Countering Violent Extremism in the Horn of Africa

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(U.S. Department of Defense, Flickr Commons)

(U.S. Department of Defense, Flickr Commons)

The Horn of Africa has rapidly risen on the global stage as a region affected by terrorism and violent, often religious-based, extremism. This rise is primarily due to al-Shabaab’s military successes shortly after its defection from the Islamic Courts Union in 2006. During the period starting in 2007, when the Ethiopian military withdrew from the region, and prior to 2012, when the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) successfully retook large swathes of territory from the terrorist organization, al-Shabaab controlled most of Somalia.

The terrorist group initially focused its operations in the country. However, the July 2010 dual bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala underscored the group’s shift in focus to neighboring states. The recent Kenyan attacks, in retaliation to the Kenyan Defense Forces’ joining AMISOM, highlight this movement. Today, the group conducts targeted “spectacular” attacks more so in Kenya than in Somalia.

In an attempt to curb the export of violent extremism, state and non-state actors have worked to counter violent extremism (CVE) by increasingly focusing their efforts on the Horn of Africa. Though they have been few in number, the State Department has historically led U.S. CVE initiatives in the Horn, which have largely centered on strengthening communities’ resilience to extremism. Since the White House’s CVE Summit in February 2015, the number of regional governments, international institutions, and foreign-government donors seeking to intervene in the region has increased. CVE tactics make populations and communities central to combatting radicalization in areas affected by insurgencies. Though the people and governments of the Horn should happily welcome this much needed international attention, there are cautionary measures to consider for those seeking to assist in countering violent extremism.

First, unraveling the many facets of CVE and contextualizing efforts at the individual state-level should be the driving force behind any effective intervention. Too often, when discussing the components of CVE programming, practitioners and scholars lump violent extremist affected countries and communities into one universal category. Casually referring to countries such as Somalia, Kenya, and the United Kingdom as interchangeable case studies is a mistake.

Rather, when designing CVE programs, Somalia shares more in common with Syria, where there are active insurgencies fighting the national armies and international peacekeeping and military troops that occupy the conflict affected state. Similarly, a state like Kenya would benefit from being compared with Nigeria, as both are stable countries that suffer from local, violent extremist groups. Lastly, it is obvious that the UK’s efforts could not be emulated in the Horn. Instead, its experiences should be juxtaposed with those of nations like France and the United States – highly developed countries that have suffered attacks executed by global violent extremist organizations or lone wolfs.

Second, undertaking simultaneous interventions risks diluting CVE efforts and their intended impact. Attempting to concurrently address issues ranging from child soldiers to radicalization inside prisons will not serve an effective strategy. Tailoring interventions to suit local needs and to address national contexts would be a much more effective approach. For example, in Kenya the focus should be primarily to deter at-risk populations from adopting the violent ideologies of extremist organizations. In Tanzania, however, the focus should shift to building counter radicalization institutions and programs for al-Shabaab returnees. Some of the challenges of contextualizing, or localizing, CVE efforts will be less arduous, once approaches to intervention make a distinction between various states.

Third, the lens through which to view the issues relating to CVE should be narrowed. The drivers of radicalization are as varied as those who are radicalized. Thus, catchall programs are ineffective, if not counterproductive. Identifying an overarching primary driver, whenever possible, could be useful in harmonizing national programs. In Somalia, for instance, the primary reason people give for adhering to al-Shabaab’s edicts (even though the group no longer commands or controls the territory) is due to a lack of confidence in the national government and its ability to win and defeat the violent group. In this case, supporting the creation of a strong government and a unified national army, sans international peacekeepers, would serve as a chief and effective countermeasure.

Fourth, development practitioners who seek to enter the CVE space must be cautious in their approach. Of late, donor countries and large development institutions, such as USAID and the United Nations, have rightfully sought opportunities to divert or dedicate funds from traditional development to CVE. Though this nexus is ideal – especially when some traditional development donor states are near bankruptcy, while some aid recipients have reached the millennium development goals – the effort must have clear objectives and contain a nuanced theory of change. Simply allocating global development or humanitarian funds to address security and violent extremism could prove reckless and harmful for those that it seeks to assist.

Lastly, and whenever possible, state actors countering extremism should adopt a preventative mindset. In 2009, for example, the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) in AMISOM took it upon itself to carryout humanitarian services when stationed in areas recaptured from al-Shabaab. They built schools, dug wells, and taught children – all in an attempt to win over the local communities previously controlled by al-Shabaab. The African Union’s peacekeeping mission did not mandate these humanitarian acts; rather, the UPDF sought and applied these preventative measures of its own volition. Similarly, CVE measures should attempt to get ahead of the problem before it arises. At the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), this preventative tactic gained some traction: delegate discussions referred to the Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) that will be finalized in the near future. For greater success rates, the UN should ensure that preventative approaches (though slow and difficult to measure) are first institutionalized across sectors of regional state administrations, to include the district, regional, and national levels. Regionally, this could be as complicated as improving citizen-state relationships (political exclusion is one of the largest drivers of radicalization in the Horn of Africa) or as straightforward as early childhood learning programs.

The current refugee crisis in Europe is evidence that the threat of global violent extremism is higher than ever recorded. Though the on-going battle against violent extremist organizations in East Africa may not cease in the near term, international interventions to support regional governments in combatting this threat effectively will be a major deciding factor in determining its cessation.

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Rahma Dualeh is the Co-Founder of Frontline Consult based in Kenya and Somaliland. She currently advises the European Union’s CVE program in the Horn of Africa. Previously, Dualeh has researched Horn of Africa violent extremism as the lead advisor on Somalia to the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the Department of Defense. She can be reached at RahmaD@frontlineconsult.net.

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