Western Special Forces in the Sahel


    1.0. Background

    Salafi-jihadist expansion and hostile developments in Africa raise the need for a continuing presence of Western Special Forces in the Sahel. Following the coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, France announced the withdrawal of Task Force Takuba. In February 2022, this ended near an entire decade of operations in the country. However, the US is conducting joint exercises with allies and partners. And, the European Union (EU) was answering the call from Niger’s parliament to station special operations forces (SOF) units in the country to counter the threat. However, a few days ago the Nigerian Junta terminated the agreement.⁠

    Task Force Takuba
    French and Estonian SF members of Task Force Takuba.

    2.0. Situational Report

    2.1. Salafist Expansion

    Salafi-jihadist factions are expanding their presence in the Sahel region. Particularly in the coastal states of West Africa, there is an impending spillover of the jihadist violence earlier concentrated on the tri-border between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. In recent years, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) affiliates have gained a strong foothold in the region with a 1000 percent increase in deadly violence between 2007 and 2021.

    Hence, the development challenges the West’s regional security provider role. Especially by Russian and Chinese influence. Currently, the affiliates Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP) and Jama’at Nustratul Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) are competing to gain ground by conducting almost daily attacks. Now, indications of a shift in the regional security landscape are clear as violence is spilling over to the Gulf of Guinea, particularly Togo, Benin, and the Ivory Coast. There is a jihadist outgrowth of which, even though currently contained, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Senegal also are within future.

    2.1.1. Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen

    Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) is a merger of four Salafi-jihadi groups from 2017 when AQIM’s Sahara Emirate, Ansar al Din, the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), and al Murabitoun were joining forces into a single entity operating under a common umbrella [source].

    Today, JNIM is the most active and lethal actor across the Sahel [source]. Even though efficient counterterrorism efforts have inflicted harm on a tactical level, the organisation’s leadership remains strong. JNIM is primarily active in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Still, there are indications of a spillover targeting neighbouring West African coastal states, with Togo as a prime example. Moreover, clashes with rivalling groups such as the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Russian Wagner Group show no signs of limiting or containing the organisation’s operational capability.

    2.1.2. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara/Islamic State Sahel Province

    Starting as a splinter group from Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Mourabitoun in 2015, The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara/ Islamic State Sahel Province (ISGS/ISSP) was initially aligned under the JNIM umbrella. However, when the relationship towards JNIM leadership deteriorated in 2017, the group emancipated itself, leading to clashes from 2019 until the present. As a result, a significant power struggle took place in 2020, with JNIM emerging victorious, making it the primary armed group in the region [source]. Hence, ISGS/ISSP constitutes a prime rival to the JNIM.

    From March 2019 to 2022, ISGS was formally part of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). In March 2022, however, IS declared the province autonomous, separating it from its West Africa Province and naming it Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP).

    2.1.3. Islamic State West Africa Province

    Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) primarily focuses its targets on military structures, government and security personnel, traditional leaders, and contractors. Since its founding, the group has had a discriminatory agenda primarily targeting non-Muslims. However, a shift in tactics was evident in 2020 as the group started to give civilian targets more attention. Hence, the group has become the deadliest terrorist group in Nigeria and the Sahel.

    The group primarily operates from its headquarters in the Alagarno forest, Nigeria. Still, it has developed influence in the northern Borno countryside, south-central Borno, North Adamawa, and the country’s northwest. Hence, the group is primarily active in the country’s Northeast Zone. Estimates from October 2021 suggest that the group’s membership is between 3,500-5000 [source].

    3.0. Western Special Forces in the Sahel

    3.1. Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP)

    The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) is a long-term United States (US) strategy aiming to develop regional resiliency capable of preventing and responding to evolving terrorist threats. By providing guidance and training to partner countries, the ambition is to promote regional cooperation and joint efforts in combating terrorist factions operating within and across partnership countries’ borders [source].

    3.2. The US Special Operations Command Africa

    The US Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) is a sub-unified command of US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) based in Stuttgart-Mohringen, Germany. SOCAFRICA’s primary responsibility is to exercise operational control over theatre-assigned or allocated Air Force, Army, Marine, or Navy special operations forces conducting operations, exercises, and theatre security cooperation in the USAFRICOM area of responsibility. Subordinate organisations include:

    • Special Operations Task Force East Africa
    • Joint Special Operations Task Force – Somalia
    • Special Operations Task Force Northwest Africa
    • Joint Special Operations Air Component Africa
    • Naval Special Warfare Unit Ten
    • SOCAFRICA Signal Detachment [source].
    Senegalese Special Operations Forces conduct a beach landing exercise during Flintlock 2016 in Saint Louis, Senegal, Feb. 12, 2016. Riverine type operations are important in Military Zone 2 in Saint Louis because the region has 700 kilometers of coastline. The riverine operation was a culmination exercise after a weeklong training with Netherlands and U.S. Special Operation Forces. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. David M. Shefchuk)

    3.3. Operation Juniper Shield

    Operation Juniper Shield (OJS) supports the AFRICOM in the execution of the National Military Strategy for US military operations in eleven partner nations in North and West Africa. Within the framework of the operation, the US provides contracts for linguists, key support personnel and expertise, aircraft, billeting, and transportation. Additionally, US funding supports the planning and execution of information, information operations, and intelligence tasks conducted to achieve US National Policy objectives focused on enhancing the capacity to counter jihadist insurgents.

    OJS constitutes the Department of Defense’s (DoD) support to the US Department of State-led Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Program (TSCTP). Transnational challenges in Africa threaten Western actors and regional partners. OJS is the. Working with partner nations, OJS provides equipment, assistance, and advice to increase their capacity and capability to deny safe haven to terrorists, strengthen counterterrorism and border security, and reinforce bilateral and regional military ties. The OJS effort focuses on the following countries:

    • Algeria
    • Burkina Faso
    • Cameroon
    • Chad
    • Mali
    • Mauritania
    • Morocco
    • Niger
    • Nigeria
    • Senegal
    • Tunisia [source].

    3.4. Flintlock

    Flintlock is U.S. Africa Command’s premier and most extensive annual special operations exercise, combining military and law enforcement to strengthen African and international special operations forces capabilities. The exercise, which first premiered in 2005, operates based on mutual respect and collaboration to advance the shared interests of regional stability.

    US SOCAFRICA will conduct Flintlock 2023 in Ghana and Ivory Coast from March 1-15, 2023, with approximately 1,300 service members from 30 participating nations [source].

    A Senegalese Soldier practices marksmanship fundamentals learned by Spanish Special Forces during Flintlock 20 in Mauritania, Feb. 18, 2020. Flintlock is U.S. Africa Command’s premier and largest annual Special Operations Forces exercise. (US Army photo by Sgt. Conner Douglas).

    3.4.1. Participants

    Participating nations last year include:

    • Canada
    • France
    • Netherlands
    • Norway
    • United Kingdom
    • Cameroon
    • Ivory Coast
    • Ghana
    • Niger [source].

    Previous participating nations include:

    • Benin
    • Burkina Faso
    • Chad
    • Cabo Verde
    • Guinea
    • Mali
    • Mauritania
    • Morocco
    • Nigeria
    • Senegal
    • Togo
    • Austria
    • Belgium
    • Brazil
    • Czech Republic
    • Germany
    • Italy
    • Japan
    • Poland
    • Portugal
    • Spain [source].
    Guinean Special Forces Soldiers conduct close quarters battle training lead and instructed by Polish Special Forces in an abandoned hotel during Flintlock 20 in Nouakchott, Mauritania, February 18, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Evan Parker).

    3.5. The European Union

    The European Union has approximately 4000 personnel deployed in various international missions. They are military forces and civilian experts detached by the EU’s Member States under EU-led Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations.

    The EU currently conducts seven military missions and operations on land and sea to reform and train armies, assist in creating a safe and secure environment, fight pirates or disrupt networks of traffickers. Three of them are military training missions that provide advice and training to local security forces in West and East Africa. To strengthen coordination and cooperation on the ground, a single command centre for these military training missions – the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) – was established in 2017. The MPCC is also empowered to plan and conduct military missions of up to 2,500 troops [source].

    A Spanish Soldier assist Chadian forces during military operations in urban terrain, or MOUT, training during Exercise Flintlock 2019, Feb. 19, 2019 in Atar, MR. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Steven Lewis).

    3.5.1. EUMPM Niger

    On 30 June 2022, when concluding the overall strategic review of EUTM Mali and Eucap Sahel Mali, the Foreign and Security Policy Committee considered it appropriate to establish a dedicated military CSDP mission together with a support action under the European Peace Facility to provide Niger needed support.

    The Council adopted a support measure under the European Peace Facility in support of the Niger Armed Forces on 18 July 2022, notably establishing a Centre for the Training of Armed Forces Technicians.

    On 30 November 2022, the President and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the Republic of Niger called on the EU to deploy a military CSDP partnership mission in Niger to help strengthen the military capabilities of the Niger Armed Forces to support Niger in the country’s fight against terrorism [source].

    On 5 December, the Junta government of Niger decided to revoke and cancel all the agreement with the EU.

    4.0. Prospects for Future Military Presence

    Information on contemporary European military presence in the Sahel since the withdrawal of Task Force Takuba is limited. Based on available data from open sources, there is unlikely a European presence in Niger since its government ended its partnership on the 5th of December. Furthermore, as with most SOF operations, openly accessible information is often limited.

    Still, drawing from the European contribution in Mali during Task Force Takuba, there are prospects for future military presence in the country by the following countries:

    • France
    • United Kingdom
    • Estonia
    • Czech Republic
    • Sweden
    • Italy
    • Romania
    • Norway

    5.0. What’s Next?

    Although the war in Ukraine requires attention and resources, the evolving jihadist threat in the Sahel will likely increase the incentives for Western SOF presence in 2023.

    6.0. Summary

    The expanding jihadist presence in the Sahel constitutes a growing regional and potentially global threat. There are indications of jihadist spillover extending towards the Gulf of Guinea states which have incentives for global stability as it threatens external interests. Notably, the Russian, Chinese, and Western presence and increasing interests from relatively peripheral actors such as Turkey raise the stakes.

    Although the very recent withdrawal from Mali and Task Force Takuba may indicate a global focus shift of Western troops, especially as the war in Ukraine naturally is attracting lots of attention, regional instability in the Sahel will likely increase incentives for Western action. The jihadist expansion and hostile developments in Africa raise the need for a continuing presence of Western Special Forces in the Sahel to maintain or at least rebuild legitimacy as a security provider, partly to protect vital interests when external actors in the East are increasing their presence.

    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren is a student at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm. His main focus area is the Sahel Region and West Africa. Specific interests are asymmetric threats, mainly terrorism, covert action, and cyber threats.

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