• Fidel Amakye Owusu

Understanding Terrorism in West Africa

Abstract: It is laudable that West African countries have decided to “take the bull by the horn” inthe fight against terrorism. The resolve of sub-regional leaders to contribute a billion US dollars in their effort to stem the tide of the increasingly audacious attacks across the region is quite without precedence. What is even more intriguing is the urgency given to the cause in the midst of the economic stress brought about by an ever-dynamic pandemic. International terrorism is in the region, and all tools, intelligence, economic, social, political and military must be harnessed in quenching its flames.


Bottom-line-up-front: In fighting the scourge, however, state and regional actors on the front line must understand the terrorist. Yes, every security actor may assume that they have some knowledge about what terrorism is—thanks to bin Laden—but those leading policies in the fight must be in good standing with their understanding of the terrorist and international terrorism. Terrorism goes beyond 9 -11, as there may be a difference in political goals, motivation, the scope of operation, mode of recruitment, sponsorship and organizational structure. At the religious levels, there are sectarian differences in interpretations that influence terrorist activities.


Problem statement: How to use the understanding of the dynamics of sub-regional terrorism to turn knowledge into proactive and preventive measures when countering the terror threat?


So what?: Sub-regional security chiefs and political leaders may consider the complex nature of the problem at hand and not spend much of the billion dollars militarizing the conflict. This requires investment in socio-economic development that is human-centred. Furthermore, governments while engaging mainstream security leaders, must involve terrorism experts who may better comprehend the psychological aspect of terrorist activities.


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Regional Terrorism and Global Diversity


Most of West African region's security apparatuses and the strategies they adopted post-independence have predominantly been about domestic stability, and to some extent, the safeguarding of the territorial integrity of their respective states. The presence of terrorism has threatened these traditional security obligations. The situation ultimately demands a different approach in strategy. That will mean understanding who the terrorist is, knowing how they operate, understanding their concepts of defeat and adopting strategies that have worked in different situations around the world in fighting them.


Many actions by rogue actors can loosely be classified as terrorism. From neighbourhood burglary and armed robbery that may turn bloody to political vigilante which involves targeted attacks of political opponents, the region has an incidence of violence. There is, therefore, the temptation to confuse one action for another in identifying what constitutes terrorism as is being discussed here. It is for this reason that International terrorism often needs definition. Granted, many can easily decipher armed robbery from suicide bombing without any mental stress. However, as we delve into the subject of international terrorism, the need to define and differentiate the types of terrorism is itself of significance in the fight against it.


To start with, Boko Haram is not a typical international terrorist organization. That’s quite a radical statement, admittedly. The recent definition of global terrorism, as a concept, has been heavily influenced by September 11 and events that followed.[1] When a group of non-state actors, mostly of different nationalities, often loosely located and usually decentralized, plan and carry out attacks against state interests for religious, ideological and propaganda purposes, it may be referred to as international terrorism. Citizens of different nationalities have been known to have contributed in varying degrees to the September 11 attack. While Bin Laden was a known Saudi with Yemeni roots, his second in command Zawahiri, and Mohammed Atta, the commander for the operation, were from Egypt.


When a group of non-state actors, mostly of different nationalities, often loosely located and usually decentralized, plan and carry out attacks against state interests for religious, ideological and propaganda purposes, it may be referred to as international terrorism.

The 2005 UN definition of international terrorism, despite its September 11 connotation, helps in the categorization of different kinds of terrorism. Unfortunately, the sub-region has different kinds of terrorist organizations operating within the borders of several member states. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and later the ISIS subsidiary in the region are the international terrorist organizations operating in the subregion. They are made up of different nationalities and plan attacks across states. On the other hand, Boko Haram is a terrorist organization with geopolitical aspirations. The group wants to form a state based on its interpretation of religious doctrines in northern Nigeria. For operational purposes, the group has made its presence known in three other states of Cameroun, Chad and Niger, thereby assuming an ‘international’ outlook. Nevertheless, Boko Haram is not al-Qaeda or its miniature. It is, at best, a regional terror organization. In fact, when Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to ISIS, it could only last for a short while as the two groups have different goals with different means of achieving them.


Diversity in motivation


Recent attacks in Cote D’ Ivoire and Burkina Faso are what international terrorism represents. The strike against western interests, particularly French targets in these countries, are not necessarily to build territorial political entities but to hit their supposed enemies where it hurts.[2] The terrorists believe that the best way to hit back at Western ‘incursion’ into their safe havens in the Maghreb and Sahel areas is to attack their economic and political interests in faraway places in the region. Just as Osama bin Laden decided that an attack in New York should be retaliation for Western ‘desecration’ of the Holy Lands of Islam—a position many moderate Muslims do not share.


The terrorists believe that the best way to hit back at Western ‘incursion’ into their safe havens in the Maghreb and Sahel areas is to attack their economic and political interests in faraway places in the region.

Why international terrorists in the Sahel and the Maghreb consider the region home is critical to understanding and finding remedies for terrorism in the sub-region. Historically, the region has had an Islamic dominance going back to the Songhai and Mali empires and beyond.[3] To Pan-Islamic terrorists, any Western incursion of the land is, therefore, an attack on the frontiers of Islamism. There is an ideological movement by some groups to implement the strictest form of Islam in the region as a means of achieving some puritanical renaissance, and Western presence is deemed an antithesis to this.[4] Puritanical Islam may further have an intended or unintended purpose of being used as a bulwark against influence from the more affluent southern or coastal Christian populations of the sub-region. Ghana falls under the coastal Christian dominated states, albeit with limited French interest.


International terrorism should also be distinguished from separatism. This assertion may seem superfluous on the surface as it is much easier to tell the difference between, say, Biafra separatists and Boko Haram terrorists. However, when we find separatist groups and terrorist organizations in the same or overlapping territories, drawing a distinction becomes relevant to winning the fight. A few years back, the presence of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organization was often confused with the Tuareg rebellion in the Sahel, particularly Mali. It may have been the case that the two very distinct groups cooperated to fight a ‘common enemy’—governments forces in the region—but they were never the same.[5]


The recognition of this will make the fight against terrorism relatively easier for policymakers in charge of the mission. It would serve their interest to know political rebels and separatists, engage them through dialogue and confidence-building than fight them as though they are terrorists. Engagements with separatist and rebels discourage them from sharing aspirations with extremists. When faced with unbearable antagonism from regional forces and state actors, the Tuaregs are basically Muslims by faith and will more likely seek alliance and respite with the terrorist. Strategists in the region must look at this more critically. In the mid-2000s, when insurgency had a deadly toll on US forces in Iraq, the global superpower recognized the need to separate disgruntled Sunni adherents from al Qaeda terrorist. The engagement and confidence-building effort that followed drastically reduced attacks on US forces in the country.


Turning Understanding into Solutions


Activities of Nomadic ethnicities and herdsmen across the sub-region have come to the fore lately whenever potentials for instability are discussed. Security leaders in the region need to address that with urgency as it has the potential to benefit the terrorist should it be ignored. Nomads in the sub-region like the Tuareg separatists are generally sympathetic towards the Islamic state. With their natural mobility across the region, nomadic groups can be offered protection in exchange for their support and acceptance of the extremist religious teachings. The reason for the incessant clashes between herdsmen and sedentary farmers is multifaced. These range from climate change to xenophobia, and it behoves policymakers to handle the problem tactfully at the intergovernmental level due to the transnational aspect. Religious extremists may arm these groups as part of their own strategy. They may also provide a soft target for recruiting young sub-regionals into their ranks. With their knowledge of the terrain, that could be devastating if not already so. In the fight against terrorism, conventional forces and policymakers must make more friends than enemies—nomadic groups should be one of these friends.


A more controversial but very important point is that terrorists as we know them in the sub-region advocate religious puritanism. However, not all religious puritans are terrorists,want to be terrorists or even support terrorism. Security operatives on the grounds and frontiers of the war may consider this and modify indicators in their analysis of gathered intelligence. For instance, religious teachings insisting that women wear the hijab may be classified as puritanical. However, for as long as the preacher will not recommend that anyone has the right to harm those who defy such teachings, such teachings should not lead to overreaction from state security actors. Most often what is classified as radicalization may be more of conservativeness. For instance, the refusal of Saudi authorities to allow women to drive over the years until recently has not been considered a radical policy. But rather, many have attributed the policy to cultural or religious conservatism.[6] The sophisticated recruitment methods developed by terrorist organizations often take advantage of the mistakes made by security forces and intelligence officers to win sympathy. Any false arrests or killings based on what may be mistaken as utterances in support of terrorism increase the prospects for the terrorist winning over those disaffected by such actions. Intelligence on religious preachers with an extreme interpretation of holy books while worth observing, should not lead to overreactions.[7] As with any other system, there are spectrums that represent the extent to which people will go. In recent times in Europe, there have been many far-right movement and parties that co-existed peacefully in their communities without intimidation from security agents.[8] For as long as they do not choose violence as a path, and the security providers keep their eyes on them, they are free to express their views and pursue their ideologies no matter how ultraconservative they may be.


The sophisticated recruitment methods developed by terrorist organizations often take advantage of the mistakes made by security forces and intelligence officers to win sympathy. Any false arrests or killings based on what may be mistaken as utterances in support of terrorism increase the prospects for the terrorist winning over those disaffected by such actions.

Granted, the US analogy may seem quite detached, as a country with one of the best security systems may not be comparable to the struggling versions in West Africa. It is, however, important to exploit the fact that for every radical preacher in a community, there is a moderate and a more progressive one. It should be part of the strategy to look for the progressives and engage with them as a neutralizing factor against the radical and extremists. The radicals themselves can be engaged if necessary. Many countries have official positions of ‘no negotiation with terrorists’. However, there are equally many instances when such states have found ways to negotiate with them to get their hostage citizens home—at least discreetly.[9] It is called pragmatism. Sometimes it is important to even engage radicals who are at the early stages of militant behavior. Using blatant force to suppress their activities or eliminating them will not do the overall fight any good. Nigeria with Boko Haram is a classic example of such miscalculation and summary actions that turns to bite hard. Until their founder Mohammed Yusuf was summarily executed by the police in 2009, Boko Haram could best have been described as a vigilante group with extreme religious convictions. A mountain was literally created out of a mole hole upon his execution. Experts agree that even with established terrorist organizations it is sometimes better to keep known leaders alive as successors to slain leaders tend to establish their authority by increasing recruitments, attacks and calculated brutality.[10]


No Easy Way Out…


That brings us to the ugly truth. Terrorists are savage, unconventional and brutal, but they are rational actors—especially those in leadership. While it is quite difficult for some state actors to openly admit, recognizing this fact will make the fight against terrorism in the sub-region a more practical endeavor. Most often, what the ordinary person gets from the news about the terrorist is that some irrational individual that commits suicide intending to take other innocent people with him or her. The fact is, the one who dies is often a weapon of the more rational leader or commander who sanctions the attack. In planning and executing, they have developed guidelines and even reasons for every attack. The terrorist does not attack unless such action would necessary serve his goal. They don’t engage in haphazard offensives. Attacks must achieve multiple purposes of instilling fear, emboldening their rank, courting sympathy, attracting recruitment and being consistent with the religious principles they advocate. A complex mix that demands rational actors to pull off. There have been many instances when leaders of terrorist organizations have softened their stance to redirect their objectives. Such malleability can only be exhibited by rational actors. In the mid-2000s, when Al Zarqawi had taken over Iraq under the al Qaeda franchise and was sanctioning indiscriminate bombings to establish his authority, the parent group under bin Laden was not pleased about it.[11] More interestingly, some terrorists have exhibited more sophisticated rationalism than some state actors of the highest level. When some states were reluctant to face each other in negotiations over their differences, the leadership of the Taliban decided to sit with the US in Doha, Qatar to negotiate the future role of the group in Afghanistan and the conditions that would lead to that. That happened at a time when they had the strategic advantage in the conflict, and an imminent drawdown of US forces was possibly paving the way for them to take over. This was obviously a decision that might have emanated from rational evaluation of the war situation by the Taliban.


The above characteristics of terrorism demand tactics and strategies that are unorthodox. Sub-regional security chiefs and political leaders may consider the complex nature of the problem at hand and not spend much of the billion-dollar militarizing the conflict. This requires investment in socio-economic development that is human-centred. Youth employment programs, provision of social amenities like health and educational facilities. The availabilities of micro-credit facilities to targeted groups such as women and smallholder farms would also be empowering enough to control the influence of terror groups on local populations. Additionally, governments while engaging mainstream security leaders, must involve terrorism experts who may better comprehend the psychological aspect of terrorist activities. In Iraq, General David Petraeus had with him other advisors who understood the insurgents’ psyche to aid him to turn things around—he did at the time.


The availabilities of micro-credit facilities to targeted groups such as women and smallholder farms would also be empowering enough to control the influence of terror groups on local populations. Additionally, governments while engaging mainstream security leaders, must involve terrorism experts who may better comprehend the psychological aspect of terrorist activities.

With a better understanding beyond this piece about the sophistication of the new security challenge to leaders in the sub-region, our resolve to contribute towards our security will yield results.


Fidel Amakye Owusu is an International Relations Analyst with about 6 years of experience in the field. He has developed interest in issues concerned with Terrorism, Arms, Governance and Security on the world stage, particularly in the West African sub-region. He has written on these subjects as a columnist of a number of online news outlets in Ghana. Some of his pieces include, Why Nations Pay Lip Service to Disarmament I&II, Ghana Stands Tall in the Fight Against Terrorism…, We Risk Having Nuclear Proxies in South Asia, Drone Revolution in Africa… among others. He had five years of working experience with the government of Ghana and currently hosts an international affairs program on state TV. He has Bachelors in Political Science with History and a Master’s in IR. 3-5 lines; Full name; research interests; earlier publications; academic field(s). The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of [your employer].


[1] Javier Ruperez, „The United Nations in the Fight against Terrorism” (Research Paper, Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate), last accessed May 09, 2021, https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2006_01_26_cted_lecture.pdf.

[2] “Côte d'Ivoire: Extremism and Terrorism,” Report, last accessed May 09, 2021, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/cote-d-ivoire.

[3] “The Spread of Islam in West Africa,” Spice Digest, last accessed May 09, 2021, https://fsi-live.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/Islam.pdf.

[4] Stephanie Zehnle, Sokoto Jihadism and the Islamic Frontier in West Africa (Kiel: De Gruyter, 2020).

[5] Gregory A. Smith, “Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb,” Journal of Strategic Security Vol. 2, No. 2 (May 2009: 53-72.

[6] Roel Meijer and Paul Aarts, “Saudi Arabia between Conservatism, Accommodation and Reform” (Research Study, Clingendael, 2012).

[7] John Campbell, “Boko Haram: origins, challenges and responses” (Policy Brief, NOREF, 2014), last accessed May 09, 2021, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/184795/5cf0ebc94fb36d66309681cda24664f9.pdf.

[8] Alasdair Fotheringham, “In the pandemic, are Europeans more attracted to the far right?,” Al Jazeera, February 03, 2021, last accessed May 09, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/2/3/far-right-europe-pandemic.

[9] Peter R. Neumann, „Negotiating With Terrorists,” Foreign Affairs, February 2007, last accessed May 09, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2007-01-01/negotiating-terrorists.

[10] The Interpreter, “Does Killing Terrorist Leaders Make Any Difference?,” The New York Times, last accessed May 09, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/31/world/middleeast/syria-killing-terrorist-leaders.html.

[11] Daniel L. Byman and Jennifer R. Williams, “ISIS vs. Al Qaeda: Jihadism’s global civil war,” Brookings, February 24, 2015, last accessed May 09, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/isis-vs-al-qaeda-jihadisms-global-civil-war/.


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