In assessing the terrorist challenge in the Sahel and the new French-led task force’s plan to address it, “Takuba: A new coalition for the Sahel?” is good as far as it goes. Similarly, the four pillars of the plan (i.e. the fight against terrorism, capacity-building for Sahelien forces, restoration of state authority, and development assistance) are all necessary for success. The article also makes important points about the danger of an over-reliance on military solutions, the downsides of capacity-building, and the importance of avoiding human rights violations and civilian casualties.
The big missing piece to the plan, and ultimately the obstacle to its strategic success, is the lack of a counter-ideology component. Indeed, such a component needs to be central, because the Islamist ideology is the enemy's center of gravity. In other words, the strategic objective should be to prevail in the ideological battle and, to that end, the plan needs a counter-ideology pillar, which is preeminent and to which efforts under the other four pillars are subsumed and aligned.
Over the years, there has been much discussion about the root causes of terrorism. For example, the article refers to "the governance grievances at the root of conflict." Sociological, economic, psychological and educational factors have also been cited as examples. While these factors are certainly relevant to the problem and we must make an effort to address them (e.g. with governmental reforms, development assistance or community-level outreach), characterizing them as root causes is off the mark and so, unfortunately, has distracted -- and continues to distract -- from the actual root cause: the Islamist ideology.
While the aforementioned "causes" exist all over the world, extremism, much less terrorism, does not always follow from them. When does it? When religious and terrorist propagandists and leaders skillfully leverage Islamist ideology to assign blame for the conditions which result in said grievances and thereby rationalize a call to action that, per the ideology, Allah himself demands. While the so-called root causes might be a factor in any given instance, they are not always. Conversely, the Islamist ideology is always a motivating factor -- if not the motivating factor -- and, ultimately, the one that propels action.
If the French-led task force strikes a constructive balance among the four pillars, effects good coordination among them, and executes its missions effectively, the current plan might succeed in denigrating terrorist networks and disrupting their ability to conduct attacks. Unfortunately, as we have seen time and time again, any such tactical and operational successes will be temporary, if the Islamist ideology persists undiminished. As long as it does, the enemy will be able to both recruit new adherents to replace losses, and reconstitute and resurge whenever given time and space to do so.
In this manner, the conflict with Islamist terrorism will go on forever unless we either capitulate, which is not really an option, or win the strategic ideological battle. Until we engage in that battle, strategically speaking, we will continue to be on the defensive and cede the initiative to the enemy. The wide array of tactical and operational measures we employ offensively to denigrate terrorist networks and disrupt their ability to attack us, while often successful, are not sustainable over the long term, as they come at tremendous cost in blood and treasure as well as opportunity cost. As a result, starting now (only because we have not started before), we must use the time those measures buy us to engage in the strategic ideological battle in earnest, both locally (e.g. in the Sahel) and globally, and thereby go on the strategic offensive."
About the author:
Rick Hotchner served for 28 years as a case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency's Directorate of Operations, retiring in 2018 as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. He had six field tours and several senior Headquarters assignments, the last of which was Deputy Chief of Operations in the CounterTerrorism Mission Center. Now a leadership/management and security consultant, he is engaged in a range of paid and pro bono projects.