Terrorism and violent extremism expand despite AU efforts

African Union (AU) heads of state will meet on 28 May 2022 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, to deliberate on terrorism and violent extremism, in addition to unconstitutional changes of government (UCGs) and continental humanitarian responses.

The extraordinary summit of the AU Assembly is set against the backdrop of Africa’s emergence as the global epicentre of terrorism, according to the Global Terrorism Index 2022. The number of terrorist groups in Africa expanded with the return of foreign fighters and as states’ security apparatus is weakened by internal political instability and conflict.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 48% of global deaths from terrorism. Attacks have spread beyond historical hotspots such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa to southern Africa and coastal regions of West Africa.

This is despite the AU and its member states having adopted extensive policy frameworks on terrorism and violent extremism, such as the 1999 Algiers Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism and the related 2004 Protocol, and having deployed a number of counter-terrorism-related peace-support missions in various parts of the continent.

This includes the Multinational Joint Task Force, the G-5 Sahel Joint Force, Southern Africa Development Community Mission in Mozambique, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia and the Regional Cooperation Initiative against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The summit should explore why terrorism is growing despite concerted efforts to curb it

This summit marks the second time in nearly eight years since the Peace and Security Council (PSC) held its first summit-level meeting on the topic on 2 September 2014. African leaders will have another opportunity in Malabo to review the current approach to counter-terrorism and also discuss the growing nexus among conflict, UCGs and transnational organised crime. It will also allow them to interrogate why the threat posed by terrorism and violent extremism seems to be growing despite a concerted continental effort to counter it.

Expected outcomes

The draft agenda of the summit includes a report on terrorism and UCGs to be presented by the Commissioner of Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Bankole Adeoye. The outcome of a meeting of heads of intelligence and security services in Africa will also be shared. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, AU counter-terrorism champion, and Cameroonian President Paul Biya, Chairperson of the Peace and Security Council for May 2022, will address heads of state ahead of the general closed discussions.

The summit’s major decisions are expected to include the proposal to establish the African Standby Force (ASF) counter-terrorism unit. Decisions are also set to be made on the financing of African-led counter-terrorism operations and coordination between regional economic communities (RECs) and the AU in deploying missions.

The anti-terrorism unit is meant to address the shortcomings of traditional peacekeeping and enforcement missions in responding to terrorist threats in Africa.

Another AU focus has been securing predictable and sustainable financing for missions led by the AU and authorised by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In addition, to support from partners and from member states’ assessed contributions, the Peace Fund is also now operational. In May 2022, it had $295 million, $2 million of which had been allocated to the Crisis Reserve Facility. The newly established special counter-terrorism fund is another financial resource.

Securing UNSC assessed contributions for Peace Support Operations (PSOs) are, however, challenging. First, counter-terrorism-related PSOs raise issues about the UN principle of impartiality, which has governed the deployment of peacekeeping missions around the world. As a result, the UNSC has been reluctant to engage in countering terror.

The second challenge is African ad-hoc PSOs are in theory guided by the AU’s Doctrine on PSOs and thus comply with International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Full compliance with human rights and international humanitarian law has, however, been problematic and a major concern for the UN. Currently, means are limited to ensure compliance and respond to violations and misconduct in these missions.

The UN’s principle of impartiality means it shouldn’t get involvement in counter-terrorism

Partners have also highlighted the AU’s weak financial management instruments, which makes it even more difficult to convince UNSC members to allow it access to assessed contributions. The AU has tried incrementally to resolve some of these challenges. It has set up a comparatively robust financial management system in the past year and made strides to reach a common African position on financing peace and security activities.

During its meeting in May 2022, the AU’s Specialised Technical Committee on Defence, Safety and Security made further progress. Notable was a request that member states and RECs enact PSO policies that guarantee IHL and IHRL compliance and ensure that the ASF concept aligns with the PSO doctrine.

The committee proposed a draft memorandum of understanding between the AU and RECs on the ASF. This may dispel confusion about who mandates and deploys the ASF, particularly for counter-terrorism operations. Such confusion surrounded the Southern African Development Community’s deployment in Mozambique.

Persistent challenges

Despite progress, AU response to terrorism and violent extremism is not as holistic or coordinated as it should be. It views terrorism, transnational organised crime, small arms and light weapons, illicit financial flows,  insecurity in border areas and remote ‘ungoverned’ regions, and illegal extraction of natural resources as separate but interlinked threats. These are, however, not only interlinked but increasingly reinforcing threats, emanating mostly from the same networks.

The AU has invested heavily in fund sourcing for African-led counter-terrorism-related PSOs, and set up ASF policy frameworks and coordination structures for this. However, it has not deliberated on key drivers and enablers of continental terrorism. These include African and non-African ‘charities’, multinationals and states that fund terrorism. These organisations also manage finance for terror operations, facilitate financial transactions, buy terrorist-sourced natural resources, sell arms and other supplies to terror groups, and establish their communications and intelligence networks.

The AU has not put a spotlight on these issues nor named and shamed those involved, let alone hold culprits accountable, because it lacks the means. Experts also lament that African states either have poorly established intelligence agencies or are too suspicious of each other to share intelligence of terrorist activities.

The AU’s preoccupation with military response has also hindered its ability to help member states tackle governance deficits that have provided an enabling environment for terror groups. The groups exploit the grievances of local communities, expanding their networks, recruiting new members and extending their geographic reach.

Finding the nexus

Any robust response by the summit to the threat posed by terrorism will need to address the growing nexus and convergence of terrorism and conflict, UCGs and transnational organised crime. Institute for Security Studies expert Martin Ewi says the Mali and Burkina Faso coups linked directly to insecurity caused by terrorist attacks, and sitting governments’ inability to respond or inaction.

African states are often too suspicious of each other to share intelligence of terrorist activities

In Burkina Faso, the wave of terrorist attacks more than doubled to 1 100 from 2020 to 2021. Despite former president Roch Kaboré’s pledge to respond to terrorism, the military continued to be ill-equipped. Growing discontent over the government’s inefficiency in countering terrorist attacks and the humanitarian crisis that ensued culminated in the military ousting of Kaboré in January 2022.

The military coup in Mali in August 2020 similarly followed months-long protests demanding the resignation of former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s administration. While protest causes were multidimensional, security concerns were at the forefront. The coups have hampered the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, too. The fallout between France and the military junta leading the country led to the withdrawal of the French Barkhane force fighting jihadist groups.

This was followed by the announcement of Mali’s withdrawal from the G5 Sahel force, a coalition formed by France comprising troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. This may affect coordination against terrorist attacks in the Sahel. While there may be a nexus between UCGs and terrorism, the AU may not be able to respond to it without first reacting independently to each threat.

How can the AU respond effectively to terrorism?

The AU’s current strategy to control the spread of terrorism in Africa has failed. This is due largely to various institutional weaknesses, legislative lacunae, and the lack of policies to strengthen national, regional and continental resilience. The growing focus on PSOs has further encouraged states to prioritise often uncoordinated militaristic responses at the expense of robust solutions that include political, social, economic and financial measures. The high cost of PSOs and the misdirected focus on combating terrorist actions rather than terrorists has also made the current strategy ineffective in combating terrorism.

The Malabo summit stands at an important juncture to set a new path in the fight against terrorism in Africa. First, the AU should provide the political centre driving counter-terrorism in Africa through continuous monitoring and evaluation of states’ actions to ensure compliance and effective implementation of legal regimes.  

Secondly, intelligence sharing and coordination must form the cornerstone of the new strategy to ensure intelligence-guided operations. Thirdly, the AU should focus on combating perpetrators of terrorist acts by blacklisting them, and implementing the African arrest warrant to facilitate cross-border pursuit, investigation and prosecution of terrorist suspects. It should also deprive them of safe havens and sources of finance.

Fourthly, combating the nexus between terrorism and organised crime should form the AU Strategy central pillar. This is not only to suppress the support and logistics base, but to prevent terrorists from turning to crime for survival or for organised syndicates to link with terrorists or use terrorist strategies. And fifthly, the summit should promote a whole-of-society approach to counter-terrorism to encourage member states to strengthen practical cooperation with communities, civil society organisations, the private sector and other stakeholders. 

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