Commentary. From al-Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya in 1998 (220 dead) and the American reaction, the global war on terror has been very present on the African continent since its inception, shaping its political and security dynamics.

Africa isn’t a ‘new’ front in the War on Terror

On August 15, as the triumphant Taliban entered Kabul, the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, writing in the Financial Times, warned that we should not lower our guard against terrorists. According to Buhari, who in recent years has announced several times that he has defeated Boko Haram, a new front of the global jihad has now opened. His argument is simple: it is in Africa that the main franchises of global jihadism, al-Qaeda and Daesh, have found room for maneuver and penetration, and thus it is in Africa that a new phase of the war on terror must be fought.

Buhari’s alarm echoes a sentiment that has become increasingly widespread among Western opinion leaders and politicians. A narrative has become bipartisan in Washington and in European capitals: the war on terror is not over and cannot end with a sign of surrender in Kabul, but must evolve in terms of methods (use of force from a distance) and objectives (shifting the focus to Africa).

Typically, this call to arms is followed by a quick overview of developments in the African conflicts: from Libya to Mozambique, from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, passing through Congo and Lake Chad.

In an exponential crescendo of massacres involving an increasing number of civilians, groups from the jihadist world have multiplied, proving capable not only of attacks that challenge the local armed forces, but also of conquering cities and portions of territory, removing them from the control of state authorities and administering them according to the dictates of Islamic law.

In Mali, in Somalia, in Cabo Delgado, as well as in the north of Nigeria, jihadist groups have been able to exploit political, economic and ethnic disputes, which began with the breaking of the social contract stipulated between weak states and marginalized communities. They have done so—according to the argument on offer—by fueling escalations of violence in which transnational criminals are profiting.

An offspring of the same patterns that have structured the “War on Terror,” this narrative fuels a vision of the African continent as an ungoverned and empty space, infested with a threat which must be managed, disciplined and contained. It is based on a fallacious assumption: the idea that jihadist terrorism is a new phenomenon in Africa. Conversely, one might go as far back as the African jihadist mobilizations of past centuries, or follow the biographies of Algerian fighters who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s, and thus identify the connections with the spread in Africa of Wahabi political Islam, Salafist rigorism and other Sunni and Shiite currents.

But perhaps it is enough to recall al-Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya in 1998 (220 dead) and the American reaction, in order to understand how the global war on terror has been very present on the African continent since its inception, shaping its political and security dynamics.

Today, it is impossible to analyze conflicts and socio-political transformations in Africa if we do not consider the effects of twenty years of international intervention and aid motivated by the fight against terrorism, religious extremism and other variants of radicalization, which are so ubiquitous that we have lost track of the nature and dynamics of their propagation.

To the point that it is sometimes difficult to reconstruct the links between cause and effect: did al-Qaeda’s kataibs spread south of the Sahara first, or was the trans-Saharan anti-terrorist initiative wanted by the U.S. after September 11 deployed north of Bamako before that happened?

Twenty years on, there are at least three legacies that have been left on the continent by the War on Terror.

First of all, on African soil, “counter-terrorist states” have emerged and then multiplied: more or less authoritarian regimes whose raison d’être and modes of operation are redefined according to their ability to present themselves—for the purpose of the massive transfer of funds, weapons and expertise—as “local implementers” of the War on Terror. In a context of growing geopolitical rivalry between the West and other aspiring powers, this has meant that African leaders have been able to raise the price of their loyalty as clients. Since the launch of the first operations within the framework of Operation Enduring Freedom, international action has aimed at strengthening the military, police and surveillance capabilities of these partner countries.

Thus, among the world’s poorest countries, we find the reality of “positional revenue,” with complacent international attitudes towards the derailing of the political framework with respect to democratic standards: a blank check for the maintenance of power, or towards the control of the government by the military and security apparatuses, without touching the root causes of jihadist insurgencies. In a game of smoke and mirrors and increasingly complex co-dependencies, almost all expressions of conflict and political violence have ended up being read through the lens of the War on Terror.

Mali, Mozambique and Nigeria have been the settings for rebellions born out of local disputes against corrupt, predatory and discriminating regimes which, enjoying international support, have been able to exacerbate local disputes, sometimes (for example in the Saharan region of Mali) allowing the propagation of jihadism to take place, thus compromising the autonomy of local populations (such as the Touareg), only to be later defeated.

Secondly, as part of the struggle against the outbreaks of African jihadism, new practices and technologies for intervention and discipline have been tested and have spread. In order to seal porous borders and limit the mobility of armed groups and criminals, states with otherwise extremely limited administrative capacity, in which large segments of the population do not have access to electricity and drinking water, have been equipped with the latest technologies in the area of border control and the biometric classification and tracking of their populations.

In the Sahel, these technologies are proving to be valuable tools, particularly for implementing policies of containment and fighting against migratory movements, which is at the center of the political agenda of the EU and its member states, first and foremost Italy.

Finally, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the war on terror has actually ended up transforming the very nature of African rebellions and conflicts. As a result of them being identified as interconnected elements of a single arc of jihadist crisis, the various insurgencies have ended up appropriating, in terms of rhetoric and action, the imagery and practices promoted by al-Qaeda and Daesh. More or less stable and lasting emirates have been declared in peripheral regions of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Somalia and Mozambique.

It’s not true that Africa represents the “future” front for terrorism: the War on Terror has already been fought in Africa for over twenty years, and war follows upon war, with no end in sight.

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