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Rippling Around the Globe: The Effect of the Paris Attacks on U.S.-Africa Relations

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U.S. and international focus on the Paris attacks should lead to greater focus on the potential appeal of ISIS to African countries, where local terror groups may seek to affiliate themselves with ISIS and capitalize on the region’s governance and infrastructure problems to launch new terrorist actions.

It is now clear that ISIS has a global, long-term agenda that extends beyond the Middle East and Europe, to include Africa and other regions. Combating and degrading ISIS will require a deeper understanding of its objectives in Africa, as well as its entry points into and manifestation on the continent. In this regard, North Africa and the Sahel stand out as regions of immediate concern. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, several North African and Sahel countries have been in turmoil. Many of them have deeply contested governance systems or chaotic power vacuums due to lack of government. It is challenging enough to conduct counterterrorism efforts in stable environments with strong democratic governance, but it is nearly impossible to do so in the fluid, chaotic situations such as those that currently prevail in several key countries in these regions.

To combat ISIS in North Africa and to prevent its downward march into the Sahel and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, more needs to be done to address the lack of infrastructure and technical capacity to prevent and mitigate the effects of terrorist activity and to address the governance deficit in Africa in general, but especially in North Africa and the parts of Sahel. Effectively combating ISIS and other terrorist groups in these regions will require a more balanced blending of hard and soft tools, including a rethinking of current U.S. and Western strategies on the governance front. Unfortunately, this situation is compounded by the fact that the United States has significantly cut down its financial support for democracy and governance in Africa. It is estimated that over the past six years, funding for U.S. democracy, rights, and governance programs has declined by 38 percent. International partners, including the United States, would do well once again to emphasize the importance of governance, restore funding and support for governance-related efforts in Africa, and better coordinate and reinforce each other’s efforts in this area.

To more effectively combat terrorism, international partners need to more fully embrace—in word and practice—the notion that terrorism is a global concern, and that its manifestation and impact anywhere concerns all of us.

Second, it appears that ISIS aims to expand the tentacles of its network across Africa mainly through affiliation with African terrorist groups, as well as recruitment of foot soldiers. For example, a few months ago, Boko Haram announced its desire to affiliate with ISIS, a request that the latter accepted. There are indications that Boko Haram has adopted ISIS-type terror tactics, including beheadings and suicide bombings, making what was already a gruesome terror campaign even more so and thereby spreading the ISIS “brand” deeper into Africa. In addition, there have been reports that ISIS has developed several recruitment lines into various African countries, including South Africa and Ghana. It is important to more effectively analyze and assess ISIS’s evolving recruitment webs across Africa, along with the factors that help create an enabling recruitment environment, including those that increase susceptibility to extremist ideology.

Third, the war against terrorism extends beyond ISIS and includes many other terrorist groups. ISIS has garnered most of the attention, but it is important to remember that terrorism should be combated wherever it occurs, including in Africa. Although a few individual acts have made the international headlines, such as the attacks on Kenya’s Garissa University in which 150 students died and the kidnapping of more than 300 girls in Chibok, Nigeria, many other incidents have gone relatively unnoticed. For example, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab have wreaked havoc in Nigeria and West Africa, and Somalia and the broader Horn of Africa, for many years. Boko Haram alone is responsible for more than an estimated 17,000 deaths, including an estimated 6,347 civilians in 2014 alone, and has contributed to the displacement of over 1.1 million people since 2009. In eastern Africa, al-Shabaab accounted for an estimated 4,425 deaths last year, including 633 civilians. Yet the scale and scope of Boko Haram’s and al-Shabaab’s terrorist actions have not generated the same level of international outcry as have attacks in Western countries. This disproportionate focus has led some to wonder about the value placed on African lives and the concern about terrorism targeting Africans. To more effectively combat terrorism, international partners need to more fully embrace—in word and practice—the notion that terrorism is a global concern, and that its manifestation and impact anywhere concerns all of us.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

About the Author

Monde Muyangwa image

Monde Muyangwa

Former Director, Africa Program
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more