THIES, Senegal — The only place in the world where fighters linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are cooperating is in West Africa’s sprawling Sahel region, giving the extremists greater depth as they push into new areas, according to the commander of the U.S. military’s special operations forces in Africa.
“I believe that if it’s left unchecked it could very easily develop into a great threat to the West and the United States,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson told The Associated Press in an interview this week.
The leader of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa described the threat even as the Pentagon considers reducing the U.S. military presence in Africa.
Experts have long worried about collaboration between al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. While the cooperation in the Sahel is not currently a direct threat to the U.S. or the West, “it’s very destabilizing to the region,” Anderson said.
He spoke on the sidelines of the U.S. military’s annual counterterrorism exercise in West Africa, currently the most active region for extremists on the continent.
The alarming new collaboration in the Sahel between affiliates of al-Qaida and ISIS is a result of ethnic ties in the region that includes Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
“Whereas in other parts of the world they have different objectives and a different point of view that tends to bring Islamic State and al-Qaida into conflict, here they’re able to overcome that and work for a common purpose,” Anderson said, emphasizing that it’s a local phenomenon.
The cooperation allows the extremist groups to appeal to a wider audience in a largely rural region where government presence is sparse and frustration with unemployment is high.
The past year has seen a surge in deadly violence in the Sahel, with more than 2,600 people killed and more than half a million displaced in Burkina Faso alone.
Al-Qaida is the deeper threat both in the region and globally, Anderson said.
“Islamic State is much more aggressive and blunt, and so in some ways they appear to be the greater threat,” he said. But al-Qaida, which continues to quietly expand, is “for us the longer strategic concern.”
Al-Qaida has been successful at consolidating efforts in northern Mali and moving south into more populated areas “and taking various groups and galvanizing them together into a coherent movement,” Anderson said.
The most prominent of those affiliates is a coalition of al-Qaida-linked groups known as JNIM with about 2,000 fighters in the region, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
West Africa’s Sahel, the vast strip of land just south of the Sahara Desert, for years has struggled to contain the extremist threat. In 2012, al-Qaida-linked fighters seized large swaths of northern Mali. French forces pushed them from strongholds in 2013 but the fighters have regrouped and spread south.
The largest ISIS affiliate in the region, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, emerged more recently and claimed responsibility for killing four U.S. soldiers in Niger in 2017. The attack led to an outcry in Washington and questions about the U.S. military presence in Africa.
Between the advances of al-Qaida and ISIS-linked fighters, once-peaceful Burkina Faso has become the latest front for what experts call an alarming rate of deadly attacks.
The al-Qaida affiliates visit areas in advance to “engage with key leaders in key locations to recruit early,” Anderson said. Others move in later.
The fighters are funding themselves with kidnapping for ransom as they attempt to control access to markets via taxation methods, he said. They also are likely eyeing what has been a source of income for centuries: gold.
“I believe they’d be happy to be able to control some of the artisanal mines and the other mines in the area, especially the gold and other precious metals that are easily transportable,” Anderson said.
While al-Qaida affiliates work toward establishing safe havens, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara is working to destabilize local governance, control territory and rally people to their cause, he said.
The strategy for countering the growing threat from the patchwork of Islamic extremist groups is a whole-of-governance one that goes beyond military efforts, Anderson said: “There’s no easy answer.”
Many young men in the largely impoverished region feel isolated from the government and are drawn in by extremists’ promises of employment and purpose.
“Al-Qaida, whether we agree with it or not, brings some level of justice to many of these areas, and some level of services that aren’t provided by central governments,” Anderson said. “And they provide some representation to minority groups that don’t feel part of the larger community, such as the Fulani or the Tuareg.”
African partners need to invest in governance, he emphasized, though international involvement is necessary.
The French lead the military effort in the Sahel with more than 5,000 forces and they hope to bring in more European partners.
But the French have urged the U.S. to reconsider any cuts to its already small military footprint of about 1,400 personnel in West Africa. The U.S. has about 6,000 personnel on the continent.
Anderson countered that the U.S. is already doing a lot in the Sahel through the State Department, a large USAID presence and investment. “Instead of looking at the size of the presence, I think we should look at what is the appropriate engagement across the government, from all levels,” he said.
With very small engagement, the U.S. can still help countries develop the capabilities to build coalitions and share intelligence, Anderson said.
“It’s going to take all these nations working together, but also it’s going to have to be African solutions to an African problem,” he said.