U.S. Security Force Assistance in Africa

U.S. security force assistance (SFA) on the African continent has been premised on a “by, with, and through” approach. This sees the United States train, advise, and assist African militaries, police, and intelligence services, while broadly seeking to avoid kinetic action of its own. More acutely, such efforts have typically related to counterterrorism, mitigating the attraction and violence of al Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (IS) affiliates on the continent. With two official AQ branches and eight IS provinces, jihadist-linked violence in Africa is currently at unprecedented levels— with these new developments, Africa can be called “the new global epicenter of jihadi terror.”

Core to helping African states reduce the appeal of violent extremist organizations (VEOs) is this: making the decision to join an AQ or IS branch as no longer the most rational choice for the pursuit of a better livelihood. In places where governments are weak or repressive and opportunities for citizens to pursue secure, productive lives are sparse, participation in VEOs becomes a logical option. The problem is simple to conceive, profoundly difficult to resolve. How should one begin, and what is the role for SFA?

To start, recognizing the accomplishments and insufficiencies of past U.S. SFA efforts is imperative. On the plus side, U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa have been able to produce short-term, tactical successes like the targeted killings of al Shabaab leaders and the regaining of IS-held territory in Libya. However, U.S. SFA’s ability to produce long-term strategic successes has been elusive. Between 2009 and 2020, for instance, jihadist violence on the African continent has not only failed to be contained, but indeed, rose an astronomical 17-fold. While jihadist violence would almost certainly be even more widespread in the absence of U.S. and partner presence, the status quo approach to training, advising, and assisting African militaries has yet to produce the desired results.

Instead, improvements to U.S. SFA might best be pursued outside of the military space. Bolstering programming related to police and security sector reform, promotion of the rule of law, and strengthening judiciaries, are all nonmilitary steps that the United States can take to make African states and security forces more legitimate. Continuing to promote high-level exchanges with senior African military officers—including through the International Military and Education Training (IMET) program—are likewise important.

Yet paradoxically, if the overriding goal of U.S. SFA is to reduce the appeal of AQ and IS in Africa, a focus on SFA itself might be missing the point: if VEO membership is fueled by the rational pursuit of a better livelihood, U.S. efforts at supporting such alternative livelihoods should be prioritized.

Indeed, the best approaches to mitigating the pull of AQ and IS in Africa are likely not through Department of Defense-led SFA, but rather, through Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and NGO-driven development initiatives. Working to mitigate the challenges of rapid urbanization, climate change, and demographic pressures are part and parcel of this. Continued investment in health, education, and community resilience are also paramount, as is harnessing the potential of African entrepreneurs.

In short, while U.S. SFA in Africa might be improved, addressing the phenomena that make VEOs appealing in the first place will likely be more productive.

Jason Warner is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official opinions of the U.S. government, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. Army.

Jason Warner
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program