Argument

Why Experts Ignore Terrorism in Africa

If the world really cares about the continent’s future, it will start paying attention now.

By Emily Estelle, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A woman waits for her son to arrive in Pemba, Mozambique, on a boat of evacuees from the coasts of Palma on April 1.
A woman waits for her son to arrive in Pemba, Mozambique, on a boat of evacuees from the coasts of Palma on April 1. Alfredo Zuniga/AFP/Getty Images

In Western policy circles, Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in African countries get short shrift. A combination of political burnout, competing priorities, and policy hurdles is preventing policymakers from seeing the threat clearly or thinking cogently about what to do about it.

A case in point is last month’s grim news from Mozambique, where Islamic State attackers overran the town of Palma, killing dozens—including 12 possible foreigners who were found beheaded. The bloodshed was largely ignored in the United States and Europe, but it shouldn’t have been. It is the latest advance in a multicountry war that is destroying lives and livelihoods across the continent.

The foreign-policy community has spilled gallons of ink trying to convince itself and others that its concerns for Africa are real. The cause has even driven all-too-rare bipartisanship in the United States, with Republicans and Democrats coming together on a series of public health and economic development initiatives in recent years. So why is the response to the Mozambique crisis and other similar attacks so limited? Because all the major constituencies focused on the continent have a blind spot when it comes to the violent extremist insurgents who are preying on millions of Africans.

The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, has notched success after success in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years. Salafi-jihadi groups are now active in 22 African countries and counting. Long-running insurgencies have expanded; for example, Mali-based extremists spread into previously stable Burkina Faso in 2016 and have escalated since, displacing more than a million people and turning the country into a launchpad for attacks on neighboring states. Persistent jihadi violence set the stage for a recent rash of kidnappings targeting schoolchildren in Nigeria, Africa’s largest country by population and economy. According to estimates by the United Nations, the Islamic State in Mozambique will displace a million people by June. It just derailed a multibillion-dollar natural gas project that was meant to be Mozambique’s ticket to prosperity.

Warnings about being caught up in “endless war” have meant that many who deal with Africa shy away from focusing on problems that demand military solutions.

At the same time, warnings about being caught up in “endless war” have meant that many who deal with Africa shy away from focusing on problems that demand military solutions. Earlier failures in counterterrorism, including experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, caused a shift toward emphasizing local conditions and nonmilitary responses. But soft power alone cannot defeat armed extremists who already hold power, especially given that these are not mere regional threats but global ones. African Salafi-jihadi groups are already planning or supporting external attacks. They are developing transferable attack capabilities—think bomb-making and small-team tactical maneuvers—and gaining access to coastal and cross-continental networks that increase their ability to communicate, attract recruits, and ultimately move personnel beyond the continent.

The wishful interpretation of the nature of the threat extends to ideas about how to fight against it. The United States does not want to commit forces to long-term missions in Africa. France, which leads a counterterrorism mission in the Sahel, has also taken steps to reduce its presence there. But relying on local partners to fully take up the fight is a pipe dream. The problems that allowed Salafi-jihadi insurgencies to form still exist: Local militaries are largely absent, incapable of the task at hand, or part of the problem. In Burkina Faso, security force abuses ignited the current insurgency. In Nigeria, civilians have been left vulnerable as the military has withdrawn to safer camps. And in Mozambique, the military lacks the manpower and capability to access the areas controlled by jihadis, much less wage a credible counterinsurgency.

The arrival of new buzzwords—great-power competition—has allowed the foreign-policy community to dodge difficult conversations about defeating Salafi-jihadi insurgencies. New strategic frameworks imply that the United States must deprioritize counterterrorism because it distracts from Russia and China, the real threats. But these issues are related. U.S. adversaries exploit the presence of Salafi-jihadi groups for their own reasons, as seen with the Russian interventions in Syria and Libya, which have provided models that the Kremlin seeks to replicate elsewhere. The actions of disruptive states like Russia can also stoke the Salafi-jihadi threat, whether by prolonging conflicts, as Russia did in Libya, or by encouraging autocrats who deepen popular grievances and provide openings that Salafi-jihadi groups exploit.

Africa’s rise to prosperity could be the defining story of the coming decades. But that won’t happen if hundreds of thousands of Africans live under Salafi-jihadi dominance and millions are displaced by violence, with huge swaths of terrain becoming permanent terrorist havens. Even if the international community consigns war-torn countries like Libya, Mali, and Somalia to their fates, the United States won’t be able to ignore the effects of the Salafi-jihadi scourge on the continent’s major players—Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, and more recently Tanzania and South Africa, which all face persistent or emerging Salafi-jihadi threats alongside domestic challenges to their current and future stability. And 200 million-strong Nigeria will surely stumble if it is unable to oust the proto-caliphate growing within its borders.

The blind spot over Africa’s jihadi problem exists because policymakers are afraid to take on the intractable causes and difficult solutions to resolve insurgencies. For the countries in question, an enduring solution requires money and changes to their power structure that elites cannot or will not make. The international community is equally at fault. It’s time for those who profess to care about the continent to step up. There is a war going on.

Emily Estelle is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the research manager of AEI’s Critical Threats Project.