Twenty Years After 9/11: The Threat in Africa The New Epicenter of Global Jihadi Terror.

Date01 September 2021
AuthorBacon, Tricia

The metrics are grim. In 2020, over 13,000 people were killed in nearly 5,000 acts of violence. Seventeen designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations affected at least 22 countries. (a) Such statistics might well be expected to come from South Asia (Afghanistan or Pakistan) or the Middle East (Iraq and Syria), regions that have historically served as the central locations of violence from salafijihadi groups linked to al-Qa'ida or the Islamic State. Instead, these statistics reflect the current state of jihadism on the African continent. Once a theater seen by many as peripheral, the continent has emerged as the new center of gravity for jihadism.

The presumed marginality of Africa in U.S. national considerations--the continent having long been considered a "backwater" in the United States' security calculus (1)--ceased to hold at the beginning of the U.S.-led "Global War on Terror." As counterterrorism became the United States' top national security priority, post-2001, fighting terrorism came to define U.S. relationships with African governments. Specifically, U.S.-led efforts initially sought to stymie the ability of international jihadis, presumed to be fleeing from Afghanistan, to exploit the "undergoverned" spaces in Africa to serve as havens for their activities. (2) This new U.S. outlook spurred a flurry of new initiatives. In the Sahel, in 2002, the United States launched the Pan-Sahel Initiative, intended to train and equip six company-sized partner nation rapid-reaction counterterrorism forces--three in Mali and one each in Chad, Mauritania, and Niger--with the goal of enhancing regional cooperation, securing borders, tracking terrorist groups' movement, and deterring the establishment of jihadi terrorist safe havens in the Sahel. (3) Driven by a similar concern on the other side of the continent, the United States erected its first and only permanent military base on the continent in Djibouti in 2002. In 2003, it then initiated the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative, which focused on improving police and judicial counterterrorism capabilities in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. (4) Both initiatives grew in size and scope over time.

Reality proved that the U.S. focus on preventing the migration of terrorists to Africa was a miscalculation. Rather than global jihadis fleeing Afghanistan and finding haven in Africa, instead locally minded Islamist and jihadi groups began to coalesce and proliferate within Africa, eventually entering the orbit of al-Qa'ida and later the Islamic State. This reality led to a U.S. reconceptualization of the counterterrorism challenge it faced: it began a shift away from seeing Africa as primarily a haven for non-African jihadis and instead, toward countering homegrown, African jihadi groups in their own right. By 2007, the U.S. Department of Defense stood up its own combatant command for the continent, Africa Command (AFRICOM), which, though based in Germany, was a recognition of "the growing strategic importance of Africa" and the need to develop enduring partnerships on the continent. (5) By 2019, the number of U.S. military personnel on the continent had more than doubled from 2008, (6) and the number of military exercises, programs, and engagements there had risen dramatically. (7) As of August 2021, the United States has approximately 5,100 U.S. service members and about 1,000 Defense Department civilians and contractors in AFRICOM's 15 'enduring' bases and 12 less-permanent 'non-enduring' or 'contingency' bases. (8) The majority of U.S. forces are located in Djibouti with an additional 2,000 soldiers conducting training missions in some 40 countries around the continent. (9)

However, beginning in 2018, another re-posturing was under way. With the 2018 release of the U.S. National Defense Strategy, the Department of Defense articulated that "Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security." (10) Competing with so-called "great powers" or "near-peer competitors," namely China and Russia, became the new U.S. priority, not the threats posed by al-Qa'ida or the Islamic State. That proclamation proved to be actionable on the continent. In December 2020, the United States declared that it would move all of its troops out of Somalia (11)--there to train, advise, and assist in the effort against al-Shabaab--a move emblematic of the broader Zeitgeist of fatigue with "forever wars" motivated by counterterrorism in Iraq but especially Afghanistan. France has conveyed a similar weariness: in July 2021, it announced that it would scale back its Barkhane counterterrorism mission in the Sahel. (12) But as priorities shift 20 years after 9/11, have U.S. and international efforts against African jihadi actors been effective?

To the contrary. Twenty years after 9/11, jihadi violence on the African continent has experienced a meteoric rise, putting African civilians, African states, as well as U.S. and especially partner interests on the continent in far greater danger than before September 11th. Despite the efforts to minimize jihadi violence, 20 years after 9/11, the African continent is the new leading epicenter of jihadi terrorism in the world today. Alarmingly, the jihadi threat in Africa has not merely worsened: it has reached historically unprecedented levels at the same time that the United States and its partners' appetite to counter it has waned, creating a perfect storm for the situation to further deteriorate. Even as the U.S. posture shifts away from combating jihadi terrorism in Africa, the authors argue that the United States and international community cannot turn their attention from the dire situation. And yet, more of the same is clearly not the solution.

This article proceeds in four main sections. In the first section, the authors outline how, 20 years after 9/11, the prevalence of violence from African jihadi groups has risen dramatically to never-before-seen levels. In the second section, they highlight four interconnected phenomena underpinning the rise of jihadi violence on the continent and discuss why these factors will persist. The third section makes the argument about why the United States should care about the growing jihadi threat in Africa. The authors conclude in the fourth section by proposing policy changes to countering jihadism and the threat it poses within Africa.

The New Epicenter of Jihadi Terror

The prevalence of jihadi violence on the African continent has spiked dramatically in the 20 years since the Global War on Terror began. (13) To be sure, Africa was no stranger to jihadism during the 1990s. For its part, Sudan played host to Usama bin Ladin from 1991 to 1996, where he lived after his fallout with the Saudi royal family. Egyptian jihadis, most notably Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Ladin's future deputy and successor, joined bin Ladin in Sudan to launch a campaign against Egypt. (14) Nearby, al-Qa'ida had trained Somali militants in the early 1990s and encouraged them to target the U.S. presence during Operation Restore Hope, the U.S.-led and U.N.-backed humanitarian-focused security mission in 1992-1993. (15) Most notably, in 1998, al-Qa'ida orchestrated dual bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salam, Tanzania, collectively killing 224 (of which 12 were Americans). (16) And, for its part, Algeria was the site of a bloody campaign by jihadis against the state throughout the 1990s. However, by the end of the 1990s, things had quieted, relatively. With bin Ladin's departure, much of al-Qa'ida had moved to Afghanistan, and the Egyptian and Algerian governments had made major gains against their jihadi adversaries. To that end, in 2000, the year before 9/11, the U.S. State Department did not include any jihadi attacks in Africa among its list of "Significant Terrorist Incidents." (17) (b)

Fast forward 20 years, and the story has changed drastically: jihadi violence in Africa has seen a profound rise, particularly in the past decade. According to ACLED, 2020 saw 4,958 violent attacks perpetrated by African jihadi actors. (18) In the last decade alone, jihadi violence on the continent has increased 17-fold: the 4,958 violent events in 2020 stand in stark contrast to "only" 288 violent jihadi events in 2009 according to ACLED. (19) A rise in attacks has led to a concurrent rise in deaths. African jihadi groups were responsible for an estimated 13,059 deaths in 2020 alone. (20) These occurred primarily across five major theaters of instability: Lake Chad, the Sahel, Egypt, Somalia, and Mozambique. (21) Twenty-two African countries--nearly half of the continent--now faces violence from jihadi groups. (22)

This profound rise in jihadi violence over the past 20--but especially past 10--years has catapulted the continent into the new global epicenter of jihadi violence, a lamentable position that has become clear 20 years after 9/11. For its part, START's 2020 overview on the state of global terrorism underscored that seven of the 10 countries with the greatest increases in terrorism in 2019 were in Africa. In the same year, the continent had the second highest number of terrorism-related deaths in the world, following only South Asia. (23) Yet the arrival of the African continent as the greatest global generator of jihadi violence arguably came in the summer of 2021. In June 2021, the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State surprised those not paying attention by declaring Africa as the new global priority region in which to combat the Islamic State; it proposed the creation of a new task force to combat Islamic State groups there and emphasized the importance of bringing in new African members into the anti-Islamic State coalition. (24) The next month, July 2021, saw the African Center for Strategic Studies note that the past year over year review of violence by African Islamist groups showed an unprecedented, record-setting...

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