In Depth

UK troops in the Sahel: the ‘new terror frontline’

British forces tackle jihadists in ‘most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world’

Britain is to step up its military support of the UN mission in the Sahel, the semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert that is being described as the “new frontline” in the war against Islamist terror.

In Senegal over the past month, 30 UK soldiers and Royal Marines have been training special forces from several West African countries, and later this year 250 troops will assist a mission in Mali alongside French, UN and local forces.

The aim is to combat the spread of groups linked to Islamic State and al-Qa’eda, and has been described as “the most dangerous peacekeeping operation in the world”, says the BBC

Where is the Sahel?

The Sahel spreads across the width of Africa on the southern border of the Sahara Desert, from northern Senegal and Mauritania on the Atlantic  coast, through parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and into Sudan and Eritrea. The countries principally affected by the spread of Islamist violence in the region, and those whose forces are working together to combat it – Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – are known as the G5 Sahel group.

The stretch of semi-desert is sparsely populated and over the past decade it has become a target for jihadist groups, who have expanded their reach beyond strongholds in northern Mali.

What is going on?

The “security crisis” in the Sahel started in 2012, said Al Jazeera, “when an alliance of separatists and armed groups took hold of northern Mali”. France, the former colonial power, moved in troops to halt their advance and prevent a collapse of the Malian state.

There are several local jihadist groups fighting in the Sahel, principally the al-Qa’eda-linked Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the Isis-affiliated Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and Ansar ul Islam in Burkina Faso, said The Daily Telegraph. They work by deliberately stirring existing ethnic and religious animosities in the region, particularly in Mali.

Forces led by France, the UN and the G5 Sahel group have been trying to stop the spread of jihadism in the region for the past seven years, but the efforts have so far widely been seen as unsuccessful.

In 2019, 5,366 people were killed across the five countries, says The Telegraph, and 1,214 more have lost their lives so far this year. The paper adds that 208 UN peacekeepers have died in Mali since 2013. The death toll in 2019 rose by 600% in Burkina Faso alone, where the UN says 700,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the past 12 months. 

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What is the UK’s role?

The UK’s 250 troops may seem like a small contribution to the UN’s Sahel mission, officially known as Minusma, which consists of 11,620 troops stationed in Mali. There are also 4,500 French troops on the ground across the Sahel already.

But while most troops are participating in a traditional peacekeeping mission, with UN troops stationed in bases near important towns, the British contingent is being assigned to spearhead a new, more risky operation.

They will carry out long-range reconnaissance patrols of up to 30 days, deep into jihadist territory, and be on stand-by for “rapid deployment”. The tactics of the jihadist groups in the Sahel, for example the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or roadside bombs, are similar to those that British forces have faced in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years.

The Telegraph reports that Lt Gen Dennis Gyllensporre, Minusma’s Swedish commanding officer, said: “With a manoeuvrable force, we can be more proactive in anticipating attacks, projecting force and deterring and going in where there are confrontations.”

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