Ask the Expert: ACSS Counterterrorism Professor Benjamin Nickels Assesses Threats to Africa: Part one of a two part interview

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 12/08/2011

nickels2Dr. Benjamin P. Nickels, Assistant Professor of Transnational Threats and Counterterrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), has been studying terrorism and effective ways to counter it for years.  He has produced case studies on countermeasures against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the rise of al-Shabaab in Somalia, and other groups that could present a transnational threat. In this interview, the ACSS scholar breaks down the complex world of violence committed by non-state actors and other transnational threats facing Africa, and examines possible linkages between terrorist groups operating on the continent.

Q: What are your thoughts on the state of terrorism and radical extremism in Africa?

DR. NICKELS: Terrorism and radicalization in today’s Africa is limited, but it is of concern and merits attention. How big the problem is depends on definitions and priorities.

In terms of definitions, Africa has many violent non-state actors—which ones we call ‘terrorist’ depends on what we mean by the word. There’s also the question of which activities we’re referring to as ‘terrorism’—attacks, logistics, financing? There are reports that Hezbollah gets financial support from some elements within the Lebanese Diaspora in Africa. This activity might fall inside or outside our topic of terrorism in Africa, depending on definitions.

In terms of priorities, at least from a US perspective, there are threats against African populations and allies, which conflict with American interests broadly, and then there are threats emanating from Africa that could target US interests directly.

A list of the latter could include, among others, the remnants of al-Qaeda (AQ) in East Africa, the Islamist group al-Shabaab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is active in the Maghreb and the Sahel. It might also include the Islamist movement Boko Haram in Nigeria and even al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—again, depending on definitions.

Q: What are the factors that pave the way for radicalism and terrorism in Africa?

DR. NICKELS: What causes terrorism is a matter of great debate. I think by now we’ve reached consensus that there’s no single cause or trajectory leading to radicalization and terrorism.  That said, we do know that some factors correlate—or at least align—with radicalization and terrorism, and many of them exist in Africa.

Africa has many large-scale, macro-level factors that can potentially act as drivers to violent extremism.  These include state fragility, poverty, lack of government legitimacy, the so-called ‘youth bulge,’ and so on. (By the ‘youth bulge,’ I mean the disproportionate population of young people in many African countries, some of whom could potentially participate in terrorism and other forms of violence).  All of these factors can be thought of as vulnerabilities or as ‘push’ factors—they might push people or societies toward violent extremism.

Another set of factors, the threats, might be called ‘pull’ factors.  These are things like active recruitment by terrorist organizations, the spread of radical ideologies, and so on—factors that pull people or societies toward violent extremism.  These factors are also at work in parts of Africa.

From what we can tell, terrorism apparently gains strength from some combination of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, although we don’t have an exact science on how it happens.

Each terrorist has his or her story to tell, as it were.

Q: Are there any areas on the continent that are immunized against rising extremism or is it viral by nature and a symptom of the factors you mentioned?

DR. NICKELS: East Africa and North Africa have much greater experience with the types of groups I mentioned before, Central and Southern Africa much less—West Africa is somewhere in between.  To my mind, regional differences have to do with different combinations of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, so I don’t think that a medical type of vocabulary—‘symptom,’ ‘viral,’ ‘immunized,’ and so on—is all that useful for describing the location of radicalization and terrorism in Africa. I don’t see terrorism as some kind of disease spreading across the continent or anything like that.

Q: What are the prevailing concerns people have about the regional and international effects from the Libyan civil war on terrorism and radicalization? Are those concerns justified?

DR. NICKELS: The main concern circulating about the fall of the Qaddafi government in Libya has been the proliferation of weapons—the possibility of portable surface-to-air missiles going into Niger and Mali and ending up in the hands of AQIM.  There is reason for concern, but there’s also reason to rethink that scenario.  In recent years, AQIM has become an increasingly criminal organization, and considering the ransom payments from kidnappings, they’ve had enough money to buy weapons on the black market for a while, if they want to.  So the supply side is important, but there is a demand issue here that should be looked into as well.

The larger challenge in Libya is the same one that’s emerging in all countries experiencing the Arab Spring.  By and large the Arab Spring represents a repudiation of AQ ideology and tactics, but new regimes, the novelty of political openness, and the uncertainty of nations trying to find their way in the world may provide openings for terrorists to operate.

Q: In your research and communications within the security field, have you seen terrorist groups in Africa linking up or attempting to work together?

DR. NICKELS: Linkage is something I’m very interested in, and that I’m studying and writing about at the moment. It’s certainly on the minds of a lot of people, including senior US government officials. We hear about AQAP links to al-Shabaab, AQIM links to Boko Haram, various groups’ connections to AQ core, and so on.

For my part, I’ve noticed three steps in current discussions about linkage: first, an evocation of possible linkage; second, an acknowledgement of a lack of evidence concerning linkage; and third, the development of a ‘what if’ nightmare scenario about linkage. I see several problems with this preoccupation.

First, like ‘terrorism,’ the term ‘linkage’ is vague. Are we talking about pledging loyalty? Providing money? Giving logistical support?  And so on.  Second, there is an assumption that linkage is the problem. On the one hand, we tend to assume that linkage always means greater strength for terrorists, when links can actually weaken terrorist groups by creating internal divisions, disconnecting them from local grievances and support, and so on.  On the other hand, we tend to think terrorists are only strong if they are linked.  But Nigeria has a pretty serious problem on its hands with Boko Haram, whether outside groups are involved or not. Third, and related, there’s a sense that if we could only establish linkage, we would know what to do.  I don’t think it’s unimportant whether an African terrorist organization is associated with other groups or not, but knowing about linkage in itself won’t provide any answers, in part because linkage doesn’t mean these threats can then be treated in the same way across the continent.  So I guess my biggest concern is that the preoccupation with linkage may be coming to stand in for, or to take the place of, strategic thinking about terrorism in Africa.  What is really needed is an understanding of a few clearly identified terrorist threats facing Africa and a set of tailored responses to them.

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