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Wither AU’s counterterrorism policy?

On 2 September, as the African Union’s Peace and Security Commission had gathered the continent’s heads of state in Nairobi for a summit on terrorism, a US government drone over the Somali port city of Barawe struck a convoy of senior al-Shabab leaders. Among those killed was Ahmed Ali Godane, al-Shabab’s central leader.

Godane’s killing, confirmed a few days later by the White House, ranks among one of the most important hits in the American war against terror. The killing of Godane, in fact, resembled in several ways the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, in western Pakistan. Both operations took years of surveillance and infiltration into the target’s networks. In bin Laden’s case, the Americans planned the final assault with an elite force that carried out the attack as President Obama and his military high command watched via a satellite link from the White House. While the details of the final assault in the Godane killing are sketchy, the White House reported that it had taken ‘years of painstaking work by our intelligence, military and law enforcement professionals’.[1]

Significantly, in both cases, the value of a targeted, ‘high-value’ killing far outweighed the awkward diplomatic consequences of a unilateral action taken without the knowledge of the host country—in Bin Laden’s case, as also in Godane’s, the apparent lack of warning to either the Somali government or the region’s governments that have deployed thousands of troops in Somalia for the past six years.

And this was a hit for which the Americans would take exclusive credit—ironically, as African leaders gathered in Nairobi to discuss terrorism.

Whose war?

It is this incongruence, this unequal fit of agendas, priorities, intelligence, technologies and finances in the fight against terrorism on African soil that presents the biggest conundrum for the African Union and for individual African governments.

Since the 1970s when terrorism, once called ‘the weapon of the weak’, became the instrument for marginal far-left groups in the West and of liberation movements such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation waging war against the US-backed Israeli state, Africa has offered a theatre of soft targets and proxy campaigns. And even when Uganda’s Idi Amin gave refuge to Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe airport in 1976, there was no doubting that one of Africa’s ‘Big Men’ was merely posturing in other people’s wars.

Clearly, this is no longer the case as global militant outfits have set up or co-opted branches in Africa. Boko Haram’s terrorist campaigns in Nigeria have killed over 10,000 Africans in Nigeria this year alone.[2] Al-Shabab has grown into a regional phenomenon and challenges national governments throughout the Horn of Africa. In keeping with the blitzkrieg of strategic alterations offered by the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, jihadist groups in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa now prefer military occupation and long-term control, rather than the cocktail of suicide bombings, school-girl abductions and ransom-kidnappings, as the more inspired ideological option.

In other words, we are now entering an age where terrorism is rapidly morphing into full scale asymmetrical warfare pitting small mobile units that are the nodal points of a globalized ideological force against conventional national African armies hamstrung by distant bureaucracies, daily cash, fuel and other shortages on the frontline and a creeping sense among the rank and file of every man for himself. And the prize is territory and hostage populations.

A series of letters dating from mid-2012 between two Al Qaeda senior officials and published recently by the New York Times, apparently to expose the importance of kidnappings to Al-Qaeda’s operations, inadvertently revealed the scale of the insurgents’ political agenda—not only to terrorise but also to convert encountered populations and occupy territory.[3]

Need for an African response

Even though much of the military response to the problem comes either directly from US and Western forces, or is sponsored and orchestrated by them, ‘terrorism’ is no longer their problem. If it wasn’t before, the war on jihadist insurgents is very much our African crisis. If not confronted, it could very well precipitate the winding up of the post-colonial states and force a redrawing of the continent’s post-colonial order with the emergence of new polities that tap into the deep undercurrents of perceived religious and ethnic grievances, political marginalization and youth disenfranchisement.

Mali may have been ‘rescued’ from the brink—and who would have considered the troubling prospect of French interventionism there even a decade ago?—but across Africa with its weak borders, even weaker states, unaccountable republican elites and secessionist movements, the threat could just be an urban informal settlement away, as the case of terror attacksNairobi illustrates.

If terrorism, or perhaps more precisely, the rise of a global jihadist insurgency has opened another, sadly familiar installment in the crisis of hurried state formation in Africa, the language of the response at the centre has remained wonderfully externalized. It’s their problem, not our crisis.

In Nairobi last year, for example, state officials were keen to position the Westgate attack within the general context of global jihad for which Western assistance was urgently needed. Instead of African countries taking ownership of the strategy to counter the threat of terrorism, there is still heavy reliance on—and uncritical allegiance to—the Western, US-led militaristic agenda.[4]

The reluctance to design an autonomous counterterrorism policy, specific to national and regional context in Africa, has been a running theme in security thinking at least since the US Embassy bombings in 1998. Financed, outfitted and often merely playing an auxiliary role, Nairobi has been comfortable allowing US government security agencies to define the problem and design the response. In this scheme of things, where Kenya plays host for over a decade to foreign security agents who are free to run a counter-insurgency script of their own making, it is Nairobi that is left to deal with the political cost.

One of the consequences of this specific case has been the deep fissures that have developed between upcountry power elites and the Muslim population at the coast. Fears of radicalization, in no small part fuelled by a brutal US-cum-Government of Kenya counter-insurgency campaign, have created a positive feedback loop in which state security swoops on neighbourhoods, arbitrary arrests and state-sponsored assassinations of prominent Muslim leaders only serve to deepen the sense of historical marginalization within the population. In turn, these measures fuel the radicalization of young people and, quite predictably sweep many of them into nascent and established jihadist groups. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy of a never-ending conflict generated by fear, ignorance and not a small amount of racism.

The key element in all this has been the US government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Launched in 2003 by the Bush administration, the then $100 million counterterrorism programme identified the growing jihadist threat in Africa, identified ‘ungoverned spaces’ as potential recruitment and training sites and sought to enlist African governments’ support to combat the threat. 

The case of Somalia

It was this set of policies that instigated in 2006 the war in Somalia against the Islamic Courts Union. Fought with Ethiopian ‘boots-on-the-ground’, it resulted in the dismantling of the ICU, which for all its drawbacks, had offered the beleaguered country the most viable opportunity for stability since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991. Again, rather than an AU response, the Ethiopian invasion was widely seen to have occurred at the behest of the United States.

The rise of the ICU had presented a difficult conundrum: could the region, and the world, live with a stable Somalia under jihadist rule? With nobody waiting for an answer, militarizing the solution created a whole new set of problems that have paradoxically, accelerated the arrival of the very jihadist threat that was being averted.

There is no doubt that al-Shabab’s insurgency rose from the restless ghosts of the ICU. To combat this threat, more US government money was thrown at the problem with the kitty swelled by other members, mostly Western, of the international community, and promptly taken up by many actors in the region, keen to intervene militarily for both legitimate security concerns and other, more pragmatic reasons.

Six years on, it is pragmatism that has driven policy rather than the other way around. Individual country enthusiasm to join AMISOM—there was virtually none at the beginning; there are now over 17,000 troops in Somalia drawn from six African countries—has quite decidedly been predicated on available budgets rather than legitimate threats. (And if there is any dispute about this, one simply has to ask the question: where would AMISOM be, if the funding were withdrawn?). To make the point, a quick example: in Kampala in 2011, a senior media advisor to President Museveni disclosed that, along with the anticipated $2 billion revenues from oil, Uganda expected to raise another $3 billion in donor aid if it could become the region’s peace and security hub. Such are the calculations in play in the race for Western counter-terrorism monies.[5]

Nonetheless, 22 years since the onset of the Somalia crisis, are we any closer to a lasting solution? The military approach, along with diplomatic patchwork to stitch up a government in Mogadishu that still cannot exert itself over most parts of Somalia, is an external solution. It is not viable precisely because it is lifted out of a counterterrorism handbook that, over the past decade at the very least, has merely served to complicate the original crisis—Afghanistan and Iraq are two festering cases.

Moreover, with emerging reports of massive oil finds in Somalia several Western governments are keen to either revive oil concessions or obtain new ones.[6] And with powerful Islamist elements already in control of government in Mogadishu and financed mostly by donors in the Middle East; with several governments interested in financing the modernization of the country’s ports along a 3,600-km coastline, the prospect of a scramble for the broken soul of the country suggests, worryingly, an escalation of the crisis rather than the much-touted return to stability.

Time for AU to lead

In the last ten years, the Peace and Security Council of the AU has focused on the agenda of terrorism only in five of its meetings. Individual governments as well as the AU seem content to play a secondary role to Western militaries and donors and have failed to find local, more political solutions to the challenge of Islamic militancy spreading across Africa. The AU needs to acknowledge that the global jihadist insurgency is now very much Africa’s problem. It is ours. But, like so much on this continent, Africans themselves have overlooked the full dimensions of the threat.

‘Terrorism’ poses an existential question to the continent. Responding to it indeed may inevitably require a military component, but the AU needs to adopt a more comprehensive context-specific approach and take ownership of the process to combat this most serious threat to peace and security in modern history. As experience in other countries around the Muslim world shows, extremism cannot be defeated through military might alone.

Above and beyond all else, AU states require a re-examination of the fundamental domestic political arrangements that have opened the gates to the jihadists in the first place. The main source of the jihadist threat in the Horn emanates from Somalia, which has now spread into areas across the borders. The weakness of the security and governance apparatus, as well as the socio-political conditions that push marginalised communities into the hands of extremists, could only be addressed by African states themselves.

Parselelo Kantai is the East and Horn of Africa editor of The Africa Report. He also writes for Africa Confidential and the Financial Times. He has been a Reuters Fellow and can be reached at


[2] The Nigerian National Security Advisor, Sambo Dasuki quoted by


[4] See, for example, this interview by the US legal attaché in Nairobi

[5] Interview with the writer in Kampala, 2011.

[6] For more details see

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