Why Counterterrorism Hasn’t Stopped Boko Haram and Al Shabaab.
by Odhiambo Franklyn
Between 2009 and 2015, Nigeria and Kenya have collectively lost anywhere between two and thirteen thousand citizens, depending on who you ask. The death toll has continued to mount even in the face of a continental force in both countries with the ECOWAS force in Nigeria and AMISOM in Somalia. From the onset, it seems obvious that the only realistic way of decimating these terror groups is by thoroughly executed counterterrorism approaches. Taking cue from America’s war on terror, the two African states have intensified their counterterrorism in both rhetoric and strategy, but why is success so slow, if at all present?
The short and rather simplistic answer is that these countries have followed the American brand of counterterrorism that stands discounted by hindsight. Let’s get to the long answer. Counterterrorism strategy in most of affected countries tends to assume that the only problem is religious extremism. Thus in Kenya, the government has continuously waged campaigns against Muslims at Kenya’s coast following the infamous Westgate Mall attack. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has been seen as a proselytization movement and nothing else. These efforts are really copycats of the immense coercive effort employed by the US in its anti-terror war. While religion cannot be ignored as a factor, defeating these groups requires a more complex and comprehensive understanding.
Firstly, while Boko Haram does have a strong Wahhabi Islamic identity to it, Nigerian strategy must understand more than the faith of the organization. For instance, ‘Uthman Fodio who began the purification of Nigerian Islam in 1800s, and in the process founded the Sokoto Caliphate, predates the current efforts of Boko Haram. Moreover, the efforts to Islamise Nigeria from 1980s that have affected Kano, Kaduna and Bauchi, are largely congruent with Boko Haram attacks in Jos and Abuja between 2001 and 2008. So if religious tension is not new to Nigeria, why is Boko Haram such a nuisance? Will the organization perish with time too? The answer to the latter question is no, and the explanation lies in the answer to the first question. Boko Haram shows great ethnic, economic and geopolitical undertones that must be understood in order to come close to eliminating it, and extremist Islam from Nigeria.
Secondly, Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf was a victim of bad politics by the Nigerian political elite in the late 90s and this largely contributed to the disgruntlement that inspired the founding of Boko Haram. After using Islamic rhetoric and engaging Yusuf to garner votes, the politicians soon dumped their new bedfellow. In 2001, Boko Haram was in the making. Some analysts have also pointed to land disputes and the ethnic composition of Boko Haram as a pointer to the group’s motivations. They have argued for instance that the largely Hausa-Fulani Boko Haram is attempting an ethnic cleansing of the Igbo. In Jos, the Hausa-Fulani Muslims have faced the Christian Berom in land disputes that metamorphosed to include the religious undertones of Boko Haram. Boko Haram is thus a front for Islamic extremism mixed with negative ethnicity, solutions must therefore be sough with these in mind. Direct counterterrorism overlooks these factors and focuses only on the religious aspect thus always alienating the Muslim as a wilful participant in these terror acts.
In East Africa, the common logic is to assume that Al Shabaab’s increased attacks into Kenyan soil are a mere extension of their religious extremism. Granted, Al Shabaab did intensify attacks into Kenya after Operation Linda Nchi, their root runs deeper than that.
Foremost in understanding Al Shabaab is the historical context of the power vacuum in Somalia that allowed or even fuelled its ascent into a caliphate. At the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in October of 1993, US forces faced some of the deadliest fights since the Vietnam War. The mission which began as mission to bring food to Somalis affected by a civil war and an artificial famine caused by warlords, soon began to expand. First into an arrest mission to nab one Mohammed Farah Hassan Aidid, the mission would later include efforts to restore government in Somalia. Thus, from a 45 minute mission to arrest Farah, the US forces instead faced an ignited mob that would stop at nothing to scuttle their arrest mission. When the dust settled on the Battle of Mogadishu (aka Black Hawk Down) 15 hours later, 18 Americans had died, some 70 odd were injured and hundreds of Somalis had died and/or suffered injury. It has largely been argued that the failure of the Battle of Mogadishu opened Somalia to terrorist groups since it was the one place where insurgents had defeated the self-declared exceptional democratic country.
Second in this understanding is the more recent 2013 attempt by the US Navy Seal Team Six (to arrest the Kenyan-Somali Al Shabaab commander, Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir in Barawe Somalia. The failed raid reinforced two things: one is the continued failure of direct combat as a strategy to combat Al Shabaab in Somalia, secondly, the strong deterrence mounted by Al Shabaab and the subsequent retreat by the same Seal Team that had killed Osama Bin Laden must have worked to increase Shabaab confidence. But most importantly, this failure highlights the complete faith of US strategy in treating the symptoms of and insurgency, a policy which neighbouring countries and AMISOM continue to follow in Somalia. The reality though, is that the insurgency problem has deeper roots. Continuing to ignore these problems allow for these organization to camouflage and mix into the demographics of Somali life until they are inseparable form genuine non-radical Somalis.
Like Boko Haram, Al Shabaab has an ethnic dimension. Somalia’s demographic is made up of extremely volatile and competitive clan affiliations. This is partly a result of US intervention in 1993. However, as I have said before, Kenya’s Linda Nchi operation only took into account the religious dimension of the group, a benefit of ignorance that they continue to extend to them. Further exacerbating the menace has been Kenya’s ethnic profiling in the coastal region. As a result, much like Boko Haram, Al Shabaab has been able to play on post-colonial land grievances that abound in the coast, as well as Kenya’s ethnic divide. The counterterrorism approach within Kenya has largely been of suspicion of any and all Muslim youth until declared otherwise. This, mixed with a largely inefficient police force and dysfunctional security apparatus, has allowed Al Shabaab to recruit right under the watch of the Kenyan security establishment. Moreover, internal bureaucracy has been knock need by the world’s most corrupt police force (not to mention the politicians).
In conclusion, it is evident that the counterterrorism approaches employed by African countries today can no longer afford to ignore crucial geopolitical, socioeconomic and other demographic factors if they are to succeed. Labelling insurgent groups as only as religious extremists extend advantages to them in areas ignored by the anti-terror war. This is how Boko Haram has continued to outfox Nigeria, and Al Shabaab recruits under the watch of the Kenyan government. Defeating these groups requires the specific effort to separate the terror factor from other demographic factors and deal with these specifically. Secondly, efficiency in the security apparatus cannot substitute for political integrity and realistic leadership through Africa’s tough enemies. Like they say, tough times don’t last, tough people do. We need tough characters in surmounting tough situations. It will take tough calls and long shots, but if the courage is lacking, the massacre has just began.