Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts 9/11 and Africa: Reflecting on Two Decades of U.S.-Africa Policies and Interests
9/11 and Africa: Reflecting on Two Decades of U.S.-Africa Policies and Interests

9/11 and Africa: Reflecting on Two Decades of U.S.-Africa Policies and Interests

The al Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, reshaped U.S. and international security policies and signalled a new era in broader global relations. The attack—along with many others that followed in Europe and Africa—spawned an increased emphasis on counter-terrorism policies at national, regional, and continental levels, as well as changes in global security and policymaking structures. Although many countries had experienced terrorism before 9/11, the prevention of terrorism became a distinguishable phenomenon after 9/11 as it became one of the main security concerns of governments and regional and international security institutions. Moreover, it changed the aviation industry, spawned discussions around clashes of cultures and civilizations, and triggered transformations in legal and policy frameworks. The September 11 attacks singlehandedly set new agendas for the international security landscape geared towards combatting terrorism and violent extremism.

Because terrorism is a transnational threat affecting many nations, regional and global laws and policies on how to combat it have become a staple within the multilateral arena, such as the Economic Community of West African States, the Southern African Development Community, African Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European Union, and United Nations. This is true to the degree that the United States—a global hegemon—flexed its military muscle globally and that fundamentalist Muslim organizations prepared for an asymmetric war of attrition.

The Legacy of 9/11

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 triggered an avalanche of opinion and commentary reflecting on the terrorist attacks, comparing the events to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and making predictions about the world in the near future. The bulk of the perspectives have been from the United States. Washington spent over $11.5 trillion between 2001 and 2019 on security and defense directed towards combatting and preventing another major attack. This spending made significant contributions to the global prevention of terrorist and violent extremist attacks. In 2021, an allocated budget of $778 billion was set aside for U.S. military and defense.

As the United States Institute of Peace notes, extremist Islamic violence in Africa predates the 9/11 attacks even though the latter was a more daring and impactful venture to that point. In 1993, for instance, the battle of Mogadishu resulted in the deaths of 18 American soldiers and hundreds of Somalis. Five years later in August 1998, al Qaeda-linked terrorists struck the U.S. embassy in Nairobi killing over 250 Kenyans and 12 Americans and injuring over 5,000 people. In Tanzania, the U.S. embassy was also attacked, killing 13 people.

As such, the terrorist attacks in the United States—with a far larger toll of nearly 3,000 dead—was not entirely news in parts of eastern Africa. In the aftermath of 9/11, many African countries became—and still remain— battlegrounds, while the 9/11 attacks are now historical events.

In Africa, the United States has militarized its aid in the last two decades, moving from more humanitarian aid towards military aid, focussed on assisting nations in combatting violent extremism. In the aftermath of Mogadishu, the Clinton administration elected to evacuate military forces from Somalia and adopted a laissez-faire posture towards the country.

After the dual attacks on the U.S. embassies in 1998, Washington began to invest in counter-terrorism strategies essentially using covert and overt security forces, particularly in Kenya and Ethiopia. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States began to re-interpret problems in Africa from a security perspective. The thinking in the Bush administration was that African problems, such as poverty, poor governance, incapable militaries, civil wars, and corruption, were a national security risk to the United States.

Agencies, such as the African Contingency Training and Assistance (ACOTA), African Command (AFRICOM), Foreign Military Financing (FMF), and International Military Education and Training (IMET), ramped up activity in the securitization and militarization of U.S. policy towards Africa. This explains the sharp rise in U.S. aid and humanitarian assistance to Africa during the Bush administration. Considering AFRICOM’s announced move out of Stuttgart and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the perception that Africa is the new theater of operations in combatting insurgency and violent extremism looks more accurate than ever.

The Violent Extremist Landscape in Africa

In Africa, three regions have a heavy violent extremist presence: the Lake Chad region with significant Boko Haram activity (Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria); the Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Mourabitoun in the Sahel region; and al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa (Kenya and Uganda).

In Lake Chad, Boko Haram surpassed the Islamic State as the deadliest violent extremist organization, with an estimated 867 casualties in 2014, representing an increase from the 109 fatalities 2013. In 2020, the total number of African militant Islamist-related fatalities stood at 13,059, presenting a 30% increase from 2019. Boko Haram’s activities are largely concentrated in Nigeria’s northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, but recently, they have increasingly exploited the permeable borders in the Lake Chad region to establish a presence in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Violent extremist attacks in the Lake Chad region have resulted in an estimated 2.3 million displaced persons. A study by Afrobarometer notes that huge proportions of citizens in all three countries (Nigeria, Nigeria, and Cameroon) state that support for groups like Boko Haram is driven by self-interest, highlighting the authority, governance, economic, and development deficits plaguing these nations.

Several smaller violent extremist groups are active in the Sahel. Their alliances shift frequently with the most active groups being the Ansar Dine, AQIM, and al Mourabitoun. In December 2014, the heads of states of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad created the G5 Sahel, an institutional framework aimed at coordinating development and security policies. Violent extremism in Mali, in particular, is part of a larger security crisis involving jihadist movements and separatist groups in the northern parts of the country.

The Horn of Africa has been plagued by the presence of al Shabaab, which in July 2010 launched its first major international attack in Kampala, Uganda, which left 76 dead and 70 injured. Since then, the group has targeted countries in the region, carrying out attacks in Djibouti, Kenya, and Tanzania. Attempted attacks have been thwarted in Ethiopia. The group mainly gained prominence in Somalia after the state collapse in the 1990s and has since grown in strength and size. Recently, Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province has been the target of violent extremist attacks, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Continuing Terrorism Problem in Africa

Fast forward to 2021 and the securitization-militarization strategy may have helped avert full-scale wars, but it has not obliterated the terrorism threat in Africa. Indeed, while terrorist attacks are falling in other parts of the world, incidents are on the rise in Africa.

The unrelenting scourge of Islamic fundamentalist-inspired terrorism in Africa draws uniqueness from indigenization, localization, and domestication. While the United States and its Western allies rightly identified a cocktail of grievances, such as youth unemployment and poor leadership, as the predisposing factors impelling the African version of terrorism, the strategic responses did not address these problems.

In fact, in some respects, there was opposition to the U.S. military presence on the continent, a case in point being opposition to AFRICOM, when South Africa—decrying sentiments of neo-colonialism—led various African nations to reject proposals by Washington that AFRICOM be headquartered on the continent. Similarly, American aid has been criticized on many fronts, including claims that it “aids” African dictators seen as security allies.

While the key local terroristic networks may express allegiance to al Qaeda and ISIS during periods of particularly heinous attacks, the global reach of these international terrorist groups has been substantially downgraded since the mid-2010s as these organizations have been fractured and atomised. Rather, local actors, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness, and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in Mali, thrive on local antipathies and only seek to bolster their images by associating with broader networks. The resilience of African Islamic terrorism should be cause for concern. The big question is how to respond to the staying power of these terror groups.

The Future of U.S. Engagement in Africa

It should be remembered that the whole notion of the global war on terror coincided with the intensification of neo-liberalism, spurred by the end of the Cold War. The continued economic underperformance of Africa will likely continue to serve as a point of attractiveness for impoverished communities towards radical theologies that promise the nirvana of spiritual and material liberation. The grievance of Africa not benefitting from the fruits of globalization will still fester if not addressed in a manner that delivers prosperity. The more long-term response should be one that hinges on the intensification of U.S. engagement with Africa in terms of trade rather than the securitization of relations per se. It is in the self-interest of the United States to promote development on the continent.

The reason why a strategy that favors trade and economics over hyper-military interventions and strategies is far better can be derived from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, a complete retrenchment of U.S. military assistance to Africa would be disastrous in the interim as terrorist networks would gain a window of opportunity, overrunning weak and vulnerable African states. However, pairing a reduction in securitized approaches with an elevation of productive economic engagement would substantially lessen terrorist threats for at least two reasons. First, prosperity in Africa would undercut the capacity for terrorist recruitment, particularly among the youth. Second, as Afghanistan has shown, it is not feasible for a country to continue underwriting the security operations of another in perpetuity. Thus, investment in the growth of African economies would enable governments to defend themselves rather than fall apart.

Certainly, the legacy of the war on terror has touched every part of the world. The big question, therefore, is how we can make sense of the immediate aftermath and the enduring legacy of the war on terror in Africa. In view of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, it makes sense to wonder what future looks like for Africa’s fight against violent extremism, seeing that the continent is likely to become the new frontier for the Washington’s war on terror.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.