Understanding the G5 Sahel Joint Force: Fighting Terror, Building Regional Security?

The G5 Sahel Joint Force—a partnership among five states in Africa’s Sahel region that have been hard hit by al Qaeda– and Islamic State–linked terrorist attacks—launched its first regional operation earlier this month to drum up support for the new initiative. In its initial phase, G5 member states Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad will seek to improve security along their shared borders, through improved cooperation and deployment of joint patrols to interdict the flow of terror groups and traffickers that currently cross these porous national boundaries with ease.

The force was authorized by the African Union Peace and Security Council in April 2017 and was strengthened by the adoption of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2359 in June. It has had the strong backing of France, which currently has some 4,000 troops deployed to the region to work with regional militaries and directly engage terrorist fighters. The United States has been more hesitant to back the G5, pressing the member states to more clearly articulate their broader strategy, but ultimately the U.S. government pledged $60 million in bilateral support to the initiative. The pledge comes at a moment of internal policy debate in Washington over U.S. military engagement in the region, following an ambush on October 4 by extremist fighters in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers just miles from Niger’s border with Mali.

The Threat

The ambush in Niger has brought newfound attention to U.S. engagement in the region, with a number of senior lawmakers and media pundits expressing surprise at the size of the U.S. regional deployment and raising questions about its mission. Neither the armed incident nor the deployment, however, should have come as a surprise. Multiple terrorist attacks have occurred in the capitals of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso over the past three years, as well as attacks on security personnel in the border regions of these countries. On October 21, an attack in Niger’s southwest killed 13 gendarmes, and five days later three UN peacekeepers died in Mali when a roadside device exploded. Mali has just extended its state of emergency for another three months. Burkina Faso has seen an alarming rise in attacks against security forces and civilians in its northern region, along the border with Mali.

Throughout the Sahel, a complex web of transnational criminal networks and militant groups thrives in an environment of weak states, porous borders, and humanitarian crisis. As General Thomas D. Waldhauser (USMC) recently noted: “In Africa with all the challenges of the youth bulge, poverty, the lack of governance, wide open spaces, these are areas where violent extremist organizations, like ISIS or like al Qaeda, thrive.” A 2016 CSIS report, Militancy and the Arc of Instability: Violent Extremism in the Sahel, coauthored by the Africa Program and the Transnational Threats Project, examined the emergence and evolution of extremist groups in the region, their pursuit of links with al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and the political economy of criminality and competition in which they operate.

The Sahel drew international attention in 2012, when al Qaeda–affiliated groups took control of key towns and territories in Mali’s vast northern region. Years of malgovernance in Mali and a failure to tackle the grievances of northern populations had undermined the legitimacy of the state and deepened long-standing animosities. A long-simmering insurgency, led by Tuareg groups seeking greater autonomy for the country’s north gained strength, as Tuareg fighters, who had served as mercenaries for the Libyan government, returned to Mali following the collapse of Muammar el Qaddafi’s regime and joined the fight. After a military coup opened a power vacuum in Bamako, a coalition of Islamist extremist groups made common cause with the Tuareg insurgents to take control of northern territory. These groups had established a strong financial base in the preceding decade through trafficking and kidnapping for ransom operations. They quickly sidelined the Tuareg fighters, imposed harsh religious rules on local populations, and proceeded to destroy tombs, historic mosques, and invaluable manuscripts in the ancient town of Timbuktu.

In 2013, after a period of relative stasis, jihadist fighters moved southward toward strategic towns in central Mali, prompting French forces to intervene. The French-led Operation Serval pushed back the extremist advance and eventually reclaimed Mali’s northern half.

Regional Security Traffic Jam

Since then, the region has seen a rapid expansion of international security forces:

  • The French Operation Barkhane (headquartered in the Chad capital N’Djamena, 4,000 personnel) was established in August 2014 as a sequel to Operation Serval. The well-equipped force is the largest French military operation abroad. It aims to secure the region and fight terrorism in partnership with regional actors and involves joint operations with Mali, Niger, and Chad. French forces are authorized to undertake direct, kinetic operations against terrorist fighters. Barkhane’s primary focus remains counterterrorism, but with the ultimate aim of transitioning to military assistance to local forces when deemed appropriate.

  • The UN Multinational Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA, headquartered in Bamako, 10,000 soldiers and 2,000 police) was initially an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and African Union deployment. Authority for the mission was transferred to the United Nations in 2013. MINUSMA duties were broadened in 2014 to include stabilization and protection of civilians, support for national political dialogue and reconciliation, and assistance with the reestablishment of authority by the Malian state. In these tasks, MINUSMA has had limited success, as an agreement between the Malian government and powerful armed political groups in northern Mali has stalled repeatedly. Although the mission does not include counterterrorism in its mandate, MINUSMA bases, convoys, and personnel have come under repeated attack by extremists and armed groups, with 80 casualties since its initial deployment.

  • Multiple bilateral training missions: several entities are engaged in military training in the region, including the European Union, which conducts two training missions in Mali—the EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) and the EU Capacity-Building Mission (EUCAP), also present in Niger. The United States established Operation Enduring Freedom–Trans Sahara (OEF-TS) in 2007, primarily a training mission to equip regional militaries to combat insurgents. The U.S. footprint has expanded dramatically recent years, with U.S.-operated drone bases in Niger and Burkina Faso and some 1,000 U.S. forces deployed. Training exercises are one component of the broader U.S. Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), which includes nonmilitary assistance to improve governance, strengthen social cohesion, and dampen the allure of militancy and extremism. The United States, along with France, is also engaged in the fight against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin region, which affects some, but not all, of the G5 states and has required a further deployment of resources and personnel.

Despite this regional “security traffic jam,” the fight against terrorism has stalled, and extremist groups have proved nimble and resilient. Without the will and commitment of the Malian government and armed political groups to implement a political agreement, MINUSMA has been unable to fulfill its mandate, and extension of state authority in northern Mali has been limited. France has expressed willingness to sustain its effort through Operation Barkhane, but it is unlikely to expand its efforts, given its need to deploy forces domestically to respond to the rising threat of terrorist attacks at home. In Mali, the European Union has trained 10,000 soldiers (one-third of the national army), but progress is slow.

As a result, jihadist groups have regrouped and proliferated. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) recently joined with other extremist groups to form the coalition Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims), and new groups continue to emerge, including a recent AQIM spin-off calling itself Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which is thought to be responsible for the October ambush that killed four U.S. servicemen. Trafficking in arms, drugs, and human beings continues unabated, creating a thriving criminal economy. A recent UN Security Council report attests that the security situation in the Sahel is “descending into all out violence.”

G5S as a Coordinated Regional Response to Instability

The G5 Sahel (G5S) Joint Force cannot alone secure the Sahel, and national forces, operating within their own borders, will still bear the greatest responsibility for eliminating the terror and trafficking threat. But the force is an important first step toward greater regional cooperation and will address an immediate challenge of preventing fighters and traffickers from evading pursuit by slipping across national boundaries.

The force comprises up to 5,000 military and police personnel drawn from national battalions. It incorporates the existing Liptako-Gourma task force established earlier this year by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to secure their shared border region (which encompasses the area in which the U.S. Special Forces were ambushed). The force is commanded by General Didier Dacko, former chief of staff of the Malian Armed Forces, who is stationed at the Joint Force Headquarters in Sévaré in central Mali. Under General Dacko are three sectoral commands: one in the Liptako-Gourma transborder area, one along the Mali-Mauritania border, and a third along the Niger-Chad border.

The Joint Force is intended to complement the mandates of MINUSMA and Operation Barkhane and close a capacity gap between the two. Taking a more comprehensive approach to addressing security in the region, the mandate of the Joint Force exceeds Barkhane’s mandate in that it addresses both terrorism and transnational organized crime through joint cross-border operations and antiterror operations and includes the facilitation of humanitarian operations, development activities, and the restoration of state authority. It is hoped that by improving the overall security situation, the G5 Sahel Force will also enable MINUSMA to better fulfill its peacekeeping mandate.

The legal framework in which the force operates is the result of complex diplomatic bargaining, as reflected in UNSC Resolution 2359. The council “welcomes” the G5 Sahel, which it sees as an opportunity for increased “regional counter-terrorism cooperation.” The French had initially insisted that the force be “authorized” by the Security Council under Chapter VII, but the United States balked. Chairing the UNSC this month, France has put the Joint Force at the top of the agenda again and organized a UNSC visit to the command headquarters in Mali. On that trip, copresiding Ethiopian ambassador Tekeda Alemu promised the G5 Sahel countries the council’s support.

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead: Funding and Political Unity

Funding is perhaps the most immediate challenge for the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Regional actors in the Sahel region lack financial resources: Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are among the poorest countries in the world. The budget for the regional security initiative is estimated at $500 million for the force’s first year of operation (that cost might be reduced to $300 million according to French sources), and only about a third of that amount is currently pledged. The G5 countries themselves have each pledged $10 million. The European Union, which is in strong support of the initiative, has pledged $70 million. France and Germany have jointly supported the G5 force bilaterally by cohosting planning meetings in Paris and Berlin and by mobilizing additional resources, such as training and protection equipment. Other EU member states, such as Austria, Belgium, and Denmark, have expressed interest in supporting the force, but arrangements have yet to be made. The United States, which was reluctant to fund another UN mission, has pledged $60 million through bilateral channels. A donor conference will be organized in Brussels on December 14.

A second challenge will be to avoid redundancy and operational conflict with the two existing forces, MINUSMA and Operation Barkhane. France expects the G5S force to take advantage of ad hoc multilateral operations conducted under Barkhane. But Chad, a military pillar of the new force, already deploys 1,400 soldiers under the MINUSMA operation and has made clear this summer that it won’t deploy more troops unless the existing framework is simplified. Resolution 2359 therefore “urges the FC-G5S, MINUSMA and the French forces to ensure adequate coordination and exchange of information, through relevant mechanisms, of their operations, within their respective mandates.” A key to success will be the ability to set up effective coordination and interoperability between the forces. And Chad’s objections may foreshadow future debates over burden sharing and sustainability. It also remains to be seen whether the G5S Joint Force might undercut the African Union’s efforts to establish an African Security Standby Force.

A broad concern is whether the attention and investment in this high-profile military initiative will eclipse some of the nonsecurity elements of a comprehensive response—improving governance, engaging communities, investing in development and social cohesion—or reinforce a tendency to seek narrow military solutions to the region’s security challenges. The G5S force will be successful only if it is embedded within a more integrated approach to regional security and development. While the alliance formed in the wake of the crisis in Mali, the initial purpose of the G5 alliance expanded beyond the scope of security to encompass issues such as good governance, food security, and climate change. In the Sahel more than anywhere else, there is a strong link among poverty, drug trafficking, terrorism, ethnicity, land conflicts, and access to resources. This is both a challenge, since it might complicate coordination should unexpected issues arise, and an opportunity, since the operationalization of the G5 Sahel Force demonstrates than it is effectively possible to adopt an integrated and transnational approach to key national security issues in the Sahel.


The G5 Sahel Force benefits from being African led and French backed, but more international support is needed to turn the project into a viable force in the longer run. The European Union’s support to the initiative materially demonstrates its own will to reach “strategic autonomy” by supporting the stability of neighboring regions. U.S. financial and logistical support also appears critical to the success of the project since the country has unique monitoring and transportation assets in the area. If the G5S Joint Force succeeds in building support among local populations, it might help prevent the formation of a new haven for jihadi movements in Africa, as the Islamic State is being militarily defeated in Syria and Iraq. As recalled by the Malian minister of foreign affairs at a recent CSIS conference, the G5 Sahel Force is not calling for help, but rather inviting third parties to “invest” in regional security.

The G5 Sahel Force could open new possibilities for regional collaboration in West Africa. This regional patchwork might prove an opportunity: Mauritania as a player in the Maghreb; Chad as a prominent military actor in Central Africa; Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in Western Africa with more diplomatic clout together. That the five countries could agree on complex coordination mechanisms is a positive step in such a challenging environment. The G5 Sahel Force could pave the way for resuming stalled political reconciliation in the region, especially in Mali. It could demonstrate that regional actors are able to shape and develop a shared vision of their regional interests, in the military domain and beyond. The G5 Sahel Joint Force will not be a panacea, but cross-border collaboration will be a vital element of any long-term solution to the regional security challenges.

Jennifer G. Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Katrin Heger is a research associate with the CSIS Africa Program. Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the CSIS Europe Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Boris Toucas

Katrin Heger