Days after President Trump declared the Islamic State’s caliphate had been eliminated in Syria, the prime minister of one of West Africa’s most turbulent nations urged the United States to shift attention to a rising extremist threat in the Sahel.
Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga visited Washington this week to ask U.S. officials to bolster support for his country’s fight against terrorism, warning that the weakened Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could jump-start the flow of extremists across the Sahel, Africa’s arid northwest, worsen the region’s security and jeopardize American interests there.
“The United States should have the same engagement in the Sahel as it does in the Middle East,” he said in an interview. “Malian security is the essential key to international security.”
Extremist groups, including some affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, have wreaked havoc across parts of West Africa and the Sahel. In 2012, al-Qaeda-linked extremists infiltrated Mali, taking control of some of the country’s territory. A French intervention eventually beat them back, but parts of Mali remain a hotbed for extremists.
In December, the White House unveiled a broad Africa strategy that included prioritizing efforts to counter “radical Islamic terrorism.” But the Pentagon has also announced plans to slash by 10 percent its presence in Africa, where about 7,200 U.S. troops and personnel are stationed.
Maïga said Mali is “not demanding a massive presence of American soldiers” but wants Washington to supply training and equipment to help its military counter violence that has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians this year. After Maïga met with White House national security adviser John Bolton on Wednesday, Bolton tweeted that he had “reiterated our commitment to partnering with Mali to defeat threats from terrorist groups in the Sahel.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the nature of the commitment.
Maïga’s visit came days after one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in Mali in recent years, as Islamist extremism, reactionary ethnic violence and heavy-handed security forces have led to a deteriorating security situation there.
On March 23, gunmen targeted members of the Fulani ethnic group in central Mali, killing at least 157 people — many of them children. The United Nations and the International Criminal Court are sending experts to investigate the massacre.
The attack may have stemmed from a conflict between Islamist extremists, who have successfully recruited some Fulani, and anti-extremism vigilante groups. Conflicts between Fulani, who are predominantly Muslim herders, and other ethnic groups have erupted across West Africa as competition over land and resources has grown.
In Mali, extremist recruitment of Fulani has amplified those tensions, human rights groups have documented, and self-defense groups have in some cases responded by targeting Fulanis over perceived allegiances to extremists.
The mounting violence between Malian communities has worsened the crisis in parts of Mali that were already prone to extremist attacks. Earlier this month, militants attacked the Malian military, killing at least 23 troops in the same region where Saturday’s attack took place.
Insecurity has spread despite the presence of French troops and a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali.
A third of all attacks and 12 percent of related deaths in the Sahel since November occurred in Mali, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nongovernmental organization.
Militants have targeted civilians 145 times over that period — a 150 percent increase compared with the same window the year before.
The government is ill-equipped to deal with the surging violence, analysts say. Mali is nearly two-thirds desert, with porous borders, and does not have enough soldiers to patrol a nation nearly twice the size of Texas.
The stage was set for Mali’s unrest in 2011 after Libya collapsed with the fall of Moammar Gaddafi, said Adotei Akwei, deputy director for advocacy and government relations at Amnesty International USA. Fighters fled to the south and west, and weapons poured into the Sahel.
The undoing of the Islamic State in Syria has raised fears the group’s downfall in the Middle East could fuel a similar rush of chaos in North and West Africa.
“That turns small groups that could do a little damage into really destructive forces,” Akwei said. “ISIS may have lost its territory, but you don’t know where they’re going to reappear, and West Africa is clearly a porous place.”
Maïga acknowledged the government’s resources are spread thin, and that lack of infrastructure and equipment has made it difficult for the military to control the widespread violence.
The country has long relied on France for backup, and about 4,500 French troops are based throughout the Sahel. The U.N. peacekeeping mission has nearly 15,000 military and police personnel in Mali alone.
Now Mali wants extra support from Washington.
The flow of U.S. military hardware to Mali dropped off after the 2012 coup d’etat that set off a long period of instability. (Previously, the Pentagon provided more than $5 million in new vehicles, including 37 Land Cruiser pickup trucks and communications equipment to Malian troops.)
Marc Porter, an American special adviser to the Malian prime minister, said that the government soon plans to ask the United States for equipment, including C-130 and Black Hawk aircraft, to assist it in the fight against extremism. Cmdr. Candice Tresch, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said she could not “discuss specific content of internal conversations, including pre-decisional intentions.”
But experts warned against providing further equipment to the Malian military, which has faced accusations of widespread human rights abuses in its crackdown on extremist violence.
Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mali wants to “outsource security responsibilities to the U.S. and France while doing as little as possible to address underlying matters.”