At a recent UNSC debate on peacebuilding, India took the opportunity to highlight the troubling rise of terrorism in Africa. The country’s Union Minister of State for External Affairs, Vellamvelly Muraleedharan, lamented the fact that some rebel groups appeared to be encouraged by rival states in order to stoke division, calling instead for international unity and support to address the increasingly severe security crisis in Africa.
It’s unclear whether the international community will be ready to answer Muraleedharan’s call. Scarred by a prolonged and largely unsuccessful struggle in places like Afghanistan, many Western nations are reluctant to increase their engagement in fighting the insurgencies flaring up across Africa. Nonetheless, as DRC President and current African Union chairperson Félix Tshisekedi recently highlighted, Africa needs international support as part of an overarching counterterrorism strategy “that [goes] beyond statements of compassion and intention, which are rarely followed up by action on the ground”.
Indeed, many African countries are committed to stamping out extremist violence, but need concrete assistance—both militarily and monetarily. With many of their economies cash-strapped due to the Covid-19 pandemic, carrying the brunt in the war against terrorism risks being a burden too heavy to bear alone.
Africa supplants Middle East as terrorism epicenter
Prior to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, casual Western observers may have been forgiven for thinking that extremist insurgency was in remission. According to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI), deaths linked to terrorism fell 59% between 2014 and 2019, with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) largely driven out of the Middle East. However, it appears as if those insurgencies have simply been uprooted, rather than eliminated altogether.
Over the same time period, terrorist incidents have risen sharply in Africa. There were some 381 attacks resulting in 1,394 fatalities in 2015. Five years on, those figures had skyrocketed to 7,108 attacks and 12,519 deaths, demonstrating in no uncertain terms the scale of the problem. The GTI now ranks Africa as the unequivocal epicenter of global terrorism, with the majority of attacks being perpetrated by groups with links to Al Qaeda or IS. There are Salafi-jihadi cells operational in at least 22 African countries, whose activities have resulted in the deaths of around 30,000 people and the displacement of at least three million more.
Fighting it alone
It’s evident that the challenge faced by African countries is formidable, and like any other global problem, requires a global response, as Félix Tshisekedi recently emphasized at the UN. “When African States are destabilized or threatened with destabilization, particularly through terrorism, the UN has a duty to actively support them in their heroic struggle for the well-being of all humanity,” Tshisekedi argued, emphasizing that it is time for the world to “materialize all the promises made to Africa”.
Tshisekedi’s demands come at a time when Africa has increasingly taken a stand against terrorism on its soil. In June this year, the Central African Republic, Mauritania and the DRC joined the Global Coalition against ISIS that already unites 83 member states in the fight against the terrorist group that has been spreading throughout the continent. The DRC itself has become a leading entity in Africa and within the AU in terms of the fight against terror, organizing high-level pan-African meetings and coordinators of intelligence and armed operations in East Africa. Despite these proactive steps, however, Europe has largely been hesitant to get involved beyond statements of support in a pattern of weariness only exacerbated following Kabul’s fall.
France leaves, India arrives?
France, Europe’s foremost security actor in Africa, offers the starkest representation of this trend. Although French troops were instrumental in defending Mali against an Islamic-led insurrection in 2013, Paris has since become so disillusioned with the human and financial toll of its counterterrorism efforts that President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to wind down operations earlier this year, leaving behind a far-smaller international task force.
Other international efforts have been similarly stunted. The UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) has been called the deadliest peacekeeping mission in history, while the USA has taken steps to dial down its own commitment to African issues under President Biden. According to some sources, the decision to withdraw has already precipitated territorial gains by Al Shabab, which one prominent US General termed the biggest, best financed and most active arm of Al Qaeda in the world.
Despite what the French and US withdrawals might suggest, international actors cannot simply wash their hands and walk away. Providing, at a minimum, the capital necessary to bring Africa’s counter-terrorism projects to fruition will be instrumental in stabilizing countries and squeezing out the spaces in which insurrectionaries flourish. However, this requires that new alliances be forged at a time when Africa’s traditional partners are unwilling to do so.
The UAE has taken a first step in this direction by pledging $1 billion and 30 armoured vehicles in support of the DRC’s security operations. Yet perhaps the biggest opportunity is India, which has opened 18 new diplomatic missions across Africa since 2018 to increase political and security ties with the continent. Security ties have been growing continually through several joint initiatives, primarily the Africa-India Field Training Exercise (AFINDEX) in 2019 and the India-Africa Defence Ministers Conclave (IADMC) in 2020, as a consequence of India believing its strategic and security doctrine to be closely aligned with African interests.
India seems set on further scaling-up its intelligence and counter-terrorism linkages with African countries in combination with a soft-power approach. This was codified in the 2020 Lucknow Declaration that pledged to “deepen cooperation to combat the growing threat of terrorism and preserve maritime security by sharing information, intelligence and surveillance”. In light of these developments, Muraleedharan’s strong support for Africa’s demands comes after a string of initiatives that make India an emergent security actor on the African continent.
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