The anniversary of the September 11th al-Qaeda attacks on the United States is bound to include renewed reflection on the successes and limitations of more than two decades of international counterterrorism practice. Such a reflection is long overdue on Africa, in particular. There, despite significant investments in enhanced military, intelligence, and other security-related capabilities at the national level, terrorist threats are on the rise. Rather than continuing to rely on this approach, a more decentralized one is needed, one that invests in local government and local leaders — whether in urban centers, remote border villages, or rural towns — and their largely untapped potential for addressing local grievances that are often at the root of the violence.

Nearly half of global deaths attributed to violent extremist groups in 2021 took place in sub-Saharan Africa. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently voiced concern that terrorist groups and their affiliates continue to expand in the Sahel and make inroads into Central and Southern Africa, exploiting well-documented power vacuums, longstanding inter-ethnic strife, internal weaknesses, and state fragilities. Countries such as Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and Niger have all experienced an increase in deaths. In addition to continued terrorism in Nigeria and Somalia, the threat now includes Mozambique and Coastal West Africa, where militant groups operating from Burkina Faso are now targeting Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and Togo.

These trends bluntly illustrate the shortcomings of a response that has been overly centralized and has over-emphasized security forces, especially military but also police and various types of militias. The clear failure to eradicate the threat posed by violent Islamist radicals despite decades of effort reportedly prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to ask his defense chiefs and advisers recently to review France’s military posture in all the locations where it operates in Africa. The U.N. itself has noted how this security-heavy approach has inflamed the local grievances that militant groups exploit to stoke violence, though the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism continues to support such programs.

If the United States, the U.N., and their international and African partners seriously hope to reverse, let alone stem, the rising tide of extremism, they must address those counter-productive dynamics. This growing realization has led a growing number of African countries to embrace, at least rhetorically, the importance of both a whole of society approach to addressing the volatile and complex extremist threat landscape and the role of civil society actors in such an approach. International donors have scaled up their support for preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), including by funding a growing number of grassroots civil society organizations working to strengthen community-level resilience to extremism.

But international partners such as the United States, while acknowledging shortcomings in the existing approach, continue to emphasize the need “to build the capacity of [African governments’] security, intelligence, and  judicial institutions to identify, disrupt, degrade, and share information on terrorists and their support networks.” This is reflected in the new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, despite democratic backsliding and rising levels of authoritarianism and corruption across parts of the continent and the track record of some national governments’ misuse of CT tools against political opponents or human rights defenders, among others.

One affected and involved group that has much at stake but has been largely overlooked — with the exception of isolated, often pilot, programs — is local governments that are closest to the people most vulnerable to and most likely to suffer the economic and social consequences of violent extremism. Moreover, it is in remote border towns and villages, sometimes thousands of miles from the capital and from security service decision-makers, where militant groups have proven increasingly effective in recruiting. The militants tap into pastoral communities, seize on disputes between farmers and herders over land and water, and exploit a lack of trust in or relationships with central governments.

The Prevention Potential of Local Authorities in Africa

Enhancing the capacity and involvement of local authorities – big and small – to prevent violent extremism from taking root in the communities they represent may be a more effective and sustainable approach to reducing terrorist threats across the continent than the current approach. This is true for at least five reasons identified during a project of the Strong Cities Network (SCN), where we serve , that assessed P/CVE needs and priorities of cities and other local authorities across Africa (full report to be published later this month). Funded by the European Union, this project engaged some 800 national and local government officials and a range of non-governmental stakeholders across more than 25 countries in Africa.

First, extremist groups across Africa capitalize on a range of local grievances to recruit, including the exploitation of young people’s socio-economic insecurities, such as poverty and high-unemployment rates, by providing financial incentives for young people to join them.   Local injustices are used as entry points into new communities, exploiting inter- and intra-communal needs and tensions to spur recruitment and support. Local governments are well-positioned to recognize and understand the hyper-local contexts that extremists exploit.

Second, local authorities who are in touch with their communities can identify and give early warnings of situations that may escalate to violence in ways that distant central governments often cannot. They can provide analysis to inform national counterterrorism or P/CVE strategies and plans to ensure they reflect the often-varied local realities across any given country.

Third, they are able to nurture a “‘local identity’ that embraces all tribes and ethnicities within a particular locality to help build resilience and strengthen community cohesion by making citizens feel connected to one another and foster trust in local government institutions. This is particularly needed in places where inter-tribal and inter-communal tensions and lack of trust in government institutions are among the main drivers of extremist violence.

Fourth, with access to local services — housing, education, vocational training, social welfare, sports, and culture — local authorities can help ensure that violent extremism is not viewed exclusively as a national security challenge, but a societal one as well, where social well-being and community cohesion come into play. Drawing on such resources, local governments can develop tailored programs to offer positive alternatives to alienated youth and other groups who might otherwise be attracted to extremist and other forms of violence, while avoiding stigmatization often associated with similar programs designed and delivered by national-level actors.

Finally, across Africa, there are growing connections between extremism and other forms of community violence and social disorder. These include inter-communal, farmer-herder, gang, and gender-based violence. Armed gangs and extremist groups capitalize on the instability and feelings of insecurity that result from these conflicts. Organized crime can also serve as an entry point into extremist movements. The most effective responses to violent extremism are likely to be those that address broader threats to community well-being, as opposed to focusing singularly on national security.

The mapping exercise also revealed that local authorities across the continent want to become more involved in P/CVE. Apart from Kenya, which has a decentralized governance framework that has allowed for its county (local) governments to play an increasingly active role in P/CVE, examples of local authority involvement in P/CVE in Africa are few and far between.

Barriers to the Prevention Potential of Africa’s Local Authorities

The mapping project identified numerous barriers that will need be overcome in order to tap into the potential of local authorities to work on preventing violent extremism. Five stand out:

First, the overwhelming majority of central governments across the continent continue to exert tight control over security issues – and the budgets that fund responses. Those responsible for P/CVE at the national level – typically security forces and any civilians who might have effective authority over them – tend to consider their local counterparts only in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or when the threat of violent extremism is acute. At the same time, local authorities in a number of countries aren’t as aware as they could be of the threat of violent extremism and their role in P/CVE. They perceive it as either a foreign threat or as a security issue that the national government is responsible for addressing.

Second, as noted above, few local governments have — or believe they have — a P/CVE mandate. In the rare instance where they are handed that responsibility – for example, in Burkina Faso and Nigeria – that often occurs without prior consultation with them. For example, while many African governments have followed international good practice by forming a national steering committee to lead the development and implementation of a national P/CVE plan, there are few examples where local governments are involved. So anything that such committees may propose for local communities risks having little buy-in at that target level.

Third, cooperation between national and local leaders in P/CVE is rare across much of the continent (and in many countries around the globe). This is due to a general lack of coordination processes, a gap that is particularly evident with information-sharing, where central governments seem reluctant to share relevant data on threats with local authorities because the former considers them to be matters of “national” security despite the often very local impact. The ability of local authorities to respond, especially in the immediate aftermath of an attack, is hampered by insufficient and unclear information-sharing protocols and processes between national and local authorities.

The fourth barrier to more involvement by local authorities is a lack of trust between them and central government leaders. These trust deficits appear to be most significant where nationally deployed law enforcement has been involved in or accused of abuses in local communities and/or where there is a popular local leader, particularly from an opposition party, who may be seen as competition to the national political status quo.

Finally, many local authorities across the continent suffer resource or expertise deficits. Such challenges are particularly acute in rural and border areas that are far from the national capital but where the threats are the greatest. Competition for limited resources is growing; the security sector continues to receive most national (and donor) funds for addressing rising terrorist threats, and donors continue to prioritize support for locally led, civil society activities rather than those of local governments.

Expertise gaps include a lack of understanding of the ideological and other dimensions of violent extremism that differentiate it from other forms of violence and that would need to be reflected in any local policy or intervention as part of a stand-alone P/CVE effort or a broader prevention or community safeguarding initiative. Moreover, without access to global, regional, sub-regional, and, for the most part, national P/CVE training and other capacity-building workshops, it is difficult for local authorities to develop that expertise, let alone tailor and apply it to their specific context.

The final report from the mapping project will offer a menu of recommendations for overcoming the obstacles to more local government involvement in P/CVE in Africa. A more localized strategy is needed to focus more attention on the socio-economic and political grievances that continue to fuel extremist and other forms of violence and conflict in Africa. Any new approach should move away from treating violent extremism and terrorism as exceptional threats requiring a distinct set of tools to prevent and counter them. Rather, these patterns must be recognized as another form of backlash, similar to other forms of violence, in response to persistent failures to serve the needs of citizens. In such a right-sized approach, cities and other local authorities stand to play an important role.

IMAGE: People hold a banner as riot police patrols in background during a march called by the UAS union to call for better security measures against terrorism, in Ouagadougou on September 16, 2019. (Photo by IISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images)