What's In Blue

Posted Tue 18 Jun 2024

Arria-formula Meeting on Countering Terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel

Tomorrow afternoon (19 June), Sierra Leone will convene an Arria-formula meeting on “Combating the Rise of Terrorism and Violent Extremism in West Africa and the Sahel”. The meeting is being co-sponsored by the other Council members belonging to the “A3 plus one” grouping (which comprises Algeria, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Guyana). Briefings are expected from Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) Natalia Gherman, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) Leonardo Santos Simão, and Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations (DPPA-DPO) Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee. Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security Abdel-Fatau Musah and Senior Analyst at the AU Counter Terrorism Centre Richard Apau are also expected to brief.

Participation in the meeting, which will begin at 3 pm EST and take place in the Trusteeship Council Chamber, is open to all UN member states.

The West Africa and the Sahel region has experienced protracted and expanding terrorist violence for more than a decade. The threat has been greatest in the central Sahel states of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, where Al-Qaida affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) frequently attack security forces and civilians, have seized territory, and have blockaded towns. In Burkina Faso, which today is arguably the epicentre of the crisis, roughly half of the country’s territory is not under the authorities’ control; the violence has displaced over two million people and last year killed over 8,000 people. These terrorist groups increasingly threaten coastal West African states. Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo have all experienced attacks in their northern regions bordering Burkina Faso. Nigeria also faces terrorist violence, particularly from the long-running insurgency by Boko Haram and its splinter groups.

Efforts to respond to the threat are in a period of transition. Over the past two years, France’s decade-long counter-terrorism operations have ended in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, while the US is withdrawing its forces from Niger, as the three central Sahel states have increased their military cooperation with Russia. As part of this geo-political realignment, the Group of Five for the Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S), which was established in 2017 by Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad to combat terrorism and organised crime, has dissolved. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger—which are governed by military juntas that took power through coups d’état over recent years—in September 2023 formed the Alliance of Sahel States, or l’Alliance des États du Sahel (AES), as an organisation of collective defence. Other security mechanisms in the region include the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin to fight Boko Haram. As the terrorist threat has expanded, ECOWAS has repeatedly announced its intention to deploy the ECOWAS Standby Force. The Accra Initiative is another, yet undeveloped, security mechanism to counter the growing threat to West African coastal states.

According to the concept note that Sierra Leone has circulated, tomorrow’s Arria-formula meeting intends to spotlight the rise in terrorism and violent extremism in the Sahel, and will include a focus on exploring and addressing the root causes of the crisis. The concept note says that “the underlying context, root causes and challenges faced by countries in the region remain largely unchanged and unaddressed”. Other goals of the meeting are to share insights and experiences in countering terrorist groups and organised crime, particularly where there are significant gaps in the security and institutional frameworks.

The concept note highlights the effects of the Libya crisis in 2011, which led to the spread of arms and militants into the Sahel. Terrorist groups, according to the concept note, have since exploited local grievances, such as political instability, the marginalisation of certain groups, and economic challenges. The deteriorating security situation has had a cyclical effect, further undermining economic development, weakening state institutions, eroding public trust, and driving humanitarian crises. The effects of climate change have also contributed to conditions that make the region vulnerable to the spread of terrorism and violent extremism.

The concept note says that the meeting also seeks to consider the role of regional bodies, including non-security specialised entities, and posits that the announced withdrawal this past January of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger from ECOWAS will have significant negative implications for the fight against terrorism in the central Sahel. Conversely, the concept note highlights the importance of greater cooperation between regional bodies and entities, including ECOWAS, UNOWAS, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), and the UN Regional Office for Central Africa (UNOCA). In addition to mentioning ECOWAS’ 24 February communiqué, in which regional leaders expressed their aspiration of fully operationalising the Accra Initiative and its multinational joint task force, the concept note flags the complementary role of programmes such as the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS) that target the Sahel’s structural conflict drivers. The importance of the timely completion of political transitions to restore elected governments in those countries that have experienced coups d’état may also be raised at tomorrow’s meeting.

The concept noted contains guiding questions for speakers to consider during their interventions, including:

  • What is the current state of terrorism and violent extremism in West Africa and the Sahel and counter-terrorism efforts?
  • What are the root causes, such as historical, socio-political, and economic factors contributing to the rise of terrorism and violent extremism in the region?
  • What are the short- and long-term preventive strategies that could be employed to tackle the risk of spillover and violent extremism in coastal counties, especially in terms of terrorist recruitment?
  • What are the key strategies, resource mobilisations and activities, including through global, regional, and national efforts, that can adequately address the rise of terrorism and violent extremism in the region?

Tomorrow’s meeting follows the Council’s adoption on 24 May of a presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel, which recognises the terrorism threat and security challenges facing the region, among other issues. It will be followed next month by the Council’s biannual briefing on the activities of UNOWAS and regional developments.

Last month’s presidential statement was adopted after protracted negotiations that lasted for more than two years, as Council members could not agree on language about the relationship between climate change and security. This year’s penholders on UNOWAS, Sierra Leone and Switzerland, eventually brokered an agreement in which members recognised the link between the adverse effects of climate change and security in the region. The wording of the statement, however, seems to suggest a less direct correlation between climate change and security than the Council’s August 2021 presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel. This was necessary to obtain the agreement of China and Russia, which argue that there is no direct relationship between climate change and security and are wary of the Council encroaching on issues discussed in other UN forums. According to the concept note, tomorrow’s meeting will be an opportunity to discuss the nexus between climate change and security in the region. (For more information on the statement and the Council negotiations, see our 23 May What’s in Blue story.)

Council members also continue to discuss the possibility of having UNOWAS submit a third annual report, which would focus on the Sahel. The idea of the additional UNOWAS report is intended to fill the gap in UN reporting to the Council on the Sahel crisis following the end of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Mali sanctions regime last year, and the Secretary-General’s November 2023 recommendation to end the Secretariat’s reporting requirement on the FC-G5S.

Sign up for What's In Blue emails

Subscribe to receive SCR publications