Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS renews focus on Sahel as terror group gains ground

Partner countries 'really focused on working with African states' to defend against extremists, US deputy special envoy to the coalition tells The National

A soldier from the French Army monitors a rural area during the Bourgou IV operation in northern Burkina Faso, along the border with Mali and Niger, on November 10, 2019. - This is the first time that the French Army, the national armies and the multinational force of the G5 Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad) have officially worked together in the field.
The mission of the 1,400 soldiers of this Bourgou IV operation (including 600 of the 4,500 French soldiers of the Barkhane force): to restore authority in a remote area where no army has set foot in more than a year, leaving the field open to jihadists. (Photo by MICHELE CATTANI / AFP)
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The global anti-ISIS coalition is increasingly focusing on the Sahel, hoping to turn the tide against the growing threat from extremists in the region, a US official involved in the operation has told The National.

“Africa is certainly a matter of concern, and it's a big area of focus for the countries of the coalition,” said Ian McCary, the US State Department’s deputy special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

The coalition was created in the summer of 2014 as the terrorist group made broad territorial gains across Syria and Iraq. At its peak, ISIS controlled a third of both countries.

The global coalition, made up of 86 partner countries, played a key role in halting ISIS's expansion.

By March 2019, the coalition had managed to clear the last pocket of ISIS-controlled territory in the region – a small farming village on the banks of the Euphrates River near the Syria-Iraq border.

But despite having lost all of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, ISIS remains a global threat.

According to a report by UN experts, the group has nearly doubled the territory it controls in Mali and has become an increasing threat across the Sahel.

Its ideology has spread to parts of Central Asia and Africa, where political instability has allowed the group and other extremists to proliferate.

A military coup in Niger has further exacerbated the situation in Africa.

“We are quite concerned certainly by developments that we saw this summer,” Mr McCary told The National on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Before a coup in July, Niger had been an important Africa base for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

The US drone base, Airbase 201, was built near Agadez in central Niger at a cost of more than $100 million.

Since 2018, it has been used to attack ISIS and al Qaeda affiliate Jamaat Nusrat Al Islam wal Muslimeen in the Sahel.

Washington until recently had about 1,100 troops stationed there.

But the US recently withdrew a small number of troops from the West African country and repositioned others in its first change since Nigerien military leaders placed democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum under house arrest.

“We are really focused on working with African states, empowering civilian authorities in those African states, so that those civilian authorities have the tools and the training and the resources that they need to defend their public, defend the sovereignty of their territories and prevent the spread of Daesh and other violent extremist organisations,” Mr McCary said, referring to another name for ISIS.

The US has been pressing for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis that began on July 26, when Nigerien military officers seized power.

The new US ambassador to Niger, Kathleen Fitzgibbon, arrived in Niamey last month.

Updated: September 25, 2023, 5:18 PM