U.S. Confronts Failures as Terrorism Spreads in West Africa

In the shadow of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States rushed troops and military aid to a swath of West Africa to help French forces stop the spread of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

More than a decade later, and with hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance spent, that regional counterterrorism effort has largely failed.

Groups that have declared allegiance to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are on the march. Military coups have toppled civilian-led governments in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger. The new leaders have ordered American and French troops out, and in some cases invited Russian mercenaries in to take their place.

As the United States withdraws 1,000 military personnel from Niger and shutters a $110 million air base there by September, American officials are scrambling to work with a new set of countries in coastal West Africa to battle a violent extremist insurgency that they perceive is steadily seeping south.

“Of course, it’s frustrating,” Christopher P. Maier, the Pentagon’s top official for special operations policy, said in an interview. “Our general desire to promote democratic governments and having healthy governance there has not gone particularly well.”

The U.S. military has had more success training local counterterrorism troops, Mr. Maier said, although some participated in the recent military takeovers. But, he added, “it’s disappointing when we’ve invested in that relationship and then we’re asked to depart.”

U.S. officials say they are retooling their approach to combat an insurgency that is rooted in local, not global, concerns. Competition for land, exclusion from politics and other local grievances have swelled the ranks of the militants, more than any particular commitment to extremist ideology.

Instead of relying on big bases and a permanent military presence, officials say that the strategy will focus more on well-financed initiatives that include security, governance and development — paying for soldier training as well as for new electrification or water projects.

This kind of holistic approach has been tried before with limited success, and U.S. officials and independent West Africa specialists say it faces steep hurdles now.

An American diplomat in the region said that West African governments should share the blame, because some of those partners were more interested in staying in power than in fighting terrorism. “It didn’t work, it’s obvious,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment of allies. “But this notion that we deployed, it didn’t work, therefore it’s our fault — I don’t buy that.”

Some say the foreigners never really understood the conflict. “To be able to help, you have to really know the root of the problem,” said Demba Kanté, a corporate lawyer in Bamako, Mali’s capital. “They were positioned almost everywhere on Malian soil and collecting their salaries, and we were still facing problems.”

As they assess the setbacks and retool their strategy, U.S. officials are also keeping a wary eye on two global rivals: China and Russia.

China overtook the United States as Africa’s biggest bilateral trade partner over a decade ago, its investments largely focused on minerals key to the global energy transition. Russia has become the preferred security partner for a number of African countries that formerly welcomed American assistance, creating what many experts see as a Cold War-style competition.

“We’ve done a lot of things well on the tactical level, including the training of special forces, but they weren’t connected to a larger strategy,” said J. Peter Pham, a former special U.S. envoy to the Sahel, the vast, semiarid region south of the Sahara where U.S. counterterrorism efforts have been focused.

Mr. Pham pointed to an ambitious $450 million U.S. electrification project in Burkina Faso that was paused in 2022 after the nation’s military staged a coup. “We need to have an integrated strategy, otherwise it’s building sand castles at the edge of the beach,” he said.

Developing that strategy will be difficult. Washington policymakers are consumed with crises, particularly in Gaza and Ukraine. Meantime, Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates are metastasizing throughout the region, according to U.N. and U.S. intelligence assessments.

“What keeps me up at night is the number of very capable foreign terrorist organizations that see this,” Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and an Africa specialist, said at a hearing last month.

Mali was the first country in the Sahel to be destabilized by jihadists and rebels.

It was in the wake of the 2011 civil war in Libya, to the northeast. Well-armed Malian rebels who had defended the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi returned home when he was killed and started a rebellion. Emboldened by the chaos, Islamist groups began seizing urban centers like the ancient desert city of Timbuktu.

France intervened in 2013, pushing the jihadists out of northern cities. Many Malians viewed the mission as a success.

Then came a much bigger intervention led by the French that pulled in other European countries and the United States, and that expanded to neighboring countries in pursuit of jihadists.

The crisis spiraled, even as France killed more and more fighters. The armed groups ran rampage in the countryside, causing millions to flee their homes. Thousands of foreign forces in air-conditioned vehicles trundled through the Sahelian steppe, trying to take out terrorist leaders. But that steppe became no safer.

France and the United States acknowledged that the governments they were working with were widely viewed locally as corrupt and partly responsible for the insecurity, according to Alexander Thurston, a scholar of Islam and African politics at the University of Cincinnati. But they worked closely with them anyway.

“That’s a weird kind of contradiction to get into, in my view — to be reliant upon the people that you’re implying are the problem,” Mr. Thurston said.

And as the insurgency mushroomed, people began to blame the foreign forces.

When, one by one, the governments in the region fell over the past four years, the new juntas found criticism of their military partners was easy to exploit for political gain. Then, they threw out the foreign troops as well as thousands of U.N. peacekeepers.

The “flashy scenarios” that local soldiers are trained to deal with during the annual Pentagon-sponsored Flintlock counterterrorism exercise illustrate the yawning gap between how American special operations commanders see the conflict and the reality that what they are facing is “an insurgency driven by poor herders in some of the most remote parts of the world,” Mr. Thurston said. Much of the training focuses on urban terrorism, storming buildings, rescuing hostages.

The West has long been seen as projecting its own problems onto the Sahel, said Ornella Moderan, a Geneva-based researcher and policy adviser focused on politics and security in West Africa. Initially it was obsessed with migration.

Now, she noted, there is a Western “insistence on reading everything through the Russian lens.”

The United States should stop focusing on trying to come up with a “better offer” than the Russians, Ms. Moderan said.

“What is a better offer from the perspective of military juntas in the current situation?” she asked. “It’s an offer that insists less on human rights than Russia does — which means not at all. It’s an offer that insists less on the rule of law, less on democracy, and it’s an offer that provides more in terms of weapons systems, in terms of remote warfare systems.”

The best approach for the West, Ms. Moderan said, is to ignore whether Russia is there or not, keep communication channels open and wait for an opportunity to re-engage with countries like Mali if and when they sour on Moscow’s influence.

It was in Niger, an impoverished nation of 25 million people that is nearly twice the size of Texas, where four American soldiers, along with four Nigerien troops and an interpreter, were killed in an ambush in 2017.

After that, American commandos stayed well behind the front lines, working from command centers to help Nigerien officers grapple with intelligence, logistics, artillery and other aspects of big operations.

Those local counterterrorism forces trained by the United States and France put a dent in terrorist activity, using intelligence gleaned from MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drones flying from the sprawling air base in Agadez, in the country’s north.

Terrorist attacks against civilians decreased by nearly 50 percent in 2023 from the previous year, analysts said.

After the military takeover in Niger last July, however, the United States suspended most security assistance and information sharing. Terrorist groups stepped up attacks on Nigerien troops. Last October, at least 29 Nigerien soldiers were killed in an attack carried out by jihadist militants in the country’s west. A week earlier, a dozen died in the southwest.

The junta leaders began to turn toward Russia for security and to Iran for a possible deal on its uranium reserves, U.S. officials said. American diplomats and military officials protested this spring and criticized the military government for failing to map out a path to return to democracy. The junta accused the Americans of talking down to them.

The junta’s message has been: “‘We don’t want anyone from the West to come in here and tell us who we can do business with,’” Gen. Michael E. Langley, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, said in an interview. “I’m seeing this across the Sahel. Our narrative is still, Hey, we’re here to help.”

The military takeover in Niger upended years of Western counterterrorism efforts in West Africa.

For civilians in the Sahel, security has gotten markedly worse since the juntas took power. In recent months, unlawful killings and grave violations against children have risen sharply, according to the U.N.

“The challenges plaguing the Sahel are so overwhelming that it’s not exactly clear how much the U.S. can help,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York.

“The Sahel sits at the nexus of some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from climate change to ‘youth bulges’ — significant swaths of young people who are unemployed,” Mr. Clarke said. “These issues feed into the growth of violent extremist organizations.”

American and Ghanaian officials fear that Ghana could be next.

Terrorist groups have been pushing south and staging attacks in Ghana’s coastal neighbors, Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast. A majority of Ghana’s 34 million inhabitants are Christian. Muslims make up a large share in the country’s poorer north.

That Africa Command conducted three overlapping military exercises, including Flintlock, in Ghana in the past few weeks underscores how much Washington is pinning its security hopes on coastal West Africa.

Some 1,300 special operations forces from nearly 30 countries participated in the annual Flintlock counterterrorism exercise in May. In Daboya, Ghana, about four hours from the border with Burkina Faso, Spanish trainers helped Mauritanian troops hone their marksmanship skills. Ghanaian police worked with Dutch trainers on securing terrorist suspects. In the Gulf of Guinea, Ghanaian, Libyan and Tunisian commandos roped down from assault helicopters to seize stand-in terrorist leaders aboard an Italian frigate in a mock maritime raid.

Brig. Gen. Kweku Dankwa Hagan, a senior Ghanaian Army officer, said Ghana and its neighbors shared intelligence on militants’ activities and had agreed to conduct joint patrols in border areas.

“If they strike Ghana, it will shake our democracy,” General Hagan said in an interview in Accra, Ghana’s capital. “We are poised to ensure that given the mandate given the armed forces, we protect our country from external aggressors.”

The Biden administration is offering help in other ways under the Global Fragility Act, a 10-year plan to blunt the spread of terrorism and violent extremism in the coastal West African nations and other countries.

The act finances a range of initiatives, including conflict-resolution programs to help settle disputes among chiefs and local community service projects like new police stations or solar-powered security lighting.

Unless defense, diplomacy and development programs are integrated and sufficiently financed, it’s like “sprinkling fairy dust around,” said Virginia E. Palmer, the U.S. ambassador to Ghana and a seasoned diplomat with previous postings in Malawi, South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe, as well as a stint in the State Department’s counterterrorism office in Washington.

As the United States reformulates its approach, officials say one overriding objective comes through: Stay engaged. That may involve building relationships with new partners or — at some time in the future — rebuilding ties with former ones.

Capt. Scott P. Fentress, a member of the Navy SEALs who is director of operations for U.S. Special Operations forces on the continent, summed it up this way: “Trust is earned, and we’ve learned throughout Africa, particularly West Africa, that trust is hard to earn.”

Mamadou Tapily contributed reporting from Bamako, Mali.

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