“The coalition to defeat ISIS has retaken almost 100 percent of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria,” President Trump boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. To be sure, these advances are well worth celebrating. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that a victory against IS in the Middle East is equivalent to a victory against IS everywhere. We cannot ignore the risk of Africa – already challenged by several homegrown extremist groups – morphing into the next IS battleground.
While IS’s claim to having a 15-country caliphate in Africa is unlikely to materialize anytime soon, the group does maintain some inroads on the continent. For instance, they have affiliates in Somalia; have been aligned with a faction of Boko Haram in Nigeria; and are suspected of having links to a group that carried out a deadly ambush against US soldiers in Niger last year. Faced with territorial losses in the Middle East, IS capabilities in Africa could grow stronger. In 2016, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared that the group had “expanded and shifted some of our command, media, and wealth to Africa.” According to Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who led Special Operations Command Africa for two years, the Pentagon’s greatest concern in Africa is the spread of IS into poorly governed territory.
This frightening outcome is all the more worrying for two reasons. The first is the imminent homecoming of some 6,000 African jihadists following the fall of Raqqa in Syria. These returning fighters may attempt to bolster the presence of IS on African soil, or to reinvigorate the activities of Africa-based extremist groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Regardless of their chosen affiliation – and allegiances between African extremist groups are often very fluid – former IS fighters will exacerbate instability in a region that suffered from 1,827 terror attacks by Islamist militants in 2017 (more than half of these attacks occurred in Somalia).
The second reason for concern is that a precarious degree of state control leaves some African countries vulnerable to advances by radical groups. In 2012, for instance, an overnight coup in Mali opened the door for Islamist fighters and Tuareg rebels – awash in weapons from the chaos of the post-Qadhafi era in Libya – to seize swaths of territory. It took an intervention by French forces, with support from the United States and regional troops, to block their path. Returning IS fighters may seek out similar opportunities to exploit political or security weak spots. As Congressman Ted Poe warned, the “terrorist cancer in Africa is metastasizing” and “is on its way to becoming a full-blown threat to African and American interests.” In other words, prematurely declaring victory over IS would mean overlooking the next possible iteration of a dangerous movement that could impact a continent of over a billion people.
Recognizing the potential terrorist threats, President Trump’s Africa policy has taken a strong military focus, including selling fighter planes to Nigeria, intensifying drone strikes in Somalia, and increasing the number of troops in Niger. But these efforts lack the comprehensive approach needed for a successful counterterrorism strategy. They do not go far enough to help professionalize African armies or solve systemic capability gaps in security institutions, and sometimes miss the bigger picture when it comes to the value of partnering with African countries to fight terrorism. For example, the $494 million sale of fighter planes to Nigeria could stall because the deal does not include key training and maintenance components for Nigerian technicians.
More fundamentally, military efforts alone are unlikely to defeat terrorism in the long run. As a military leader of France’s counter-terror operation in the Sahel remarked to President Emmanuel Macron in December 2017, “the root of this problem is not terrorism. It’s under-development, trafficking, and the impact of population growth.”
Much of Africa’s population – with a median age of just 19 years of age – faces chronic unemployment, economic stagnation, ballooning inequality, and ineffective governance. Combined, these challenges create fertile recruitment grounds for extremist groups, including IS, al-Qaeda, and their various affiliates. Inflicting territorial or military losses on these groups might frustrate their efforts, but will not address the underlying socioeconomic dynamics. In West Africa, young recruits have signed up to extremist causes for less than $600. While the drivers of radicalization are complex, a recent UN study found that most African recruits were motivated by economic need and grievances against the state, not ideology. Helping to create jobs and opportunities for Africa’s next generation is the most effective strategy that the Trump Administration can pursue to neutralize the threat of radical Islamists.
Crucially, this Administration’s weak foreign policy toward Africa is undermining potential avenues for successfully countering violent extremism in the region – an effort that depends on trusted partnerships with African countries. By de-prioritizing high-level relationships with African governments, failing to fill US leadership positions related to Africa, and making offensive remarks, the Trump administration is weakening its own capacity to shape anti-terrorist efforts and keep Americans and others safe.