Responding to the Terror Threat: Continuing Differences between the United States and Africa
March 30, 2007
While many African states are as worried about terrorism as the United States is, many of them have found it difficult to implement counterterrorism measures that meet Washington’s expectations. Some of them, like Kenya, have been victims of terrorism, but they have yet to establish antiterrorism legislation consistent with Security Council Resolution 1373 of September 2001, which called on states to impose wide-ranging measures to counter the terror threat. Disagreements and misunderstandings on terrorism issues are common. Kenyan Muslim leaders recently criticized the American ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, for issuing a travel advisory, warning about a possible terrorist incident during the World Cross Country championships. Meanwhile, U.S. officials remain unhappy with the collapse in 2005 of Kenyan efforts to prosecute suspects in the 2002 attacks on the Paradise Hotel, near Mombasa, and on an Israeli charter plane.
There are several reasons why the U.S. and African governments persistently pursue differing counterterrorism strategies. The first is the lack of appropriate governance and security institutions in Africa. Dealing effectively with terrorist threats requires, among other things, good intelligence and functioning judicial systems, but few African countries have these capacities.
American government officials in various African countries, whose task is to help with the training of prosecutors and magistrates, privately express their frustration with the lack of commitment on the part of host governments or with the rampant corruption that undermines funding efforts. Weak institutions, the lack of effective governance, and corruption are likely to remain obstacles to effective counterterrorism activities in several African states.
In some cases, American frustrations have been due to a clash of priorities. U.S. officials are focused on training the most highly-qualified personnel they can identify to fill a vital gap in the detection and prevention of terrorism, or in the arrest and prosecution of terror suspects. By contrast, African governments, whose pool of human resources is small to begin with, are typically not keen to see their best personnel focus only on terrorism. They regard counterterrorism activities as just one priority among many others for their law enforcement staff.
Another reason why the U.S. and various African governments differ on their approaches to counterterrorism stems from what some African officials have described as the narrow American focus on Islam. Some go so far as characterize this focus as an American obsession. Senior intelligence officials in East Africa are typically reluctant to single out Muslims or take strong measures against Muslims for fear of destabilizing their countries. Some regard the principal threats to political stability as arising from non-Muslim sources in any event, adding to their reluctance to antagonize the Muslim elements of their communities
What is the way forward for the U.S. and African governments in dealing with terrorism? The United States has taken a reasonable approach by focusing on the development of the capacities needed to address terror threats effectively. This is the ‘traditional’ counter-terrorism approach, which relies on the use of intelligence agencies, the police, and the judiciary. It does not address the root causes of terrorism, and in that sense it offers only a band-aid solution; but it is a necessary tool in dealing with the urgent situation arising from the September 2001 attacks.
The use of the traditional approach has two great advantages. First, in working to strengthen existing institutions, it demonstrates that governments have not panicked or been intimidated by the terrorists into casting aside their laws and constitutions. This in turn creates an atmosphere in which the enhancement of democratic governance and basic freedoms – a process that is essential to creating a better future for Africa and its people – can continue while the struggle against terrorism is waged. In other words, the traditional approach is consistent with efforts to enhance security by protecting citizens while also preserving national values, norms, rules and institutions.
However, given the lack of expertise and institutional infrastructure in much of Africa at the present time, there is a need for collective action at the bilateral, sub-regional, and regional levels. The establishment of the African Center for the Study and Research on Terrorism in Algiers in October 2004 is an example of a continent-wide approach. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) started working on a sub-regional approach when it adopted the “Khartoum Declaration on Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime” in 2002. This was followed by a conference on the prevention and combating of terrorism in Kampala in 2003, which drafted the Implementation Plan to Counter Terrorism in the IGAD region. The IGAD plan is expected to be implemented from Addis Ababa to counter terrorism, freeze finances for terrorists, prevent illegal cross border movements, enhance judicial measures and promote strategic cooperation. The only problem with the collective approach is that it often brings together countries that come with other baggage in terms of their own regional differences, thereby requiring constant high level diplomatic leveraging by external forces to make the programs work.
A deeper problem with the traditional approach is that it may be tending to distract U.S. policymakers from the continuing need to respond to Africa’s poverty and related social-economic problems. The traditional approach to fighting terrorism is important, but the promotion of the development and social justice option offers the only long-term solution to reducing the terror threat in Africa. Development, poverty alleviation, and social justice can reduce terrorism by facilitating human empowerment, while at the same time eliminating the conditions that produce political discontent. As former World Bank President James Wolfensohn has argued: “The international community has already acted strongly, by confronting terrorism directly and increasing security. But those actions by themselves are not enough. We will not create that better and safer world with bombs or brigades alone.”
Wolfensohn went on to argue: “We must recognize that while there is social injustice on a global scale – both between states and within them; while the fight against poverty is barely begun in too many parts of the world; while the link between progress in development and progress toward peace is not recognised - we may win a battle against terror but we will not conclude a war that will yield enduring peace.”
Our understanding of what “development” means has evolved considerably since the 1980s. The term has come to refer both to qualitative and quantitative changes in a variety of areas, including the provision of basic needs such as shelter, water, sanitation, education and health, which are a part of social justice.
The concept of development has further expanded to include human empowerment, especially increased participation by the people in the management of their economic, political, cultural and social affairs. As former U.N. Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has argued, development can only succeed if it responds to the needs of the people, and if it articulates these needs into a coherent policy framework. Development incorporates capacity building, and this implies the introduction of new ideas, standards, institutions, norms, and techniques for overcoming obstacles to human progress. It also includes democratization, an independent judiciary, and an open, responsible and accountable government.
Poverty per se does not cause terrorism, but it can combine with other factors to ignite political violence. The combination of poverty and the politics of identity is a particularly volatile mix. People like those who masterminded the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, do not have to come from poverty-stricken homes in order to identify with the poor. These terrorists may have been relatively well-off and even middle class, but they defined their identities in terms of the aspirations of those who had been denied justice in the Middle East. Development, poverty alleviation, and social justice can help people to redefine their identities and to refocus their interests and energies, and, thereby, reduce the chances of terrorism.
The best counterterrorism approach for African states would be based on political and economic empowerment, social justice, development, creative institutional designs to alleviate ethnic and other social tensions, and capacity building. It is progress in these areas that would undermine the root causes of terrorism, guarantee stability and security in the long term, and enable Africans to take responsibility for the security of their fellow Africans.
Samuel Makinda is Chair of Security, Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Studies at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia.
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