Natasha Louis, a Master of Science in Global Affairs with a concentration in Transnational Security from New York University. She is a specialist in African security, including terrorism, conflict, and human rights. Ms. Louis is currently the Research Director of Africa Watch at London Politica.
Terrorism is once again on the rise and Islamist extremists are working towards establishing caliphates in parts of Africa. The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon branch focused on analysis, published a report in August 2022 that stated that terror attacks in Africa have increased 300% over the last decade with violent attacks doubling just in the last three years.
Due to the easing of COVID restrictions and the increase of unemployment, Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming a “locus of terrorism”. According to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index report, “terrorism-related deaths have risen by over 1,000 percent between 2007 and 2021 in the Sahel.”
Africa is also being hit the hardest by the effects of global warming with rural and poor communities becoming even more vulnerable to the influence of extremist groups as they desperately seek any opportunities where they can support their families.
Last October, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) reported that the Somalia-based al-Shabaab group is the “largest and most kinetically active al-Qaeda network in the world, and has proved both its will and capability to attack the United States.”
Later that month, al-Shabaab committed a massive attack in Mogadishu at the Ministry of Education, killing over 100 and injuring 300 citizens. Just five years prior, al-Shabaab committed the world’s largest terrorist attack in several years, killing over 500.
With the spread of terrorism in over a dozen countries in Africa, it is becoming increasingly important to question how foreign countries may become further involved. This is exacerbated by an encroaching cold war that is unfolding between the United States, Russia and China. However, countries like France and the US who have had significant failures in Africa and the Middle East will no doubt be hesitant in major counterinsurgency actions.
To this end, US involvement in Somalia has been especially careful to not repeat the catastrophic events that took place in 1993. Yet such military choices are proving to be counterproductive and have led to misguided shifts in strategy.
A Diminishing Counterinsurgency Focus
Approximately three-quarters of US foreign operations between 1798 and 2018 were unconventional. Yet over the last few years, the US national military strategy has shifted its primary concern away from terrorism and towards inter-state strategic competition, particularly with Russia and China.
Reducing counterinsurgency (COIN) operations significantly weakens the ability to establish an “American influence in unstable, strategic regions.” US Capt. Justin Lynch warned in 2014 of terrorist groups taking advantage of this pivot away from counterinsurgency training and resources.
“Numerous violent non-state actors are ready to take advantage of those shifts: Al-Qaeda and myriad other groups remain active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as do its affiliates in North Africa, Yemen, and elsewhere; Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia continue to engage their adversaries in pitched battles; and the Islamic State has grown at a frightening pace in Syria and Iraq. More radical groups will emerge”, he added.
The the spread of existing terrorist groups and the emergence of new ones in Africa have proven Capt. Lynch right in his prediction. The bulk of counterterrorism actions have been reactionary and not pre-emptive, often resulting in ignoring root causes of radicalization. With US and African Union (AU) withdrawals across the continent, terrorist groups have become even more emboldened.
A prime example is how the 2021 US withdrawal from Somalia led to al-Shabaab’s growth, with returning troops now “scrambling” in their attempts to regain control. Additionally, Russian and Chinese propaganda campaigns throughout Africa have created wedges with the West. Anti-French sentiment promoted by Russia have resulted in deadly attacks against French troops leading to their full withdrawal from Mali.
Russia and China have been utilizing their propaganda machines for years throughout Africa; contributing to destabilizing democracy, impacting international relations, and furthering conflict. Additionally, China’s probable military expansion on the continent has caused great concern in Washington regarding its impact on trade routes used by the West along with US and allied military operations. A permanent Chinese military base on the Atlantic, which is rumored to be at the Port of Bata in Equatorial Guinea, would allow China to compete with Western commercial activities and will likely have a dangerous domino effect.
The US should be focusing on building partnerships with African countries as they show promising economic opportunities. Col. Joe Bruhl of the US Army views American policies towards Africa as incapable of being proactive, with policymakers having a “strategic blind spot” that other major powers do not have. “Instead of viewing it as a problem to be solved, China and Russia view Africa as an opportunity to be seized.”
Competition amongst Russia, China and the US will be furthered by the global reliance on African natural resources, such as those used for electronics and military weapons. This increases the possibility of a resurgence of Western presence in Africa and the potential for the continent to become a battleground.
Africa contains a third of the world’s mineral reserves and is a key supplier of resources that provide “crucial economic and national security purposes” for the US. Platinum, iridium, tantalum and tourmaline are minerals that are critical to US national defense systems, which China also acquires from Africa.
Additionally, Africa is growing as an oil exporter. While the US is not currently heavily dependent on African oil, complications in their exports have impacted the US economy. For example, interruptions in Libyan oil in 2011 forced the US to tap into its reserves and instability in the Niger Delta directly impacted US companies.
The US is incredibly vulnerable to disruptions in the global oil market, as was seen during the start of the Russia-Ukraine war. American dependency on African oil is expected to exponentially increase, as the Director of the CIA’s Office on Transnational Issues, David Gordon, predicts that 65% of US oil imports will be those from Africa between now and the end of the decade. Competition will also increase as China’s oil dependency has surged, “offering yet another facet to increasingly strong Sino-African economic ties (which expand China’s political influence on the continent).”
Furthering tensions on the continent is China’s so-called “debt-trap” policies throughout Africa. According to former Vice President Mike Pence in 2018, “Such ‘debt traps’ are deliberately being created so China can force poor African states to vote with it in the UN General Assembly, support its positions on Taiwan or acquire valuable real estate in Africa that can be converted into military bases.” Whether or not such concerns are valid or irrational, what is evident is China’s ever-growing investment gains in Africa, which will no doubt sway some African leaders.
In an editorial, Joe Bruhl, Director of the Commander’s Initiative Group – Southern European Task Force in Africa, stated, “While Washington focuses on the Russian military threat in Eastern Europe and Chinese expansionism in the Pacific, Russia and China are outcompeting the United States in Africa in ways that could fundamentally alter the global balance of power.”
A history of Western counterterrorism failures, increasing anti-West views and the expansion of Russian and Chinese influence constitute the growing sentiments of terrorist groups and is likely to increase in Africa. With the spread of terrorism and an anticipated cold war, US involvement in Africa can be expected to escalate in the near future.
US policy should further its relationships and develop better strategies on engagement in Africa. However, with the military pivot away from COIN, it’s a concern as to how the US may expand its presence in Africa. With its recent and significant failures in the Middle East, the US appears to be incapable of learning from its past mistakes.
“Comparable doctrines emerged from Vietnam and Iraq, reflecting the army’s tendency to avoid preparing for occupations, grudgingly adapt to them, and discard the knowledge afterward,” according to Alexandre Caillot of Modern War Institute at West Point.
COIN doctrines have barely changed since those developed during Vietnam, furthering the argument that the US military consistently neglects how to operate the types of combat it is most often engaged in.
Aaron Rapport, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge, explains that distant future conflicts are examined by goal desirability versus objective feasibility in near future conflicts; arguing that planners only focus on the invasion but do not forecast post-invasion outcomes and are thus stuck in the “repetitious cycle.”
Insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq had no “institutional memory” to refer to when deciding to use COIN operations. “Units trained to stop a Soviet tank advance through the Fulda Gap were now trying to train military units in a language they didn’t understand, with a group of recruits that lacked a common lexicon and identity, for a mission against a non-conventional adversary using conventional means, and all while being shot at.”
Reliance on security force assistance brigades (SFABs) to make up for gaps in COIN have also proven largely ineffective. Assisting foreign militaries in acquiring tactical proficiency is considerable but negates the required components for a nation to gain stability.
“Institutional capacity, a sufficiently robust economy, and a government that will prevail — all combine to show that an approach that puts primary focus on training and equipping, or a strategy that is overly focused on building tactical military proficiency, will not work over the long term.”
Without improving governmental trust, which SFABs lack the capacity to do, “any short-term success will erode quickly.” Because African nations greatly lack such institutional confidence, a possible reliance on SFABs in the African continent would lead to strategic failure.
While some African countries pose the same complications that Iraq had relating to corruption, government ineffectiveness, failed economic policies and ethnic divisions, Africa poses even more obstacles. Gaining foreign influence is exponentially more challenging with multiple African countries being under the thumb of Chinese debt, the presence of non-state and state-sponsored groups like Wagner and an exorbitant youth bulge who are facing significant unemployment rates and are more vulnerable to recruitment into extremist regimes.
These challenges are why America must make diplomatic relations with Africa a priority and not diminish COIN training. “Focusing solely on unavoidable wars,” such as those with Russia and China, “deprives the army of capabilities, giving the initiative to hostile actors and thus weakening American foreign policy.”
Taking (the Right) Risks
Unless the US alters its diplomatic and military strategies in Africa, the possibility of America repeating past mistakes appears inevitable. Should the US expand its military presence in Africa, it is likely that it will once again fail in understanding foreign complexities and be incapable of establishing effective governments, therefore resorting to its practice of abandoning nation-building efforts. Such behaviors will further power and security vacuums, exacerbating the already existing spread of terrorism.
US failures in Iraq will, no doubt, make Washington reluctant regarding engagement in counterinsurgencies. While the US has had a chequered past in COIN operations in Africa, the spread of Russian and Chinese ideologies and the potential of losing significant resources will be impossible to ignore. Dependency on such critical resources will, without a doubt, increase competition in Africa. Additionally, the expansion of terrorism in Africa, and groups like al-Shabaab increasing their lethality, contributes to inevitable disruptions to resources that the US is so heavily reliant on.
Sahan Research’s chief analyst Rashid Abid’s warning regarding al-Shabaab feels all-encompassing when thinking of the present and future of African terrorism: “Brace. It will get worse before it gets better.”
At some point in the near future, this will surmount in pressure for the US to boost its presence in Africa, whether through the use of SFABs or something more significant. The US cannot afford to continue the cycle of losing focus on COIN, forgetting past lessons and turning a blind eye to a situation that will eventually pull it in.
It’s not a question of if the US and its allies will eventually increase their engagement in Africa. The real question is: when will the West learn from its failures in counterinsurgency?
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.