s ascent caps a turbulent nine years for Mali, a country that has remained one of the poorest in the world throughout the years it was held up as a poster child for democracy.  

Just a decade ago, Mali was viewed as a paragon of democratic virtue, following the 1991 coup that overthrew dictator Moussa Traore, 23 years after he seized power in his own putsch. 

Today it remains among the lowest-ranked countries on the UN’s Human Development Index and now, with Goita having made himself head of the transitional government in his second coup attempt, any veneer of civilian control has effectively been removed. 

Speaking last week to the French weekly newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD), Macron was pulling no punches as to what France’s response would be if Mali were to veer towards radical Islamism under the leadership of the new junta.   
“Radical Islamism in Mali with our soldiers there? Never,” Macron told JDD. “There is this temptation today in Mali. But if it goes in that direction, I will withdraw,” the French president made clear. 

Macron’s response to Mali’s coup was in stark contrast to French reaction to the recent putsch in Chad, another key ally in the fight against jihadism in the region. There, Chad’s military installed the 37-year-old son of its strongman president Idriss Deby after he was killed in April by rebels and France tacitly approved the army takeover in the name of “stability.”

‘Pay dearly’
Speaking out last week against Mali’s coup, Macron, who was on a three-day trip to Africa also warned that Europe “will pay dearly in terms of migration” if Africa’s development fails.  

This, too, was a far cry from just a few months ago when in February the French leader pledged to extend France’s military presence in the Sahel, insisting that its primary goal was to help those states in the region “decapitate” insurgent groups that France has persistently portrayed as terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Currently, France has over 5,000 troops deployed in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger – all former French colonies – under “Operation Barkhane” which was launched in 2014 to counter jihadist groups. These forces are rotated every four months. 

There are also some 400 British troops deployed in the counterterrorism campaign in Mali, but without a government there on whose co-operation such a military deployment can rely on for support, the fear is the jihadists will move into the ascendancy.  

“Mali’s democracy has been broken for months, and the recent events don’t suggest it’s on the path to recovery,” says Ornella Moderan, the Bamako-based head of the Sahel programme at the Institute for Security Studies.  

The second “coup ... revealed the absolute power of the August 2020 junta, which has run the country despite the facade of a civilian transition”, Moderan told the Financial Times last week in an interview.  

For his part, Mali’s new leader Goita insists his stay in office is temporary and has given assurances that free elections will go ahead as planned next February. But regional observers remain sceptical as to how realistic such promises are, given an already ambitious electoral timetable. 

Either way, for the moment Mali’s coup has plunged a substantial portion of the international community’s Sahel counterterrorism operation into jeopardy and the implications could prove profound. Already West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) have suspended Mali from their organisations and threatened sanctions, and this will remain in force until the nation returns to constitutional rule. 

Meanwhile, on the ground, French forces have suspended their own joint operations with the Malian army, a move sure to undermine the fight against the jihadists who have stepped up attacks in recent months. Security analysts have described these armed groups as “mobile and flexible”, and capable of “exploiting Mali’s administrative vacuum”. 

Hard to track down, they avoid towns and base themselves in marginal zones: along borders, and on food transit routes and corridors used by arms and drug traffickers, combatants, and migrants.  

In response, France’s Barkhane force has now deployed in all five Sahel states. It dominates the regional security apparatus not only in numbers of troops but with a significant quantity of helicopters in Mali, transport planes in the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, and drones and fighters in the Niger capital Niamey.  

‘There will be chaos’
SOME observers insist the significance of this force cannot be underestimated and that if Macron’s threat of withdrawal were realised things could seriously start to unravel. “If it’s withdrawn, there will be chaos,” was how former French ambassador to Mali, Nicolas Normand, summed up the situation when speaking to the weekly Paris-based French news magazine Marianne last August. 

France, it would appear, is walking something of a geopolitical tightrope over Operation Barkhane with “no obvious good solution”, says journalist Philippe Leymarie of Le Monde Diplomatique.   

“Relocating outside Mali or withdrawing entirely would free France of any direct responsibility but would probably provide a way in for the jihadists and perhaps also Russia, Turkey or China,” observed Leymarie a few months ago in an article entitled “France’s unwinnable Sahel war”.

Some commentators note that Operation Barkhane, since its launch in 2014, has relatively little to show for its efforts and this despite coming with a price tag for France of close to €1 billion last year. A cost that becomes ever more difficult to justify among the economic pressures of the Covid -19 pandemic.  

But even before the French military’s decision to suspend joint operations with the Malian Army because of the coup, some say its reputation had been tarnished in the eyes of many ordinary Malians. There were claims, for example, that the French forces rarely ventured out from their highly secure compounds and only in armoured vehicles, leaving little chance to encourage communication with locals or win over the “hearts and minds” that military analysts say is crucial to any counter insurgency campaign.

Le Monde Diplomatique recently cited Boubacar Haidara, a lecturer at the University of Segou in Mali, as saying that many Malians found it difficult to believe “that the Barkhane forces and UN Stabilisation Mission – given the considerable resources at their disposal — are really unable to reduce armed terrorist groups’ ability to do harm, or at least protect people from them”. 

Many critics of the French and international deployment also point to what they see as an unhelpful lumping together of armed groups as simply jihadists, when in fact some are driven by other political or criminal motives such as drug or people-trafficking. 
French researcher Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos believes that emphasising the global jihadist threat is a way of justifying military interventions to the French public and other international governments, but also gives certain local Sahel state leaders a geopolitical boost.  

“Reframing responses away from ‘hard’ counterterrorism towards a more holistic view of human security, and an emphasis on tackling underlying challenges of governance, impunity and development, may offer a more durable route to peace and stability in the Sahel,” observed Montclos recently, in an article for the London-based international policy institute Chatham House. 

“Mali offers a clear example of how structural failings that long predate the ‘war on terror’ – evident in poor governance and weak state security mechanisms – have been the main driver of the growth of insurgent groups over the past decade,” Montclos added. 

While uncertainty continues as to how all this will play out in the region, few doubt that Europe and the wider global community can ill afford to turn their backs on the crisis in the Sahel. As scenes from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta starkly revealed a few weeks ago, when more than 9,000 migrants and refugees crossed from Morocco, what happens further south in West Africa and the Sahel matters.  

Asylum requests
To take the case of Mali alone it is estimated that refugees from the country now account for a growing proportion of asylum requests in Spain. In all, those from Mali constitute the third-highest number of asylum requests in the country because of the protracted conflict in the country and wider Sahel.  

While most applicants for Spain continue to be Colombian or Venezuelan, 9 per cent came from Malians, and organisations like International Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency have stepped up their mobilisation to provide immediate aid and long-term assistance to asylum seekers from the Sahel.

Spain is not the only European country that is seeing an influx from the region with France being the obvious other largest recipient. 

In the eyes of many Western policymakers and security officials, people-trafficking in the Sahel fuels terrorism and destabilises regional governments. Both France and the US, for example, have tended to see fighting trafficking as a prong of counterterrorism. 

But as some researchers like Hannah Armstrong, senior Sahel consultant with the International Crisis Group (ICG), have established, it can sometimes do the opposite and provide a stabilising factor such as in Niger where it offers an income for young men who might otherwise be recruited by regional affiliates of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

It is a complex picture and one made only more so with the latest development in Mali and what France’s longer-term response proves to be.  

If the jihadists of IS and al-Qaeda have shown themselves adept at anything it’s establishing their franchises and tapping into local grievances to their advantage. Mali’s coup has certainly pushed the fight against the jihadists into a crucial stage. But it’s hard to imagine France, or indeed those other countries that are part of the multinational effort, just walking away from the Sahel, whatever Emmanuel Macron is saying.