National Security

Shadows Across Africa: Cutting Off Al Shabaab and Boko Haram At the Root

April 27, 2016  • Alison Decker

Key Points

  • The Horn of Africa – stretching from Mauritania in West Africa to Yemen – is the next battle in the global fight against terrorism, according to security experts.

Above: watch panelists at the 2016 Aspen Security Forum: Globaldiscuss the impact of terrorism in Africa and how the international community can confront Africa’s specific security challenges.

From Boko Haram in the west to Al Shabaab in the east, Africa is increasingly facing more acts of terrorism, which endanger not only the continent’s security, but the progress it has made in recent years in terms of political and economic development and social cohesion. How can the international community successfully confront Africa’s security challenges and halt both their spread across the continent and their impacts around the world?

“The discussion has been focused on the ‘necklace of fire’ that hangs around Europe – Libya, Syria, and Iraq,” said Alexander Rondos, European Union special representative for the Horn of Africa, at the 2016 Aspen Security Forum: Global. “But beneath it lies another ‘belt’ which, if we’re not careful to attend to, will enflame and stoke those fires further.”

Rondos believes that in the Horn of Africa – stretching from Mauritania in West Africa to Yemen – the influence of Islamic extremism has expanded, and is threatening the already-fragile relations between different religious communities and ethnic groups. The Horn of Africa is the next battle in the global fight against terrorism, he says, and the international community needs to wake up to those implications.

“This infection of a new kind of Islam risks rendering the politics of the region sectarian,” he said. “And that means it will not be simply homegrown. It will be part of a wider network … Africa is the paradise of development contractors and NGO projects, but it’s a front in this war, and it needs to be treated like that – smartly.”

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, former prime minister of Somalia, agreed that Islamic extremism across the region is increasing, and emphasized the role of good governance and effective politics in stamping out potential terrorist groups. When he was appointed Prime Minister of Somalia in 2010, Al Shabaab had nearly complete control over the country. In his role, he worked to combat extremists by changing the perception of government among Somali people. He said that people had lost confidence in their government, and instead had turned to Al Shabaab, who were providing more services than the actual government.

“We had to turn the tables against [Al Shabaab] to show the people that we have a new, credible government that is here to provide services for them,” he said.

He worked to redefine Al Shabaab in the region as foreigners and criminals who were perverting the true teachings of Islam for their own political goals, and to simultaneously increase citizen confidence in the government. In order to combat extremism, he said, countries must have an established rule of law that stems from legitimate authorities. Otherwise, people will turn to illegitimate sources of authority – like terrorist groups – for protection.

Adding to the heightened tensions, said Rondos, is the changing relationship between the Horn of Africa and Gulf states.

“The game-changer, I think, has been the way in which the Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc. – have begun to see the region as their backyard,” he said.

Rondos believes that the Gulf states have gone more “operational” in East Africa, which has changed the ways that countries in that region interact with each other and created a new system of global patronage and clientelism. He sees a rising scale of Gulf political and security interests in East Africa – which are turning into financial interests. According to Rondos, politics in some countries in East Africa, like Somalia, are like an “auction,” as Gulf states try to influence politics with the potential of financial gains.

“These countries have come out of isolation and upset the balance in an already fragile region,” he said.

Both agree that in this quickly devolving environment, the international community must change the way that it operates in the region. Rondos pointed to several possible solutions: more targeted security interventions, integrating security initiatives into development projects, and serious diplomacy.

Using Maiduguri, the area in northern Nigeria with the most Boko Haram activity, as an example, Rondos said it is crucial to find the “future Maiduguris,” – the future hot spots – to foster effective security strategies and plan interventions at their root. He also said it was a priority to stop “fluffy” developmental projects that don’t address the underlying issues behind community problems and concerns. If development projects do not include a security element, he said, they do not go far enough in addressing the root of the problem and will be unable to create sustainable change for a community.

To address the impacts of the Gulf states on the Horn of Africa, he recommended a more straightforward brand of diplomacy and “honest debate” between the Gulf states and western nations.

“We aren’t looking political enough. We do development and think that’s the solution. We talk about [the importance of] elections [in Africa] but in the meantime people are buying the politics. The time’s come for a real discussion. If we sit there and spend our time trying to be too polite, we lose our stake.”