America’s Biggest Challenge in Africa
Africa is now playing host to the most dynamic battles in the global war between terrorists and civilization.
There is much good news to report from Africa. Over the past generation, poverty rates went down, literacy rates went up, life expectancy increased, and childhood malnutrition shrank. The battle against HIV/AIDS, particularly acute in Africa, is being won. Many African nations are experiencing rapid growth and are excellent investment prospects. Nevertheless, danger looms on the horizon, as Africa now plays host to the most dynamic battles in the global war between terrorists and civilization.
The numbers are shocking. In the first three months of 2016, terrorists attacked innocent civilians in 262 separate incidents around the world. Thirty percent of those attacks occurred in Africa — in 15 different countries. There should be no doubt that terrorism — in the form of al Qaeda or Boko Haram or the Islamic State — is the number one challenge for U.S. foreign policy on the continent.
Hundreds of Africans have been killed this calendar year. Three of the many attacks were larger than the Islamic State attacks in Belgium that killed 32 people in March.
The Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland systematically ranks all nations around the world by level of terrorism. Last year, African nations held 10 of the top 20 positions. This same index ranked Boko Haram, which operates in at least four African nations — Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon — as the world’s deadliest terrorist group for 2015.
Boko Haram is only 14 years old, but has already demonstrated an amazing ability to evolve and grow. Now affiliated with the Islamic State, Boko Haram uses all manner of violence to terrorize civilian populations in West and Central Africa — rape, kidnapping, murder, and other mass atrocities.
When Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria in 2014, the world responded with outrage. But despite military assistance, including from the United States (not to mention a vigorous Twitter campaign) most of the girls have not been returned. It has been more than two years since the girls were taken from their families.
Villagers in Chad and Cameroon — two nations that have joined the fight against Boko Haram — are now wary of a new terror tactic: Girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram coming to their villages as suicide bombers. Although there have been some recent gains by the four-nation coalition fighting the terrorist group, Boko Haram’s evolving tactics and affiliation with the Islamic State make it a major threat to Africa’s largest nation.
Somalia is home to two global terror networks. The longtime local terrorist group, al Shabab, is affiliated with al Qaeda, while the Islamic State is beginning its own operations in Somalia, no doubt with an eye on opportunities in neighboring Kenya.
The U.S. military is providing active assistance to the government of Somalia as it battles these two terror Leviathans, but the capabilities of the Somali government are notoriously limited. Until recently, President Barack Obama touted the success of American efforts against terror in Somalia and Yemen, but now Yemen is consumed by civil war and the legitimate government has been pushed out of the capital.
Over 6,000 Islamic State fighters are in Libya. Terror attacks there have targeted Christians in grisly mass beheadings. Despite recent progress on the political front, Libya remains in a catastrophically vulnerable position, torn by ethnic and tribal divisions and without substantial outside assistance. Since the 2011 intervention to kill Muammar Qaddafi and the subsequent catastrophe in Benghazi, U.S. policy in Libya has been modest, tentative, confusing and ultimately ineffective.
Terrorism is on the rise in Africa. The numbers of attacks and terrorists are increasing. The horrific nature of the attacks is growing and evolving. The number of African nations subject to attack is expanding and the vulnerability of Africans and their governments is becoming more acute.
Meanwhile, American policy professionals — from the working levels at the Pentagon, State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development — work diligently to fight back. But for the most part, the bad guys have the upper hand.
In 2003, President Bush saw that the scourge of HIV/AIDS was ravaging the African continent and responded — backed by strong bipartisan support — with a generous, aggressive, and effective global health aid program. That historic effort — with the support of the current administration — stopped the virus, saved millions of lives, and arguably prevented societal collapse in several nations.
The next president will need to address terrorism across the continent in a similar fashion. The war on terrorism may not end for years or decades, but strong steps and bold leadership will be required very soon to ensure that this latest and most terrible threat does not overwhelm the otherwise good news coming from the world’s fastest-growing continent.
Photo credit: MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images