President Donald Trump’s repeated declaration of victory over the Islamic State obscures on-the-ground realities. The Trump administration’s misguided policies and erratic approach in Iraq and Syria instead have created a security vacuum, alienated partners of the coalition responsible for ISIS’ defeat, exacerbated political and economic grievances, and given terrorist groups across the world an opportunity to regroup and expand.
Nowhere are the failings of this approach greater than in Africa, where terrorist threats have rapidly expanded and diversified over the past two years. During this period, the United States has increased its military and intelligence support to African counterterrorism units, intensified its security cooperation with abusive regimes across the continent, and cut funding for development programs aimed at addressing local drivers of the violence. It is a prominent example of how Trump’s approach often makes the situation worse.
If former Vice President Joe Biden is elected, he and his administration will need to change course swiftly. Here’s why: Islamist militants – including former ISIS fighters who scattered from Iraq and Syria – have recorded unmatched and alarming levels of violent activity in Africa over the past 18 months. According to the Pentagon’s recent assessment, violent extremist groups in Libya, the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, Africa’s Great Lakes, and Mozambique have either fought government forces to a stalemate or are expanding their operations and spheres of influence.
Yet efforts to contain and prevent this violence across the continent overwhelmingly have focused on military and intelligence investments. The security-heavy approach is falling short because it exacerbates factors that militant groups exploit to provoke violence. While violent extremist groups seize opportunities via multi-pronged efforts that highlight poor and abusive governance and aim to win the support of people who feel marginalized, the U.S. government’s main response has been to bolster unpopular governments militarily. Such an approach unintentionally can make violent extremist groups more attractive to excluded populations forced to choose a side. In other words, the Trump administration’s approach has backfired.
The United States and some of its international partners continue to frame violent extremism narrowly: primarily as a military or ideological threat. As underscored in the 2018 national defense strategy, while the Trump administration prioritizes working by, with and through partner governments and their security forces, it doesn’t explicitly exclude those that employ divisive policies and aggressive practices against some of their own citizens. Such a blunt strategy inadvertently encourages counterproductive, predatory state behavior. It is not helped by Trump’s unfortunate affinity for cozying up to authoritarian regimes. In short: by overlooking the ways in which states themselves fuel violence in Africa, violent extremism will continue to grow there while United States and regional security interests are undercut.
Growing Bipartisan Understanding of a New Way
There is another way ahead. There has been growing bipartisan recognition in the United States of the need to adopt a less militarized and more locally-driven approach to dealing with extremist violence, including in Africa. The World Bank and other development institutions also are focusing international attention increasingly on addressing the underlying conditions that drive extremist violence in Africa. This includes helping to repair frayed relationships between governments and communities that extremists exploit to gain recruits. The bipartisan Global Fragility Act (GFA), which Trump signed into law in 2019, follows this approach.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s counterterrorism officials are reluctant to participate in discussions about implementing that law. A coalition of peacebuilding organizations criticized the skeleton implementation plan the State Department submitted to Congress last month, saying the nine-page document “fell short of the law’s legal requirements, and the delay [in submitting a comprehensive plan] threatens to disrupt its implementation at precisely the moment it is needed most to confront global violence resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In addition to an approach that is security-centric and fails to take advantage of new thinking, the Trump administration has shown little interest in supporting existing policies and programs that can help reduce terrorism. Its well-known disdain for multilateral diplomacy and peacekeeping has precluded investment in conflict prevention for Africa. Cuts to the foreign aid budget have limited most aid to humanitarian and refugee crises caused or exacerbated by conflict.
The result is fewer resources for programs with the best chance of preventing violence in the first place. These include targeted, locally-led efforts to prevent recruitment into violent extremist organizations, strengthening the resilience of communities to resist terrorist propaganda, and engaging with governments to reform policies and practices that undermine the rule of law and exclude and repress citizens.
For many in an administration whose leader has yet to set foot on the continent and prioritizes his campaign promise to “bring the troops” home, the solution is not a more balanced U.S approach, but rather simply a reduction of U.S. forces and letting African countries and U.S. allies handle the problem. The U.S. already is in the process of reducing its forces in Africa by 10 percent, considering relocating Africa Command headquarters from Germany, and threatening a complete pullout of U.S. forces from the continent. The overall U.S. troop presence in Africa accounts for a mere 3 percent of U.S. Department of Defense personnel and resources. The real problem is the lack of a coherent plan to deploy U.S. resources – military, development, and diplomatic – strategically to help African countries address the underlying causes of terrorist violence rather than simply beating back immediate threats that only re-emerge.
Focus on Four Core Issues
The need for a new approach is clear. It should focus on four core issues:
First, recalibrate security partnerships: The United States should ensure that its counterterrorism cooperation no longer overlooks state violence, human rights abuses, corruption, bad governance, exclusion, and other grievance-creating practices in partner countries. To achieve this, the U.S. should undertake two efforts. It should significantly recalibrate cooperation with national partners who are unwilling to shift their approach away from the counterproductive over-reliance on hard security measures that have been pursued to date. It also should invest over the long term in countries with governments that are committed to building more transparent, effective, and accountable security institutions, and who take genuine efforts to make security forces more inclusive, democratic, representative, and accountable to civilian authorities and the populations they serve.
Second, revitalize diplomacy: The United States should pursue sustained and persistent diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflicts that fuel terrorist violence. In many of the key theaters in which violent extremists operate, the United States should explore negotiated settlements with groups that support violent extremists in whole or in part because they have been marginalized and attacked by government authorities. They must be shown another way to achieve due recognition and peace.
Third, invest in locally-driven strategies to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism: Working with partners such as the African Union, the Regional Economic Communities, and the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the United States should encourage and provide support to African governments facing these threats to develop and implement “whole of society” strategies to counteract terrorism and violent extremism. These strategies must be based on the rule of law and emphasize the need to strengthen civilian institutions and invest in (not attack) excluded communities.
Fourth, improve and deepen investments in locally-owned initiatives: Together with other donors, the United States should scale up support for efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE) that include three essential population groups: women, male and female youth, and former combatants who need to reintegrate into communities. These programs should be coordinated with national-level reforms of government policies and practices that drive violence and exclusion; focus on regions where violent extremists are present or where populations are susceptible to their propaganda; and be designed to engage for the long-term. They should address the context-specific root causes of extremist recruitment, be integrated with U.S. engagement at national and regional levels, and align with other U.S.-funded initiatives to address violence, conflict, inclusion, rule of law and fragility. Initiatives should include mandated, authentic evaluations that honestly assess programming challenges and efforts, and help ensure American taxpayer funds are being directed to evidence-based, adaptive initiatives striving for sustainable, positive impacts on the ground.
In Africa, as in other parts of the world, violent extremist groups tend to see opportunity in populations that are alienated, aggrieved, and excluded. Surgical, targeted security interventions likely will continue to be required to mitigate immediate threats posed by these groups. However, the difficult counterterrorism lessons of the past two decades have featured the conclusion that leading with a heavy military response, particularly when government partners are repressive, ultimately makes things worse. A more effective and sustained approach recognizes that how governments treat their citizens really matters when it comes to preventing extremist violence.