US, France To Step Up Fight Against Sahel Region Extremists

The US is reportedly planning to institute a new special envoy position and task force to deal with security threats in the African Sahel region. The special envoy will lead a task force made up of State Department staff members, intelligence officials, representatives of the Defense Department, and other agencies. It will be responsible for coordinating US response to terrorist groups active in the region.

The formation of the task force and the institution of the special envoy position come at a time of major international concern over what is happening in the African Sahel. In the last few years, the region, made up of a handful of poor countries with very weak security and military preparedness, turned into a meeting point for a large number of terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda. A host of affiliates of these organizations is also active in the same region.

Most of the terrorists who had fled the inferno of Iraq and Syria are now in the Sahel region. There, they capitalize on rampant poverty, growing corruption, and deteriorating security conditions in drawing in recruits and expanding their presence.

The same groups stage deadly attacks against security forces and civilians in the countries of the region, turning some parts of these countries into no-go areas for their residents. The expected US move reflects growing concern in Washington about the widening scope of terrorism in the Sahel region, analysts said.

The US has been involved in the region for years now, staging raids and drone attacks. Western countries, especially France, have also been doing the same for years, in their bid to keep the region secure and put the lid on the rising extremist tide in it.

Deteriorating security in the Sahel region is worrying to the international community for a large number of reasons. The rising specter of terrorism in the region compounds the natural crises hitting it, including drought and desertification, ones that cause hardships to millions of the region’s residents.

The region is not so far away from North Africa and there are fears that rampant extremism in the region will seep out of it and into North Africa, which brings the terrorist threat so close to Europe. The exodus of migrants because of tough conditions in the region also sends waves of illegal migrants to Europe, an additional burden on a continent already beset by the flow of immigrants from Syria and Iraq.

France will add armed drones to the equipment it deploys in the region. Paris has been fighting Sahel region extremists for seven years now. The French decision comes a short time after 13 French army troops were killed in a helicopter crash in Mali. The European state has 4,500 troops in the region within an operation codenamed “Barkhane”. It aims to support Sahel countries get over the security challenges they are facing.

On December 19, French Defense Minister, Florence Parly, said American-built Reaper drones fitted with laser-guided missiles have been deployed in the region as part of his country’s Barkhane mission in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

The drones have been used to provide surveillance support to the mission since 2014, but will now also be able to strike targets.

“This is a new capacity, not a change in doctrine,” Parly said. “The rules of engagement of armed drones are exactly the same as for fighter aircraft.”

French President, Emmanuel Macron, is due to pay a visit to the Sahel region in the coming few days. Macron had agreed to meet Sahel region leaders in France on January 13 to discuss French military presence in the region as well as the fight against jihadist organizations.