Along a desert road, a military convoy is passed by an unassuming gray car. There is a sudden explosion, then gunfire. Fifteen minutes later, four civilians are dead and eight Western soldiers are wounded. This is not the first act of terrorism in the region, nor will it be the last. The story is familiar – an Islamic terrorist attack against Western soldiers stationed in the region – but the players and setting are not. These foreign forces are not American, and the battleground is not Iraq or Afghanistan. The soldiers are French, and they are in the Sahel, a sub-Saharan strip of Africa that links the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Red Sea to the east.
The Sahel is a vast, scarcely populated, and loosely governed region that stretches across fourteen African countries, including Mali, Chad, and Niger. In recent decades, the absence of effective governance has allowed the Sahel to become a hotbed of political violence and a safe haven for transnational terrorist organizations. Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and smaller, regional terrorist organizations have all used the Sahel as a base of operations and refuge from counter-terrorist operations. The Sahel states’ porous borders enable militant groups to travel unchecked across vast swaths of the continent and strike targets in North African nations such as Algeria and Tunisia.
Ethnic and economic tensions in the Sahel predate the arrival of transient Islamic terrorist organizations, but temporary alliances between militant groups and villagers increase the scale and danger of regional violence. The New York Times reported that France and Mali estimate that ISIS in the Greater Sahara has only 40 to 60 core members. By inflaming local passions and escalating grievances between villagers, small groups of transnational militants are able to create disproportionately large violence and chaos. For instance, Niger and Mali’s cattle-herding Tuareg people, who had previously only taken up arms to defend their cattle and on occasion engage in small-scale ethnic violence, became involved with international terrorism. Far from home, Tuareg recruits have been involved in terrorist incidents in Libya, raids in Nigeria, and “banditry” in northern Niger and southern Algeria. Ethnic grievances between the Tuareg and Fulani peoples in both Mali and Niger led to ethnic armed conflict which was dramatically escalated by the presence of Islamic militant groups. Because these ethnic grievances are often intertwined with economic concerns, especially cattle ownership, external pressures that threaten the livelihood of Sahelian villagers can catalyze conflict.
As global warming progresses, the increased frequency of droughts, expanding desertification of the Sahel, and dwindling resources in the area will likely worsen regional tensions and create conditions favorable for the growth of terrorist networks. In 2012, according to the State Department, droughts and failed harvests in the Sahel placed 18.7 million Africans at risk for food insecurity, further fueling instability in the region. It is no coincidence that, immediately following the outbreak of drought, cattle die-offs, and famine, relations between Mali’s Tuareg and Fulani peoples worsened. A series of escalating cattle raids led to an arms race and created an opportunity for al-Qaeda affiliates to supply villagers with automatic weapons. Within the year, the Tuareg people of northern Mali, with support from al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) and rebelled against the central government of Mali.
When French military assets entered Mali in 2013, the campaign, known officially as Operation Serval, aimed to support the beleaguered Malian government and block the NMLA’s war for a Tuareg ethnostate in northern Mali. Although Mali and France decisively defeated the NMLA after only a few months, the French remained in Mali in an attempt to suppress a continued insurgency. Five years later, Operation Barkhane, France’s ongoing operation to stabilize the greater Sahel is ongoing and there are fresh casualties. As recently as July 1, a car bombing in Gao injured French soldiers and killed dozens of Malian civilians. Nusrat al-Islam, an al-Qaeda linked organization and the primary terrorist network currently operating in the Sahel, claimed responsibility.
In 2013, three-quarters of the French citizenry supported Operation Serval, the original intervention against NMLA secessionists in Mali. Today, substantial French support endures for the ongoing Operation Barkhane despite the campaign’s duration and casualties.
At first, it may seem surprising that France is leading the international effort to stamp out terrorism in the Sahel. After all, in 2003, the French government’s opposition to American intervention in Iraq was widely mocked in the United States. In protest, Los Angelenos (and even some UCLA students) publicly poured out French wine in front of the French consulate, and the U.S. House of Representatives cafeteria menu infamously renamed French fries to Freedom fries. During this wave of anti-French sentiment, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared that “France is becoming our enemy.” In 2003, France insisted on a multilateral diplomatic approach to Iraq, in opposition to U.S. President Bush’s insistence on unilateral military action. Yet, ten years later, the French army unilaterally entered Mali, touching off a protracted five-year campaign that has expanded to include the entire Sahel region.
What changed between Freedom fries and a permanent French presence in the Sahel? In reality, France’s relationships with Iraq and the Sahel are vastly different. Countries in the western Sahel such as Mali and Niger were colonized and imperialized by France during the European Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century. These Francophone African nations still bear both the trauma and cultural legacy of French rule.
Many leftist and African scholars argue that France’s reassertion of authority and military power over historic colonial possessions is best characterized as neo-imperialist. Skeptical that France’s primary concern is protecting Malian citizens from terrorism, these critics of French intervention point to plausible ulterior motives including the protection of French corporate mining interests and nearby uranium mines (in both Niger and Nigeria) on which the French energy sector relies. In February, Congolese novelist and UCLA professor Alain Mabanckou criticized la Francophonie, the informal and institutionalized network of French speaking countries, and described it not as a partnership of equals but as an instrument of French neo-imperial domination.
However, there is also evidence that the French feel a sense of obligation to and fraternity with the Francophone Africans of the Sahel. Cultural ties, a shared language, and a sense of historical interconnectedness (despite the region’s colonial past) are all factors. Arguably, elements within France feel a sense of guilt and noblesse oblige, or responsibility of the privileged, towards the nations their ancestors exploited. Whether this concern is genuine or paternalistically self-serving is a matter of debate. What is clear, however, is that the security situation in the Sahel is as of yet unresolved and that the potent mixture of ethnic conflict, Islamic terrorism, rising global temperatures, and increasingly severe droughts represents a enduring security risk for African nations and a source of serious concern for France.