International forces are struggling to contain a brutal Islamist insurgency, with the death toll rising alarmingly.
The Trump administration shook hands with the Taliban on Saturday to end a near two decades-long war in Afghanistan. But just as one front in the battle on terror is closing a new one is opening up.
On the southern fringe of the Sahara, along a vast and underpopulated stretch of arid semi-desert known as the Sahel that stretches across Africa, the armies of militant Islam have massed anew and the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) is flying again.
For seven years, three international forces — one led by France, the second by the United Nations and a third drawn from the nations of the Sahel — have tried to stop the jihadist miasma spreading.
So far they have failed. As Britain prepares to step up its political, military and humanitarian involvement in the Sahel over the coming months, officials across the West are warning that the region has begun to eclipse the Middle East as the new frontline in the war on Islamist terror.
Despite repeated French airstrikes, jihadist groups peddling allegiance to al-Qaeda and Isil have expanded their reach beyond their strongholds in northern Mali to unleash bloodshed well beyond the country’s borders.
Deliberately stirring latent ethnic and religious animosities, they have stirred ethnic bloodshed in central Mali, conducted massacres in churches and villages in neighbouring Burkina Faso and taken their war into the desert state of Niger.
The death toll is rising alarmingly — in Burkina Faso alone it rose more than 600 per cent last year.
Some 5,366 people were killed across the five countries of the Francophone Sahel — Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania — in 2019, according to ACLED, a charity that monitors death tolls. Another 1,214 have died so far this year.
If that were not bad enough, many officials in the region warn that the crisis could soon spread even further, engulfing even stable states on West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea coastline.
“If the crisis is not addressed and solved, the risk is that terrorism will continue expanding to other countries,” says Annadif Mohammed Saleh, the UN secretary general’s special representative to Mali.
“It is not just the Sahel that risks being affected, but countries beyond it like Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and so on.”
War-weary westerners might be tempted to let African states sort out the problem for themselves, but Gen Dag Anderson, who commands US special forces in Africa, warns that if the jihadists consolidate their hold on the region, they could easily use it as a launchpad to carry out terrorist attacks in the West.
“We know that al-Qaeda especially has the will and desire to attack the West,” he said.
“We don’t see a direct threat to the United States or to Europe right now, but if left unchecked we know that’s their desire…if we aren’t able to check this then eventually they will pursue those objectives.”
More immediately, the spreading conflict has already forced more than 1m people to flee. Given that Africa’s main people-smuggling routes cross the Sahel, continued bloodshed could prompt a new surge of desperate refugees into Europe.
It is against this backdrop that Britain will embark on its most significant frontline peacekeeping deployment since Bosnia in the Nineties when it sends 250 troops to join the UN mission in Mali, known as Minusma, in the coming months.
Given that Minusma already has 11,620 troops in Mali, it might not sound like a particularly significant contribution, particularly given that 4,500 French soldiers are also operating across the Sahel.
But for Lt Gen Dennis Gyllensporre, Minusma’s Swedish commanding officer, the British contribution will play a vital role in his efforts to turn around a mission that, until now, has widely been seen as a failure.
The United States has been a particularly fierce critic, arguing that UN-style peacekeeping is ill-equipped to deal with terrorism and is demanding an “alternative approach”.
Gen Gyllenspore is not inclined to disagree with that assessment, readily acknowledging that the Minusma force “is not fit for purpose”.
Operating under a mandate to protect civilians and stabilise the country, Minusma has been effectively unable to do either because it exerts only the most tenuous authority in the northern towns in which it is based.
Outside the towns, the jihadists roam at will. In the meantime, Minusma itself has become a target.
UN bases in much of the world are normally lightly defended. Not so in Mali, where peacekeepers live behind layers of razor wire and barricades meant to protect them from jihadists and mortar attacks.
Riccardo Maia, Minusma’s head of office in Timbuktu, reckons that the UN base in the city has come under attack 41 times since he arrived there in 2015. Twelve peacekeepers were killed when jihadists overran the Minusma base in Aguelhok last year, adding to a total of 208 who have now died in Mali since Minusma first deployed there in 2013.
“Make sure you know where the nearest bunker is,” a UN official tells visitors to the MINUSMA camp in Gao, where the British contingent will be stationed. “When you hear the sirens, you will have about 15 seconds to get under cover.”
Gen Gyllenspore acknowledges that things need to change fast. Sitting in bases waiting to be attacked is no longer an option.
Instead, in a radical adaptation of peacekeeping norms, the general plans to split his force into two tiers. One element will play a traditional peacekeeping role, with UN troops stationed in bases near important towns, as they are today.
The second, which will be spearheaded by the British contingent, will carry out long-range reconnaissance patrols of up to 30 days deep into jihadist territory and be on standby for rapid deployment anywhere in the country.
“With a manoeuvrable force, we can be more proactive in anticipating attacks, projecting force and deterring and going in where there are confrontations,” Gen Gyllensporre said.
“This will be a more robust, versatile part of the force that will enable us to respond decisively. The British contribution will be the tip of the spear of our adaptation.”
It will clearly also be a risky contribution. Not only will British forces be operating essentially behind enemy lines, they will also be travelling on roads strewn with roadside bombs.
Lt Col Taimur Javed, who is in charge of civil-military cooperation at the Minusma base in Timbuktu, reckons that of every two UN re-supply convoys that leaves central Mali for UN facilities in the north, at least one strikes an Improvised Explosive Device.
British officials are undeterred. Years of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan have prepared the British armed forces well for just this type of operation.
Hi-tech equipment will forewarn them of jihadists advancing through the scrub, while the IED attacks, though proliferating, are fairly primitive in comparison with those British soldiers have encountered in the past and can be fairly easily detected.
The risk aside, deploying in the Sahel offers clear political benefits. A high-profile UN mission will help to demonstrate Britain’s continued international relevance after Brexit.
It will also help forge closer ties with France, which is growing increasingly anxious that it will be left to shoulder responsibility for the crisis in its former Sahelian colonies alone after the United States announced it was considering a reduction in its military presence in Africa.
French troops have been in Mali since January 2013 when they intervened to drive jihadist groups, which had hijacked an earlier separatist rebellion against the Malian state, out of northern towns like Gao and Timbuktu.
But as the Americans discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq, initial battlefield triumphs do not always translate into longstanding success.
Exploiting local grievances against the government and taking advantage of the absence of the Malian state and Minusma’s weakness, the jihadists regrouped, forcing France to launch a counter terrorism campaign it codenamed Operation Barkhane.
But despite repeated airstrikes, the militants have only grown stronger, leading to warnings that France is facing its own Afghanistan — a “mission impossible” as many French commentators call it.
Walk into the centre of the Barkhane military base in Gao and it is easy to see why Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, is so worried.
Beneath the Tricolore, a simple whitewashed monument bears the names of all 41 French soldiers killed in Mali since France first intervened seven years ago.
A poppy wreath placed at the foot of the memorial is a reminder that Britain has already been supporting the French mission in the Sahel.
It was laid by an RAF Chinook detachment, a three-helicopter, 94-man contingent based in Gao since 2018.
French officers say it has played a vital role in plugging a gap in France’s operational capability by airlifting supplies and even armoured vehicles to French forces engaged in combat with the enemy.
Britain’s new deployment may be to Minusma rather than to Barkhane, but France is just as grateful: Minusma is vital to France’s exit strategy.
If British troops turn a failing UN mission into a success, Mr Macron’s biggest foreign policy headache could just be cured. And Britain could win, too.
A grateful France — memories of Charles de Gaulle notwithstanding — would be a useful ally to have as the UK heads into post-Brexit trade talks with the European Union.