Friend or Foe? US Counterterrorism Strategy in Africa

February 05, 2013

The US military’s recently signed Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Niger for a planned surveillance drone base is only the latest development in the Pentagon and the CIA’s expanding presence on the continent. It also portends the increased use of drone strikes against terrorist targets in Africa. Yet Africa is not Afghanistan—or Yemen or Pakistan for that matter--and the United States will do grave harm to its interests and its ability to help foster development in the region by treating it as such.The use of drones in US counterterrorism strategy in Africa should be measured against three criteria: is this strategy commensurate with the security challenge posed; has the US government considered the depths of the implications of this strategy; and is this level of effort appropriate relative to other US interests in Africa?1. Africa is not a threat to the United States. The justification behind this growing military and intelligence surveillance presence, in US Africa Command (AFRICOM) Commander General Carter Ham’s words, is “The absolute imperative for the United States military to protect America, Americans and American interests; in our case, in my case, [to] protect us from threats that may emerge from the African continent.” The existence of a violent extremist group, however, does not automatically pose a threat to the United States, even if the group has self-identified with al Qaeda or we fear that it might someday do so. If the United States treats every violent extremist group in Africa as a direct enemy, then chances are high that they will become one. Yes, America has been the target of terrorist attacks in Africa and by Africans, but in fact, Africa has been comparatively resilient to homegrown terrorism.2. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy.  According to national security scholar Audrey Kurth Cronin, terrorism must be understood in its historical, political, and societal contexts. A terrorist campaign is a test of the legitimacy of the state, and it derives its strength, momentum, and legitimacy from the state’s response to it. “Overreacting and treating a terrorist campaign as though it were part of a traditional military campaign in which the application of brute force would compel the enemy into submission,” writes Cronin, is the crucial mistake the United States made after 9/11. Let’s not repeat that in Africa, or train our African friends to do so. After a decade of unsuccessfully trying to counter terrorism in the Sahel, the United States might usefully ask itself what the empirical record shows about how terrorism ends--what works, what doesn’t, and how success can best be defined and measured.3. Unintended consequences cause serious harm. US military and intelligence counterterrorism objectives and tactics present serious trade-offs for US diplomatic and development objectives in Africa and elsewhere. US drone strike policy is particularly fraught with moral hazards. Not only do drone strikes inevitably cause collateral damage and risk engendering local resentment, they can close humanitarian and development space for US and other Western actors to operate. For instance, drone strikes on high-value targets in Somalia in 2008 contributed to the targeted killing that year by al Shabaab of 35 aid workers trying to stave off famine for more than 3 million people. (As the only Westerners, or representatives of the West, on the ground, al Shabaab retaliated against them, suspecting them of having “called in the strikes.”) As a result, aid operations were significantly curtailed, deepening a humanitarian crisis that ultimately became a full-fledged famine in 2011. The CIA’s egregious use of a childhood vaccination campaign as cover for intelligence gathering against Osama bin Laden has also led to tragic consequences for aid workers and global public health. Violent extremist organizations should be countered, but terrorism cannot be the only, or even primary, lens through which the United States approaches Africa. And humanitarian and development work should never be cover for intelligence operations.4. Stable, accountable states are ultimately the highest interest of the United States in Africa. The real antidote to terrorism is stable, inclusive, accountable states responsive to the needs of all their citizens. As other Africa experts have written with respect to Mali, the principal challenge is one of state formation. There is no substitute for addressing this; killing every terrorist is not possible, and the act of trying will only generate more. Tracking down terrorists in the sands of the Sahel because they might be potential enemies of the United States is a Sisyphean task. Negotiations over basing rights are likely to overtake other US interests, such as political reform (Niger is recovering from decades of military rule, including a coup in 2010, and adjusting to the restoration of civilian rule in 2011) and food security (Niger suffers from severe, chronic food insecurity). Addressing these concerns, among others, is imperative for sustaining the legitimacy and viability of the Nigerien state, which is in turn required to prevent terrorists and criminal traffickers from operating throughout the region.I welcome US military engagement with African militaries in support of developing more professional, accountable African security forces that protect and defend their citizens rather than prey upon them. Ultimately, this contributes to stable, inclusive, and accountable states and best serves US interests in Africa, including with respect to counterterrorism. This is a long-term endeavor, though, and one that cannot be accomplished in a few short years of sending African military officers for training in the United States or organizing on-the-ground joint exercises focused solely on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.Africans have consistently held a highly favorable view of the United States (the only region in the world to view the United States more favorably than not).  This is important not because it’s nice to be popular but because it makes it possible for Americans to be received as friends without deep suspicions of ulterior motives--a precious commodity for US-Africa relations that should be cherished and stewarded. Contributing to more stable, accountable states is a decades long process, and US interests in Africa will be better served by remaining more friend than foe.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.