John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Reflections on United States Counterterrorism Mistakes in Africa

by John Campbell
October 21, 2013

Two U.S. soldiers talk while training Malian soldiers while training in Gao, eastern Mali November 13, 2006. (Luc Gnago/Courtesy Reuters)


Alex Vines, director of Area Studies and International Law, and head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, a London based think-tank, has written a thoughtful article for CNN. He looks at U.S. counterterrorism operations in Africa, including questions about their legality under international law and their impact (often unintended) on weak African states.

I agree with his point that U.S. military engagements can–and have–caused greater instability in some African venues, rather than countering successfully terrorism and other forms of instability. Vines tees-off his analysis with discussion of the October 5-6 U.S. military operations in Libya and Somalia.

Vines recalls on-again, off-again American involvement since 1993 in Somalia, and makes a convincing argument (at least to me) that the effect was to promote radicalization in that country. Turning to contemporary terrorism, He reiterates the crucial point that “jihadi” terrorism is far from homogeneous–Boko Haram in Nigeria is very different from al-Shabaab in Somalia. But, such groups do well in weak states that are poorly governed. That reality implies that institution building, promotion of good governance, and more jobs is the way to address terrorism, rather than the quick fix of military action. But, that prescription requires sustained attention, now sorely lacking in paralyzed Washington.

Also salutary is Vines’ reminder that “counterterrorism policies live on the edge of international law.” They can have consequences that are directly contrary to U.S. long-term interests.

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  • Posted by Chike

    US has the Military resources, but lacks the terrain (cultural, political, historical etc) knowledge to do counter-terrorism in MOST places in the developing World – not just Africa.

    If the US couldn’t appreciate the difference between Sunni & Shia in Iraq, how are they going to understand the difference between Hausa & Kanuri or Igbo & Ikwere in Nigeria? They can’t.

    So US is going to keep on making blunders – until it abandons this effort. The US military isn’t trained in cultural awareness & Americans tend to be dismissive of local history & culture.

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