Abstract: The United States is at a critical juncture as it looks to adapt its counterterrorism mission. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Sahel region of Africa, where for the past decade, the United States has relied on France to serve as the counterterrorism lead. Those days are over, at least for now, and the United States is left attempting to balance its counterterrorism efforts in the frame of great power competition. However, too often these two strategic objectives are cast as zero-sum. In reality, U.S. counterterrorism in the Sahel, if appropriately reassessed, designed, and implemented, can generate real wins for the United States as it seeks to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region. Additionally, and most importantly, it can improve the prospects for stability and security for African states in desperate need of both.

African leaders must be feeling host fatigue. This year, a cavalcade of foreign officials traveled to Africa, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.1 The United States sent a months-long parade of officials, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Vice President Kamala Harris, and CIA Director William Burns, among others, visiting countries across the continent.2 These charm offensives reflect a reassessment of foreign interests in Africa, from Macron’s rhetorical commitment to scale back France’s defense commitments to Lavrov’s eagerness to shore up Russia’s image as a global player to twin U.S. concerns about great power competition and the expansion of terror groups. As much as U.S. officials would like to focus on the former, in the short term, the latter will present the most challenges and requires a serious reevaluation.

The United Nations recently labeled sub-Saharan Africa as the “new epicenter of violent extremism,” one that has drawn in U.S. forces—from Somalia to Niger and beyond.3 Scholars and policymakers are also engaged in a parallel discourse on whether we are witnessing a “new scramble for Africa” or even a “new Cold War” amid great power competition between the United States, China, and Russia, which supposedly led to the deployment of Russian mercenaries in several African countries.4 This tension between power politics and counterterrorism is not new to Africa watchers. As argued in these pages not long ago, “Despite the United States’ desire to shift toward near-peer competition, abandoning the fight against the jihadi groups that now proliferate on the continent runs counter to U.S. interests.”5 Near-peer competition in Africa and counterterrorism cannot, and should not, be decoupled. In order to compete with other powers, the United States will have to conduct security assistance well, especially in the counterterrorism space. Policymakers will need to be much more intentional, building unique regional strategies, while determining the degree to which a military approach is even necessary.

This article examines the nexus between counterterrorism (CT) and great power competition in sub-Saharan Africa, with a central focus on the Sahel. The article first surveys the state of terrorism in the Sahel and then secondly discusses U.S. counterterrorism efforts over the past 20 years. The third part of the article outlines the role of great power competition in Sahelian counterterrorism, primarily examining Russia’s growing engagement. The final section concludes with some ways forward for U.S. policymakers in their efforts to assist African countries with their most acute security challenges in the Sahel, without exacerbating great power dynamics or undermining support for economic growth and democratic governance.

Surveying the Terrorist Landscape in the Sahel
For all the hand-wringing about Russia and China, neither is the biggest threat to U.S. interests in much of Africa. Threats from militant groups have continued to evolve and escalate. Africa is host to over 20 percent of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).6 Stalwarts of the FTO list include organizations like Boko Haram, which has plagued Nigeria for over a decade, and al-Shabaab, the al-Qa`ida-affiliated militant organization that remains an enduring threat to Somalia despite an African Union peacekeeping mission there and persistent counterterrorism support from the United States.

And it is Africa’s Sahel region, where al-Qa`ida and Islamic State affiliates have carved out significant influence, that is most concerning. The State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations recently noted that the Sahel “experienced more terrorist attacks than any other part of the world in 2021.”7 That trend has only continued, leading to increasing distrust between government and civilians, triggering coups, and fomenting a willingness among at least one of the region’s regimes to partner with Russian mercenaries.

Mali, for instance, has struggled to contain an ever-expanding group of terrorist threats from the al-Qa`ida-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) as well as the Islamic State’s Sahelian Province. An August 2020 coup only exacerbated that insecurity.8 The new Malian regime expelled long-term security partners such as France—choosing instead to contract the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company that has been making gains across the continent.9

The militant threat is much the same in neighboring Burkina Faso where the ruling junta recently ended its five-year-long military accord with France.10 Like Mali, Burkina Faso has struggled to grapple with simultaneous campaigns from the Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP) and JNIM. 2022 saw the highest number of fatalities since the onset of militant violence circa 2015.11 Dismissing partners and surging violence have led to speculation about a potential Wagner deployment similar to Mali, though Burkina’s junta has denied that it needs Wagner to win and has still invoked a desire for U.S. support.12

Though the pace of violence is nowhere near the levels seen in Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger has also had to grapple with insurgent attacks. To its southeastern border, Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West African Province conduct attacks while JNIM and ISSP have threatened its western flank.13

Violence in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger are quickly becoming a regional problem, bleeding into coastal West African states. Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo are dealing with more extremist activity, particularly around their northern borders.14 Porous borders and deteriorating security situations in Mali and Burkina Faso put significant pressure on these littoral states to contain the operational reach and tempo of JNIM and the Islamic State’s regional affiliates.15 These warning signs have prompted a renewed sense of international and domestic urgency in West Africa. In November 2022, the Accra Initiative, comprising Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Niger, and Togo, reached an agreement to establish a 10,000-troop Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF/AI) in an effort to curb jihadi spillover violence.16 Meanwhile, Vice President Harris’ recent West Africa trip started with a $100 million pledge to security assistance in the region.17

U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts in Africa
For the past two decades, U.S. counterterrorism efforts across Africa might best be described as “lackluster at best … harmful at worst.”18 Indeed, while successive presidential administrations have invested in counterterrorism on the continent, the U.S. modus operandi has primarily consisted of a light physical footprint; a concoction of special operators to “advise, assist, and accompany” African partners, training programs designed to build the capacity of African militaries and relevant security forces, and direct targeting of terrorist operatives.19

The U.S. military has sought to engage Africa-based terrorist threats through the 2001 AUMF, an authorization used against al-Qa`ida affiliates, and various congressional authorizations including the 10 U.S.C. § 333, which gives DoD-wide purview to “train and equip” foreign forces and 10 U.S.C. § 127e, which authorizes “DoD provide ‘support’ to foreign partners, state or otherwise, who in turn are ‘supporting’ authorized U.S. counterterrorism operations.”20 The United States also steadily backed France’s efforts in the Sahel, offering logistical support and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assistance to French counterterrorism interventions since the onset of Operation Serval in 2013 (later Operation Barkhane).

U.S. non-kinetic approaches to counterterrorism in Africa have focused on security assistance and capacity building since 2002. These include the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) in four Sahelian countries and the $100 million East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (EACTI) for six East African countries.21 These programs aimed to bolster the counterterrorism capacity of host nations, and both expanded into broader programs, eventually encompassing 17 more countries through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) and Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (PREACT).22 Most accounts assess these interagency programs as overly militaristic, carried out and implemented by AFRICOM after its establishment in 2007.23 Several also note that the United States has been overly focused on these capacity-building missions, assuming that it is African militaries’ lack of capacity to combat terrorist threats and not more systemic governance issues such as corruption that have been key sources of legitimacy/strength for extremist organizations.24

The U.S. counterterrorism approach also has a kinetic angle. For instance, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, has increased dramatically since 2007.25 Perhaps the most well-known U.S. counterterrorism tactics on the continent have been those directed at al-Shabaab in Somalia, where the use of drones and piloted aircraft to conduct targeted killings is a staple of the U.S. counterterrorism approach. Yet, despite 16 years of airstrikes and an intermittent SOF presence, the effectiveness of such tactics has been questionable.26

Effective counterterrorism operations are notoriously difficult, and over-the-horizon operations (i.e., those done from a distance) can increase the complexity of operations, as occurred against al-Shabaab and similar groups. Moreover, operations from a distance, while increasing the security of operators, can degrade other aspects such as confidence in intelligence. Such operations can also lead to errors, including civilian harm. In response to growing concerns over DoD mishaps, the FY 2019 NDAA included a requirement that the Secretary of Defense designate a senior civilian official to oversee compliance with DoD’s policy on civilian casualties.27 AFRICOM has established a civilian casualty reporting tool, though questions about its efficacy abound.28 As several have noted, when militaries employ tactics that distance themselves from the battlefield, this distance creates a disconnect with those experiencing the effects of such attacks29—a phenomenon that could itself be linked to terrorist recruitment.

In the Sahel specifically, the U.S. story is much the same. A decade ago, then-President Barack Obama informed Congress that he was deploying some 100 military personnel to Niger to assist French forces in their operations in Mali. From there, U.S. deployments to the Sahel only grew along with their mission.30 Terrorist threats also grew. The Tongo Tongo ambush in 2017, in which four U.S. service members were killed alongside five Nigerien soldiers and interpreters, led many to question the utility of U.S. boots on the ground in the Sahel—seeing the terrorist threats stemming from there as only tertiary (at best) to more pressing security issues arising from the big four of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.31 Such a misalignment of policy can be seen in Burkina Faso today, where a team of Green Berets reportedly cools its heels in Ouagadougou, unable to train local forces due to the recent coup.32

Divestment in advise, assist, and accompany missions have also meant increasing reliance on allied partners, such as France—whose deteriorating relationships with Mali and Burkina Faso in recent years have complicated U.S. CT efforts. To bolster its foothold in the region, the United States spent the last several years constructing a drone base in Agadez, Niger, at a cost north of $100 million.33 Known as Air Base 201, it has garnered significant attention, particularly in the aftermath of France’s Sahel drawdown.34 While the United States maintains an “archipelago of bases in North and West Africa” as part of its broader security efforts in the region, the Biden administration’s preference for conducting counterterrorism operations over-the-horizon could have important effects in the Sahel.35 There is some concern that armed drones in the Sahel will become the preferred CT tool of choice, replicating tactics employed in Somalia.36 However, the Biden administration’s May 2022 authorization to deploy 500 military personnel to Somalia37 may suggest a U.S. security pivot.

Cameroonian soldiers interact with a U.S. soldier (left) as they take part in a counterterrorism training session during the Flintlock 2023 military training in a makeshift village in Daboya, Ghana, on March 11, 2023. (Nipah Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Is There Even Great Power Competition in the Sahel?
Rhetoric about a “new Cold War” or “Scramble for Africa” gives the erroneous impression that there is a collection of powers, usually Russia, the United States, and China, seeking the same things at each other’s expense. That is not the case. Advocates for a more robust U.S.-Africa policy too often ascribe more influence to Russia and more malevolence to China than either are due, especially in the Sahel.38 That is not to say that Russia is powerless or China benign, but the rhetoric removes the nuance in their approaches and reduces, and in some cases removes, African states’ agency on a great power chessboard.

Russia and China are very different actors in Africa. Russia’s economic clout on the continent is meager and focused on a few key partners.39 Major Russian security projects are likewise few and have uncertain futures, like the proposed naval base in Port Sudan.40 Where Russian security policy excels is in leveraging insecurity to strengthen its influence in Africa, such as the Wagner Group’s meddling in the ongoing clashes in Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces.41 The Wagner Group’s actions in Sudan and Moscow’s provocative naval exercises with South Africa and China in February of this year reflect Russia’s revisionist and disruptive goals on the continent.42 In contrast, China has a much wider set of economic partners and successfully built a military base in Djibouti in 2017.43 AFRICOM assessed in March 2022 that the Chinese have aspirations to build a second naval base on Africa’s Atlantic coast.44 But unlike Russia, China’s primary interest in Africa is economic. Outside of arms sales, China is dragged kicking and screaming into security engagement in African affairs unless it protects Chinese economic interests.45 China’s peacekeeping mission to Sudan during the Darfur crisis and its naval mission countering piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa reflected Beijing’s investment in Sudanese oil and protecting international trade corridors. Even the Djibouti naval base has an economic angle, as Djibouti is a major conduit for goods between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.46

Fundamentally, U.S. policymakers need to recognize that the strategic challenge in the Sahel is not a neo-colonial game for riches and influence between the United States, China, and Russia. Instead, Russia is cheaply exploiting a security vacuum for geopolitical purposes. China has a robust economic relationship with the Sahel countries and participates in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali.47 Russia engaged Mali and other countries through arms sales and an organization of state-supported mercenaries like the Wagner Group. China’s economic expansion might be concerning in the long run, but Russia’s actions make the international community’s CT efforts more challenging, at the expense of the Sahel’s civilians and service members. It is the latter where the U.S. CT investment has the most to gain.

Russian Competition in the African Counterterrorism Space
While the U.S. footprint and investment in the Sahel is waxing, French engagement is waning. The French have conducted over 50 military interventions since 1960—the largest of which, Operation Barkhane, saw as many as 5,100 French troops deployed to Mali, Niger, and Chad.48 There are long-standing critiques of Paris’ Africa policy, but its footprint is fading fast, amid growing discontent at its failure to successfully combat terrorist organizations. The erosion of legitimacy and the sidelining of host nation militaries led to anti-French juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso, opening the door in Mali for the Wagner Group to undermine French, E.U., and U.N. efforts. France’s recent decision to withdraw CT forces in Mali,49 the Central African Republic (CAR),50 and Burkina Faso51 reflects a desire to reassess the country’s security operations in Francophone Africa,52 including a new French strategy aimed at Africanizing its CT support on the continent. Instead of providing direct military support, France has committed to training forces at military bases in the Sahel rather than maintaining standing forces.53 Part of this reflects a French about-face, and an attempt to save face, moving away from unpopular and unsuccessful long-term CT operations,54 but also a fait accompli by Wagner Group, the Kremlin, and coup regimes disinterested in cooperating further with their former colonizers.55

Russia has exploited France’s troubles, leveraging counterterrorism and its own security assistance package(s) to engage with illiberal regimes across Africa, particularly in the Sahel. Moscow builds military partnerships and patron-client relationships with countries such as Mali, Sudan, and the CAR. Over the past decade, the Kremlin has frequently operated through the Wagner Group, a state-affiliated private military company and business consortium that has historically been composed of former members of Russian special forces and intelligence.56 This organization provides plausible deniability and reduces financial risk for the Russian government, given the state’s limited formal connections with Wagner outside of Ukraine.57

African states, particularly those at loggerheads with traditional security partners, see Wagner as an attractive security option. For its part, Wagner has helped craft conditions necessary for its own interventions. Disinformation operations that capitalize on disdain toward France’s neo-colonial relationships with Africa and unsuccessful CT operations by the West pay dividends in the Sahel and across the broader region.58 Wagner successfully co-opted military assistance and CT programs in Mali and the CAR through these disinformation operations59 in addition to its provision of vehicle support60 and its willingness to engage in crimes against civilians and minorities in the name of security.61 Wagner’s history of human rights abuses—including kidnapping, murder, and rape—are no deterrent for such regimes who face increasingly precarious internal threats and are willing to compromise on human rights and the rule of law. Moreover, Sahelian countries skeptical about U.S. and French involvement, and especially those who have come to power via unconstitutional regime changes, have few viable alternatives.

Wagner’s track record in counterterrorism campaigns has been mixed, unsurprising given how difficult it is to achieve a military or political victory in the CT space. Instead, Wagner is ‘winning’ its engagements in the eyes of its clients because its set of political demands are narrow and limited: building Russian military relationships on the continent, gaining access to and maintaining resource extraction contracts and sites, and capitalizing on various regimes’ dissatisfaction with the West.

In terms of genuine CT success, Wagner’s track record is much weaker. While it has been comparatively successful against CAR rebel groups, such success came only after those groups were stretched to their limits attempting to reach the capital city of Bangui, and last-minute Wagner reinforcements blocked their advances.62 Meanwhile, Wagner’s CT mission failed in Mozambique, as contractors struggled with language barriers and combat conditions, leading to casualties and a quick withdrawal.63

In Mali, the junta’s recruitment of Wagner aligns with its refocused military strategy aimed at combating Islamist militias after pulling back in 2021.64 But the likelihood of Wagner’s CT approach resulting in any durable improvements in countering jihadi violence is unlikely. The group is far less capable than the French and “logistically, completely dependent on their hosts.”65 The result has been consequential for civilians who bear the brunt of Wagner’s disregard for the laws of armed conflict.66

So far, all signs point to Wagner facing difficulties in Mali. Islamic State affiliates are resilient to Wagner advances, claiming to have killed 15 Wagner mercenaries and downed a Wagner drone.67 JNIM uses IEDs, ambushes, and other tactics to great effect against Wagner, killing an estimated 20 fighters and injuring 100 others as of January 2023. Amidst these casualties, JNIM has demonstrated an ability to marshal and deploy its forces south, attacking the Kati military camp on July 22, 2022.68 More recently, in April 2023, militants attacked a military camp in the town of Sevare where some fighters from Wagner are stationed.69

Across all of these deployments, Wagner has mixed motives. The group has a history of pursuing lucrative state mining,70 forestry,71 and other economic contracts72 in exchange for its services. Many have argued that mercenaries tend to prolong conflicts,73 choosing to prioritize cash flow over defeating insurgents.74 This is especially true for Wagner, whose leadership often owns the mining and logistics companies that benefit from gold, timber, and diamonds.75 Beyond economic gains, Wagner supports the Kremlin’s interests in building Russian relationships in the Sahel, be they military-to-military connections76 or political alignment at the United Nations.77 Further, Wagner undermines Russia’s ideological and political competitors on the continent.78 None of these motives align with a successful CT campaign, which would allow the Wagner Group to leave in a timely fashion. It benefits both Wagner and the Kremlin for the former to maintain a parasitical CT presence in African states.

Wagner’s participation in ideological struggles could create major blowback for Russia in the future. Russia’s continued alignment with anti-Sunni actors including Hezbollah,79 as well as the Malian government, the CAR government, among others, could eventually lead to terrorist attacks against Russian targets and possibly even the Russian homeland, if given the proper fuse. Russia’s over-recruitment of ethnic minorities in the Caucasus and Central Asia for military service in Ukraine could provide the spark.80

Way(s) Forward
Counterterrorism and great power competition in Africa are not in tension. Investing in CT in the Sahel and Africa more broadly, with non-military instruments of national power leading the charge, will pay dividends as the United States and Western allies seek to prove that they are more reliable and ethical partners across a spectrum of categories. In this section, the authors consider ways forward for the United States in the Sahel. These include the need of a clearer sense of what the United States wants to accomplish in the region, prioritizing non-military means of engagement, and tailoring military approaches prudently amidst diverse partners.

First, the United States must seek clarity in defining CT success. While tactical and operational victory might be possible with enough resources, strategic victory in a CT campaign can be elusive.81 Decisionmakers, whether African, French, or American, must determine a reasonable and attainable set of “winning” goals in deploying forces and resources to counter jihadism in sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly operationalizing what winning entails in different contexts—whether aspirational, such as a stable democratic regime with strong and representative civil institutions, or something more limited, such as containment of jihadi violence—enhances the chances of CT efficacy. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive goals, but they must be clearly conceptualized to frame U.S. CT engagement.

In the case of Western actors, particularly the United States and France, winning a CT campaign in sub-Saharan Africa is multi-dimensional. At its core, winning ensures the prevention of attacks on the homeland, but the spectrum of end goals is much wider. Promoting democracy, deterring human rights violations, countering influence from near-peer rivals, and cultivating a genuine African alliance base are all central features for effective and durable CT.

Russian goals, on the other hand, are far more limited. First and foremost, Russia’s approach parallels a Cold War mentality where predatory practices for economic and political gains are paramount. It cares little about the long-term stability of African states and instead, seeks to expand military relationships via formal and irregular means as it seeks to erode respect for a rules-based international order that is misaligned with its strategic ambitions.82 Thus, the Russian government can cheaply invest in Africa without concern for human rights or democratic values, often alongside leaders desperate for assistance in maintaining power and control of state resources. Western involvement, meanwhile, requires significantly more preconditions and includes more ethical dilemmas.

‘Containment’ can be applied to both Wagner and violent extremist organizations (VEOs). If Russian proxies like Wagner expand operations at the expense of good governance and strategic coherence, African countries will be dealing with the fallout for decades to come. For Western powers, it is more prudent and cost-effective to invest in countries with existing infrastructure, some modicum of popular support for governance, and existing institutions (even fragile ones) rather than failed states. Wagner’s commitment to insulating elites, killing civilians, and fighting terror with terror will only augment the grievances that have led Sahelian populations toward jihadi recruitment in the past. Russian mercenaries help fuel the fire that jihadis thrive on, and divestment in countering VEOs by the West today ensures the need for significant investment in the future.

However, the U.S. approach to terrorist threats in the Sahel, and across Africa, must move past offering narrow military solutions. Good governance and civil society support cannot remain afterthoughts. Strong investment in economic and social institutions in Africa’s democracies well before violent extremism becomes an existential threat will prove an essential tool for engaging with countries where great power competition is not acute. Escalating to a Cold War redux is a surefire way to exacerbate terrorist threats while simultaneously legitimizing Russia’s deployment of mercenaries. The United States must avoid “competing … for the affections of autocrats” and supporting armed actors that are only superficially interested in democratic values in the name of countering another great power.83

U.S. policymakers leave very real opportunities for economic and political benefits on the table when they dismiss African countries—in short: “the world has become far too small for America to pretend that what happens in Africa stays in Africa.”84 Short-staffed U.S. embassies in Africa and declining U.S. bulk trade despite the continent’s booming economies and population should be met with a sense of urgency by U.S. policymakers.85 Although some have suggested regional czars to solve the staffing gap, there are no substitutes for on-the-ground policymakers and implementers.86 The Biden administration appears to recognize this, at least to a degree. Secretary of State Blinken’s $150 million commitment to humanitarian aid for several Sahelian countries and Vice President Harris’ pledge of $100 million to help littoral West African states counter rising threats from jihadi groups are important steps in the right direction.87 The State Department and USAID must ensure that these funds are properly distributed among partners. However, financial pledges are only the first step. These organizations must work with NGOs and local organizations to build confidence in rule of law, local governance, and civil society institutions, in order to deter the grievances that jihadis often feed on.

African input and support for maintaining international institutions such as the United Nations is likewise critical, as regional experts argue that the United Nations’ African delegations have historically had the “largest and most unified voting bloc.”88 It is therefore incumbent to rethink both the level of U.S. engagement with African countries and ensure that future policy does not repeat the exploitative and self-defeating policies of the Cold War and Global War on Terror.

When military approaches are appropriate, they need to consider local context. As Sahel expert Alex Thurston has argued, Exercise Flintlock 2023, the United States’ annual training exercise for West and North African militaries, focused too heavily on urban CT operations when “most soldiers … [are] going to be trying to decide who’s a threat and who’s not in a village where civilians are frightened and suspicious.”89 And while Exercise Flintlock’s academic instruction included courses on the rule of law and protection of civilians, genuine and lasting security force assistance is going to demand a more comprehensive approach to avoid the “overly securitized approaches” of past efforts.90 One of the central challenges here is that the security climate facing the current regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso might make them less keen on approaches that do not prioritize kinetic military operations—promises that the Wagner Group can make—even if they lack the capacity to keep them.

The U.S. Department of Defense should simultaneously be cautious in its approach through the various authorities it has used (or may use) in countering terrorism on the continent. While enticing, overuse of Section 127e (“counterterrorism proxy force authority”) or dipping into Section 1202 (“irregular warfare proxy authority”), both of which are exempt from any human rights vetting, will likely become problematic for counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, if carried out in isolation.91 AFRICOM’s recent increased demand signal may look to tap into these line items—it has done so for Section 127e in the past—and Section 1202 authority may be used to justify combating Russian influence in the region. But a balanced approach is imperative, one that leads with diplomatic and economic tools first and frequently.

Conditions for assistance may be tighter for the State Department, but that does not mean DoD should be the primary way the United States assists Sahelian countries. Sahelian countries where terrorist threats are most severe are also the most vulnerable to civil-military crises that preclude most kinds of assistance. P.L. 117-328, Division K, Section 7008 restricts U.S. foreign assistance for coup regimes.92 Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso face restrictions on bilateral economic assistance, international security assistance, multilateral assistance, and export and investment assistance. However, these do not preclude assistance entirely. Section 7008 generally applies to aid administered directly “to” or “implemented through or with host governments,” allowing the State Department to work with NGOs and civil society.93 Moreover, the Secretary of State now has more latitude for how restrictions are applied. The Department of State should use its increased latitude to lead on Sahel engagement and can ask for DoD assistance sparingly.

Overall, the United States’ counterterrorism approach in the Sahel needs serious reflection. Recycling the same CT policies while condemning Russia’s mercenaries or Chinese economic influence will do little to move the needle with African governments that are undoubtedly tired of being treated as “pawns” in the great power competition landscape.94 Given the variety of threats and rival interests attempting to establish footholds, U.S. policymakers must show that working with the United States is a mutually beneficial prospect but that may be easier said than done. As critics of current CT efforts note, reactive counterterrorism policies that neglect the agency of African partners and an overly “securitized rhetoric” are factors that have enabled strategic challengers to outcompete the United States in the region.95 AFRICOM’S leadership reiterates the importance of the 3D approach—diplomacy, development, and defense—and it is critical that diplomacy and development are not drowned out by defense.96

It is incumbent for U.S. policy in the Sahel to be more focused on tangible support that matters for states in the region. These efforts should center on rectifying the humanitarian and developmental needs facing Sahelian governments to avoid cascading effects that can generate wider regional instability. American diplomats and leaders should build broader and more transparent partnerships in Africa. Of course, traditional counterterror operations can be a strategically important part of a more holistic Sahel policy, but without establishing strong economic and social partnerships, they will be Sisyphean tasks on the continent.

The late General Wayne A. Downing, a former distinguished chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, used to remind his colleagues at the Center, “Who thinks wins.”97 Smarter counterterrorism in the Sahel, and across sub-Saharan Africa, will pay big dividends for the United States on the field of great power competition.     CTC

Dr. Christopher M. Faulkner is an Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs in the College of Distance Education at the U.S. Naval War College. His research focuses on militant recruitment, private military companies, and national/international security. Twitter: @C_Faulkner_UCF

Raphael Parens is an international security researcher focused on Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He specializes in small armed groups and NATO modernization processes. He received his M.A. in international security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and he is currently based in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.

Marcel Plichta is a PhD Candidate at the University of St Andrews and a fellow at the Centre for Global Law and Governance. His research focuses on the use of force by small states. Twitter: @Plichta_Marcel

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Naval War College, U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

© 2023 Christopher Faulkner, Raphael Parens, Marcel Plichta

Substantive Notes
[a] Active members of PREACT, according to the U.S. State Department, include Djibouti, Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda.

[b] A notable omission from this list is Chad. Following the death of Idriss Déby in April 2021, a military council headed by Déby’s son, Mahamat, seized power, bypassing constitutionally established succession plans. The United States, though calling for a democratic transition, refused to label the event a coup largely because Chad is seen as the lynchpin for U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts in the region. Robbie Gramer, “Biden Defaults to ‘War on Terror Approach’ to Chad,” Foreign Policy, May 13, 2021.

[1] Elizabeth Pineau, “Macron Ends Africa Tour with Wish for Fair Reset of Ties,” Reuters, March 4, 2023; Vadim Zaytsev, “What’s Behind Russia’s Charm Offensive in Africa?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 17, 2023.

[2] Cleve Wootson and Katharine Houreld, “Harris Heads to Africa Amid Biden’s Urgent Courtship of the Continent,” Washington Post, March 25, 2023; Mohamed Eljarh, “Takeaways from William Burns’ Surprise Visit to Libya,” Washington Institute, February 13, 2023.

[3] “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Pathways to Recruitment and Disengagement,” United Nations Development Program, February 7, 2023.

[4] Jobson Ewalefoh, “The New Scramble for Africa,” in Samuel Ojo Oloruntoba and Toyin Falola (eds.) The Palgrave Handbook of Africa and the Changing Global Order (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Declan Walsh, “A ‘New Cold War’ Looms in Africa as U.S. Pushes Against Russian Gains,” New York Times, March 19, 2023.

[5] Tricia Bacon and Jason Warner, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Threat in Africa-The New Epicenter of Global Jihadi Terror,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[6] “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, n.d.

[7] “The U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability 10-year Strategic Plan for Coastal West Africa,” Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, U.S Department of State, March 24, 2023.

[8] “Malian Military Junta Scuttles Security Partnerships While Militant Violence Surges,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, February 27, 2023.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Héni Nsaibia and Caleb Weiss, “Oil on the Jihadi Fire: The Repercussions of Wagner Group Deployment to Burkina Faso,” CTC Sentinel 16:1 (2023).

[11] Ibid; Heni Nsaibia, “The Sahel: Geopolitical Transition at the Center of an Ever-Worsening Crisis,” ACLED, February 8, 2023.

[12] Broderick McDonald and Guy Fiennes, “The Wagner Group’s Growing Shadow in the Sahel: What Does it Mean for Counterterrorism in the Region,” Modern War Institute, March 2, 2023; Nsaibia and Weiss; Michael Philips, “U.S. Seeks Ways to Help Burkina Faso’s Military Junta Fight Jihadists,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2023.

[13] “Mapping Armed Groups in Mali and the Sahel,” European Council on Foreign Relations, n.d.

[14] Leif Brottem, “The Growing Threat of Violent Extremism in Coastal West Africa,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, March 15, 2022.

[15] See Caleb Weiss, “Jihadist Attacks Flow into Littoral West Africa,” FDD’s Long War Journal, December 3, 2021; and Nsaibia and Weiss.

[16] “March 2023 Monthly Forecast – Counter-Terrorism,” U.N. Security Council Report, February 28, 2023.

[17] Sarah Carter, “Kamala Harris Kicks Off Africa Tour with $100 Million Pledge as U.S. Tries to Counter China and Russia’s Influence,” CBS News, March 27, 2023.

[18] Jason Warner, Stephanie Lizzo, and Julia Broomer, “Assessing U.S. Counterterrorism in Africa, 2001-2021: Summary Document of CTC’s Africa Regional Workshop,” Combating Terrorism Center, February 4, 2022.

[19] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “This is Where American Special Operations Forces are Helping Advise U.S. Allies,” Washington Post, April 17, 2016.

[20] Katherine Yon Ebright, “How Support to Partner Forces Enables Secret War,” Just Security, November 3, 2022; Katherine Yon Ebright, “Secret War,” Brennan Center, November 3, 2022.

[21] Lauren Ploch, “Countering Terrorism in East Africa: The U.S. Response,” Congressional Research Service, November 3, 2010; Stephen Ellis, “The Pan-Sahel Initiative,” African Affairs 103:412 (2004): pp. 459-464.

[22] “Programs and Initiatives,” Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, n.d.; “Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (PREACT),” Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, February 14, 2019.

[23] Lia Russell, “Opinion: Why It’s Time for New US Counterterrorism Approach in Africa,” Devex, February 10, 2023.

[24] Warner, Lizzo, and Broomer.

[25] Richtsje Kurpershoek, Alejandra Muñoz Valdez, and Wim Zwijnenburg, “Remote Horizons: Expanding Use and Proliferation of Military Drones in Africa,” PAX, May 6, 2021.

[26] Peter Bergen, David Sterman, and Melissa Salyk-Virk, “America’s Counterterrorism Wars: Tracking the United States’s Drone Strikes and Other Operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya,” New America, June 17, 2021.

[27] “Report on Civilian Casualty Policy,” U.S. Department of Defense, February 1, 2019.

[28] David Sterman, “Is the U.S. Military Backtracking on Airstrike Transparency,” Responsible Statecraft, August 11, 2021.

[29] Erin Bijl and Archibald Henry, “DoD Needs to Rethink its Civilian Casualty Reporting Mechanism,” Just Security, May 9, 2022.

[30] “U.S. Military Personnel Arrive in Niger: Obama in Letter to Congress,” Reuters, February 22, 2013.

[31] Marcel Plichta, “The U.S. Learned the Wrong Lessons From the Niger Ambush,” Washington Examiner, June 2, 2018.

[32] Philips.

[33] Carla Babb, “US-Constructed Air Base in Niger Begins Operations,” Voice of America, November 1, 2019.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Nick Turse, “Less than a Mile from Drone Base, Bandits Stole Bags of U.S. Tax Dollars in Broad Daylight,” Intercept, February 20, 2023.

[36] Brian Finucane, “Still at War: The United States in the Sahel,” Just Security, April 7, 2022.

[37] Idrees Ali and Steve Holland, “Biden Approves Redeployment of Under 500 Ground Troops to Somalia,” Reuters, May 17, 2022.

[38] Marcel Plichta, “Joe Biden’s Africa Strategy Needs More Strategy” 19fortyfive, August 15, 2022.

[39] Tom Wilson, “Russia’s Growing Trade in Arms, Oil and African Politics,” Financial Times, February 14, 2023.

[40] Amy MacKinnon, Robbie Gramer, and Jack Detsch, “Russia’s Dreams of a Red Sea Naval Base are Scuttled—For Now,” Foreign Policy, July 15, 2022.

[41] Eric Schmitt and Edward Wong, “United States Says Wagner Has Quietly Picked Sides in Sudan,” New York Times, April 23, 2023.

[42] Jithin Mathew and John S Moolakkattu, “Russia in the Horn of Africa: Re-engagement in a New Strategic Environment,” South African Journal of International Affairs 29:4 (2022); Carien du Plessis, “South Africa’s Naval Exercise with Russia, China Raises Western Alarm,” Reuters, February 18, 2023.

[43] Sam LaGrone, “AFRICOM: Chinese Naval Base in Africa Set to Support Aircraft Carriers,” USNI News, April 20, 2021.

[44] David Vergon, “General Says China is Seeking a Naval Base in West Africa,” U.S. Department of Defense, March 17, 2022; Paul Nantulya, “Considerations for a Prospective New Chinese Naval Base in Africa,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, May 12, 2022.

[45] Paul Nantulya, “Chinese Security Firms Spread along the African Belt and Road,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, June 15, 2021.

[46] Max Bearak, “In strategic Djibouti, a microcosm of China’s growing foothold in Africa,” Washington Post, December 30, 2019.

[47] Javier Toledano, “Sahel Security 2023: China Forecast,” Grey Dynamics, February 24, 2023.

[48] Guy-michel Chauveau and Herve Gaymard, “Commitment and Diplomacy: What Doctrine for our Military Interventions,” French National Assembly, May 20, 2015; Catrina Doxsee, Marielle Harris, and Jared Thompson, “The End of Operation Barkhane and the Future of Counterterrorism in Mali,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2, 2022.

[49] Anne-Fleur Lespiaut, “French Forces Begin Northern Mali Drawdown: ‘The Idea is Not to Create a Vacuum,’” France24, October 14, 2021.

[50] Angela Charlton, “France Freezes Military Ties with Central African Republic,” Associated Press, June 8, 2021.

[51] Joseph Ataman, “France Recalls Ambassador and Will Withdraw Military Forces from Burkina Faso,” CNN, January 26, 2023.

[52] Raphael Parens, “The Wagner Group’s Playbook in Africa: Mali,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, March 18, 2022; “Replay: Emmanuel Macron outlines France’s new strategy for Africa before four-nation trip,” France24 English, YouTube, February 27, 2023; Zelie Petit, “Sahel Security 2023: France Forecast,” Grey Dynamics, February 20, 2023.

[53] “France will Reorganize Military Bases in Africa, Says Macron,” DW, February 27, 2023.

[54] Doxsee, Thompson, and Harris.

[55] Sebastian Elischer, “Populist Civil Society, the Wagner Group, and post-Coup Politics in Mali,” West African Papers 36 (2022); “Last French Troops Leave Central African Republic,” RFI, December 15, 2022.

[56] Candace Rondeaux and Ben Dalton, “Putin’s Stealth Mobilization: Russian Irregulars and the Wagner Group’s Shadow Command Structure,” New America, February 22, 2023.

[57] Parens; Christopher Faulkner, “Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group’s Nefarious Activities in Africa,” CTC Sentinel 15:6 (2022).

[58] Parens; Ladd Serwat, Héni Nsaibia, Vincenzo Carbone, and Timothy Lay, “Wagner Group Operations in Africa: Civilian Targeting Trends in the Central African Republic and Mali,” ACLED, August 30, 2022.

[59] Nathaniel Gleicher and David Agranovich, “Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior From France and Russia,” Meta, December 15, 2020.

[60] Jack Margolin, “Paper Trails: How a Russia-Based Logistics Network Ties Together Russian Mining Companies and Military Contractors in Africa,” C4ADS, June 14, 2019.

[61] Serwat, Nsaibia, Carbone, and Lay.

[62] Vianney Ingasso, John Lechner, and Marcel Plichta, “Wagner Is Only One Piece in Central African Republic’s Messy Puzzle,” World Politics Review, January 31, 2023; Justin Ling, “Russian Mercenaries Are Pushing France Out of Central Africa,” Foreign Policy, March 18, 2023.

[63] Pjotr Sauer, “In Push for Africa, Russia’s Wagner Mercenaries Are ‘Out of Their Depth’ in Mozambique,” Moscow Times, November 19, 2019; Daniel Sixto, “Russian Mercenaries: A String of Failures in Africa,” Geopolitical Monitor, August 24, 2020.

[64] Serwat, Nsaibia, Carbone, and Lay.

[65] Wassim Nasr, “How the Wagner Group Is Aggravating the Jihadi Threat in the Sahel,” CTC Sentinel 15:11 (2022).

[66] Ibid.

[67] Beverly Ochieng, “Lavrov in Africa: Have Wagner Mercenaries Helped Mali’s Fight Against Jihadists?” BBC, February 7, 2023.

[68] Benjamin Roger, “The Wagner Wars: Malian Edition,” Africa Report, January 8, 2023.

[69] “At Least 10 Killed, Dozens Wounded in Central Mali Attack,” Al Jazeera, April 22, 2023.

[70] Parens.

[71] “Come Follow the Redwood Trees – Tracking Wagner’s Forestry Business in CAR,” All Eyes on Wagner, July 26, 2022.

[72] Mathieu Olivier, “CAR – Cameroon: An investigation into the Wagner Group’s African financial model,” Africa Report, January 18, 2023.

[73] “Statement by the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries Warns about the Dangers of the Growing Use of Mercenaries around the Globe,” UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, March 4, 2022.

[74] Ulrich Petersohn, “The Impact of Mercenaries and Private Military and Security Companies on Civil War Severity between 1946 and 2002,” International Interactions 40:2 (2014).

[75] See Declan Walsh, “‘From Russia with Love’: A Putin Ally Mines Gold and Plays Favorites in Sudan,” New York Times, June 5, 2022; Dionne Searcey, “Gems, Warlords and Mercenaries: Russia’s Playbook in Central African Republic,” New York Times, September 30, 2019; “Come Follow the Redwood Trees – Tracking Wagner’s Forestry Business in CAR,” All Eyes on Wagner, July 26, 2022.

[76] Parens.

[77] Aanu Adeoye, “UN vote on Russia invasion shows a changing Africa,” Chatham House, March 7, 2022.

[78] Joseph Siegle, “Russia’s Strategic Goals in Africa,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, May 6, 2021.

[79] Lucas Webber, “The Islamic State’s Anti-Russia Propaganda Campaign and Criticism of Taliban-Russian Relations,” Jamestown Foundation 20:1 (2022).

[80] Josh Pennington and Jessie Yeung, “Protests Erupt in Russia’s Dagestan Region as Minorities Say They are Being Targeted by Putin’s Mobilization Orders,” CNN, September 26, 2022.

[81] J. Boone Bartholomees, “Theory of Victory,” U.S. Army War College Quarterly: Parameters 38:7 (2008).

[82] Siegle, “Russia’s Strategic Goals in Africa.”

[83] Joseph Siegle, “Russia’s Use of Private Military Contractors,” Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, September 15, 2022.

[84] Emi Suzuki, “World’s Population Will Continue to Grow and Will Reach Nearly 10 Billion by 2050,” World Bank Blogs, July 8, 2019; Michael Shurkin and Aneliese Bernard, “Ten Things the United States Should Do to Combat Terrorism in the Sahel,” War on the Rocks, August 30, 2021.

[85] Robbie Gramer and Amy Mackinnon, “U.S. Embassies in Africa are Chronically Short-Staffed,” Foreign Policy, July 22, 2022; “World Population Prospects 2022,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, n.d.

[86] Marcus Hicks, Kyle Atwell, and Dani Collini, “Great-Power Competition is Coming to Africa,” Foreign Affairs, March 4, 2021.

[87] Daphne Psaledakis, “Blinken Brings U.S. Aid to Sahel for Fight Against Islamist Insurgencies,” Reuters, March 17, 2023; Carter.

[88] Judd Devermont, “The World is Coming to Sub-Saharan Africa. Where is the United States?” CSIS Briefs, August 24, 2018.

[89] Alex Thurston, “U.S.-led Military Training in Africa Belies New Regional Strategy,” Responsible Statecraft, April 3, 2023.

[90] “The U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability 10-year Strategic Plan for Coastal West Africa.”

[91] Katherine Yon Ebright, “How Support to Partner Forces Enables Secret War,” Just Security, November 3, 2022; Nick Turse and Alice Speri, “How the Pentagon Uses a Secretive Program to Wage Proxy Wars,” Intercept, July 1, 2022.

[92] Alexis Arieff, Nick Brown, and Travis Ferrell, “Coup-Related Restrictions in U.S. Foreign Aid Appropriations,” Congressional Research Service, March 16, 2023.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Alex Thurston, “An Alternative Approach to U.S. Sahel Policy,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft 32 (2022).

[95] Ibid.

[96] “Statement of General Michael E. Langley, United States Marine Corps Commander, United States Africa Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee,” AFRICOM, March 16, 2023; Brian Dodwell, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Brigadier General Rose Keravuori, Deputy Director of Intelligence, United States Africa Command,” CTC Sentinel 16:1 (2023).

[97] “West Point Releases First Issue of CTC Sentinel,” CTC Sentinel 1:1 (2007).

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