On 17 December 2019, the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform met to hear testimony on the rapid rise of terrorist attacks and growth in the influence of Islamist organisations in Africa. This comes as the security situation in many parts of the Sahel, in particular has continued to deteriorate. 

The purpose of the hearing was to examine the current terrorism landscape across the African continent and evaluate the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Al-Qaeda, and affiliated terrorist organizations, and to assess whether existing counterterrorism and assistance resources were “being used effectively to achieve U.S. strategic objectives and promote stability and security in Africa”.

Recalling the deaths of four US service personnel in western Niger on 4 October 2017, Chairman Lynch remarked that at the time many Americans were not aware that American troops were deployed in this part of Africa, and the loss served to raise interest in the US counterterrorism mission in the region.

In the background to the hearing it was stated that attacks by Islamist terrorists had increased from 288 in 2009 to 3050 in 2018.  This comes as there was some consolidation of Islamic terrorist organisations with three groups merging to form Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). Furthermore, concern was raised that Islamic State was beginning to cultivate the local population in north-eastern Nigeria in a way that Boko Haram had not previously been able to do.

Ranking Member Congressman Jody Hice brought the committee’s attention to the fact that Boko Haram had killed over 20,000 civilians, and displaced a further 2,000,000 in West Africa and Nigeria. Attacks in 2018 have almost doubled, and there is a steady upward trend in attacks.

In response, the United States is channeling a record high level of funding into counterterrorist resources, including $280 million from the State Department budget and $500 million from the Department of Defense. Seven thousand two hundred personnel are currently deployed to Africa Command.

Among the active initiatives of the US State Department is the US Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership:

The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) is a multi-faceted, multi-year U.S. strategy aimed at developing resilient institutions that are capable of preventing and responding to terrorism in a holistic, long term manner. INL TSCTP programs in the AF and NEA regions work to counter and prevent violent extremism by empowering partner countries to (1) provide effective and accountable security and justice services to enhance citizen cooperation with and trust in law enforcement, and (2) develop the institutional foundation for counterterrorism and related capabilities, including border security and prison security and reintegration efforts. In doing so, INL focuses on enhancing and institutionalizing cooperation among TSCTP countries so that they increasingly learn with and from each other. Partner countries include Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia.

The hearing heard from Judd Devermont, Director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies; Adotei Akwei, Deputy Director for Advocacy and Government Relations at Amnesty International; Alexis Arieff of the Congressional Research Service; and, Joshua Meservey, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Judd Devermont recommended investment in defence institution building and support for local police forces; addressing the political obstacles to counterterrorism; the promotion of democracy and human rights in the region; and, a broadening of the international coalition responding to terrorism.

Adotei Akwei brought attention to the factors that human rights abuses that serve to contribute to the appeal of the terrorist organisations. A more balanced approach that is holistic and rights-orientated would in his opinion yield better results.

Alexis Arieff pointed to the fact that local terrorist and separatist organisations have begun to take on quasi-state-like characteristics, and in the absence of effect of state control. Islamic militancy in the Sahel is locally-led and resilient, and is thus not amenable to sanctions, while Western efforts have not translated into security gains on the ground.

Finally, Joshua Meservey pointed to the growing reach of terrorist organisations operating in sub-Saharan Africa, including in areas not traditionally associated with Islamic terrorism. Al-Shabab in Mozambique was strong enough to fend off Russian mercenaries operating in the country, while Islamic terrorist organisations working in the Democratic Republic of Congo have brutalised local populations. Good governance and anti-corruption measures are essential for African security in his opinion.

You can hear statements from the chairman and ranking member, statement from the witnesses, and the follow-up question and answer session in the video below:

Picture caption: Niger’s special forces prepare to fight Boko Haram in Diffa, March 26, 2015. Niger said it lost 46 soldiers and 28 civilians in weekend clashes with the Islamist militants. Public domain. 

Article Licence: CC BY-ND 4.0

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