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U.S. Counterterrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa: Understanding Costs, Cultures, and Conflicts

Authored by Dr. Donovan C. Chau. | September 2008

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What is the most effective long-term approach to U.S. counterterrorism in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)? The purpose of this paper is to lay the framework for answering this central question. The current struggle of the United States and its allies against terrorist groups and individuals motivated by Islamic extremism consumes U.S. military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Never a centerpiece of U.S. foreign and defense policy, SSA is now a front in the conflict to counter global Islamic extremism. As in the past, however, SSA remains largely misunderstood and misperceived in the United States. Yet, the U.S. Government (USG) is now embarked on reform of U.S. policy toward the African continent with uncertain consequences.

Following an introduction (Section I), this Letort Paper next analyzes the policy debate in Washington, DC. The focus is on two fundamentally divergent theoretical approaches to U.S. counterterrorism policy in SSA?development and defense. The former prescribes civilian countermeasures; the latter, military. Examples of the development approach to counterterrorism in SSA range from humanitarian aid to financial and legal assistance to law enforcement training; the approach does not involve the use of the military. In contrast, the defense approach involves any and all uses of the military; this includes the use of the military for nonmilitary purposes such as humanitarian assistance and intervention. Section II, ?The Debate in Washington,? considers the benefits and costs of the defense approach; the benefits and costs of the development approach; and the metrics for success and failure. What becomes clear is that both metrics-oriented U.S. counterterrorism approaches do not account fully for the patterns and complexities throughout SSA. Furthermore, the extent to which U.S. policy has countered terrorism in the region remains unclear.

Only through recognition and understanding of the diverse perspectives across SSA may sound counterterrorism policy be formulated. From the debate in Washington, therefore, the paper moves across the Atlantic Ocean to discuss the attitudes and views of terrorism and counterterrorism in SSA. Due to geographic size and scope, SSA is divided into East, West, and Southern Africa subregions so as to highlight the different geographies, histories, threats, and perceptions. Section III, ?The Perspectives from SSA,? examines African views of terrorism and counterterrorism; the current state of civil-military and civil-law enforcement relations; and, ultimately, what counterterrorism is in SSA, and what counterterrorism means to Africans themselves. Discussion of perspectives from the three subregions suggests the paramount importance of understanding local identities and cultures, as well as the variegated influence of history on views of terrorism and counterterrorism.

Based on the research and findings, the paper concludes with Section IV which provides a summary and recommendations for a new grand strategic approach to U.S. counterterrorism in the region, which should focus on attaining three standards:

  1. Seizing and holding the moral high ground. Seizing the moral high ground does not mean conducting actions better than the enemy. Rather, it means understanding what is moral in SSA and striving to achieve that level of morality in all policy considerations and actions.
  2. Winning the struggle for perceived legitimacy. Much like morality, legitimacy varies from one group or individual to another. What is crucial here for U.S. counterterrorism policy is to understand perceptions from subregion to subregion, country to country, and small folk community to small folk community.
  3. Pursuing restrained counterterrorism responses. After a terrorist attack, how the USG and the Department of Defense (DoD), in particular, respond is critical. The main point of restrained counterterrorism responses is the need for unity of effort.

Beyond the three standards, the paper recommends that the USG think long-term continually, build meaningful relationships in SSA, move counterterrorism beyond DoD-centric operations, and, most importantly, educate future analysts, officers, and policymakers about the African continent. What should be borne in mind throughout, and is often lost in the U.S. policymaking process, is that foreign governments and peoples do not often view the world according to Western liberal values, attitudes, and beliefs. This is as true in counterterrorism as it is in any other strategic issue.