The United States created a special envoy post for Africa’s Sahel region, a State Department spokesman said, to counter rising violence from groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Envoy Peter Pham, started his new role last week, the spokesman said. He served as US Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa since November 2018.
“Sahel is a place where the situation is getting worse on the continent,” the spokesman said.
Security has progressively worsened in the Sahel, with militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State strengthening their hold across the region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence.
Former colonial power France intervened in 2013 to drive back militants who seized northern Mali the previous year. Fighters regrouped and spread. Over the past year, militants stepped up attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Particularly worrying for Europeans are possible US troop cuts. The Pentagon is considering withdrawing personnel as part of a global troop review to free up resources to address challenges from China’s military, after nearly two decades of prioritising counter-terrorism operations worldwide.
Such a move alarms France, which relies on US intelligence and logistics for its 4 500-strong mission in the Sahel. The deaths of 13 French soldiers in a helicopter crash during a combat mission in Mali in November increased France’s determination to secure more support in the area.
The US currently has around 6 000 military personnel in Africa. Some experts say a repositioning of forces is overdue, many US officials share French concerns about relieving pressure on militants in Africa.
State Department’s latest counter terrorism report, published in November, said attacks by militant groups in the region were on the rise.
“In the Sahel, terrorist groups – including affiliates and adherents of al-Qaeda and ISIS as well as non-aligned groups – expanded operations in north and central Mali and the Tri-Border Region of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger,” the report said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November warned there was growing concern over Islamic State in West Africa and called on the global coalition against Islamic State to focus on Sahel.