Why the US’s counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel keeps failing

Why the U.S. Approach to the Sahel Keeps Failing, Pressure Mounts on Biden’s Saudi Policy, How Industry Lobbies for Arms Sales & more



March 1, 2021

Why the US’s counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel keeps failing

Mail & Guardian, February 2021

A new long-form piece from the Mail and Guardian takes an in-depth look at the institutional flaws of U.S. security assistance to the Sahel and the urgent need for reform to address the historically damaging U.S. counterterrorism policy in the region.

The piece, written by Middle East Eye news editor Frank Andrews, looks at the $1.4 billion in security assistance the U.S. provided to the Sahel between 2001 and 2019, with the aim of enabling local security partners to take the lead in addressing the proliferation of armed groups in the region. But, as the piece notes, U.S. security assistance to the Sahel has not translated into more professional or capable local security services. Instead, the assistance has often exacerbated insecurity and security governance in the region while insurgent activity continues to rise. 

The piece argues that U.S. counterterrorism assistance has been plagued by over-militarization, insufficient oversight, and poor appreciation of local circumstances and political dynamics, undermining the ability for U.S. to address the major humanitarian and political concerns that fuel extremism. 

Through interviews with policy experts and former ambassadors, the piece presents a troubling picture of U.S. security assistance programs in the Sahel and suggests that current U.S. policy may be contributing to the security threats it is meant to address. 

Click here to read the full article.

Security Assistance News & Research Roundup

News & Blog Posts


Erik Prince, Trump Ally, Violated Libya Arms Embargo, U.N. Report Says

New York Times, February 19

Blackwater founder and prominent Trump supporter Erik Prince has been accused of assisting in violations of an arms embargo on Libya. A UN report reveals that his companies provided weapons to militia commander Khalifa Haftar in 2019.

Soldiers in Cameroon, A Close U.S. Ally, Commit Mass Rape, Report Says

The Intercept, February 26

A new report detailing a horrific raid by Cameroonian forces that included sexual violence shines raises serious questions about U.S. assistance to the country’s security forces.

Biden orders US airstrikes against Iran-backed militia targets in eastern Syria

Military Times, February 25

In President Biden’s first known military action, a US airstrike targeting Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria has killed at least one fighter, wounded an unspecified number of others, and “destroyed multiple facilities” used by the groups. The Biden administration conducted the airstrikes in response to recent rocket attacks against US interests in Iraq.

Democrats Pressure Biden on U.S. Backing for Saudi War in Yemen

The Intercept, February 25

41 members of Congress sent a letter to President Biden expressing support for his decision to halt U.S. aid to Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, but asked for a clear definition of “offensive operations” and requested additional details on the broader U.S. policy towards Yemen.

A Top Democrat Warns Against a Hasty Withdrawal of U.S. Troops From Afghanistan

New York Times, February 24

Senator Jack Reed, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said the Biden administration should seek an extension to the May 1 deadline for pulling US troops out of Afghanistan. The senator recommends giving diplomats more time to secure a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government in order to avoid a destabilizing withdrawal of US forces.  

Reuters, February 23

According to the State Department, Anthony Blinken “raised concerns” about Egypt’s alleged purchase of Russian Su-35 fighter jets and the government’s human rights violations on a call with his Egyptian counterpart.

Saudi arms producer in defence venture with Lockheed Martin

France24, February 21

As the Biden administration reviews arms sales to the Saudi government for its role in perpetuating the Yemen conflict, US contractor Lockheed Martin has signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia’s state arms producer to form a joint venture.


Research, Analysis, and Opinion  


Biden Must Base Arms Sales on U.S. Interests—Not U.S. Jobs

Foreign Policy, February 25

Ethan Kapstein and Jonathan Caverly argue that jobs are a bad rationale for arms transfers on economic, policy, and ethical grounds. Kapstein and Caverly argue that, in reality, new deals create few U.S. manufacturing jobs. Moreover, the Biden administration should base arms sales on American ideals and strategic interests, rather than imprecise correlations to domestic employment. “A sound and consistent foreign policy in support of a rules-based multilateral order has a much larger economic impact on the United States in the long run.”

Capitalizing on conflict: How defense contractors and foreign nations lobby for arms sales

Center For Responsive Politics, February 25

A new report from the Center For Responsive Politics explains how the defense sector exerts influence over defense policy, detailing their extensive network of lobbyists, donors, and campaign contributions. The report also uses data from the Security Assistance Monitor to explain how foreign consumers of U.S. weapons spend considerable sums to influence U.S. policy.


The Missing Element: Addressing Corruption through Security Sector Reform in West Africa

Transparency International Defense and Security, February 2021

This report argues that, given the significant threat that corruption presents to peace and stability in West Africa, a greater focus should be placed on anti-corruption work within security sector reform and governance. 

Weapons from the South: Democratization, Civil Society, and Brazil’s Arms Exports

Journal of Global Security Studies, February 25

In this paper, Rodrigo Fracalossi de Moraes examines the potential influence of democratization and civil society activities on arms transfer policies and practice through a case study on Brazil. Brazil’s re-democratization in 1985 provides an opportunity to test whether a change of regime type influences arms export behavior and whether civil society groups can influence it in newly democratized countries. Based on evidence collected mainly through archival research at Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and semi-structured interviews, this paper argues that transitioning to democracy had an immediate effect on arms transfer policies and practice in Brazil. 


Data Fact of the Week:

U.S. Security Assistance to the G5 Sahel Countries FY2009-2019

The graphic above illustrates the country breakdown of U.S. security assistance to the Sahel between FY2009 and FY2019. 

A new report looking at the damage wrought by U.S. security assistance in the region raises serious questions about the efficacy of American counterterror policy in the region, especially in terms of its defense partnerships with local security forces. 

The full report can be found here.  

Upcoming Congressional Hearings


House Armed Services Committee

3/2: Elections in Africa
3/3: A Way Forward for Venezuela: The Humanitarian, Diplomatic, and National Security Challenges Facing the Biden Administration 

Senate Armed Services Committee

3/2: Hearings to examine global security challenges and strategy
3/4: Hearings to examine the nomination of Dr. Colin H. Kahl to be Under Secretary Of Defense For Policy

Upcoming Events (All Online)

3/2: Security Around the World | Jacob Zenn on Boko Haram’s Past and Future, hosted by Georgetown University
3/2: The EU in the Black Sea: Can the Eastern Partnership provide security?, hosted by MEI
3/3: Arms Sales to Conflict Zones, hosted by Forum on the Arms Trade
3/3: Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe, hosted by Wilson Center
3/4: Operation Tomodachi: Views from Bilateral Coordination Action Team (BCAT) Sendai, hosted by Stimson Center
3/4: The future of ISIS, hosted by Atlantic Council 
3/4: Transatlantic Approaches: Europe in an Age of Sino-American Competition, hosted by  Hudson Institute
3/4: Unraveling the Conflict in Syria, hosted by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 
3/4: Strategic nuclear modernization in the United States, hosted by Brookings
3/4: From Egypt to Iran: The History of Nuclear Politics in the Middle East, hosted by Wilson Center
3/5: A conversation with HASC Chairman Adam Smith, hosted by Brookings
3/8: International Women’s Day 2021: The future of defense and security, hosted by Atlantic Council
3/8: Gun Violence in the Americas, hosted by The Network for the Prevention of Gun Violence in the Americas
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