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What is the best way forward in fighting terrorism on the Horn of Africa?

Question submitted by George Macharia, from University of Nairobi, January 14, 2014

Answered by: Scott D. Campbell, Military Fellow

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Terrorism in the Horn of Africa is a complex problem that requires a "full spectrum" solution. The first step in any counterterrorism campaign is developing an understanding of the terrorists' motivations and goals. In the Horn of Africa, the chief terrorist threat emanates from al-Shabab fighters attempting to violently overthrow the Somali government and impose fundamentalist Islamic law. The group and its affiliates are also attempting to sow unrest in neighboring countries like Kenya.

Since such groups require a safe haven to function, it is important to aggressively police under-governed areas and disrupt an organization's support network and finances. In Somalia, the absence of a national government for over two decades created an anarchic environment where al-Shabab could thrive. The increasing effectiveness of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has only recently begun to reverse al-Shabab's gains.

Military strikes can be an effective counterterrorism tool, but a great deal depends on the nature of the target, police capabilities, and the attacker's ability to limit collateral damage. Military operations that inflict civilian casualties can undermine the local government and bolster the terrorist's position, as Ethiopia discovered during its brutal two-year occupation of Somalia.

Lastly, the September 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi by terrorists affiliated with al-Shabab highlights the necessity of a regional approach to counterterrorism on the Horn of Africa. This includes synchronized activities among countries, such as AMISOM's multilateral operations in Somalia, and intelligence sharing to counter transnational threats. A good model for robust counterterrorism information sharing is the Economic Community of West African States Warning and Response Network, which has aided the community's member nations in countering groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Informing the public is vital as well. Messaging that counters a terrorist group's rhetoric can be crucial in undermining its popular support.