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Op-Ed: Avoiding previous mistakes in counter-terrorism – Why hard power is not a solution to the Salafi-jihadi crisis in sub-Saharan Africa

Avoiding previous mistakes in counterterrorism

Counter-terrorism expert Isaac Kfir analyses the current Salafist insurgency in sub-Saharan Africa, and the counterinsurgency methods to combat this ongoing threat.

Counter-terrorism expert Isaac Kfir analyses the current Salafist insurgency in sub-Saharan Africa, and the counterinsurgency methods to combat this ongoing threat.

In March 2005, Al-Quds Al-Arabi published extracts from Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi, better known as Sayf al-Adel’s al-Qaeda’s Strategy to the Year 2020. The strategy, with its five stages, underlined the value of provoking the US and its allies to invade Muslim countries claiming such a move would encourage the population to fight against the invaders and the government, thus bringing forth the al-Qaeda-inspired Jihadi revolution.

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Military-based counter-terrorism (offensive policies aimed at preventing, deterring, and responding to terrorism) has not ended the persistent threat of Salafi-jihadism, and yet, Western countries seem to follow the hard power module vis-à-vis these African-based groups.

By opting to rely mostly on military solutions, the likelihood of the insurgencies continuing increases, compounding existing problems, creating more resentment, and anger, because at its root Salafi-jihadi activity in Africa stems from grievance-based and structural violence.

Salafi-jihadis have sought to exploit reformist and revivalist Islamist groups presence in Africa. These groups adhere to an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam that is more exclusionary and divisive. In Africa, the groups operate across four main areas: ighatha (humanitarian relief); da’wa (Islamic Call); jihad; and secular actions. In Somalia, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal, such faith-based activities have changed the religious landscape, specifically bringing forth a discussion about values, society, the relationship between Islam and the body polity. The new discourse has been magnified by technological innovation, with Islamist preachers such as Tanzania-based Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda, the Kenyan preacher Aboud Rogo Mohammed, the Burkinabé Ibrahim “Malam” Dicko and others to reach an audience looking for answers as to why they lack human security, why they endure discrimination, and why their needs are regularly ignored.

Groups such as al-Qaeda have spent over a decade cultivating filial relationships with local communities. Key to al-Qaeda’s African strategy was seeing the tribes as operating in a continuum that rejects the artificial borders created by mainly Western states that ignore tribal and historical links. Using relative wealth, experience, and interest, the al-Qaedaists, if they are not from the region, marry into tribes, giving them standing within the tribe. Once accepted these men have been careful not to impose their brand of Islam on the local community, opting instead to take a glocalist approach, combining the local with the transnational. Consequently, the Salafi-jihadi ideology in Africa is flexible, aimed at providing employment to the unemployed and support to the marginalised. It feeds on the knowledge that many believe that politics is for the elite and that change comes from the barrel of a gun.

By supporting the crime-terror nexus in sub-Saharan Africa, Salafi-jihadists accept the way the tribes live and manage. That is, due to the harsh environment, mainly of the Sahel, Salafi-jihadis recognise that these are nomadic tribes that live by laws and rules shaped over centuries and if one wants to work with these tribes, one must accept their ways. Salafi-jihadis appreciate that transnational crime, which in the Sahel centres mainly on illicit trafficking, serves as the main source of revenue to local tribes. One also suspects that the Salafi-jihadis do not mind that what is trafficked is illicit drugs to Europe and the US to cause more mayhem among their enemies. Conversely, Islamists use pervasive corruption, malfeasance, and poor social services to recruit and offer protection. They look to hold the rope at both ends, as they claim such wrongdoings do not occur in Islamic States, but at the same time they also cause pervasive insecurity, allowing them to demand protection money. Boko Haram for example, when and where it could, would establish a protection zone, charging 30 dollars per house. Similar protection is placed in certain trade routes.

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To address the rising threat of Salafi-jihadism in sub-Saharan Africa more must go into economic development, as opposed to making demands for political and administrative changes, particularly because governance across Africa is improving. However, where more work is needed is in economics, as the continent looks to recover from COVID-19 and pervasive poverty, with the World Bank anticipating that by 2030, 90 per cent of the world’s extreme poor would be in Africa. It is notable that in Kenya’s Coast and North Eastern provinces, two heavily Muslim areas, youth unemployment is 40–50 per cent higher than the national average, whereas in Zanzibar, youth unemployment is around 17 per cent whereas the national average in Tanzania is around 9 per cent. Similar trends are visible in Cabo Delgado and other spaces where Salafi-jihadi activity is on the rise.

An effective economic development program must be localised because in its current form aid does not necessarily help self-sufficiency, tending to discourage recipients from taking risks and opportunities, which are necessary for economic growth. Additionally, poorly administered aid facilitates inadequate governance and abuses. Moreover, lack of economic diversification, low productivity, and the persistence of the informal economy have undermined economic growth, keeping many communities trapped in the poverty cycle, which makes members susceptible to radicalisation and recruitment as they look to escape their misery. Islamists exploit these shortcomings in their recruitment campaign and in defending the use of violence. Working directly with communities, identifying localities that need supporting and not so much through the central government would help combat corruption and facilitate economic growth. The EU-supported Chad Basin project is a case in point, as the aim is to address climate change, which harms employment opportunities and food security, structural violence and organised crime.

Sub-Saharan Africa is at a critical point when it comes to Salafi-jihadism as the centre of gravity has moved to the region. In 2020, seven of the 10 countries that had seen the largest increases in terrorism-related deaths reside in the region, and there is no evidence of a reduction in the violence. In responding to the threat, local governments and their Western allies turn to military-based counter-terrorism, ignoring the pull and push factors that feed many of the activities of these groups. What is needed is a long-term economic development program aimed at addressing structural issues, discrimination and lack of economic diversity.

Isaac Kfir is a leading international scholar on counter-terror tactics and methodologies. This submission was adapted from his journal article, 'Innovating to Survive, a Look at How Extremists Adapt to Counterterrorism, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism', in the Studies of Conflict and Terrorism Journal, 2021.
Op-Ed: Avoiding previous mistakes in counter-terrorism – Why hard power is not a solution to the Salafi-jihadi crisis in sub-Saharan Africa
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