Over the last decade Islamic terrorism in the Sahel – Sahara region has been fueled by the chaos that engulfed Libya in 2011, the Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 and the rise of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. [i]
The porous borders and the limited security presence in remote and sparsely populated areas allow militant terrorist groups to extend their activities across the region. As they gain control of trade routes, they also engage in illicit activities such as drug, weapons and human trafficking.
The most active terror groups are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates (operating collectively under the banner Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin - JNIM- created in March 2017), as well as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Boko Haram.
Between 2013 and 2018, these armed groups have not only taken advantage of the divisions between countries in the region, but they have also shown an organizational ability superior to the states under attack.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has emphasized many times that Egypt’s strategic plan for the upcoming years is to fight back against terrorism and the threat of extremism both domestically and abroad.
His commitment to rolling back terrorism in the region has been a driver behind warmer relations between Egypt and many countries including in the Sahel – Sahara region.[ii]
In June 2018, Egypt's military announced the set-up of a counterterrorism center, which has been established based on the recommendations of the 2016 CEN-SAD meetings of Sharm El-Sheikh. The center was built in Cairo by Egypt's Armed forces and it is constructed on 61,900 m2 and equipped with the latest advanced equipment and technologies. [iii]
The counterterrorism center, inspected recently by Egypt's Defense Minister ,Mohamed Zaki, is aimed at improving counterterrorism cooperation and bolstering security, stability and economic and political ties between member countries.
Egypt hosted a counterterrorism exercise for Sahel-Saharan states at Mohamed Naguib Military Base, from 9 – 14 December 2018.
According to a statement by the Egyptian Armed Forces, the African countries, which are members of the group of Sahel and Saharan countries, participated in the exercise in several groups and according to a specific timetable.[iv]
The exercise is the implementation of decision taken by the Defense Ministers from the Sahel and Sahara regions (CEN-SAD) in the Ivory Coast meeting (May 2017), to carry out regular counterterrorism exercises.[v]
The exercise aimed to create homogeneity among
The African Special Forces as well as train them to work with friendly countries and react swiftly during emergency tactical situations.
The participating countries are divided into several groups, which are then implementing the exercise in different stages .Special Forces from Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria and Burkina Faso participated in the exercise as part of group 1, which involved dealing with various terrorist threats such as armed groups as well as freeing hostages.
The Community of Sahel-Saharan States has 27 member-states and it is the second-largest organization in the continent after the African Union (AU). The member States of CEN-SAD are: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, the Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the Sudan, Togo and Tunisia.
The Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) was established on 4 February 1998 in Tripoli during a summit meeting instigated by Muammar Gaddafi in the presence of the heads of state of Mali, Chad, Niger and Sudan and a representative of the president of Burkina Faso.[vi]
CEN-SAD became a regional economic community during the 36th ordinary session of the conference of heads of state and government of the Organization of African Unity, held in Lomé (Republic of Togo) 4-12 July 2000. It holds observer status in the UN General Assembly under Resolution A/RES/56/92.[vii]
CEN-SAD has partnership agreements with many regional and international organizations with the aim of promoting common and shared action in the political, cultural, economic and social fields. This status was confirmed by the 7th conference of heads of state and government of the African Union.[viii]
The first meeting of the Ministers of Defense of the member countries was held in Bamako, Mali, on September 4, 2015. The meeting, which was preceded by preparatory meetings of experts and Chiefs of Defense Staff, on 2 and 3 September 2015, respectively, were part of the follow-up on the conclusions of the 3rd ministerial meeting of the countries of the region, held in Niamey, Niger, on February 19, 2014, and the Declaration of the 1st Summit of the Nouakchott Process, organized in the Mauritanian capital on December 18, 2014. [ix]
The fifth Sahel-Saharan Defense Ministers Conference was held in Egypt’s Red Sea Sharm El-Sheikh resort in South Sinai. The 27 countries agreed on March 25, 2016, after a two-day conference to form a terrorism-combating unit, with its headquarters in Egypt.
The decision to form a terrorism-combat unit is among the 17 points that were announced in a conference declaration.[x]
Other points include forming joint patrols on borders of countries experiencing unrest to firmly combat the threat of terrorism and trans-border crimes. It also included an agreement on “prohibiting all forms of political interference in the states’ domestic affairs and respecting their sovereignty.”[xi]
President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi promised a thousand scholarships for nationals of Sahel-Saharan countries in Egypt’s military colleges.[xii]
Defense Ministers from the Sahel and Sahara regions (CEN-SAD) have reaffirmed their resolve to set up a regional center to combat terrorism in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Member states also agreed to carry out regular counterterrorism exercises.[xiii]
Egypt's Defense Minister attended with an official delegation the meeting, which took place from 1 to 5 May, 2017. He held meetings with a range of counterparts from the community's member-states on the sidelines of the gathering, which focused on military cooperation.[xiv]
The seventh meeting of the ministers of defense of Community of Sahel-Saharan States was held in Abuja, Nigeria. The meeting wrapped up by issuing the Abuja declaration which urged greater security cooperation between member states as well as called for abiding by the Libyan Political Agreement – signed in Skhirat in December 2015 – seeking a political solution in the North African country.[xv]
Egypt was represented at the meeting by a delegation from the Ministry of Defense, headed by Deputy Defense Minister Mohamed El-Kashky.[xvi]
In February 2017, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger agreed to set up the 5000 member force dubbed the G5 Sahel Joint Force.[xvii] The FC-G5 has been supported by France and was subsequently endorsed by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council and has the support of a variety of international partners.
The five Sahel states have been struggling against extremism and lawlessness along the Sahara's southern rim since a jihadist revolt that began with a Tuareg separatist uprising in northern Mali in 2012.[xviii]
The extremists were largely driven out of Mali in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013 but the war is far from being over and around 4,000 French troops, known as the "Barkhane deployment", have been pursuing insurgents since 2014 across the region.[xix]
The countries have been hit by jihadist attacks that have steadily worsened in the past two years, claiming hundreds of lives and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.[xx]
The FC-G5S is expected to be at the forefront of transnational security efforts in the Sahel for the near future and it aims to replace the French forces in fighting jihadists and criminal smuggling groups in the vast and arid Sahel region. The FC-G5S also expected to eventually replace the MINSUMA peacekeeping mission in Mali, which has deployed 15000 military personnel and police since 2013. [xxi]
In March 2018, General Thomas D. Waldhauser, Commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), testified in front of the House Armed Services Committee, as he gave the command’s annual Posture Statement to Congress. General Waldhauser’s examination of the Sahel region centered on the “African-led, French-assisted, and U.S.-supported” G5 Sahel organization. The stated purpose of the joint force is to “combat violent extremism within the region.” The U.S.’s role in this region in particular is “to advise, assist, and train African militaries,” but to not be involved in combat. [xxii]
The France-backed African regional force fighting "jihadists" is suffering from lack of funding and shortfalls in equipment and training.
A devastating attack in June 2018 on the force's headquarters in Mali, claimed by an al-Qaeda-linked group, destroyed the communications room, prompting a brief halt in operations.[xxiii]
Many countries in the Sahel-Sahara region suffer from rampant poverty and corruption, growing public discontent at economic conditions and the inefficiency of local security forces in securing long and porous borders. As a result, radical Islamic terrorist groups in the Sahel and Sahara turning the area into a hub for terrorist and present a continuing threat to the stability of the region. Governments of the region counter these extremist and terrorist threats through military force, without committing to tackling the drivers of militancy.
Governments hope that with an array of projects, including building schools, health centers and improving access to water, they can prevent communities from falling under the influence of extremists.[xxiv]
The European Union and France on December 6, 2018, said their total investment in development funding aimed at preventing terrorism in African Sahel countries would rise to 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion), as the region struggles with terrorism and lawlessness.[xxv]
The counterterrorism center in Cairo for the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) and the FC-G5S are examples of recent attempts made by African countries to take on responsibility for their own security.
Egypt as the strongest country in North Africa took a leading position in combating terrorism and extremism in the continent. Egypt’s main fear is that the terrorist groups use porous borders to destabilize the region and merge with other terror organizations in North Africa.
A prime example is Libya where years of chaos following the 2011 ouster of Muammar Qaddafi turned the country into fertile ground for terrorism. Deteriorating security conditions in Libya have a direct effect on Egypt, where arms, explosives and militants are being smuggled into the country through the Western Desert.
The radical Islamic groups in the Sahel and Sahara region are not considered as a threat only for Egypt but also for Europe and other parts of the world. The security forces of the Sahel and Sahara countries need more training, appropriate equipment, and professionalization, from other members of the international community to help them rise up to the challenges they are facing.
[i] EU, France pledge 1.3bn euros anti-terror aid for Africa Sahel, Ahram Online, December 7, 2018.
[ii] Egypt engaged in relentless war against terrorism: Sisi to Arab Parliament, Egypt Independent, April 5, 2018.
[iii] Egypt's defense minister inspects CEN-SAD counterterrorism center in Cairo , Ahram Online, November 18, 2018.
[iv] Egypt hosted counterterrorism exercise for Sahel-Saharan states at Mohamed Naguib Military Base, Ahram Online, December 9, 2018.
[v] Egypt's defense minister inspects CEN-SAD counterterrorism center in Cairo.
[vi] Galal Nassar, Terrorism and Africa: High hopes and tough challenges in CEN-SAD conference, Ahram Online, Mar 24, 2016.
[ix] Conclusions of the 1st meeting of Chiefs of Defense Staff and Ministers of Defense of the countries of the Sahel-Saharan region, African region peace and security, September 17, 2015.
[x] Sahel-Saharan countries agree to form counter-terrorism unit with HQ in Egypt, Ahram Online, March 25, 2016.
[xiii] Egypt's defense minister inspects CEN-SAD counterterrorism center in Cairo.
[xiv] Egypt Defense Minister heads to Ivory Coast for Community of Sahel-Saharan States meeting, Ahram Online, May 2, 2017.
[xv] Egypt's military announces setting-up of counter-terrorism center for Sahel-Saharan states, Ahram Online, June 24, 2018.
[xvii] Also known as “Force Conjointe du G5 Sahel” (FC-G5S) forms part of the regional G5 Sahel organization.
[xviii] EU, France pledge 1.3bn euros anti-terror aid for Africa Sahel.
[xix] France prepares for long fight against Islamists in Africa's Sahel, eNCA, July 6, 2018.
[xxii] U.S. Military Presence and Activity in Africa: Sahel Region, the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN), July 23, 2018.
[xxiii] EU, France pledge 1.3bn euros anti-terror aid for Africa Sahel.