Towards a Continental Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism in Africa

Two men sit outside of their shop in Qoryooley, Somalia in April 2014 during a routine foot patrol by African Union troops one month after the town was liberated from Al-Shabab militants. (UN Photo/Tobin Jones)

Tarek A. Sharif

Joanne Richards

Violent Extremism is now recognized as a growing threat to peace and security in Africa, as exemplified by the recent terrorist attacks in Garissa, Abidjan, and Ouagadougou. While much of the policy discussion on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) focuses on the return of radicalized foreign fighters to the West, less attention is directed to those foreign fighters who may eventually return from Iraq, Syria, and Libya to other areas of North Africa, the Maghreb, and the Horn of Africa. Tunisia is one of the world’s largest contributors to the Islamic State in terms of foreign fighters, with smaller contributions from Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Sudan and Somalia. Issues concerning the return of foreign fighters to Africa are particularly salient not only because these individuals may return to their communities, but also because they may link up with other extremist armed groups present across the continent. These include groups affiliated to either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Attempts to counter violent extremism began in Europe in the 1980s with the advent of programs to dissuade and disengage right-wing extremists in Norway, Sweden and Germany. Although no common definition exists, since that time CVE has come to be associated with a range of measures designed to prevent and reverse the radicalization of individuals and groups, and to forestall the participation of these groups and “lone wolves” in acts of terrorism. Given that CVE is preventative and reactive, different CVE strategies are necessary for different stages of the radicalization continuum, including for individuals and communities with no exposure to extremist networks, those with some exposure, and those already radicalized. The latter is often associated with attempts to shift extremists towards acceptance of more moderate ideologies and is known as “deradicalization.”

In some ways, CVE is difficult to distinguish from conventional counter-terrorism, which often includes traditional military measures and the sharing of intelligence between nation states. However, because conventional counter-terrorism does not address the root causes prompting radicalization, policy interventions under the rubric of CVE have more recently been designed to focus attention on the grassroots factors, which may render certain individuals more susceptible to radicalization than others. Social exclusion, poverty, and a lack of education are often named as typical contenders in this regard, although CVE practitioners generally acknowledge that no single causal pathway to radicalization can be identified. Reflecting these general trends, this essay charts the development of African Union policy, from its roots in conventional counter-terrorism, to efforts to devise a continental strategy for CVE in Africa. It also outlines a number of policy measures, which any such continental strategy should take into account.

Terrorism and extremism as a transnational security threat to Africa

The foreign fighter phenomenon is not new to Africa, and the resurgence of terrorism on the continent (and elsewhere) in the early 1990s is often traced back to veterans of the anti-Soviet Muslim army, the “Mujahideen.” Trained by the CIA during the Cold War, a number of foreign Mujahideen fighters returned to their countries of origin following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in February 1989. Mujahideen veterans returning to Algeria founded the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and also participated in its splinter faction, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). Formed in 1998, GSPC trained individuals from Chad, Sudan, Libya, Mali and Mauritania, and extended its operations throughout southern Algeria, northern Mali, and regions of Niger and Mauritania. In 2007, GSPC pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM’s leader, Abdelmalek Droukdal, later announced that the group would provide arms and training to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. This association was illustrated when Boko Haram attacked the United Nations office in Abuja in 2011, using tactics strikingly similar to those employed by AQIM.

The early connections between AQIM and Boko Haram are indicative of a broader trend in which the many different extremist groups across Africa have become loosely linked to one another, and to either the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Middle East. Despite differences in ideology, al-Murabitun (a splinter of AQIM) and Ansar Dine (an AQIM ally in northern Mali) collaborate at least marginally. There is also evidence suggesting that the Ansaru group (a Boko Haram splinter formed in 2012) has trained and collaborated with both AQIM and Somalia’s al-Shabaab. Like AQIM, al-Shabaab has remained affiliated to al-Qaeda, despite the recent establishment of Islamic State footholds in both Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Libya. Boko Haram’s recent pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 has also seen dozens of its fighters travel to Libya to provide support for the group. Exacerbated by the Arab Spring, open borders and ungoverned spaces throughout the Maghreb and Sahel regions have significantly contributed to both the transnational connections between extremist groups and the movement of fighters. Members of the Tunisian Ansar-al-Sharia group hold out in mountainous regions along the border with Algeria and benefit from the open border with Libya. AQIM and other affiliated groups also move freely across the border between southern Algeria and northern Mali.

AU counter-terrorism: normative and implementation frameworks

In response to these transnational terrorist threats, in 1992 the Organization of African Unity (OAU) took initial steps to strengthen the cooperation and coordination of African states in counter-terrorism. This effort was later followed by the adoption, in 1999, of the OAU Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism and its related Protocols. The Convention entered into force in December 2002 and, to date, 41 Member States have ratified. In order to implement the Convention, the AU developed a Plan of Action on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism that lays out several measures related to improvements in border control, inter-governmental information exchange, countering terrorist financing, and necessary legislative and judicial steps. As part of the implementation of the 2002 Plan of Action, the African Centre for the Study and Research of Terrorism (ACSRT) was established in 2004 in Algiers. ACSRT serves as an information center for research and analysis on terrorism and terrorist groups, and for the development of counter-terrorism capacity building programs. The AU also appointed a Special Representative for counter-terrorism in October 2010, and, the following year, the AU Commission adopted the African Model Law on Counter-Terrorism at the 17th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Union, held in Malabo (July 2011). The Model Law provides a template designed to harmonize domestic counter-terrorism legislation and to ensure compliance with relevant international instruments.

The Islamic State’s recent call for jihadists to make their way to the “African provinces” further intensified AU efforts. In September 2014, the AU Peace and Security Council adopted a communiqué at its 455th meeting, at the level of Heads of State and Government, on the prevention and combating of terrorism and violent extremism in Africa. This communiqué was seen as a second action plan with the PSC calling upon the AU Commission to intensify its efforts in a number of areas, including the establishment of a Counter Terrorism Fund, the elaboration of an African arrest warrant for persons charged with or convicted of terrorist acts, and the establishment of specialized joint counter-terrorism units at the sub-regional and regional levels within the framework of the African Standby Force (ASF). These steps complement the AU’s ongoing Nouakchott (2013) and Djibouti (2015) processes, which bring together heads of intelligence, from across the Sahel and East Africa regions respectively, to share information and strengthen regional security cooperation against transnational threats. In 2015, the PSC also authorized a Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) to fight Boko Haram made up of troop contingents from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. The MJTF’s specific tasks include cross-border military operations, regional coordination, and joint border patrols. In addition to these military efforts, the PSC decision establishing the MJTF also noted the need to improve livelihoods, education, and job creation in the region in order to address “alienation and marginalization as conditions conducive to violent extremism.”

CVE: Towards an effective African approach

While the AU Commission has devoted considerable attention to building the capacities of AU Member States to conduct conventional counter-terrorism, such as joint military operations and the sharing of intelligence, more must be done to address the root causes of violent extremism and the so-called “battle of minds.” This requires a multi-sectoral approach with different policy interventions for different stages of radicalization.

For those not (yet) exposed to extremist ideology, CVE interventions should aim to prevent and build resilience to radicalization. A holistic approach is necessary, including the expansion of educational programs that promote critical thinking and the use of mainstream development projects, which can be implemented with a CVE sub-objective, to prevent the marginalization of individuals and communities. Efforts to promote religious moderation may also be undertaken, including the use of radio and television to promote moderate teachings, and the review of textbooks and syllabi to remove radical exhortations to violence.

More targeted interventions are required for those individuals and groups already exposed to extremist networks and identified as “at risk” of radicalization. Counter-messaging is one means of undermining the appeal of violent extremist messaging and can make use of counter-narratives provided by former terrorists and the victims/survivors of terrorist attacks. In this regard, the AU Commission organized two meetings on “Victims of Terrorist Acts” in October 2014 and November 2016. The meetings provided a forum to discuss how best to assist victims of terrorism and how to promote their role as active partners in CVE. Recent experience from past counter-messaging initiatives has shown that the content, source, and scale of the message must be taken into account. While the message must be clear and the source credible, the scale of counter-message dissemination must also be large enough and sustained enough to be heard, particularly in the vast expanse of the internet. To achieve the required volume and credibility, partnerships with terrorist victim associations, former fighters, religious leaders and civil society must be further explored. Counter-messaging can also be provided face-to-face, as is currently taking place within the AU’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Here, AMISOM and the Somali authorities engage Imams and religious scholars to sensitize local communities and to provide a counter‐narrative to the violent rhetoric propagated by al-Shabaab. As part of the Mission’s Quick Impact Projects (QIPs), Mosques and Islamic schools, or Madrassas, are also currently being rehabilitated to provide a platform for community mobilization, reconciliation and peacebuilding.

The fight against terrorism also requires more preventative, grassroots measures that address the root causes contributing to the development of violent extremism

In addition to counter-messaging, it is also important for CVE programs to gain the support and trust of individuals who are well positioned to detect behavioral changes suggestive of radicalization, particularly in “at risk” communities. This can include those with close personal ties to the individual(s) in question, such as friends, teachers, and family members. Providing education to help these bystanders assess the potential signs of radicalization and recruitment may help to encourage reporting to law-enforcement or to other CVE networks. However, any such educational program will also have to address the fact that bystanders will likely be reluctant to report close friends and may fear repercussions. Community policing may be able to make some in-roads in this regard, particularly if community projects aimed at countering violent extremism encourage relationship and trust-building activities as well as communal problem solving. In the African context, the strong role of civil society and women’s organizations could also be leveraged to build confidence in this regard.

A final set of policy interventions is required for individuals who have already radicalized. These policy interventions should facilitate both disengagement (the rejection of violence), and deradicalization (a shift towards more moderate ideology). Disengagement and deradicalization are often prison-based activities, and may be carried out by moderate religious authorities that visit inmates and lead prison-based prayers. This occurs in Morocco, where deradicalization is accomplished through religious supervision carried out by authorities from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and members of regional and local religious councils. In 2013, these officials visited approximately 5,000 inmates. Support for reintegration into civilian life upon release is also paramount. In this respect, much can be learnt from the African Union and United Nations’ experience of reintegration during programs of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR). In the case of CVE, vocational training traditionally associated with DDR could be combined with religious re-education and support for the (re-)establishment of relationships away from extremist networks.

One additional issue of concern is the use of the Internet by still active radicals to spread information on methods of guerrilla warfare, and on the construction of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and other forms of Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD). This could allow terrorist groups and their operatives to develop expertise to further wreak havoc and destruction. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) allegedly publishes an on-line magazine, “Inspire,” with the stated objective of enabling Muslims to train for jihad at home. This calls for concerted efforts at the national, regional and global levels, to prevent the exploitation of the Internet by terrorist groups. This could be achieved through legislation against cybercrime and Internet counter-terrorism, and the use of enhanced technical capabilities to monitor and track its misuse.


The African Union has a comprehensive counter-terrorism framework promoting law-enforcement, intelligence sharing, and traditional military responses. However, the fight against terrorism also requires more preventative, grassroots measures that address the root causes contributing to the development of violent extremism. As a result, at its 592nd meeting in April 2016, the AU Peace and Security Council called for the establishment of a “platform for reflection” to inform the development of a comprehensive continental strategy for both counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism. This platform will need to examine the themes outlined above concerning education for the prevention of radicalization, counter-messaging, the engagement of bystanders, legislation against cyber-crime, and means for disengagement and deradicalization. The particular challenges posed by CVE will also need to be addressed. For example, CVE programs have the potential to do considerable harm if seen to alienate and stigmatize particular communities. The root causes that lead to radicalization are difficult to identify and CVE programs that focus only on deprived and marginalized communities may neglect to counter the radicalization of those who do not fit a standard profile. Careful context specific analysis will be required to identify the different drivers of extremism in different settings.

Countering violent extremism in Africa will ultimately be a long-term process inextricably linked to events beyond the continent. The AU will therefore continue to work towards the development of an overarching CVE framework and the provision of support to AU Member States in the design and implementation of counter-radicalization and deradicalization programs. These programs should be appropriate to specific national contexts, dealing sometimes with the prevention of radicalization and sometimes with the return, deradicalization and reintegration of former fighters. Moving forward will require enhanced levels of cooperation and collaboration with both international and domestic partners. Capacity building in emerging CVE concepts and methods will also be necessary, and the training of select DDR officers and AU Mission personnel, such as those working within Somalia (AMISOM) and Mali and the Sahel (MISAHEL), may be particularly desirable. Furthermore, in order to provide a facilitating environment for CVE, the AU will continue to assist Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and AU Member States in complementary counter-terrorism efforts, including improvements to border control and the review, drafting, and domestication of counter-terrorist legislation in line with the AU Model Law.

Dr. Tarek A. Sharif is the Head of the Defense and Security Division at the African Union. Twitter: | @AU_PSD

Dr. Joanne Richards is a Technical Advisor on SALW/DDR in the Defense and Security Division, of the African Union. She is seconded on behalf of Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). Twitter: | @BICC_Bonn