Image: Fred Moon (Unsplash)
The African continent has seen an increasing number of violent extremist and terrorist attacks in this decade, mostly focused in Somalia, the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin and recently, northern Mozambique. Addressing violent events perpetrated by Islamist militant groups, the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) indicates an increase from 693 in 2011 to more than 4,000 this year (2020), setting a new record for the continent. While the United Nations (UN) recognises the connection between terrorism and violent extremism, the organisation adapted the MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) mandate to act as a counterterrorist mission. No robust attempt has been made in the remaining regions, therefore, the scenario described above reveals that the UN efforts are insufficient to deal with extremist-related violence and terrorism. Additionally, when assessing the African Union (AU), the Regional Economic Communities (REC) and their military branches, African countries have lost trust in the ability of their own regional and continental organisations to guarantee their security.
Along these lines, the most affected countries are developing regional coalitions to tackle these issues, such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) . These ad hoc military arrangements indicate a worthwhile alternative to traditional peacekeeping, once they focus on subsidiarity and African autonomy, as well as encourage security alliances to deal with common problems. Nevertheless, lessons from the long-lasting AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia) and the current status of those new alliances have to be assessed as the goal of containing the spread and neutralising terrorist and extremist groups seem distant.
Combating terrorism regionally
The MJTF is responsible for combating Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin. Composed by Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, the MJTF has deployed around 8,000 troops and has been achieving significant successes since it was reformed in 2015. While promoting cross-border cooperation, the joint operations were fundamental to contain the spread of the terrorist group and split it into minor factions, alongside the rescue of captured civilians and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid. The environment in which the 5,000 troops of the 2017-born G5 Sahel Joint Force operates in, is considerably different. While fighting at least twenty active groups, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger find themselves in a heavily crowded security field and have been cooperating with MINUSMA and the French Barkhane Operation.
The MJTF and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, although achieving important results, have had similar setbacks. While fighting the extremist and terrorist groups, the two coalitions have been unable to deal with the groups’ resilience, which constantly act through ambushes such as asymmetrical warfare (Guerrilla tactics) and the ability to remain highly mobile. They have a strong presence in marginalised regions and communities, where these groups provide basic services, yet also incite inter-communal violence and profit from links with criminal networks. Internally, coordination is constantly undermined by weak chains of command, different military doctrines, fragile judicial systems, poor equipment and training, lack of transparency and funding delays.
Military action can have only a limited impact in the absence of coherent political responses at the local, national and regional levels. The most critical problem within these coalitions is that they are embedded in a strict military approach lacking a well-built political framework to create sustainable peace in areas affected by violence. Regarding the MJTF, the political component called the Lake Chad Basin Commission ought to be responsible for coordinating efforts with the AU and donors but, it has been neglected by the member countries and remains with fewer resources and a minor influence in peace-building. As for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, it was envisaged as a small civilian component which would report to the force commander, emphasising the military response in detriment of a political one and the last summit – which had France as the protagonist – reinforced the hard-security doctrine instead of focusing on development and accountable leadership.
Some insights into how these coalitions should and should not act against extremists and terrorists can be taken from AMISOM. Despite being an AU mission with a multiplicity of international partners, the warfare against the Al-Shabab is mostly composed by troops – which have been up to 20,000 – from Sierra Leone and East African countries, namely Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Based on AMISOM, such distribution made the contributing countries willing to commit considerable resources and endure significant setbacks, including a large number of casualties. They also undermined local support for the mission, intensify conflicts over governance in Somalia’s south-central regions and do not always follow the force commander’s orders. Misconducts such as backing preferred politicians and engaging in illicit trading should be avoided by the new regional coalitions. The necessity of targeting combat capabilities of terrorist groups instead of focusing on territorial gains is important to the support of local communities which is essential to the peace process.
Perspectives regarding the future
As it is clear from the aforementioned overview, the creation of regional coalitions to combat extremism and terrorism is urgent however, remains full of problems. Looking forward, the main analyses points out the necessity of better governance and accountability, observance of human rights, incrementation of military and political capacity and focus on development to achieve sustainable peace. Some key issues related to these aspects need greater assessment.
Firstly, the states involved in these peace efforts must make better use of their partners. Especially in the Sahel region closer cooperation with the MINUSMA, Operation Barkhane and European Union (EU) missions, can improve capacities on counterterrorism. Regarding MINUSMA, the contribution of high numbers of troops by Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger can provide vital expertise. The successful security reforms in Mauritania over the last decade can serve as an example from inside the G5 on how to combat extremism and terrorism.
Additionally, as the extremist and terrorist acts are spreading to coastal states, two specific countries Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, must make the choice of improving their security capacity and cooperation with those coalitions or remain hostages to terrorism. Benin despite being a member of the MJTF, has done very little to support it. While Côte d’Ivoire has been improving its counterterrorism strategy by closely cooperating with France and with the creation of a military zone alongside the borders with Burkina Faso and Mali. As both states already face the terror threat, the appropriate way aims to develop a stronger security component whether in cooperation with regional coalitions or not.
Finally, the recent rise of extremist and terrorist attacks in northern Mozambique has caught Africa’s attention. Officials from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) member countries agreed on providing military support to combat the Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama group in Mozambique, but without mentioning a regional intervention. If the threat persists and spreads to the entire country, Mozambique will probably be in need of external assistance and the best approach would be to contain extremism and terrorism before it crosses borders, as has occurred in the situations of the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin and Somalia.
Lucas Serra is an undergraduate student in International Relations at the University of Brasilia. He is interested in themes such as Conflict Resolution, Peace Studies, South Atlantic Security and Brazil-Africa Relations.