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How US Counterterrorism Fuels Violence in the Sahel

The United States’ role in government abuse in Burkina Faso.

Words: Stephanie Savell
Pictures: Roman Bonnefoy

I traveled to Burkina Faso’s dusty capital of Ouagadougou in January 2020, just before the pandemic threw me – and the world – into lockdown. Harmattan winds blew in from the Sahara desert to the north. As a rust-colored haze settled over the streets, I tried to understand Burkina Faso’s “War on Terror.”

I talked with journalists, activists, scholars, former government officials, nonprofit staff. I especially sought out people who had been displaced by violence. It wasn’t easy. I was advised that, as a white woman and a foreigner, I would be too vulnerable to kidnapping or other attacks to stray far from the capital. I followed that advice and stayed safe, but still managed to gain a great deal of insight into the nature of the current conflict.

Outside the purview of many Americans and Europeans, the “War on Terror” has been raging in the West African Sahel region encompassing Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. In 2020, at least 1,000 violent incidents linked to militant Islamist groups occurred there – a sevenfold increase since 2017. Among Western nations, France has been the face of post-9/11 operations in this region, with President Macron recently ruling out a significant troop drawdown. While the US is not a primary actor on the ground, I found the US to be complicit in intensifying the violence.

Last week, the Costs of War Project, which I co-direct at Brown University’s Watson Institute, released my report showing the profound costs of “helping” other nations combat militants. Burkina Faso has used the larger US narrative of counterterrorism – along with the accompanying financial, political and institutional resources given it by the US – to repress a minority group, justify authoritarianism and facilitate illicit profiteering.

The US has given Burkina Faso millions in security assistance – over $16 million in 2018 alone – and its military budget has skyrocketed in tandem with US support. The Pentagon has trained Burkinabe soldiers and police to fight those they call terrorists and donated armored personnel carriers, machine guns and other military equipment.

“Counterterrorism gives them a green light to kill anyone they want, without any consequences,” a Fulani man told me of government forces.

The US has also furnished Burkina Faso with a broader understanding of terrorism and counterterrorism without which there would be far less justification for current government abuses. Though Burkina Faso was long known for being relatively peaceful, for the past decade the US has laid the groundwork for its current militaristic approach. In 2009, far before militant violence broke out there, Burkina Faso entered the US Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. When years later such violence did erupt, the Burkinabe state was primed to act on the premise that waging a “war on terror” was the best, indeed the only, way to respond.

The Fulani, a group of semi-nomadic herders who live across West and North Africa and practice Islam, bear the brunt of Burkina’s war. “Counterterrorism gives them a green light to kill anyone they want, without any consequences,” a Fulani man told me of government forces. Several interviewees recounted the story of how state forces at a roadside checkpoint in a Fulani-populated region stopped transport vans and demanded to see every passenger’s government identification card. Anyone who did not have a card, they shot – and the Fulani often lack official IDs.

The fact is, a domestic war cannot truly address the causes of militant violence. As the leader of a Burkinabe nonprofit that works with Fulani leaders to promote peace explained, “About 80% of those who join terrorist groups told us that it isn’t because they support jihadism, it is because their father or mother or brother was killed by the security forces. So many people have been killed – assassinated – but there has been no justice.”

Historical research shows that governments have been far more effective in curtailing militant violence when they deal with the social and political sources of people’s grievances. A militarized attack on a population that supposedly harbors terrorists is incredibly counterproductive because it serves as militants’ best recruiting device. At the same time, the war paradigm fails to address poverty, abandonment by the state, corruption and other structural problems that lead people to feel so frustrated with their governments.

The US must do more to hold Burkina Faso accountable, not only for abuses perpetrated by state forces, but also by the informal militia groups the government backs. Beyond this, my research highlights the need for the US to completely reconceptualize post-9/11 operations, especially in places torn by militant violence. Today, the US is “assisting” at least 79 nations in counterterrorism. The tragic irony is that what the US calls security assistance actually accomplishes the opposite. It fuels insecurity and bolsters militants that react against government injustices enabled by US aid. And the vicious cycle I witnessed in Burkina Faso isn’t an exception – it’s the rule.

Stephanie Savell is co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

Stephanie Savell

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