Expanded Coordination Needed Despite New Sahel Coalition

By Brian M. Perkins, Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, June 26, 2020 Volume XVIII, Issue 13

As jihadist groups have wreaked havoc across the Sahel and found safe havens in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso over the past several years, coastal West African nations repeatedly raised the alarm that the violence was knocking on the region’s doorsteps. A stark reminder of this threat came again on June 11, when unidentified jihadists attacked a frontier post on Ivory Coast’s border with Burkina Faso, killing at least 10 Ivorian soldiers. The attack was the first by a jihadist group since al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the 2016 attack on the Grand Bassam Hotel that killed at least 19 people. The assault on the frontier post comes amid French efforts to launch a new coalition against Sahel-based militants, but preventing the spread of violence into coastal West African states will largely fall outside the French coalition’s direct purview.

On June 12, France launched a new coalition of West African and European allies that aims to bring the 5,000 French troops in the region and those from the G5 Sahel states of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania under a single command (RFI, June 15). The coalition will also see support from Canada, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The focus of the coalition’s efforts will be on the tri-border region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, where Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS)—now formally part of the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP)—are particularly active. While the new coalition will likely help disrupt militancy in the tri-border region, it could also displace militants, pushing them deeper into Burkina Faso and the trickle-down effects of successful operations in the tri-border area will be slow to ease the concerns of states along West Africa’s coast.

While not part of the coalition, the Ivory Coast has taken on a more active role in the fight against Sahel-based jihadist groups as their activities have increasingly spread beyond the tri-border region into southwestern Burkina Faso. The outpost attack came just a month after Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso launched their first joint military operation, named Operation Comoe.

Operation Comoe, named for the river that runs along the border, was prompted by an increase in jihadist activity in southwestern Burkina Faso over the past year and has taken place between Ferkéssédougou, Ivory Coast and Banfora, Burkina Faso. The operation has resulted in the death of at least eight militants and the arrest of 38 others, as well as the dismantling of a “jihadist base” in Alidougou, Burkina Faso (Al Jazeera, June 11). Despite some successes, the operation also further highlighted ongoing mistrust and a lack of coordination among the two countries as an Ivorian commander reportedly leaked details of a joint operation to civilians, compromising the mission (Jeune Africa, May 22). Prior to the launch of Operation Comoe, Ivorian authorities expressed frustration in January over the lack of coordination after Burkinabe forces shelled jihadist positions along the border in January without informing their Ivorian counterparts (LSi Africa, January 5).

While the new French coalition raises some hope of progress against jihadists in the Sahel, it will likely do little to assuage the fears of coastal West African states, particularly Ivory Coast. The attack on the Ivorian military post underscored the threat and while Operation Comoe is a positive step, it highlights the need to strengthen both regional and international cooperation in the coastal region. France and the Sahel coalition should work to facilitate closer coordination with neighboring states that fall outside of the coalition to address the threats outside of the coalition’s core area of operations.