Will Africa adapt its counterterrorism operations to changing realities?

According to the African Union (AU) Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT), from January to August 2020 Africa experienced 1 168 terrorist attacks. This is an 18% increase compared to 982 attacks in the same period in 2019.

Years after the deployment of a number of counterterrorism operations, including the AU Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram and a number of non-African forces in different regions, the continent is no closer to defeating or containing terrorism and violent extremism.

On the contrary, the threat is now spreading to regions such as the Great Lakes and Southern Africa, and to countries such as Mozambique and coastal states in Western Africa that until recently had not experienced terrorist attacks.

In order to scale up its responses to this threat, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) will discuss the possibility of forming a counterterrorism unit under the African Standby Force (ASF) on 28 October 2020.

While such a unit could address some of the challenges currently faced by collective African actions against terrorism, it requires the AU to continue developing various multidimensional capacities in responding to terrorism. It is also crucial that the AU reaches an understanding with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that will enable AU counterterrorism operations to access UN assessed contributions.

Increasingly, terrorist groups are able to launch and sustain military offensives, as witnessed in the modus operandi of Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and the Islamic State (IS)  affiliates in Mozambique. They have also developed the capacity to finance their operations through multiple means, particularly international illicit financial networks and transnational crimes such as piracy and mercenaryism, as well as trafficking in people, counterfeit goods, drugs, firearms and natural resources.

Terrorist groups on the continent can sustain their operations and, in some cases, hold territories that often are already experiencing instability

As a result, terrorist groups on the continent can sustain their operations and, in some cases, hold territories that often are already experiencing instability. This allows them to recruit members from aggrieved local communities and find a safe haven for their operations. 

The issue is exacerbated by states that have weak security institutions, poor governance and large swathes of ungoverned spaces, as well as the return of foreign terrorist fighters following the fall of the IS in Iraq and Syria. These returnee terrorist fighters have contributed significantly to the spread of terrorism across the continent.

This changing nature of the threat posed by terrorism and violent extremism in Africa underlines the need to revisit existing response mechanisms. This is to ensure that training for counterterrorism operations, provision of force enablers and existing rules of engagement guiding deployed military responses are adaptable enough to address the evolving situation.

The merits of a counterterrorism unit

According to AU experts, the planned creation of a counterterrorism unit under the ASF may help streamline the somewhat ad hoc nature of existing interventions, and the consequent emergence of multiple ad hoc deployments. These deployments, although useful in practice, have sometimes divided the focus of African states on finetuning a structured response to such threats.

Others, however, argue that African counterterrorism units already exist, but are referred to as ad hoc security arrangements with ‘robust’ rules of engagement. Forces deployed to AMISOM, for example, are trained in counterterrorist operations and equipped appropriately.

African counterterrorism units already exist, but are referred to as ad hoc security arrangements with ‘robust’ rules of engagement

Under the ASF, an integral component of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), the AU’s counterterrorism operations can be supported by the whole APSA architecture. This includes the early warning mechanism, which can help overcome the reactive nature of the African response to threats.

Africa’s response to terrorism and violent extremism will also be able to expand from its current heavy military focus to include non-violent preventive measures that can help address some of the underlying conditions that drive radicalisation and violence.

Some have argued that the merging of the peace and security and political affairs departments has the potential to offer such an opportunity and to align APSA with the African Governance Architecture (AGA).

In addition, an amendment to the definition of peace support operations (PSOs) in the revised PSO Doctrine, which outlines the AU’s core principles, practices and approaches in mandating, deploying and managing multidimensional PSOs, is expected to be endorsed by the PSC before the February 2021 AU summit.

This policy document recognises that AU-authorised, -recognised or -endorsed multinational, multifunctional and multidimensional operations deployed to restore or maintain peace amount to PSOs. This definition will allow African-led counterterrorism operations to access funding from the Peace Fund. It will also mean the AU’s PSO Conduct and Discipline Policy will guide African-led operations to address the threat of violent extremism.

The formation of robust units under the ASF fit to counter violent extremism will also help to specify the types of assistance the AU can provide member states, beyond the information-sharing and capacity-building support that has been institutionalised so far.

Challenges ahead

Deploying counterterrorism operations as PSOs will face significant challenges. The most important is the difference between the AU’s definition and mandate of PSOs from that of the UN. While the UNSC is increasingly depending on the AU for deployments in response to terrorism in Africa, as in Somalia through AMISOM, the UN continues to insist that UN-mandated PSOs cannot take part in military responses to terrorism.

This is at variance with the AU’s hybrid and multifaceted definition of PSOs.

As a result, except in obviously necessary cases like AMISOM, the AU has so far refrained from deploying PSOs for counterterrorism purposes. Missions initiated by ad hoc coalitions such as the MNJTF and the G5 Sahel have not been mandated by either the UNSC or the PSC for this reason.

While the PSC has signed a Memorandum of Understating and Support Implementation Agreement with these missions, and provides political and financial assistance, they do not have access to funding from UN assessed contributions. This has led to the proliferation of ad hoc counterterrorism missions on the continent, as well as a growing number of unilateral counterterrorism operations in Africa by some UNSC members.

The UNSC and PSC are also at loggerheads over the mandate of active missions such as AMISOM. While the AU, under the provisions of Chapter 8, has given AMISOM a political mandate, this is not recognised by the UNSC. The UN has instead mandated its Somalia Assistance Mission to support peacebuilding and governance processes.

Currently, the AU’s ad hoc counterterrorism missions focus more on militaristic approaches in responding to terrorism and violent extremism. Yet as experiences from around the world show, a militaristic response alone is not enough to overcome the threat posed by terrorism and violent extremism.

As experiences from around the world show, a militaristic response alone is not enough to overcome the threat posed by terrorism and violent extremism

Adopting a hybrid definition of PSOs would therefore help the AU address this problem. It is, however, unclear whether the UN will support the AU’s definition of PSOs, which adopts a hybrid, multifaceted approach in its counterterror response.

Consensus needed

If the PSC endorses the proposal to form a counterterrorism unit under the ASF, it will have to undertake extensive negotiations with the UNSC and resolve this significant doctrinal variance regarding the deployment of PSOs for counterterrorism missions, so as to access UN assessed contributions.

Internally, AU member states will have to reach consensus on a draft UN resolution regarding accessing UN assessed contributions. They also have to reach a common understanding on the type of missions and interventions that will be funded by the Peace Fund – currently at around $400 million – and conclude the Common African Position on Financing. This is expected to be reviewed at the next meeting of the African Chiefs of Defence Staff and Heads of Safety and Security, and the Specialised Technical Committee on Defence, Safety and Security in November 2020.

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