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Germany warns of Sahel terrorism threat

Stephanie Höppner with dpa, AP
December 27, 2019

The security situation in Africa's Sahel is deteriorating, with terrorism threatening both soldiers and civilians, according to Germany’s Defense Ministry. The UN's peacekeeping mission has thus far proven ineffective.

A Nigerian soldier walks by wreckage from a suicide bombing
Image: AFP/B. Hama

Germany's opposition, business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) recently submitted a formal inquiry to the government in Berlin about its military operations in Africa's Sahel region. In its response, the Defense Ministry painted a bleak picture of the situation, stating that "jihadist groups active in the region are enjoying largely unfettered freedom of movement and can, in part thanks to the local population, act as they wish." The classified document, which German news agency DPA has seen, also states that "broad, sparsely populated areas with little or no state control allow criminal and jihadist networks to operate."

Read more: Burkina Faso tense, in mourning, amid jihadist attacks

The Sahel, a semiarid corridor south of the Sahara desert that stretches from Africa's Atlantic coast to the Red Sea, spans numerous countries, including Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali. A recent terrorist attack in Burkina Faso left over 100 people dead, including many civilians. In Niger, 14 security personnel were killed in an attack over the Christmas period. And earlier this month, hundreds of jihadist fighters launched an attack on a Niger army base, killing 71 soldiers. According to the UN, conflict and violence have displaced half-a-million civilians in Burkina Faso alone.

Germany's Defense Ministry says that Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), two al-Qaida-affiliated groups, are largely responsible for the region's deteriorating security situation. It says both instrumentalize ethnic tensions in the region for their own agenda, and that Mali's security forces are often overwhelmed by these fighters — despite the presence of international forces, such as Germany's, on the ground.

French troops repair a helicopter in Mali
France has deployed thousands of troops to the Sahel regionImage: Reuters/B. Tessier

Germany rejects dispatch of special forces

France has twice requested the dispatch of European special forces to tackle Mali's dangerous security situation. Specifically, France called for the creation of a Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. Germany, however, twice turned down the request, as the Defense Ministry statement reveals. 

In 2014, France launched the anti-terrorism mission Operation Barkhane in Mali and other Sahel region countries. It has committed some 4,500 soldiers to the mission. Germany, meanwhile, has dispatched 1,100 soldiers to Mali as part of the largely ineffective UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as well as the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali). MINUSMA is one of most dangerous UN missions to date, with 180 troops killed since the operation began some six years ago. Scores of troops have also been seriously wounded during that time.

Read more: Anti-French sentiment on the rise in West Africa as security situation deteriorates

The Defense Ministry's report also says that the G5 Sahel group's anti-terrorism unit — comprised of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger — "may conduct only limited operations." The joint unit has about 5,000 soldiers and was created last year. However, critics say that the five states have failed to effectively coordinate their actions. 

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in Mali
The FDP has accused German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of inaction in the Sahel regionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. I. Bänsch

FDP says German government has no plan

In mid-December, the G5 countries called for MINUSMA, which was launched in 2013, to be given a broader mandate by the UN. The appeal came after an IS-affiliated group launched an attack on a military base in Inates, Niger, killing more than 70 people.

Read more: Burkina Faso: A terrorist gold mine

FDP defense expert Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann has demanded Germany's government devise a comprehensive strategy to address the Sahel situation, pointing out that Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had promised to overhaul MINUSMA and EUTM, as well as Germany's mission, while visiting troops in Niger and Mali in October. Strack-Zimmermann contends, that while "Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's announcements made headlines, they have lead to nothing."

"The government has no plan to strategically focus its engagement in the Sahel region, or to coordinate the actions of Germany's Foreign, Defense, as well as Economic Cooperation and Development Ministries," she said.