As military coups and violent insurgencies have spread across Africa’s Sahel over the past decade, U.S. policy has professed to recognize and address their interconnections across the region, notably through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. Yet this effort remains insufficient to meet the scale and complexity of the violence and the underlying failures of governance. Extremist groups continue to expand their territorial control, funding and violence. A more integrated — and geographically broadened — response is needed to marshal the full strength of U.S. and partners’ tools across the region, from Guinea to Sudan. We can offer options for four vital improvements.

Soldiers hold flags in 2019 to open Flintlock, an annual U.S.-led counterterror exercise that is part of U.S. efforts to stabilize the Sahel. Analysts urge a broader strategy to improve governance in the region. (Laetitia Vancon/The New York Times)
Soldiers hold flags in 2019 to open Flintlock, an annual U.S.-led counterterror exercise that is part of U.S. efforts to stabilize the Sahel. Analysts urge a broader strategy to improve governance in the region. (Laetitia Vancon/The New York Times)

The Sahel’s varied crises share similar causes, with poor governance, including security, at the core. Where governance has proven unable to respond adequately to citizenries or provide necessary public services, a country risks a weakening of the state and erosion of its social contract. These failings exist in varied ways across Sahel states and have yielded setbacks the United States and its allies wish to avoid. Coups have reversed democratic gains; violent extremist organizations and Russia’s Africa Corps (formerly Wagner Group) have expanded their influence by exploiting security vacuums.

The state of governance creates conditions that let transnational violent extremist organizations operate with relative ease across the Sahel. Porous borders and safe havens let al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliate groups cooperate to raise and move funds, equip and train fighters, and share information to conduct attacks. Coups or conflict that create security and governance vacuums in one country open opportunities for violent extremist groups regionwide. Al-Qaida and the Islamic State use Sudan “as a logistical and financial base” for operations across Africa, including moving fighters “to southern Libya, Mali and West Africa,” a 2023 U.N. Security Council document notes. Al-Qaida’s legacy and both groups’ current presence suggest they will continue exploiting Sudan’s civil war, presenting serious counterterrorism implications for the region.

Coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have complicated U.S. and partners’ counterterrorism response. Many in the international community, particularly in the U.S. government, say the extraconstitutional transitions have forced governments, notably the United States, to choose between counterterrorism and democratic governance priorities — or at least have constrained their options with legal restrictions on assistance to governments installed through coups. Coups have led international counterterrorism partners — the United Nations, French forces, the West African G5 Sahel initiative and the West African regional community, ECOWAS — to curtail their roles, leaving actors like Russia to fill the void. Last week, Niger’s junta signaled that it might ask U.S. forces there to leave, which would only hasten the trend and narrow counterterrorism capabilities in the region.

Since the coups d’état in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, extremist violence has metastasized. Deaths in extremist attacks in the three states rose by roughly 38% in 2023. Sahel-wide, the annual rate of such deaths has tripled since the first of the region’s eight recent coups, in 2020. Attacks against civilians quadrupled in the month after Niger’s coup. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) now operate with relative impunity in regions bordering Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria after consolidating their influence in southern Niger and Burkina Faso. JNIM alone doubled its area of operations in Burkina Faso since last year. 

The net effect is extremist-related instability from Mali to Cameroon that is enabling al-Qaida and the Islamic State to establish footholds in coastal West Africa. JNIM attacks in Togo and Benin in the past two years reflect this. The United Nations raised alarm about this potential “terrorist sanctuary,” warning the groups could exploit their safe havens to attack neighboring countries if left unchecked — and this week the U.S. intelligence community warned that such “spillover” is likely this year. 

A Better U.S. Response 

U.S options include four paths, outlined below, to better advance Sahel stability and avoid spillover violence in coastal West Africa.

  1. Establish a high-level envoy for the Sahel. Current U.S. diplomacy uses bilateral missions to address problems in individual countries. This leaves a problematic gap, for the Sahel’s transnational crisis requires a transnational response. The USIP-convened, bipartisan Senior Study Group for the Sahel last month urged a high-level regional envoy, noting that the current, bilateral-level response discourages regional cooperation and leads U.S. ambassadors to compete over resources. This diplomat would ideally have the remit to tackle the twin challenges of coups d’état and countering or preventing extremist violence. That would form a broader mandate than that of the last Sahel special envoy, Ambassador J. Peter Pham. Such a higher-level envoy could also engage envoys to the Horn of Africa and Sudan as well as missions in West Africa’s littoral states as they try to prevent extremist violence from crossing their borders. That effort should align with the U.S. initiative to advance its Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability in coastal West Africa. 
  2. Make U.S. strategy more agile. A regional policy must be nimbler to counter the dynamic nature of violent extremism in the Sahel. By the time a government bureaucracy makes a strategy or decision, extremist organizations have moved, changed tactics, gathered new allies and changed the game. The broader context also shifts rapidly: 2023 brought a new civil war in Sudan and multiple coups. Amid such broad, complex conflicts, strategy must be able to shift in response to real-time information and circumstances. That requires investment in gathering, processing and disseminating that information. Implementation can be made more agile by pushing decisions down within a hierarchy to remove bottlenecks. This requires intentionality around what kinds of decisions can be pushed down and to what level of the hierarchy. It needs clear lines of communication to reduce duplication, close gaps, and eliminate repeated mistakes and unforced errors. 
  3. Integrate diplomacy, development and defense. A better U.S. response in the Sahel requires integrating U.S. capabilities. A “whole-of-government” approach has lost favor in some policy circles, yet the best chance to tackle extremist violence, with its multiple causes and impacts, is to truly integrate U.S. government capabilities. The United States used an integrative approach inside the Intelligence Community after 9/11, integrating intelligence capabilities through a new Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and through fusion cells (or centers) that combined military, intelligence and law enforcement capabilities to counter violent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to protect the U.S. homeland

    The fusion cell model has been adapted for U.S. responses to other crises, such as COVID, and is highly applicable on the Sahel. For that, embassies in the region need to be fully staffed with the appropriate expertise (e.g., stabilization or democracy experts should not fill billets needed for countering violent extremism; staff who do not understand the African context should not fill critical seats where understanding the context is crucial; etc.) and those staff must be incentivized to work with interagency colleagues within a regional fusion cell, whether through preferential posts, prioritized promotions or other recognition. Congress also could act to require all relevant U.S. agencies to work together in this integrated fashion. 
  4. Establish a functional strategy to bolster regionwide coordination. A functional strategy to prevent extremist violence, combat transnational organized crime and advance peace would bolster an integrated approach across the geographic range of Sahel crises, eastward to Sudan and the Red Sea coast. The strategy would be jointly developed by the Sahel, Sudan and Horn of Africa special envoys to ensure regionwide leadership and coordination. The appointment of a senior policy coordinator, reporting to the deputy secretary of state, should be considered to lead the strategy development and implementation. This would be paired with a joint reporting structure to support coordination among the special envoys, functional and regional bureaus at State and USAID, bilateral missions and the proposed regional fusion cell.

A Vital Effect: Coastal West Africa

A more effective U.S. response in the Sahel critically will also serve crisis prevention in coastal West Africa. A spread of Sahel-type instability to the hugely more populous littoral states — 368 million people from Senegal to Nigeria — would present a new order of threat to U.S. and international security, trade routes and economies. The U.S. intelligence community underscored this week “the likelihood” of violence and potential coups spilling over to the coastal states this year. The United States and its partners can effectively create a firebreak around the littoral states while working to douse the fires in the Sahel. As resources continue to shift toward tackling major-power competition, a more effective — and cost-effective — U.S. and allied effort to stabilize the Sahel and protect coastal West Africa means being more integrated across the region, and more targeted at the shared, root problems that drive extremist violence and political instability.

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