GAO, Mali – A Eurocopter Tiger (Eurocopter EC665 Tigre) helicopter (L) is seen at the French Military base in Gao, in northern Mali on November 8, 2019.
MICHELE CATTANI/AFP via Getty Images
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the subsequent withdrawal of Western troops was closely watched in many African capitals — and by Islamist insurgent groups on the continent.
The shift in power comes at a critical juncture for the so-called war on terror for the governments of countries like Somalia, Mali, Mozambique and Nigeria, and the Western powers that support them.
A media outlet linked to Somali militant group al-Shabab wrote “God is great” following news of the takeover. Meanwhile, the leader of West Africa’s Jama’at Nasral-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) jihadist organization drew comparisons between the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and France’s planned drawdown of military presence in West Africa’s Sahel region.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced in July that the 5,000-strong troop presence in the Sahel — known as Operation Barkhane — would end in the first quarter of 2022. Despite putting a timeline on the end of the main military operation, Macron insisted that France was not withdrawing entirely from its former colonial territories.
The French deployment began in 2013 as Paris attempted to halt the advance of jihadist groups in Mali, but extremist groups continue to wreak havoc on civilian populations in the conflict-ridden Sahel.
The U.S. and other European nations had also begun withdrawing from the Sahel and other hotspots prior to the fall of the Afghan government. According to the World Food Programme, around 4.6 million people have been displaced in the Sahel as a result of what the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) has called “intense and largely indiscriminate violence perpetrated by armed actors against civilians.”
Now, experts have suggested that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan could inspire militant groups in the region, altering the course of internationally coordinated efforts to fight terrorism.
Psychological boost, but a local battle
“The US, France, and other European powers will slow down planned withdrawals of troops from the Sahel region and other hotspots for insecurity and militancy, and even increase deployments in some regions,” Robert Besseling, CEO of political risk consultancy Pangea-Risk, said in a special report last month.
“Meanwhile, non-traditional military partners, spearheaded by Russia, China, and some Middle Eastern countries, are stepping up engagements on the continent.”
Alex Vines, director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, told CNBC that while developments in Afghanistan had offered a “psychological boost” to jihadist organizations, fragmentation among these militant groups and the regionalized nature of the conflicts, meant tangible benefits were difficult to assess.
“Look at training and recruitment. At the moment, most of the jihadi groups in Africa are mostly about Africa. There are not too many foreign pilgrims coming in from elsewhere,” he said.
Chatham House assessed the origins of militants in Mozambique insurgent groups and found that a majority came from Tanzania, Comoros, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the rest of the immediate region, Vines explained.
Mourners attend the funeral of 43 farm workers in Zabarmari, Nigeria, on November 29, 2020 after they were killed by Boko Haram fighters in rice fields near the village of Koshobe on November 28, 2020.
Audu Marte | AFP via Getty Images
“When you get into Boko Haram territory, or even Mali, yes, there are North Africans involved in this stuff, but it is difficult to thread it further,” he added.
However, Vines suggested that the global attention drawn to the issue in light of the Taliban takeover could provide a source of online chatter and inspiration for international recruiters.
“Where I think there is a lot of influence is in the early stages of radicalization, where foreign recruiters are very influential and very dangerous,” he said, adding that the internet continues to be a source of “toxicity that can have a lot of influence to put people onto jihadi pathways.”
Slowing Western withdrawal
Vines noted that while international intervention led by Rwanda has put Islamist insurgents on the backfoot in Mozambique, U.S. and European Union efforts to reinforce states in the Sahel through military training have been largely ineffective.
Western-trained military forces were behind successive coups in Mali which led to power vacuums in parts of the country that allowed jihadist forces to seize control, he argued in a recent Chatham House article.
Vines said that the international community needed to hear the voices of those directly affected by terrorism and insurgency, with technology offering a link between victims and policymakers, governments and global organizations. This could enable solutions which are “as much African as they are international,” he said.
After domestic political pressure, France has taken steps to shift its engagement in the Sahel from a unilateral to multilateral approach. It has established, for example, the Takuba Task Force, which will focus on the region bordering Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Takuba aims to assist regional security forces in joint operations and offer a rapid response capacity, while conducting direct operations against militant groups.
In its report, Pangea-Risk said the creation of the Task Force Takuba showed there had been “little change” in the strategic approach of Western military powers in Africa. “[It] remains overtly focused on military solutions at the expense of broad social, economic, and political issues.”
KIGALI, Rwanda – Rwandan soldiers wait to board a plane for Mozambique in Kigali, capital city of Rwanda, July 10, 2021. The Rwandan government on Friday started deploying a 1000-member joint force of army and police personnel to Mozambique to support efforts to restore state authority in the latter’s restive region.
Cyril Ndegeya/Xinhua via Getty Image
The social and political issues often exploited by jihadi groups to drive recruitment include high unemployment, impunity and perceived endemic corruption.
“While the presence of additional SOF [special operation forces] personnel as front-line mentors is likely to serve as a force multiplier for regional security forces, contributing to further tactical successes, it will not address this strategic deficit,” the report added.
Vines suggested that French operations will likely sharpen their focus on targeting jihadi kingpins, while U.S. presence on the continent will remain focused on containment of growing Russian and Chinese influence.
“The last thing the Americans want is Russian-linked privateers going into Mali and exposing the multilateral and bilateral efforts as not having produced anything,” he said.
“Those geopolitical things could well suck the Americans back into some of the places that under Trump, they announced that they were drawing down.”