Lessons from Africa on terrorism

Misperceptions and bad policy are making terrorism worse, cautions the ISS during this week’s UN General Assembly.

  • State responses to terrorism risk making the problem worse
  • ISS research challenges misperceptions about extremism
  • Malian youths join jihadi groups for protection not fanaticism
  • There’s a lack of evidence to link migration and extremism
  • Sustained security requires policy that understands why people become terrorists

New research from Africa shows that governments’ responses to terrorism often make the problem worse. This is the message the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) is taking to the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. 

The ISS works on prevention of violent extremism and responses to terrorism as part of its core mission to improve human security in Africa. It brings an African perspective to global discussions about extremism, terrorism, migration and development. Recent research in East and West Africa has challenged many false perceptions about the best way to combat terrorism.

Rethinking youth involvement in violent extremism

ISS researchers have challenged myths around youth radicalisation in West Africa. It was believed young people joined armed jihadi groups in Mali because they are fanatical. But Malian youths formerly involved in those groups often told ISS researchers they joined to protect their families, their communities and their income-generating activities.

‘If we falsely portray people as merely unemployed radicals indoctrinated by religious ideology we will develop solutions that miss the target,’ says Lori Theroux-Benoni, ISS office director in Dakar who led the research in West Africa.

The ISS is now advising regional governments on how to respond to violent extremism and recruitment into terror groups. Its research was conducted in 2016 and 2017 with sociologists and anthropologists who did interviews in prisons, villages and gold mines with Malian youths formerly engaged in jihadist groups.

Migrant or terrorist?

The ISS is challenging the view that communities affected by terror are terrorists themselves. ‘There is no empirical evidence from Africa to confirm any direct link between migration and extremism,’ says ISS programme head Ottilia Maunganidze. ‘Migrants who engage in violent extremism are statistically insignificant.’

The actual relationship between migration and violent extremism remains largely unexplored, and is the subject of new ISS research.

Policy makers can’t be guided by fear

Fear leads to bad policy and should not be allowed to drive counter-productive responses to terrorism. Fear prompts the unfettered use of force, asymmetrical war, illegal intelligence gathering, and the torture and detention of terror suspects.

Sustained human security can only be achieved through long-term policy that addresses the conditions that drive people to terrorism.

Strategies based on use of force allow terrorists to present themselves as soldiers and martyrs. And by violating human rights through over-zealous military responses, governments risk exacerbating the conditions which give rise to extremism in the first place.

‘Security force action characterised by mass arrests and racial profiling are counterproductive and may drive individuals to extremism,’ says Cheryl Frank, head of the ISS’ transnational threats and international crime programme.

ISS research shows that what is needed is fewer hawks, and more advocates for social development, justice and human rights.

Add development to the lexicon of the hawks

The best way to beat terrorists is to improve the conditions their recruits live in. Paying more attention to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the best approach to global development and security priorities. But counter-terrorism discussions often don’t make the link between development and security. The SDGs need to be in the lexicon of the hawks.

Discrimination drives extremism

Governments facilitate recruitment into extremist groups if they violate human rights or discriminate against ethnic and religious groups in their fight against terrorism.

That is one of the key findings by ISS senior researcher Allan Ngari. He says states should apply international law, human rights and democratic principles to prevent violent extremism.

Agencies developing counter-terrorism policies should promote dialogue with religious and ethnic communities, and put more emphasis on political and socio-economic factors that lead to violence, rather than identity factors such as religion and ethnicity.

Many responses to terrorism have failed because government strategies tend to alienate the communities they are meant to help. Ngari’s research shows that emphasis by states on identity factors such as religion and ethnicity is misplaced, and contributes to attitudes that may lead to violence.

Corruption is a catalyst for terrorism

Corruption is a neglected human rights violation that fuels injustice and inequality and is a major catalyst for terrorism. Corruption robs nations of resources and potential, and drives resentment and radicalisation in Africa. A recent ISS study of Boko Haram in Nigeria shows how extremist organisations are adept at portraying themselves as the solution to corruption and injustice.

About the ISS

The ISS is a leading African organisation working to prevent violent extremism and deal with terrorism as part of its core mission to improve human security on the continent.

Tackling terror with original research

ISS field research, conducted in local languages in difficult environments, corrects misperceptions and guides strategies aimed at tackling radicalisation and violent extremism. It ensures counter-terrorism strategies are based on facts not prejudice.

A global player on terrorism and extremism

The ISS is one of the only African organisations with a seat at global counter-terrorism forums. ISS experts directly advise the UN on counter-terrorism strategy and work with civil society to ensure the economic and social causes of extremism are included in the policy debate.

Counter-terrorism training in Africa

The ISS trains governments and civil society to tackle Africa’s human security challenges, from prosecuting terrorism cases to dismantling bombs. ISS training is practical and sustainable, featuring real case studies and exercises.

ISS experts for interviews:

Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, +221 33 860 3304 , [email protected] (in Dakar)

Ottilia Maunganidze: + 1 929 310 2298, [email protected] (in New York)

Cheryl Frank: +1 202 468 9173, [email protected] (in New York)

Allan Ngari: +1 202 468 9642, [email protected] (in New York)

Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the following members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the USA.
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