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Tobias KOEPF

France and the Fight against Terrorism in the Sahel. The History of a Difficult Leadership Role

Note de l'Ifri, juin 2013

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Except for its extreme poverty and the disastrous effects of a series of droughts, the Sahel region has been largely out of the spotlight of international attention in the past. Yet the rise of terrorism and especially the creation of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007 brought the region into the focus of world politics. Initially, AQIM’s activities in the Sahel mainly posed a threat to the stability of the Sahelian states themselves. In an effort to internationalize its agenda, however, AQIM also started targeting Western countries.

France, the former colonial power that has close historical links to the countries of the region, has been most affected by AQIM’s activities. Between 2007 and 2011, commandos linked to the terrorist group kidnapped several French citizens, launched bomb attacks on the French embassies in Mauritania and Mali and repeatedly threatened to launch terrorist attacks on French soil. This spurred France to assume a leadership role in international efforts to fight AQIM. The present study gives an overview on the development of French policy in the Sahel over recent years. In a first part, it analyzes how the rise of terrorism in the Sahel brought the region back into the focus of French foreign policy. A second part takes a look at the French response to the threat from AQIM and the difficulties France faces in this context. As will be shown in a third part, these difficulties are also reflected in France’s efforts to lead an international response to the crisis that set Mali in turmoil in early 2012. In a fourth and last part, the study scrutinizes the impact of the French intervention Serval on France’s role in Mali and in the Sahel - taking into account developments prior to the end of April 2013.

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