The withdrawal of French troops from Mali raises new security fears for the region

Mali’s relations with Paris deteriorated after the junta came to power in a coup in August 2020, eventually triggering the withdrawal of French troops which was completed on Monday. Russian mercenaries could fill the void left by France’s departure amid fresh fears that jihadists from the Sahel are expanding their reach on Africa’s west coast.

Their campaign began in northern Mali a decade ago, advanced into the powder keg center of the country and from there into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso. Now fears are growing that the ruthless jihadists wreaking havoc in the Sahel are heading for the shores of West Africa.

Following multiple incursions including deadly attacks in the northern regions of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo, the governments of the Gulf of Guinea are reviewing their strategy.

Their main concerns, according to analysts: how to avoid repeating the mistakes of their neighbors in the Sahel, and how best to mobilize foreign support.

As France winds down its nearly decade-long mission against jihadists in the country, Russian mercenaries appear to be filling the void. Fighters from the Wagner Group, a private military company linked to the Kremlin, have supported the Malian army in its fight against Islamist insurgents since late last year.

German troops spotted several dozen presumably Russian security forces at Gao airport in northern Mali on Monday, the day the last French soldiers completed their operations and left the town, according to a German military document dated tuesday.

Berlin’s participation in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali has been controversial for some time in Germany as the West African country deepens its Soviet-era ties with Russia.

An al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group claimed to have killed four mercenaries from the Russian private security group Wagner in an ambush in central Mali, monitoring group SITE Intelligence said on Monday. The Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel, said it on Saturday ambushed a group of Wagner soldiers as they rode motorcycles in the Bandiagara area of ​​the village from Djallo to the mountains, according to a statement by its propaganda branch and authenticated by SITE.

Its fighters killed four members of the group while the others fled, the statement said. Two local elected officials confirmed the incident to AFP. “Four Russians were killed this weekend by jihadists near Bandiagara,” said one of the local officials, who requested anonymity.

After Mali’s junta seized power in a coup in August 2020, the country’s relations with Paris entered a downward spiral, triggering a withdrawal of French troops that was completed on Monday.

Last month, Beninese President Patrice Talon told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that his country needed more equipment, including drones.

Among the coastal states, northern Benin has been the most affected by the expansion of the jihadist threat, with around 20 attacks against security forces since the end of 2021.

“What we are experiencing is terrifying,” a Beninese officer deployed to the border with Burkina Faso told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“We wake up every morning not knowing if we will survive the day,” he added.

Macron said France, despite exiting Mali, is committed to the “fight against terrorism” in West Africa.

He said he was ready to participate in the meetings of the “Accra Initiative”, a body created in 2017 to strengthen security cooperation between countries in the region.

“The deteriorating security situation in Burkina Faso and Mali has made the northern coastal countries the new frontline against armed groups operating in the Sahel,” the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think tank, said in a statement. report in April.

Countries in the region have stepped up security in vulnerable areas, including Ghana, which so far has been spared attacks.

But whether it will work is the big question.

Bolstering border security will be “ineffective, (just) like it was in the Sahel,” the Moroccan Political Center for the New South think tank warned this month.

Jihadist groups in the Sahel “are not traditional armies”, he said. “They spread ideas and exploit the grievances of target populations.”

Jeannine Ella Abatan, of the Pan-African Institute for Security Studies in Senegal, described the wave of recent attacks as “the tip of the iceberg”.

“Since 2019, studies on the Sahel show that extremist groups were already connected to coastal states, either for logistical or operational support, but also for funding,” she told AFP.

The militants do not occupy territory in coastal countries but rather infiltrate northern regions where they carry out sophisticated attacks, Abatan said.

Togo first experienced a jihadist attack in May 2021. The first known fatal attack in Benin dates back to last December, when two soldiers were killed near the border with Burkina Faso. In Côte d’Ivoire, four members of the security forces died in 2021 after 14 in 2020.

Such attacks, Abatan said, are only possible with good intelligence-gathering capabilities and the “complicity” of locals.

Increased recruitment among border populations is a major threat, she said.

“Difficult living conditions can easily tempt desperate people to join terrorist camps,” a Beninese police officer from the troubled region told AFP.

Last week, a widely circulated propaganda video featuring two jihadists speaking Bariba, the local language in northern Benin, called on people to join them and threatened those who collaborate with the state.

Investment “The state must urgently respond to the needs of these people – making them feel protected by the presence of security forces instead of letting them seek protection from these groups,” Abatan said.

Amnesty International has warned of allegations of human rights abuses by security forces in Benin and Togo, as well as arbitrary detentions.

Coastal countries seem to have accepted the argument that poverty and other sources of resentment create a potential breeding ground for recruitment.

In Benin, the government has launched development projects, building schools and hospitals in some underdeveloped areas, and millions of dollars have been invested in Côte d’Ivoire.

But there is still much to do, according to the Moroccan think tank, which also issues a specific warning against the militarization of border areas.

“Without an immediate and drastic change in approach,” he warned, people in these border areas “will collaborate with extremists to keep themselves alive as best they can.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)

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