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Practice makes perfect. Why we should care about terror attacks in Africa. | American Enterprise Institute

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Militants, probably tied to al Qaeda or the Islamic State, ambushed a Canadian mining convoy in Burkina Faso and killed almost 40 people Wednesday. Islamic State militants attacked a Malian army outpost and killed over 50 people last Friday. These horrific events far from home might seem par for the course in Africa, but they are not. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are strengthening dangerously in western Africa’s Sahel region. The local branches are improving their capabilities and honing their skills, practicing locally for a global jihad.

The Sahel region is an overlooked but critical front against the Salafi-jihadi movement — the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the like. The State Department recently that reported terror attacks have doubled in the past year, and US officials worry about fighters relocating there from Iraq and Syria. In Mali, al Qaeda developed an enduring presence in the north — including in far-away cities like Timbuktu — from where it expanded southward and outward into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. In Nigeria, Boko Haram, best known for its 2014 kidnapping of the Chibok girls — similarly expanded from Nigeria into parts of Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. An Islamic State splinter from Boko Haram pulled away a skilled cadre that has systematically pushed into new areas, especially Burkina Faso. And in Niger, a separate Islamic State splinter from al Qaeda followed suit.

A Malian gendarme climbs stairs at the Byblos hotel, site of a 2015 siege by a Sahel-based Islamist militant group al-Mourabitoun. REUTERS/Adama Diarra

These all sound like far-away battles that don’t threaten the homeland. But pay attention: Counterterrorism efforts to staunch the spread of these groups have all but failed. The French lead counterterrorism operations in the Sahel after a 2013 intervention in Mali and continue to pick off senior terrorist leaders. The G5 Sahel, an initiative from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, is an “African-led, French-assisted, US-supported force” to combat local Salafi-jihadi groups. Realizing the G5 Sahel has not been easy, especially given its reliance on outside donors and limited capabilities within its contributing forces. Still, rather than improving, terrorism trendlines have worsened in the region with no sign of reversing.

Once again US leaders are missing the threat of the global Salafi-jihadi movement. Once these groups win their “near war” — the local fight — they will invariably turn their eyes toward Europe and even to the US. At that point, they will have trained and experienced operatives, field-tested terror tactics, and the sanctuary within which to combine the two with deadly results. Defeating or even weakening the groups on the ground will be much costlier in the future. Even now, the local Sahel groups play a supporting role on the global stage as they advance the movement’s interests.

The solution is not a repeat of US military deployments to Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan. Underlying issues — local frustrations with the government’s inability to deliver basic goods and services or intercommunal conflicts over scarce resources — create the opportunities for these groups to expand into local communities. What’s needed here is a civilian-led effort that combines targeted foreign assistance with diplomacy to address the multitude of local conflicts that give Salafi-jihadi groups their opening to expand into communities and to restore communities’ resilience to the Salafi-jihadi efforts. Otherwise, expect terror attacks to start coming out of Africa, and soon.

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