Two major events happened this week. First, US Africa Command gained a new air arm in the form of the 17th Air Force. This will provide the bulk of strategic and tactical airlift, and miscellaneous operations for AFRICOM’s affiliates. The second big thing to happen is the execution of Hervé Gourdel in Algeria by the ‘Caliphate Soldiers’, an al Qaeda and ISIL/Daesh-linked terrorist group. This act has brought the Iraq and Syrian wars against Islamic State terrorists into Africa, albeit quite loosely. For African observers of international terrorism, there now appears to be something of a ‘terrorist spring’ occurring worldwide, and it’s coming to Africa.
Combined with a Philippines-based group now threatening to execute two captured German hostages, traditional terror groups in Africa such as Boko Haram and al Shabaab are being joined by new groups seeking to leverage the infamy gained by ISIL/DAESH, and older groups re-emerging from the woodwork. For the Philippines this means major internal security problems, and a possible return to piracy in the Straits of Malacca. For African counter-terror forces, this means that they will need help.
That a French guide in Algeria, one of the country’s largest defence spenders, could be snatched and executed with relative impunity, speaks volumes about the capabilities of most indigenous African forces in terms of fighting terrorist organisations. Large scale offensives by Nigeria against Boko Haram and AMISOM against al Shabaab respectively have shown the limits of heavy-handed force, and yet the swift precision necessary to strike at terrorist groups’ leaderships simply does not exist. African militaries lack the aircraft to drop Special Forces – if they existed in any quantity – or supplies and humanitarian aid, where necessary. They lack the precision air combat capability enjoyed by the USA and her allies, and they simply lack the financing needed to develop communities in which terror groups operate, and thus starve them of operational ‘oxygen’. These are all complications that have no immediate solution and hold dire consequences for the continent’s future.
In this case then, terror groups are afforded ample space and time, the key ingredients for any successful insurgency against a state, in African regions that are simply incapable of policing themselves. With the USA focused on destroying ISIL in Syria and Iraq, that it is nonetheless mustering an entire air arm to service its African operations is perhaps the single bright spot in the encroaching nightmare that is unfolding amongst terrorist-stricken African regions.
So how does this emerging terrorist-trend affect Africa? There are two large factors here that policymakers ought to pay attention to. Firstly, the opportunistic propaganda of the Caliphate Soldiers is possibly just the first of a new open season on foreigners working and living in Africa. The links to al Qaeda and ISIL are disturbing, though possibly exaggerated, but this should not really matter. The reality is that any terrorist group with an internet connection, radio or television will get ideas from the operational and media tactics of ISIL, and that’s enough to begin with. This means that any country or region facing an even moderate extremism threat is susceptible to kidnappings for ransom, televised executions or, if left to thrive long enough, another Westgate Mall attack.
The second factor is one that is unpalatable to most African states. That is to turn to AFRICOM and the United States, who with the 17th Air Force active in October, will be the largest professional force moving regionally throughout the continent. The Americans may pursue their own foreign policy objectives in Africa, but this does not necessarily overrule the strategic benefits they can offer in combating emerging terror groups. The ability of the Kenyan military to push al Shabaab back into the mountains during Operation Linda Nchi happened with American support and training before the deployment even began. It yielded military dividends and highlighted how non-kinetic use of American military in Africa can be beneficial.
African terrorism threats will continue to plague foreigners and locals alike, and with the ongoing focus on Syria and Iraq, it’s unlikely major counter-terrorism operations will follow on the continent on the scale we now see happening in the Middle East. As such, it might be time for African states to be honest about their capabilities, or lack thereof, and look towards practical, immediate solutions that will work, even if it means talking to AFRICOM.