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Coups, Counterterrorism, and Competition
America needs a new game plan in the Sahel.
Two immediate questions dominated U.S. analysis of the coup in Niger: its potentially devastating impact on U.S. and French counterterrorism operations and rising Russian influence in West Africa through the Wagner group. These concerns echo earlier discussions of the two coups in neighboring Burkina Faso in 2022 and the 2020 and 2021 coups in nearby Mali. Compound governance and security crises taxed each government’s limited abilities to govern, and coup leaders promised change in the form of an improved response to al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s expansion. They turned to Russia for security assistance that comes without the strings attached to Western support.
These coups have upended the U.S. military’s ability to conduct operations, support counterterrorism partners, or even contest foreign influence—and revealed fundamental flaws in the overall U.S. approach in the Sahel. An over-emphasis on military responses to terrorist groups in the region ignored and at times exacerbated local conflicts and political tensions in these fragile states, and post-coup legal restrictions mean the United States can neither counter terrorists nor compete with Russia in these nations.
Perhaps Niger’s coup may finally teach the United States the lesson it should have learned from its experience in Mali and then Burkina Faso: more soldiers and more weapons don’t necessarily mean more security—and they certainly don’t equal government stability.
From Counterterrorism to Coups
Counterterrorism has been the primary lens through which the United States has viewed its Sahel policy over the past two decades. The U.S. approach has been to build partners’ counterterrorism capacity—primarily by training and equipping local forces but also helping improve border security and rule of law. Over time, the theory went, regional states could begin to address the terrorism issues on their own. Enabling partners remains central to today’s approach.
The United States has also backed French regional counterterrorism efforts, crafting its own regional policies around this French backbone. In February 2013, weeks after France intervened in Mali, the U.S. military deployed approximately 100 troops to Niger to support French operations, a force that’s grown to over 1,000 troops and includes a U.S.-built air base in Agadez. U.S. special operations forces also began advising and accompanying partner forces on missions, at least until an Islamic State ambush killed four Americans and led to a more cautious policy.
The French-led counterterrorism efforts have had mixed effects. They probably slowed the spread of al Qaeda’s regional group, now known as Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), and prevented it from directly controlling territory. French commando raids and air strikes also decimated al Qaeda’s leadership cadre initially and later nearly eliminated the Islamic State leadership, though each have reconstituted. But French operations came at the price of exacerbating growing inter-communal conflicts by favoring select militias, unintentionally creating opportunities for al Qaeda to strengthen—which it did.
But the French departure has proven to be worse. The picture by fall 2022 was disheartening: JNIM had established sanctuaries in northern and central Mali, northern and southern Burkina Faso, and western Niger, and conducted attacks into Benin and Cote D’Ivoire; the Islamic State had reconstituted in Niger and northeastern Mali. By spring 2023, the picture was bleak: the two groups’ expansion continued unabated as Russia’s Wagner Group (led by erstwhile Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin until his untimely death) firmly entrenched itself in Mali and probed Burkina Faso.
Notably, political and governance issues have been relatively absent from the international response in the Sahel. An uncoordinated and under-resourced effort has left the most pressing issues largely unaddressed. Less than 15 percent of U.S. foreign assistance funding since 2013, for example, has gone toward improving local governance in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger; these governance gaps are simply too great and foreign assistance-driven changes too slow to shift conditions. By contrast, a $500 million infusion over ten years into the Nigerien security forces generated immediate, tactical changes and visibly strengthened the military.
In particular, the U.S. and French militaries trained and equipped their local counterparts to target the various al Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated militias rather than to protect the population. Anecdotes from Niger include round-ups of “the usual suspects”—generally men from the marginalized Fulani community in villages where militias have had a presence—followed by delays in judicial proceedings. Men guilty by association spend months languishing in harsh conditions before even being processed through a broken judicial system. Meanwhile, their families suffer without a real source of income, and their sons may feel honor-bound to resist future such round-ups, driving support toward the militias.
This overwhelming focus on security solutions to the terrorism problem ignores the way local dynamics—from political conflicts to pervasive governance issues—accelerate al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s expansion. In the Sahel, grievances grew against the governing elite as economic and food insecurity worsened. Meanwhile, counterterrorism assistance empowered the military elite and upset delicate power balances. The very militaries that French, U.S., and European counterterrorism assistance strengthened led the coups that ultimately proved to be the undoing of the Malian, Burkinabe, and now Nigerien governments. The irony of Niger’s coup in particular is that terrorism was trending downward.
A coup in any country receiving U.S. security assistance means legal restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance automatically come into force. Such was the case in Mali and Burkina Faso. Until the State Department determines that a coup has indeed occurred in Niger, however, security and other forms of assistance are merely on hold. Niger serves as a linchpin for regional counterterrorism operations, however, and calling the coup a coup would collapse the house of cards that was the U.S. strategy for the Sahel.
Without partners, and without the ability to provide foreign assistance, the United States has few policy options from which to choose.
Post-Coup: Competing How and Where?
Both legal restrictions and the political uncertainty surrounding coups paralyze American policy and reduce the tools available to the U.S. government. What’s left are diplomatic options to cajole a transition to a civilian-led government, the promise of resumed foreign assistance after, and reliance on partners like France that do not face the same domestic legal barriers to engagement.
While U.S. assistance is certainly valuable, it is not always as appealing a carrot to these juntas. U.S.-provided weapons come with a slew of restrictions on their end use and lectures on minimizing civilian harm. Moreover, security conditions raise questions as to the feasibility of elections, not to mention their desirability to the juntas in power.
And the stick—such as the sanctions the United States now has in place against certain Malian officials—only works to drive these juntas away as potential partners. Who benefits? In these cases, Russia.
When the welcome wore out for the French—as it eventually did in Mali and Burkina Faso—the United States truly ran out of decent options. The U.S. approach shifted to one of containment, trying to bolster border security in neighboring countries to keep JNIM from spilling out of Mali and Burkina Faso, all the while dangling the promise of renewed assistance to the military juntas in exchange for a transition to a civilian-led government.
Russia was ready. Wagner forces filtered in as replacements as the French completed their withdrawal from Mali in August 2022. The junta has dismissed warnings of Russian assistance and some members even parroted Russian disinformation. Over the past year, the junta has cut a series of deals with Moscow, further tying itself to Russia. Burkina Faso’s interim leader described the Kremlin as a “strategic ally” recently, noting Russia was supplying forces with military equipment.
Partnering with Russia and the Wagner group is ultimately a bad move for these countries; as U.S. officials emphasize, Wagner brings “death and destruction” wherever it goes. In Mali, that’s meant an uptick in civilian deaths after Wagner began operating alongside Malian forces and horrifying reports of massacres in towns and villages targeted by their counterterrorism operations. Mali’s economy has also not improved, and the junta has recently sought to channel more of the income from the mining industry. There, too, Wagner has entangled its interests—though with an eye toward state capture for Russian influence rather than the extra income, following Russia’s well-leafed playbook.
Nonetheless, the United States is still unable to compete. It has few tools available to it to try to sway or compel these juntas. Russian information operations have shaped local anti-French, anti-Western narratives, making it even harder for the United States to try to influence public opinion. And while Wagner may not be a winning bet, examples from elsewhere (like the Central African Republic) show that it is at least not a losing one. The Kremlin understands how closely its interests are tied to the fate of the military juntas, and it's willing to preserve their power.
This wave of coups in the Sahel should prompt reflection on how the U.S. counterterrorism approach interacts with local political and power dynamics. Shifting our approach to prioritize governance over security issues and tackle underlying conditions that allow al Qaeda and the Islamic State to expand may also help safeguard against coups. It also means seeing these counterterrorism engagements as part of America’s global competition with China and Russia—and delivering on counterterrorism partnerships is what has given the United States much of its influence in certain African countries.
It should also prompt a clear-eyed review of U.S. post-coup legal restrictions that effectively bench the United States in this contest. The otherwise admirable intent of these laws is to promote democratic values by preventing the use of U.S. foreign assistance to reward or strengthen governments brought to power by military force. Today, however, such restrictions may contribute to a vicious cycle in which the rising influence of actors like Russia reinforces authoritarian tendencies that in turn inflame local conflicts.
The United States can advance neither its interests nor its values if it is not in the game. Niger won’t be the last coup to affect U.S. interests, either in the Sahel or elsewhere—and the United States needs a new post-coup game plan. Others are ready, waiting, and more than willing to step in from the sidelines.
Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and adviser to AEI's Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.