Interview: The US take on al-Qaeda, ISIS threat in West Africa
THIES - The only place fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State terrorist groups are cooperating is in West Africa's sprawling Sahel, giving extremists greater depth as they push into new areas, the commander of the US military's special forces in Africa said.
"I believe that, if it’s left unchecked, it could very easily develop into a great threat to the West and the United States,” US Air Force Brigadier-General Dagvin Anderson said.
The leader of US Special Operations Command Africa described the threat even as the Pentagon considers reducing the US military presence in Africa.
Experts have long worried about collaboration between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). While cooperation in the Sahel is not a direct threat to the United States or the West, “it’s very destabilising to the region,” Anderson said.
He spoke on the sidelines of the US military's annual counterterrorism exercise in West Africa, the most active region for extremists on the continent.
The alarming collaboration in the Sahel between affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS is a result of ethnic ties in the region that includes Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
"Whereas in other parts of the world they have different objectives and a different point of view that tends to bring Islamic State and al-Qaeda into conflict, here they’re able to overcome that and work for a common purpose,” Anderson said, emphasising that it's a local phenomenon.
The cooperation allows extremist groups to appeal to a wider audience in a largely rural region where government presence is sparse and frustration with unemployment is high. The past year has seen a surge in violence in the Sahel, with more than 2,600 people killed and more than 500,000 displaced in Burkina Faso.
Al-Qaeda is the deeper threat both in the region and globally, Anderson said.
“Islamic State is much more aggressive and blunt and so in some ways [it appears] to be the greater threat,” he said. However, al-Qaeda, which continues to quietly expand, is "for us the longer strategic concern.”
Al-Qaeda has consolidated efforts in northern Mali and is moving south into more populated areas “and taking various groups and galvanising them together into a coherent movement,” Anderson said.
The most prominent of those affiliates is a coalition of al-Qaeda-linked groups known as JNIM with about 2,000 fighters, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said.
West Africa's Sahel, the vast strip of land just south of the Sahara, for years has struggled to contain the extremist threat. In 2012, al-Qaeda-linked fighters seized large sections of northern Mali. French forces pushed them from strongholds in 2013 but the fighters regrouped and spread south.
The largest ISIS affiliate in the region, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, emerged more recently and claimed responsibility for killing four US soldiers in Niger in 2017. The attack led to an outcry in Washington and questions about the US military presence in Africa.
Between the advances of al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked fighters, once-peaceful Burkina Faso has become the latest front for what experts call an alarming rate of deadly attacks.
The al-Qaeda affiliates visit areas in advance to “engage with key leaders in key locations to recruit early,” Anderson said. Others move in later.
The fighters fund themselves with kidnappings for ransom as they attempt to control access to markets via taxation, he said. They also are likely eyeing what has been a source of income for centuries: gold.
“I believe they’d be happy to be able to control some of the artisanal mines and the other mines in the area, especially the gold and other precious metals that are easily transportable,” Anderson said.
While al-Qaeda affiliates work towards establishing safe havens, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara is working to destabilise local governance, control territory and rally people to their cause, he said.
The strategy for countering the growing threat from the patchwork of Islamic extremist groups is a whole-of-governance one that goes beyond military efforts, Anderson said: “There’s no easy answer.”
Many young men in the largely impoverished region feel isolated from the government and are drawn in by extremists' promises of employment and purpose.
“Al-Qaeda, whether we agree with it or not, brings some level of justice to many of these areas and some level of services that aren’t provided by central governments,” Anderson said, “and they provide some representation to minority groups that don’t feel part of the larger community, such as the Fulani or the Tuareg.”
African partners need to invest in governance, he emphasised, though international involvement is necessary.
The French lead the military effort in the Sahel with more than 5,000 troops and they hope to bring in more European partners. The French have urged the United States to reconsider any cuts to its relatively small military footprint of about 1,400 personnel in West Africa. The United States has about 6,000 troops on the continent.
Anderson countered that the United States is doing a lot in the Sahel through the US State Department, a large US Agency for International Development presence and investment. “Instead of looking at the size of the presence, I think we should look at what is the appropriate engagement across the government, from all levels,” he said.
With very small engagement, the United States can help countries develop the capabilities to build coalitions and share intelligence, Anderson said.
“It’s going to take all these nations working together but also it’s going to have to be African solutions to an African problem,” he said.