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A nation must think before it acts.
On December 12th, the Jamestown Foundation held the organization’s annual terrorism conference. During the first panel, a member of the audience asked can the U.S. break the stalemate in the ongoing war against salafi-jihadists, al-Qaeda (AQ), and the Islamic State (IS)? The panelist Bruce Hoffman, a renowned terrorism expert, responded with a very real but grim response that the U.S is not in stalemate but instead “we are losing.” The majority of these groups are not only operating in the Middle East and Southeast Asia but, the growing presence and increased terrorist attacks in Africa reveal the jihadists’ increased strength and proliferation. In the last year, the countries in the African Sahel experienced over 377 violent attacks and 895 fatalities due to jihadist groups. As stated by the report from the Africa Center for Strategic studies ,”the continent as a whole, reported violent events linked to militant Islamist groups over the previous 12-month period showed a marginal increase (2,919 vs. 2,767).” The rise of instability due to Islamist militant groups influenced the focus of the Trump administration to deliver a new strategy for Africa.
President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton revealed that strategy several days ago at the Heritage Foundation. Ironically, Bolton described how President Trump signed off on the strategy on Dec. 12, the same day Professor Hoffman’s words of defeat rang out at the Jamestown conference. The Trump administration plans to focus on bilateral agreements with African nations to increase U.S. economic and security interests throughout the continent. In the area of security Bolton stated that the “”The United States will no longer provide indiscriminate assistance across the entire continent.” And that “countries that repeatedly vote against the United States in international forums, or take action counter to U.S. interests, should not receive generous American foreign aid.” This strategy hopes to stem the tide of losing against salafi-jihadists in specific locations with reliable regional partners throughout the continent rather than a sweeping approach. Unfortunately, this heavily bilateral approach might help in the short-term but this limited approach will not be enough to deter and prevent salafi-jihadist groups in the long run. The Africa strategy does not address the structural drivers of the conflicts jihadists use to recruit future members, to seek refuge and local communities, and to prevent local corruption.
The U.S appears to be losing the war against salafi-jihadists because the militant groups can maintain heavy levels recruitment of fighters by attracting support from local populations. The recruiters take advantage of civil violence, sectarian division, and local government corruption. If a local wants to increase his or her stability, gain more money, and to seek refugee from oppressive governance, they join the jihadists. The salafi-ideology can be adopted later. In Mali, Jama’at at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) attracts local support from the communities in the north that feel repressed by the government or rival local groups due to their ethnicity. In northern Mali, the jihadists attempt to “exploit ethnic tensions between mostly lighter-skinned Tuareg pastoralists and black Fulani herdsmen.” Some of the Tuaregs are members of the local militias loyal to the government. In central Mali, “parts of JNIM, specifically Katibat Macina are comprised of ethnic Fulani jihadists. Malian authorities have accused Fulani jihadists of stoking tensions between the Fula and Bambara in central Mali.” By continuing to increase civil instability, JNIM attempts to be the only group able to provide security to the region. Due to the historical abuse of the Malian military, the northern Tuareg and Fulani are skeptical of the presence government’s security forces. Therefore, JNIM attempts to fill the security void. The U.S. strategy does not address the historical communal divides or the abuses of the Malian government. By providing more money and training, the U.S. is only strengthening the very institutions that the locals view with fear, suspension, and mistrust. Recruitment is therefore easy for JNIM.
While Mali is but one example, the country appears to be a case that fits Bolton’s description of specificity. “The United States will no longer provide indiscriminate assistance across the entire continent, without focus or prioritization. And, we will no longer support unproductive, unsuccessful, and unaccountable UN peacekeeping missions. We want something more to show for Americans’ hard-earned taxpayer dollars.” However, if the U.S. continues to shell out money without addressing structural drivers of the conflict, the cycle of violence will continue, and we will continue to lose the fight.