Africa -The New Frontline in the Global Struggle against Terrorism and Violent Extremism

Published on 23rd July 2019

Violent extremism and terrorism not only to undo development gains but also hinder future development. For example, the presence of Al Shabaab in certain parts of Kenya has caused a drop in tourism following travel advisories issued against Kenya. Terrorist attacks result in loss of human resource and property, damage to infrastructure, closure of institutions and general disruption of economy of affected areas.

On 10-11 July, 2019 Nairobi, Kenya hosted the African Regional High-Level Conference on Counter Terrorism and Prevention of Violent Extremism Conducive to Terrorism. This was the 3rd regional high-level conference following the inaugural United Nations High-level Conference of Heads of Counter-Terrorism Agencies of Member States that was held in New York in June 2018, convened by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

The regional high-level conferences are jointly organized with host country and the UN Office of Counter Terrorism. Following the September 11 terrorist attack in the US, the UN Security Council set up its Counter Terrorism Committee which (CTC) works to bolster the ability of Member States to prevent terrorist acts both within their borders and across regions. The CTC is assisted by the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), which carries out the policy decisions of the Committee, conducts expert assessments of each Member State and facilitates counter-terrorism technical assistance to countries.

One such policy implementation is the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy which aims to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, to prevent and combat terrorism, to build states’ capacity and to strengthen the UN’s role, as well as to ensure human rights and the rule of law. In this regard, the various thematic regional high-level conferences are a UN Member State’s platform for information, expertise and resource exchange, partnership development, and a multilateral counter-terrorism approach, within the framework of international law and human rights.

During the Nairobi high-level conference, Secretary General Guterres in noting the increased terrorism threat across Africa, also recognized that Kenya has suffered devastating terrorist attacks. This is despite Kenya having a domestic counter violent extremism and counter terrorism regime. For instance, in 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched Kenya’s National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism, prior to which the national approach had largely been led by the Constitution and various national security laws.

Secretary General Guterres further noted that terrorism and violent extremism do not occur in a vacuum. This echoed the findings of a focus group convened by the Africa Policy Institute (API) in Nairobi in the days running up to the regional high-level conference, as part of a study into radicalization and violent extremism amongst youth in Kenya. API works with government officials, counter terrorism practitioners and researchers to craft strategies, policies and good practices to prevent and counter violent extremism. The focus group discussion sought to investigate, especially by tapping into grassroots leaders’ opinion, the progression from radicalization into violent extremism and ultimately into terrorism of Kenyan youth.

Grassroots community leaders indicated that young people are easily recruited into crime and violent extremism largely due to unemployment and poverty related challenges as well as the allure of alternative justice avenues for actual/perceived historical injustices and a sense of belonging, recognition and identity for disenfranchised groups. In other cases, radicalized youth graduate from petty crime to join these organized criminal groups because they offer forms of support that meet their material and socio-psychological needs, e.g., money, protection, identity and solidarity.

A core component of community resilience is women, a group that Secretary General Guterres specially recognized in his remarks at the conference. They are the mothers of, and amongst the, young people who suffer exclusion from political and economic process, including by missing out on national identity cards, who then end up feeling disenfranchised and disempowered. They are also the victims of terrorist attacks. Against this background, women are showing up to engage with local leaders and young people, as experienced in the API focus group, to fight against exclusion, marginalization, inequality and abuse – the underlying conditions that lead many to radicalization and conflict.

These underlying causes of radicalization, and the evolving recruitment and deployment tactics of terrorists, demand a proactive redesign of countering violent extremism (CVE) such that other than pure hard-line enforcement, there is a wholistic approach facilitated by proper funding, respect for human rights and political will backing, that is deployed to address the root causes of youth radicalization, terrorism and conflict. For example, a hard-line enforcement, uninformed by respect for human rights, has resulted in resentful portions of the population arising from negative profiling on grounds of religion and ethnicity.

The API focus group discussions noted that new approaches to CVE include challenging cultures, values and norms that normalize violence, demobilizing organized gangs, strengthening institutions mandated to prevent violence, enhancing trust between government actors and citizens, and the use of data for evidence based countering of violent extremism. Also, the approach should include promoting lasting peace amongst conflicting groups such as through cross-faith-led get-togethers, encouraging community-led solutions that are context and reality checked and that boost community resilience, intentional and responsive investment in youth empowerment, upholding human rights including by eliminating extra-judicial killings and targeted criminal profiling, and deployment of a comprehensive framework for rehabilitation of victims as well as rehabilitation and reintegration mechanisms geared toward helping individuals who desert criminal groups.

As noted by Secretary General Guterres, Africa is the new frontline of counter-terrorism. With robust international support as well as bottom up solutions from local communities, there’s a real chance to effectively tackle terrorism and spread of violent extremism.

By George Nyongesa

Senior Associate, Africa Policy Institute (Nairobi, Kenya).

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