Mali: Limited Progress on Sahel Joint Force
The proposed anti-terror joint force of the Sahel G5 nations — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — received a boost this month when the EU pledged the equivalent of $56 million to bolster security efforts in the region (EU News, June 5). However, plans for the unit to be operational before the end of 2017 appear to be ambitious.
The joint force was proposed at a G5 meeting in Bamako in February, held in the wake of a devastating suicide attack on a camp in Gao that housed Malian soldiers and rebels — nearly 80 people were killed (Maliweb, February 6; Maliweb, January 19).
In a speech in May, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said the proposed force would be ready by the end of the year (APA, May 4). It is expected to be made up of up to 10,000 personnel — an original proposal has said 5,000 — and will be led by Mali’s chief of the general staff, General Didier Dacko, a veteran of the country’s battle against Islamist extremists (Sahel Standard, June 11). Few other details, however, have emerged of what this regional force will look like.
A possible model is the Chad-based multi-national joint task force established to battle Boko Haram. The proposed G5 force, however, would have a much wider remit. It would operate in all five countries, with a focus on the border areas. As well as counter-terrorism, it is envisaged that the force will combat trafficking and organized crime.
There is a pressing need for cross-border initiatives to tackle militants in the Sahel. In March, fighters thought to be part of al-Qaeda’s broad Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen alliance attacked a military post in Boulikessi, which sits on Mali’s border with Burkina Faso, killing 11 soldiers (Maliweb, March 6). Burkina Faso, which is battling a homegrown jihadist threat in Ansar ul Islam, is dependent on its neighbor’s efforts, while Chad is the only one of the G5 states with anything like a functioning air force. A joint effort makes a good deal of sense.
Coordination between the Sahel partners, however, remains poor, and each still lacks the capability to adequately tackle extremist networks. But the proposed joint force’s broad remit and disagreements over how it will be funded are also holding up its establishment.
Although heavily promoted by the French, whose own Operation Barkhane has been active in the region since August 2014, there are genuine concerns that handing wide-ranging powers to military units in a region where it is often hard to distinguish the affiliations of armed groups could be counterproductive. It seems international forces, including the United Nation’s own Mali mission, MINUSMA, will need to remain in place for some time to come.
United Kingdom: Intelligence Agencies Face Surveillance Challenges
The United Kingdom has weathered three terror attacks over the course of three months, with the attackers in each case having previously been known persons of interest to the authorities in some form. With the Brits considering their intelligence services among the most sophisticated in Europe, the attacks have raised some serious questions about their capacity to maintain what has become an unprecedented number of investigations.
On June 3, three men rammed a van into pedestrians on London Bridge and then attacked bystanders with knives, killing eight people and injuring dozens of others. Khuram Butt, the group’s ringleader, had links to the banned al-Muhajiroun group and was previously investigated after he was reported to an anti-terror hotline in 2015 (The Telegraph, June 6). That investigation was later downgraded.
Salman Abedi, who killed 22 people and injured 120 others when he blew himself up at a pop concert in Manchester on May 22, had reportedly been under surveillance in Libya for more than a month prior to the attack (Manchester Evening News, June 13). But poor coordination with their Libyan counterparts meant UK authorities knew him as a petty criminal (Manchester Evening News, May 30).
Khalid Masood, who on March 22 killed four people and injured 50 others by ramming them with a car on Westminster Bridge in London and then fatally stabbed a police officer outside the parliament building, was known to have a violent past and an “interest” in jihad (The Guardian, March 27).
Britain is not the only country in Europe to have found itself in this position. The suicide bombers who killed 32 people in coordinated blasts in Brussels in March last year also had criminal pasts. One of them, Najim Laachraoui, had even spent time in Syria where he interrogated hostages held by Islamic State (L’Echo, April 22, 2016).
“These days in Europe you have returning fighters, you also have homegrown extremists, you have hate preachers. It’s a huge number of people for the authorities to watch,” said Thomas Renard, a senior research fellow working on counter-terrorism at the Egmont Institute in Brussels.
“It’s a difficult task for Belgium, and other small countries in the EU, to monitor so many individuals thoroughly. In larger countries too, like Germany and France, the numbers are just too big. After the attack in Brussels, some people liked this comfortable explanation that the Belgians were simply amateurs, unable to cope with this new threat, but now I think we see that the situation is more complicated and more widespread across Western Europe” (Author’s Interview, June 8).
In the aftermath of the UK attacks, it emerged that British intelligence agencies have disrupted a series of potential terror plots, but they are running about 500 investigations covering 3,000 individuals, with another 20,000 people on their radar kept under review (The Telegraph, May 25). These kinds of numbers are unprecedented and, in the short term at least, the chances are that they will only continue to grow.