Terrorism: How Prepared is Africa?

Uyo Salifu NEWS & ANALYSIS Policy & Development

With the steady decline in conventional armed conflicts, terrorism is now believed to be the most serious threat to peace, stability, security and development in Africa. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks in America, terrorist activities have grown exponentially, not only in the number of attacks but also in the number of countries affected. More and more countries of the continent are directly threatened, and the attacks in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire this year have confirmed the expansionist trend in this phenomenon. Thousands of people have lost their lives and several millions more have lost their livelihoods and been forced to become refugees. In some countries like Somalia, Mali and Libya, pervasive terrorist activities have brought democracy and development to a standstill.

The transnational and changing nature of the terror threat, characterised by the proliferation of groups, shifting alliances and improvement in terrorist capabilities, demonstrate that no country can single-handedly deal with the problem. Although the continent has responded to the threat at various levels, including nationally and multilaterally, mammoth challenges remain. Caught between competing priorities of development and counterterrorism, Africa’s preparedness in combating the current threat of terrorism and preventing futures attacks needs to be enhanced.

The key challenge to the continent is the presence of Islamist groups, which have unleashed a ferocious terror campaign against African states. Nigeria’s jihadist group, Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and subsequently renamed itself as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) in 2015, was ranked the world’s deadliest terrorist group in 2014. Accounting for 6,644 deaths, Boko Haram surpassed ISIS, which operates globally, and is known to be the wealthiest and largest terrorist group in the world. In addition to Boko Haram, other jihadist groups include the notorious al Shabaab, which operates from Somalia and is known for its attacks on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013, and the Garissa University tragic hostage-taking in 2015 – both attacks killed over 200 people. The group continues rendering efforts to make Somalia fruitless, with incessant attacks on the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces.

In the Sahel, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front have joined forces to wreck carnage in swathes of west Africa and the Sahel. Unrelenting attacks in Mali and Niger and an extension of attacks into other countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso have made the groups the biggest threats to peace, stability, security and development of the region.

Another challenge to the continent’s efforts to eliminate terrorism is the growing phenomenon of foreign fighters returning to their countries of origin following prolonged exposure to the wars in Libya, Iraq and Syria, where they have been radicalised to the teeth. The prevailing anarchy in Libya and Syria has attracted a burgeoning number of foreign fighters from various countries, including Ghana, the Gambia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, South Africa and Nigeria. North Africa continues to top the charts in terms of numbers of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Tunisia, for example, faces serious threat from trained returning ISIS fighers, some of whom have been involved in plotting recent attacks against that country. Increasingly, ISIS is playing a central role in terrorism in Africa. It is believed, though not confirmed empirically, that ISIS, through its Caliphate, is supporting many terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, a new Somali group called Saif al-deen al-Somaal, and several affiliated groups in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, with finance, training and other terrorist resources, including media strategies.

The majority of efforts against terrorism have been overwhelmingly military in nature, to the detriment of criminal justice and other important soft approaches. These militaristic responses have led to human rights violations, terrorist profiling, indiscriminate use of force, mass arrests and prolonged detention. This approach is also problematic because it plays into the hands of terrorists by providing fodder for them to use when discrediting governments with their extremist narratives. Thus, it further radicalises parts of the population who then become recruited into terrorist groups. It is important to note here that the military’s role need not be removed altogether, but must be part of a criminal justice approach, led by intelligence and in line with human rights provisions.

In spite of this, the continent has made noteworthy efforts to address the threat at the national, regional and international levels. An increasing number of African countries are adopting comprehensive terror legislation. Some are also setting up specialised cells or centralised units to coordinate anti-terror national endeavours. In addition, the majority of countries are ratifying international counterterrorism (CT) treaties, though civil law countries seem to be doing better than common law countries.

Despite these successes, weaknesses continue to plague responses. These include legislative weaknesses and loopholes. Some of the legislative measures are found to be extremely punitive, as a growing number of CT legislations provide for the death penalty for terrorist offences. For example, the legislative framework of many of the Lake Chad Basin countries, including Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, provide for the death penalty for terrorist offences. Implementation of this legislation is also found to be weak, as evident in the small number of prosecutions and convictions which have been made. Lack of expertise in managing terrorism, inadequate resources, limitations in collecting or utilising intelligence and other general difficulties to investigate, prosecute and obtain convictions may all give rise to these problems. Due to resource shortages, for instance, law enforcement agencies have had to deal with terrorists who are often more armed, more equipped and more organised than them. This has led to heavy losses for African countries. Countries in Africa have, however, also made some strides in improving counterterrorism related bilateral cooperation, through, for example, improvements in intelligence sharing and the provision of military assistance.

A number of practical aspects concerning terror groups hamper law enforcement agencies’ effectiveness. Intelligence about these groups and their psychological readiness to sacrifice their own lives, as well as having no morals and limits to their violence, are often very limited. The secrecy surrounding many of the operational and structural details of terrorist groups is another major difficulty as, very often, useful information for preventing and destabilising terrorism is extremely difficult to access. The ability for terrorist groups to exploit semi governed or ungoverned spaces and the notorious porous borders in Africa is also a challenge. The asymmetric nature of terrorist warfare, using highly coordinated hit and run tactics involving an unknown or faceless enemy, is often not well understood. The transnational nature of terrorist groups, facilitated by globalisation and social media, have enabled terrorist groups to recruit globally and maintain global followers.

Corruption also challenges counterterrorism initiatives in several ways. Corrupt public officials, including security agencies, often give terrorists access to arms and explosives, which are then used to carry out attacks. In some cases, terrorism has been politicised and political elites have been found financing terrorist groups.
With these caveats in mind, it is evident that much needs to be done to enhance Africa’s preparedness to face the threat of terrorism. As a global problem, the rest of the international community must act in a unified manner, and to see the threat from a universal perspective, not as an African, European or Asian problem. Africa has already benefitted substantially from international support. American and European governments, for instance, have provided some capacity building, financial assistance and other types of support to African countries, particularly those heavily affected by terrorism. One of the main challenges with support provided is that support is either largely insufficient to the scale of the problem or is not being appropriately used to address the scourge.

Winning the war against terrorism in Africa also requires strengthened collective security measures. Pan-African institutions must therefore play a more instrumental role. The AU’s initiatives have been crucial in developing a continental agenda and policies on counterterrorism. By taking a strong stand against terrorism, it sets the normative and legislative framework for the continental response. One of the main challenges is the lack of effective implementation of the AU’s counterterrorism policy. Although the continental body often cites issues of limited human and financial resources, the problem is also one of ineffective coordination and an incongruent threat perception from its member states.

The continent’s preparedness in handling terrorism can be enhanced with effective coordination of the implementation of the AU’s instruments by both states and regional mechanisms (RECs), such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the East African Community, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA). Significant investments in strengthening governance, addressing corruption, enhancing criminal justice systems, promoting intelligence driven counterterrorism, implementing relevant policies and legislations, utilising more superior military equipment, securing state borders and improving partnerships among global, regional and national actors that can help address terrorism, are all critical in driving the agenda forward.

Written by

Uyo Salifu has been a researcher at the Transnational Threats and International Crime Division of the Institute for Security Studies since 2012 and has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Pretoria. Her key focus areas are counterterrorism and countering violent extremism in west Africa. She also focuses on witness protection, children and gender in terrorism. She has worked extensively with criminal justice practitioners in developing capacity for rule of law-based responses to terrorism.