The 20-year war: 9/11’s enduring legacy in Africa

To prevent continued attacks, the next generation of counter-terrorism must be people-centred, not focused on military might.

The fall of Afghanistan last month and the Taliban’s resurgence epitomises the failure of counter-terrorism over the past 20 years. Since 9/11, an estimated 254 000 people have died in terror attacks worldwide.

The fight against terrorism has become a global priority to eliminate the threat posed by extremists and their financiers. It has been dominated by the military through a state-centric security approach.

As the international community joins Americans in commemorating the 20th anniversary of the September 2001 attacks, it is important to bear in mind what drives terrorism. In many cases, especially in Africa, it results from deep-rooted human security problems experienced by people often ignored or marginalised by their governments. This cannot be addressed by military means alone.

Taliban-led Afghanistan played an essential part in terrorism both before and after 9/11. The group is believed to have provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cohorts who carried out the 9/11 attacks. It also shielded them from the international search to bring them to justice.

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 that overthrew the Taliban government cost more than 64 000 Afghan lives and inspired Islamist groups worldwide – unleashing a new wave of terror attacks.

Using satellite structures, Islamic State has expanded into all five geopolitical regions of Africa

In Africa, Islamists carried out numerous high-profile strikes in 2002 and 2003 in countries including Tunisia, Kenya, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. In Nigeria, a new group calling itself the ‘Nigerian Taliban’ was founded in 2002, in the north-eastern state of Borno. That group later became Boko Haram.

The influence of Afghanistan on criminality in Africa is vast. It inspires radical groups and is a principal source of opium and heroin trafficking, which has become the fastest-growing illicit drug market on the continent.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda haven’t been the only groups driving violent extremism in Africa. In the post-9/11 era, the Islamic State’s emergence and the declaration of an Islamic caliphate in 2014 revolutionised recruitment and participation in terrorism on the continent.

Like al-Qaeda, Islamic State exploits local grievances and empowers local groups or affiliates. Satellite structures called wilayat or provinces have enabled Islamic State to expand its reach into all five geopolitical regions of Africa. The five terrorist hotspots include the Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa and the Mozambique-Democratic Republic of the Congo-Tanzania region. Attacks are mainly carried out by local affiliates supported by al-Qaeda or Islamic State.

As a result of improved organisation and mapping of territorial spaces among extremist groups, the past two decades have witnessed a rise in attacks across Africa. In the 20 years preceding 9/11, 6 142 incidents caused the deaths of over 10 000 people. The two decades after 9/11 account for 7 108 attacks with more than 55 000 fatalities.

Incentivised counter-terrorism programmes have unwittingly helped fund authoritarian regimes

With 41% of all Islamic State-related attacks globally, Africa has replaced the Middle East as the centre of gravity for incidents linked to the group. How and why did this occur at a time of increased focus on counter-terrorism after 9/11?

The first reason is the politicisation of measures against terrorism and Africa’s ambivalent response to it. Even as they condemned the September 2001 attacks, many African leaders perceived counter-terrorism as an American or Western agenda rather than an issue for the continent.

This was partly influenced by Africa’s mixed experience with violent extremism. On the one hand, the continent was targeted by global terrorist organisations. On the other, it was seen as manufacturing terrorism, particularly during its anti-colonial struggle. Several African leaders such as Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi and Omar al-Bashir were previously labelled terrorists or sponsors of terrorism.

There was also a feeling that the international community had acted indifferently to Africa’s ‘own 9/11’ when Bin Laden’s mujahideen bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Africa’s involvement in the global war on terror was, as the 2001 anti-terrorism summit in Dakar directed, to prevent a new wave of attacks from harming the continent’s development. This was more of a political statement to encourage international partners to continue supporting Africa. Initially it worked, as the US and European governments repackaged their aid to countries supporting the anti-terror campaign. US foreign assistance to Africa was used as an incentive to reward its allies.

Criminal justice approaches have been undermined by political renditions and weak judicial independence

This aid has been mainly used to increase military spending at the expense of development programmes. Such programmes could help dissuade populations from turning to violent extremism, particularly in poor rural communities where poverty and religion are instrumentalised for terrorist recruitment.

The unintended consequence of these incentivised counter-terrorism efforts in Africa is that they helped fund authoritarian regimes. The United States and European countries have turned a blind eye to human rights abuses that seriously undermine democracy and good governance.

The second reason for the growing violent extremism in Africa is the lack of counter-terrorism coordination by the African Union and most regional organisations. The use of poorly equipped peacekeeping operations with limited mandates in places like Somalia, Mali, Lake Chad Basin and Mozambique has been highly costly and delivered little dividend.

Third, the criminal justice system offers a more rigorous approach to countering terrorism than military operations. But despite this, it has been undermined by corruption, political renditions and the lack of judicial independence and jurisprudence. The courts can also address some deep-rooted human security issues and drivers of terrorism, and help rebuild the social contract and trust in the government. And yet, they have not been used enough to combat violent extremism. 

Fourth, many African states have overlooked dialogue with extremist groups. They have also not sought guidance on viable solutions from civil society and community actors including the youth, private sector, women and religious leaders. Some aspects of dialogue such as amnesty for terrorists are gaining traction among African governments. But the process needs to be effectively managed to prevent a backlash from communities and former fighters rejoining extremist or criminal groups.

Recent developments in Afghanistan have brought the world to a tipping point – whether Taliban rule represents a new phase of terrorism or the end of an era of counter-terrorism led by the US.

Either way, Africa’s trajectory will depend on how much we have learnt from the failure of the past two decades. A military or state-centric approach has proved ineffective. Instead, broad strategies that encompass military, political, economic and social interventions are needed. They should put people at their centre and be owned and driven at the community and state levels.

Martin Ewi, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator for Southern Africa, ENACT organised crime programme, ISS Pretoria

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Photo: Amelia Broodryk/ISS

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