Peacekeeping and Counter-terrorism Campaigns in the West African Sahel and The Horn of Africa: The United States’ Perspective   

Introduction: National Security Issues

The National Security Strategy for the United States of America (US) is premised on securing national borders and its interests, plus those of its allies, abroad. Threats against the US and its allies emanate from both non-state and state actors located on the African continent. Non-state threats take the form of irregular migration and radicalized jihadist insurgent groups. Migrants from across the globe are fleeing insecurity and assembling at US borders hoping for entry. Two key instigating factors of irregular migration are radicalization and terrorism in developing states across Africa. Therefore, a multilayered approach to National Security must be supported by US missions abroad that target the crises at the source.  

The African continent is of geostrategic importance to the United States because of both on-the-ground and down-stream business and political interests. As part of its mission to protect US interests, the United States Military (USM) is supporting peacekeeping and counter-terrorism efforts in bilateral and multilateral state-to-state arrangements across the Western Sahel and Eastern, greater Horn of Africa regions. These efforts, economic, diplomatic, and military, contribute to the provision of safety and security of the USA. However, the mission is yet to be completed.

Non-state and state challenges to US interests

Threats to the US and its allies emanate from West and East Africa. The US, Britain, France, and Belgium have been targeted by terrorist organizations emanating from fragile African states across the Horn, West, and North Africa. Africa has emerged as an epicenter for transnational global terrorism and irregular migration flows.

Radical Islamic Terrorism is a universal concern for states across the globe because it aims to replace the state system with theocratic authority. Irregular migration of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict has surpassed 70 million in 2018 (UNHCR 2019). Increasing numbers of Chinese, Indian, and African asylum seekers are amassing at US borders. While, Mexico, China, and India are the leading countries of origin for immigrants to the US, Africa is also well represented. Of the refugee populations reaching the US in 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo made up 35 percent, Eritrea was 5th with 6 percent and Ethiopia 10th with 2 percent (Radford 2019).

The US and its allies are also challenged by emerging state actors seeking political and economic opportunities in Africa. Once the lone global superpower, US power and influence has waned in the time since the 2008 financial crisis. US interests now confront competition from emerging states.

China, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation States and more are bargaining for access to markets and political/military cooperation on the African Continent. Chinese relations with Africa concentrate on old themes such as mineral extractive sectors and raw materials export; yet China presents itself as a model of economic transformation from which African states may learn. Thus, directly challenging the decades-long campaigns to diffuse liberal democratic norms in Africa (Campbell 2008). Chinese FDI in Africa surged during and in the wake of the global financial crisis and continues to diversify (Pigato and Tang 2015, 2). Russia is inserting itself in the extractive industries, oil and natural gas, as well as, arms sales and military advising in African states (Ross 2018; U.S. Department of Defense 2019, 62–63). Turkey is inserting itself into the political-economy around the Horn of Africa (Kabandula and Shaw 2018), an essential region for global trade, an epicenter for terrorism and source of migrants. The Gulf Cooperation states are exerting influence in African nations as they work to diversify their individual economies (Tok, McSparren, and Olender 2017; McSparren and D’Alessandro 2017). In confronting these non-state and state challenges, the US must leverage its resources to maximize the benefits of burden-sharing arrangements in these two key geostrategic regions to ensure security at home.

West and East African regions: The parameters

Across sub-Saharan Africa, inter- and intra-state conflict exacerbated by terrorism and transnational organized criminal networks (TOC) destabilize communities and state institutions. This creates insecurity that drives poverty, terrorist recruitment, and irregular migration.  Radical Islamic terrorists exploits state fragility by instigating conflict, and benefiting from TOC. Aning and Abdallah  (2016) warn that Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Algeria, and Ethiopia are the new terrorism and extremism epicenters. Similarly, analysis from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS)[1] shows that a majority of terrorist activities are concentrated in North, East and West Africa, predominantly in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Niger, and Mali. Notable groups include al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, AQIM (al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).[2]

Persistent terrorist activities and expanding networks have prompted the US to develop bilateral and multilateral alliances with regional states and international partners in Africa. These partnerships aim to undermine terrorist group activities at the source where it is most pervasive for the purpose of curtailing terrorism’s international reach (U.S. Department of Defense 2018).

Peacekeeping and counter-terrorism activities in the West African Sahel

States in the West African region are challenged to protect their borders due to the vast expanse of the Sahara Desert creating ‘ungoverned’ spaces. This characteristic has also been a draw for jihadist groups trying to allude state authorities. The United States has been engaged in the Sahara since 2003 executing the Global War on Terror (GWoT) against its primary target, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates. Currently, the US has upward of 800 special forces deployed in Niamey and Agadez, Niger providing training, logistics, and intelligence in support of the Nigerien military (Haywood 2017). France is deeply engaged in the region since Operation Serval began in 2013. France liberated three northern regions of Mali from Islamist control. As of August 2014, the French mission has expanded to a regional focus under the name, Operation Barkhane (4,000 troops). The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was also established in 2013. Barkhane and MINUSMA are supported by Malian military and police forces. Additionally, the European Union contributes to operations in the Sahel with the EU Training Mission-Mali, established in 2013 as a capacity-building mission to train security forces from Mali and Niger to support domestic agencies countering extremism and organized crime.

In addition to these international military operations and individual state militaries a regional approach to policing the Sahel-Sahara region is also underway. the G-5 Sahel multinational joint task force (Force Conjointe du Sahel – FC-G5 Sahel) (Secretariat Permanent du G5 Sahel 2018) was initiated on January 31, 2014 (Reuters 2014). The G-5 Sahel Force is a collaboration among Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. This force is a similar mobilization to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) comprised of Nigerian, Nigerien, and Chadian soldiers deployed in the Lake Chad region against Boko Haram (Diallo 2017, 303). The G5 Sahel joint command plans to mobilize in three geographic areas across the region. The prime objective of the force is to fight the disparate terrorist and transnational criminal organizations operating in the region (Offner 2018) and identify common projects focusing on infrastructure, food security, agriculture and pastoralism and security (Bøås 2018). The G-5 Sahel is a regional organization established to strengthen cooperation on development and security in the Sahel region. On the UN Security Council, the US has been reluctant to support the G-5 Sahel force and has expressed preference for bilateral arrangements with these states.

Peacekeeping and counter-terrorism activities in the Horn of Africa

Different actors, but similar crises challenge the US and its partners in in the greater Horn of Africa region. Al-Shabaab in Somalia emerged in 2006 and has since been a threat to the region in spite of US and European Union (EU) backed African Union (AU), Kenyan and Ethiopian force deployments (Menkhaus 2016).

The US and its partners the AU, United Nations (UN), and the League of Arab States support the UN sponsored Djibouti Peace Process for Somalia. These efforts have expanded through financial support from the US and EU with approval of the UN Security Council and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) allowing the AU to apply the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) in creating the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM is the main multilateral counter-terrorism partnership in East Africa. Apart from the US and EU, Gulf States, Turkey, and China are also assisting the AU and the Somali government in efforts to eliminate Al-Shabaab.

It has been over a decade since the US and its partners embarked on eradicating al-Shabaab and its affiliates. Still, radicalized Islamic influence persists and extends to most countries in East and Southern Africa through transnational networks that include links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) (IGAD 2016).

The additional challenge of state ‘free-riding’

Counter-terrorism partnerships in the Horn are built on the understanding that African countries take operational lead using local soldiers while the US, EU, other partners provide the necessary finances, equipment, and training. Similar dynamics are upheld in the Sahel region as well. These missions create a network of partners that must be deterred from ‘free-riding’, absconding from their expected contributions.

Freedman (1998) points out that states attempting to remedy transnational security threats face the “free-rider problem” because certain governments are willing to “free ride” at the expense of other states. Broadly enforced political pressure on transnational terrorist organizations from Western governments, the US and France in particular, has enabled some countries in East Africa, to free-ride on the terrorism fight and pursue their own agendas. For example, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Burundi have exploited free-riding and benefited the most from the war on terrorism in Somalia. Uganda and Burundi contribute troops to the AMISOM force. This allowed them to benefit by advancing their identities as peacemakers in the region which diverted the attention of the international community from their own repressive governments and internal political struggles. Similarly, Kenya and Ethiopia continue act like regional powers in East Africa by influencing politics in Somalia. Nonetheless, they both have political and economic interests in Somalia that encourage them to free-ride on counter-terrorism initiatives.

Concluding remarks

The United States’ diplomatic and military engagements in West and East Africa rely on state-to-state partnerships, both bilateral and multilateral arrangements. The US must continue to engage partners in these regions to address the myriad of factors promoting insecurity on the continent and abroad. Our research project will provide a better understanding of the dynamics of this security nexus; it will also produce strategic plans to aid the US in maximizing benefits as well as discouraging free-riding from partner-states. The analysis we will provide will assist the US in dealing with threats of terrorism and irregular migration; in addition, it will empower the US in relation to rival states operating on the African continent.


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