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Counterterrorism in Africa: Pulling Away with Success in Sight Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps

Counterterrorism in Africa: Pulling Away with Success in Sight

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The focus of the United States military for almost two decades has centered on the Middle East and combatting terrorist groups. The 2018 National Defense Strategy outlined the administration’s plan to pivot away from counterterrorist operations towards “great power competition.” In response to this shift and the outcry after the death of four soldiers in Niger, the Pentagon announced it will draw down counterterrorist forces in Africa by at least 10%. While there needs to be a greater focus on expanding Chinese and Russian influence around the world, it is unwise to completely turn away from the counterterrorist operations in Africa. The effects of continuing corruption, globalization, climate change, and surging population growth, will likely undermine both socioeconomic and political stability in Africa, potentially opening areas (and grievances) for terrorist organizations to exploit. Now is not the time to pull out of Africa.


Current U.S. Military Operations

While rarely the primary focus of the U.S. military, U.S. troops are widely dispersed across Africa. There are currently around 7,200 American troops across about 20 countries in Africa. They assist in a wide range of activities directed through United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) with the core mission of building defense capabilities, responding to crises, and deterring and defeating transnational threats. One of the primary activities is conducting Military Information Support Operations (MISO) to “delegitimize and decrease support for violent extremist organizations.” These include exercises such as Exercise FLINTLOCK, an annual exercise with units from Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) nations. The exercises are critical to maintaining and developing the capabilities of African countries to combat local terrorist threats. In the past year, AFRICOM increased counterterrorism training and operations in the Lake Chad Basin. Unfortunately, that surge appears to be at an end right when it’s needed most.


Terrorist Organizations in Africa

There are a number of active terrorist organizations within Africa. In Nigeria, Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) operate in the northeastern corner of the country, closest to Lake Chad. Boko Haram has evolved into one of the deadliest terrorist organizations since its founding in the early 2000s, responsible for killing over 20,000 people and displacing over 2 million. In 2017, the group splintered into Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, considered two separate organizations by many though with similar goals. Both aim to achieve an “uprising against secular authority and for the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria.” Initially, Boko Haram leveraged local grievances ranging from, political marginalization and alienation, to the collapse of the local economy due to climate change and water mismanagement, to recruit and sustain membership. Today, they continue to exploit grievances and sustain income through weapon smuggling, human trafficking, and kidnapping for ransom and slavery. The U.S. has been a key ally in supporting Nigeria and the Multinational Joint Task Force to combat the spread of both organizations. A 2015 military offensive pushed Boko Haram/ISIS-WA out of some regions, but they retain control over remote border areas.

Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization, is another prominent threat within Africa. Translated to “The Youth” in Arabic, the organization aims to oust the UN-backed government in Somalia and instate a strict version of Sharia law. While they have rejected association with ISIS, continuing instability (due to civil war, famine, and worsening drought and desertification due to climate change) has made al-Shabaab increasingly attractive for those struggling to survive. The group has claimed responsibility for a number of major attacks including, killing 67 people in the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack and killing about 180 soldiers in the massive 2016 attack on a Kenyan military base. Al-Shabaab is also attributed with killing at least 500 people in the truck bombing in Mogadishu in October 2017. African Union (AU) forces have been the primary force combatting the group but have reduced troop presence by 2,000 troops. The U.S. has 500 troops stationed in Somalia and recently ramped up airstrikes, conducting 30 airstrikes in 2017 against al-Shabaab. These military operations have weakened al-Shabaab but have not defeated the organization. Further, U.S. intelligence warns that Somalia’s newly elected government may “struggle to project its authority and implement security reforms” and al-Shabaab will likely increase attacks into the future.

ISIS’ presence in Libya is a relatively recent but concerning development. ISIS in Libya is an extension of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and similarly aims to establish a caliphate. The Libyan branch formed following the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. After the collapse of the government, Libya turned into a political vacuum, becoming an ideal place for the growth and spread of ISIS. Frustration and anger from the bombing of citizens in Syria and lack of opportunity at home aided in recruitment. ISIS gained a firm foothold in Libya in 2015, taking control of the city of Sirte until Libyan security forces ousted them in 2016 with the help of U.S. airstrikes. Unfortunately, the country remains in political disarray. The instability has allowed ISIS to regroup and expand its operations in Libya. Further, the factors that led to the recruitment of young men into ISIS in 2014 have not been resolved.


Future Threats of Climate Change

The common trend of instability and ungoverned space contributed to each terrorist groups’ success. Into the foreseeable future, the consequences of climate change will add to instability worldwide. Droughts, floods, and storms will become increasingly common and extreme across Africa. These changes will threaten the livelihoods and stability of the largely agricultural communities, adding another burden to already weak institutions. This may lead to further economic and political instability, potentially opening new areas for terrorists to exploit and communities to recruit. Both Boko Haram and ISIS have been known to recruit in communities plagued by severe drought and political instability.


Importance of U.S. Military Engagement

U.S. military engagement is vital to minimize the footprint and lethality of local terrorist threats, particularly as climate change undermines local institutions and governments. U.S. troop presence aids in restricting the movement of terrorist organizations, developing local troop capacity to retake territory and maintain governance over vulnerable regions. Further, it allows the U.S. to track the movement of terrorist cells and maintain an awareness of how groups are evolving. Some recent successes in Burundi show how increased engagement with AFRICOM can bolster local military success in combatting instability. Unfortunately, while some African nations have strong counterterrorism forces, many lack the basic ability to maintain control of their borders and territory. The U.S. should remain engaged in the region until these countries are able to monitor and combat terrorist threats on their own.

We may never be able to “defeat” Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, or ISIS, but we can limit the damage they inflict. Maintaining a presence within Africa helps ensure that the terrorist groups don’t turn into the game of “Whack-a-mole,” with groups collapsing in one region only to reappear elsewhere. Unfortunately, climate change will only make combatting these groups more challenging. To build long-term stability in Africa, the U.S. must accept long-term engagement in the region.