Beaux Gestes and Castles in the Sand: The Militarisation of the Sahara

One year on from the French intervention in Mali, Saharan jihadist groups continue to threaten not only Mali but Algeria, Libya, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia. Will French and US plans to expand their military presence in the Sahel combat, contain or exacerbate the threat from militants displaced from Mali?

Fragmentation, Displacement and Reconsolidation:  The AQIM Threat in 2014

French General Pillet, Chief of Staff of the MINUSMA Kidal, during the visit of the Joint Security Committee in charge of the observance of the cease-fire between the Malian army and armed groups from the north. Source: MINUSMA (Flickr)

French General Pillet, Chief of Staff of MINUSMA, Kidal, during the visit of the Joint Security Committee in charge of the observance of the cease-fire between the Malian army and armed groups from the north. Source: MINUSMA (Flickr)

Last January, the French military, supported by African troops and 10 non-African air forces, intervened militarily in Mali at the request of its transitional government. Over the following four weeks they recaptured all of the towns in the northern half of Mali. This vast desert region had been seized by Islamist and separatist militia in March-April 2012 and declared independent as the ‘State of Azawad’, the Tuareg name for their homeland in northeast Mali. Since then, French troops have continued to conduct security operations across northern Mali to locate and ‘neutralise’ militants associated with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a jihadist group of Algerian origin, and its West African splinter groups. Reduced numbers of French forces now support Malian and African forces within the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             However, the final quarter of 2013 saw an increase in violence in northern Mali, including terrorist attacks, violent protests and inter-communal violence. Moreover, the French advance into northern Mali displaced rather than destroyed AQIM and its two local allies, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine, a Tuareg Islamist group. Their impact has been particularly felt in Niger and Libya and may also have bolstered jihadist groups operating in northern Nigeria, Tunisia and Egypt’s Sinai. The lawless desert of southwest Libya is believed to be the new stronghold of AQIM.

A new group, al-Murabitun, combining MUJAO and the most active elements of AQIM’s Saharan front, now appears to pose more of a threat to western and West African interests than AQIM. This is because its strategic direction is towards the weak states of West Africa, including Niger, Mali and Mauritania, where critical infrastructure and individuals are more difficult to protect. It is also better connected to the kidnapping and trafficking enterprises that fund Saharan militancy, and more deadly. During 2013, its militants were behind frequent raids on Gao (northern Mali’s main town), on a prison, garrison and French-owned mine in Niger, and on the Algerian gas plant at In-Amenas. These audacious operations attest to its range, training, discipline and cosmopolitan membership. If it finds common purpose with the larger jihadist groups in northern Niger, as some analysts suggest, it could represent a severe threat to stability in the already shaky regional power.

French Repositioning in the Sahel

In recognition of the expansion of jihadist groups, France announced a major repositioning of its forces in Africa in January. The new French military posture will refocus from large coastal bases, designed to train, transport and supply African Union and regional rapid reaction forces, to smaller forward deployments in the Sahel and Sahara. 3,000 French troops will now be based indefinitely in Mali, Niger and Chad.

U.S. soldiers and French commandos marine conduct a reconnaissance patrol during a joint-combined exercise in Djibouti. Source: Wikipedia

U.S. soldiers and French commandos marine conduct a reconnaissance patrol during a joint-combined exercise in Djibouti. Source: Wikipedia

The new posture is heavily influenced by US ‘War on Terror’ strategy in Africa, Yemen and south-west Asia, relying heavily on Special Forces, air strike capacities and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). French and US forces (including contractors) already share facilities in Djibouti, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, and there is a small US liaison detachment with the French Combined Air Operations Centre in Chad. The French repositioning is explicit about confronting Islamist terrorist groups and the threat to regional security posed by the security vacuum in southern Libya. While the repositioning focuses on Mali, Niger and Chad, supplied via a coastal base in Côte d’Ivoire, it will actually include deployments to over a dozen small bases and elite detachments in the Sahel and Sahara, covering at least seven countries. In some cases it will mean French Special Forces reoccupying desert forts long abandoned by the Foreign Legion.

There will also be greater use of aerial reconnaissance and targeting. French Navy patrol aircraft already criss-cross the Sahara and two MQ-9 Reaper UAVs arrived with French forces at Niamey airport in December after the US fast-tracked French acquisition of and training on these ‘hunter-killer’ drones. These double the effective range of the Harfang target-acquisition UAVs formerly used by the French in the Sahel, bringing all of Mali, Niger, almost all of the rest of West Africa and much of Algeria, Chad and southwest Libya into range.

France also makes greater use of combat aircraft in the Sahel-Sahara, deploying fighter aircraft from its long-term base in N’Djamena, Chad to Bamako and Niamey airports. This brings northern Mali into range. Since October, French fighter-reconnaissance aircraft have deployed to Faya-Largeau in northern Chad, which brings southern Libya well within range. French Special Forces and armed helicopters have also operated from Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania in pursuit of AQIM.

US and China Extend Their Presence

French and US Reapers now operate from the same facility at Niamey airport, set up by the US in February 2013. While US UAVs in Niger are unarmed, it is unclear if French Reapers will be used for strike missions. US armed UAV bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Seychelles currently bring all of the Horn of Africa, East Africa and most of Arabia within range. US private military contractors have also flown unarmed, unmarked light aircraft on surveillance flights all across the Sahel belt since at least 2007. Using covert hubs in Burkina Faso and Uganda and smaller airfields in Mauritania, Niger and South Sudan, they have sought AQIM and the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Since 2011, US Special Forces have established small bases in the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to assist Ugandan forces seeking the LRA there. They also provide training to several African militaries countering the LRA. As with programmes in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad, these programmes have focused on creating elite counter-terrorism units. Unfortunately, all of these countries plus the CAR and South Sudan have experienced coups d’état or major army mutinies since this assistance began.

In order to combat Boko Haram, a Nigerian Special Operations Command was announced on 14 January with the US military providing advice, training and equipment. Massive attacks by Boko Haram since December suggest that the Nigerian army’s use of indiscriminate force in the northeast has not weakened the insurgency. Rather, the state of emergency is likely to have strengthened the recruitment base of Boko Haram since May.

China and Japan are also increasingly active in the Sahel. Chinese parastatals are the dominant actors in the oil industries of Sudan/South Sudan, Chad/Cameroon and Niger. They also mine uranium in Niger, and China is the primary buyer of iron ore from Mauritania’s vast desert complexes. So far, China is the only non-African state to deploy more than a few dozen troops with MINUSMA.  Japan, which saw ten of its nationals killed in the January 2013 militant attack on Algeria’s In-Amenas gas plant, has pledged $1 billion to stabilise the Sahel, including training of counter-terrorism units.

Compromised Alliances

This expansion of deployments and offensive operations relies on the status of forces agreements between western powers and’ friendly’ states such as Algeria. France, for example, depends on an air corridor across the Algerian Sahara. Securing such access puts host governments in a position of greater power. The highly authoritarian regime in Algiers – the world’s fifth or sixth largest arms importer – no longer faces western pressure to improve its dismal human rights record. Indeed, it has received friendly visits from the leaders of France and the UK and the US Secretary of State since late 2012. Mauritania’s military-based government faced little criticism over its unfair elections in November.

Chad, Uganda and Ethiopia may be the biggest regional beneficiaries of the militarisation of the Sahel. Each has been governed for a quarter-century by a former armed movement. They face little censure of their authoritarian and undemocratic internal policies and have become more assertive as regional military powers. Ethiopia has forces in Somalia while Uganda now has combat troops in operation (by agreement) in Somalia (under AU command), South Sudan, the DRC and the CAR.

Boosted by expanding oil revenues, French alliance and the demise of Libya’s Gaddafi regime, Chad has greatly expanded its military reach into Mali, Niger and the CAR, where its troops and citizens now face a violent backlash. It is also a Security Council member for the next two years and will be expected to help guide decisions on UN peacekeeping operations in Mali, South Sudan and potentially the CAR and Libya.

Burkina Faso, long relied on by Paris to negotiate with armed groups in francophone West Africa, is also facing unaccustomed turbulence in 2014 as its president seeks to permit himself an additional term of office. Algeria, which is wary of France’s military deployments on its southern border, is set to take over from Burkina the mediation of talks between Mali’s government and secular Tuareg and Arab rebels.

Foundations in Sand

In some respects, the eviction of AQIM and its allies from northern Mali has made the wider Sahara a less safe place, without obviously impeding the capacity of jihadist groups to threaten Europe. In 2014, southwest Libya and parts of Niger are not necessarily less safe havens than northern Mali was in 2012. The insurgency has moved closer to the Mediterranean and closer to critical European energy infrastructure in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Niger (uranium). Unlike heterodox Mali, controlling Libya’s chaotic state is likely to be of interest to Arab Salafist groups, including AQIM.

As elsewhere, the western military approach to countering Islamist insurgency in the Sahel rests on very unsteady foundations. This applies to the political legitimacy of allied regimes, the stability and security of locations hosting French and US bases, the traumatic historical legacy of France as the former colonial power, and the potential for counter-insurgency tactics to provoke wider alienation and radicalisation. However asymmetric its military technology, reinforcing a new line of castles in the Saharan sand may be as futile a gesture in France’s long retreat from empire as the UK’s last stand in Afghanistan.

Richard Reeve is the Director of the Sustainable Security Programme at Oxford Research Group. He has researched African peace and security issues since 2000, including work with ECOWAS and the AU. Richard’s most recent security briefing ‘Security in the Sahel (Part II): Militarisation of the Sahel is available here.