Violent extremists are closing in on Bamako, Mali’s capital city. In late July, the U.S. Embassy in Mali sounded the alarm, condemning “in the strongest terms” multiple armed attacks against Malian armed forces in six towns on one day (July 21) and a brazen assault on military barracks just outside the capital a day later. Unsurprisingly, Mali’s military coup leaders responded with force. In an apparent bid to escalate that approach, the top military leaders of Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso met on Sept. 3 and pledged to “pool their efforts in the fight against terrorism,” which promises only more of the same.
It’s not working. After well over 10 years of counterterrorism (CT) efforts in Africa, with extended military assistance from the United States and Europe, violent extremist groups continue their steadfast advance. An assortment of African military coalitions have been set up across sub-Saharan Africa to apply CT-style military force against violent extremists. In the Sahel, there have been two: the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force, with five countries in each (although Chad and Niger are in both and Mali’s exit from the G5 has left it on shaky ground). Another six countries have contributed forces to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and five Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations have sent some of their troops into Mozambique (not including the Rwandans, who went on their own). In short: nearly half of the region’s nations have contributed troops to Africa’s current CT effort – with scarcely any success anywhere.
In Mali, military aid was accompanied by attempts at joint operations involving France, the United States, as well as Belgium, Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, France, Hungary, Italy, Mauritania, Netherlands, Niger, Portugal, and Sweden (in addition to, increasingly, the Kremlin-connected Wagner Group mercenaries). But the French-led Operation Barkhane was a colossal failure: instead of advancing on violent extremist groups, it has left Mali reeling from an insurgency that “has billowed out from its northern beginnings across the country’s center and to its neighbors” – and all the way south to “Bamako’s doorstep.”
It’s not hard to see why. Mali features one of the world’s youngest populations. Freedom House has judged the nation as “not free.” The marks are even worse for similarly super-youthful Chad, whose government won praise from the U.S. Defense Department on Capitol Hill in mid-July. Governance in both nations is appalling, with high corruption, few services, and heavy state repression. Last month, the United Nations independent expert on the human rights situation in Mali reported of “a poisonous climate marked by suspicion and mistrust” and “atrocious, cruel and barbaric torture” undertaken by Malian security forces against its citizens.
Military-first approaches atomize and scatter violent extremists, unintentionally expanding their presence and capabilities. Take a look at Mozambique. Poor governance and pronounced inequality are rife there, as well. After Rwandan and SADC forces attacked violent extremists in the north, the violent extremists are now spread across much of the north and are moving southward fast.
Research makes clear that governance issues, and the alienation and bitterness they promote, lie at the core of Africa’s violent extremism challenge. Infiltration generally tends to start in areas where citizens are marginalized, receive limited or no government services, and often suffer from systemic inequality and pervasive state corruption and repression. Meanwhile, counterterrorism strategies typically lead with military force and training that further empowers state militaries (which often respond by attacking their own citizens), while downplaying pronounced governance challenges. CT efforts tend to be counterproductive because they boost (and thus promote) governments prone toward corruption and violence. This sort of state predation, in fact, can “actually cause insecurity,” making it almost too easy for violent extremist groups to engage with “desperate citizens” – and thrive.
At the same time, an ostensible alternative, increasingly common approach under the umbrella of “preventing or countering violent extremism” (P/CVE), offers a governance sleight of hand: focusing on local governance while leaving the root causes emanating from the national government virtually untouched. The emphasis in P/CVE on nurturing “engaged, resilient communities” as a method to thwart violent extremism is widespread and potentially very useful. However, the approach has limited utility because it cannot address deeper national governance concerns.
An international NGO official for a CVE program in West Africa related his frustrations with the mainstream CVE approach (via private interview). “The people in this area,” he explained, “say that ‘The government doesn’t care about us.’” Many “complain about the security forces.” In addition, “the [government] system has become so corrupt.” Snatching an opportunity, “The VE [violent extremists] come along and give money and a bicycle” to male youth in the area. “They say, ‘We can help you.’ One reason that young people are drawn to VE groups is that they feel powerless.” The root cause of the challenge, he emphasized, was “poor governance.” Requests to the program’s donor agency to “work on abuses by security forces” were denied because the donor “has a relationship” with the government, which “doesn’t want NGOs to investigate and tell the population” about underlying realities on the ground. As a result, “CVE seems to focus on the consequences” of violent extremism,” not its causes.
Community-based P/CVE programs routinely operate at local levels even as CT initiatives validate and bolster militaristic national governments. The combination ultimately is counterproductive. For example, recent research found that Africa’s Sahelian states (an area of intensive CT and P/CVE activity) “have suffered from successive weak governments characterized by corruption, impunity, and disorganization.” National elites “have failed to provide security for vast sections of the population” and “militaries in the Sahel are often viewed by marginalized groups as oppressors.” Not surprisingly, “efforts to reinforce states through military training have been largely ineffective.”
The Sahel, in fact, remains a microcosm for what not do to. The region “has seen the most rapid growth in violent extremist activity of any region in Africa over the past 2 years.” Despite heavy military investments from international sources, violent extremism keeps expanding. Mali’s national government “offers a clear example of how structural failings, poor governance, and weak state security have been the main cause of the growing [terrorist] insurgency.” In Burkina Faso, “in the name of ridding their country of Islamist extremists and bandits,” government security forces reportedly have killed “about as many people as jihadists.” Some regimes in the Sahel attack citizens that the governments themselves have marginalized, making the work of violent extremist groups even easier. Abusive state forces thus “are strengthening the hand of militants who portray themselves as defenders of the people, enabling them to expand their influence even further across the Sahel.”
It’s backfiring. The internationally-led, counterterrorism-first approach (salted with a bit of community-based P/CVE work) isn’t leading to sustainable, upbeat change. It can’t: the national governments are way too unpopular, grasping, violent, and incompetent. They are the main problem.
A robust, national governance-focused approach to Africa’s violence extremism threat thus is needed. It won’t be easy: many people in power evidently rely on timeworn habits of thumping real or suspected opponents, keeping graft and impunity in place, tolerating minimal dissent and limiting authentic change. In response, these four steps should be undertaken:
Study and learn from the expertise of the violent extremist groups themselves: Research has illustrated how VE groups run circles around mainstream P/CVE approaches to gender and youth alienation. For example, while violent extremist groups “regularly display gender expertise in their recruitment tactics” with both female and male youth, and have made male youth emasculation a particular specialization. Meanwhile, mainstream CVE gender research and work tends to focus on women. In addition, one research project found that the CVE “emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of target populations has collided with the dominance of hard military and security approaches to countering violent extremism.” Such state tactics promote separation and distrust between community members and government operatives.
Study Somaliland to foster reform elsewhere: The key to Somaliland’s remarkable success in staving off advances by al-Shabaab is reputable, credible, legitimate governance. “The Somaliland government’s fostering of a virtuous circle” is the key to their success. The circle features “effective, locally derived governance that supports broad community buy-in,” which then “allows the government to combat militancy.” Meanwhile, just to the south, Somalia exhibits “uneven, unpredictable, and often corrupt governance that gives al-Shabaab the space it requires to operate so effectively.”
Customize responses: An effective response cannot allow “overmilitarized” counterterrorism assistance either to boost government repression or overwhelm and delegitimize the main way to stop violent extremist groups: by improving governance. To do this effectively, top-quality analysis of local, national, and regional dynamics, and of the CT-P/CVE heritage, is required. Drawing from the analysis, the next step is to develop and implement customized, adaptive, coordinated and sustained strategies to address root-cause, national-level governance challenges. The target should be those specific features of state predation “that abuse and brutally exploit citizens and drive them to radicalization and support for extremism.”
Avoid the CT-first comfort zone: The Mali debacle illuminates the need for a major re-think about the CT-first approach. The statement of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Chidi Blyden before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 12 of this year reflected the military’s limited learning from the failure in Mali. In a revealing comment, she explained that “failing to understand root causes at local levels and understand our partners, and especially their will to fight, can have significant consequences.”
That is true. However, Blyden stunningly called for enhanced U.S. military support and much closer engagement with those predatory governments that are the root cause of all the trouble. She underscored the “need to integrate our entire approach in the Sahel with our African partners” and position African partner governments “in the lead with respect to restoring and preserving security.” In addition, Blyden praised Chad as “one of our most capable partners in the region.” Her statement did not note the regime’s exceedingly violent ways, as reported by the U.S. Department of State, among many other sources. Just how much more of the same can succeed is difficult to imagine.
A reckoning is coming to African states invaded by violent extremist groups. President Joe Biden’s recent prescient statement that “Too much of what is happening in our country today is not normal” also applies to them. Violent extremist groups infiltrate African nations where predatory governments alienate youth, exclude vulnerable groups, and rule with violent impunity. The intruders easily exploit massive fault lines in state-citizen relations. That’s their bread-and-butter – and that is where the international response to violent extremism in Africa must focus. Mali’s next military government very well could be a caliphate run by violent extremists.