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Homeland Security

Counterterrorism in African Failed States: Challenges and Potential Solutions

Counterterrorism in African Failed States: Challenges and Potential Solutions - Cover

Authored by Colonel Thomas A Dempsey.

April 2006

43 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Terrorist groups operating in Sub-Saharan Africa failed states have demonstrated the ability to avoid the scrutiny of Western counterterrorism officials, while supporting and facilitating terrorist attacks on the United States and its partners. The potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists makes terrorist groups operating from failed states especially dangerous. U.S. counterterrorism strategies largely have been unsuccessful in addressing this threat. A new strategy is called for, one that combines both military and law enforcement efforts in a fully integrated counterterrorism effort, supported by a synthesis of foreign intelligence capabilities with intelligence-led policing to identify, locate, and take into custody terrorists operating from failed states before they are able to launch potentially catastrophic attacks.


Failed states offer attractive venues for terrorist groups seeking to evade counterterrorism efforts of the United States and its partners in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). State failure entails, among its other features, the disintegration and criminalization of public security forces, the collapse of the state administrative structure responsible for overseeing those forces, and the erosion of infrastructure that supports their effective operation. These circumstances make identification of terrorist groups operating within failed states very difficult, and action against such groups, once identified, problematic.

Terrorist groups that are the focus of the current GWOT display the characteristics of a network organization with two very different types of cells: terrorist nodes and terrorist hubs. Terrorist nodes are small, closely knit local cells that actually commit terrorist acts in the areas in which they are active. Terrorist hubs provide ideological guidance, financial support, and access to resources enabling node attacks. An examination of three failed states in Sub-Saharan Africa—Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Somalia—reveals the presence of both types of cells and furnishes a context for assessing the threat they pose to the national interests of the United States and its partners.

Al Qaeda established terrorist hubs in Liberia and Sierra Leone to exploit the illegal diamond trade, laundering money, and building connections with organized crime and the illegal arms trade. In Somalia, Al Qaeda and Al Ittihad Al Islami established terrorist hubs that supported terrorist operations throughout East Africa. A new organization led by Aden Hashi ’Ayro recruited terrorist nodes that executed a series of attacks on Western nongovernment organization (NGO) employees and journalists within Somalia.

Analysis of these groups suggests that while the terrorist nodes in failed states pose little threat to the interests of the United States or its GWOT partners, terrorist hubs operating in the same states may be highly dangerous. The hubs observed in these three failed states were able to operate without attracting the attention or effective sanction of the United States or its allies. They funneled substantial financial resources, as well as sophisticated weaponry, to terrorist nodes operating outside the failed states in which the hubs were located. The threat posed by these hubs to U.S. national interests and to the interests of its partners is significant, and is made much more immediate by the growing risk that nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) will fall into terrorist hands.

The burgeoning proliferation of nuclear weapons and the poor security of some existing nuclear stockpiles make it more likely that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda will gain access to nuclear weapons. The accelerating Iranian covert nuclear weapons program, estimated to produce a nuclear capability within as little as one year, is especially disturbing in this context. A failed state terrorist hub that secures access to a nuclear weapon could very conceivably place that weapon in the hands of a terrorist node in a position to threaten vital American national interests.

The U.S. response to terrorist hubs operating in failed states has been less than adequate. Four general approaches are discernable in U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Military strikes which target terrorists directly have enjoyed few successes in failed states and can legitimate terrorist groups by providing them combatant status under the Geneva Convention. Law enforcement efforts have likewise enjoyed few successes in failed states, as civilian law enforcement lacks the capacity to penetrate or to operate effectively in the violent failed state environment. Security assistance programs, while enjoying some remarkable successes elsewhere on the African continent, require partnering with host nation security institutions that are simply not present in a failed state. While attempts to address the root causes of terrorism may offer an effective counterterrorism strategy, such efforts require extended periods of time to show results—time that may not be available.

Integrating the U.S. foreign intelligence community, U.S. military forces, and U.S. law enforcement offers a more effective strategy for countering terrorist hubs operating in failed states. The foreign intelligence community is best equipped to identify terrorist hubs in failed states that are developing global reach and threatening to acquire a nuclear dimension. Once those hubs have been identified, a synthesis of expeditionary military forces and law enforcement elements will be far more effective in dealing with those hubs than either element will be acting independently. The military force establishes access to the failed state for law enforcement officers, and provides a secure environment for those officers to perform their core function of identifying, locating, and apprehending criminal, in this case terrorist, suspects.

Once terrorists have been identified, located, and apprehended, military tribunals should screen them individually to confirm that they are, indeed, who law enforcement officers believe them to be, and that they are, in fact, associated with the activities of the terrorist hubs in question. Upon confirmation of their status as participants in the operation of the terrorist hub, those tribunals should refer their cases to appropriate international tribunals for disposition. This strategy avoids legitimizing terrorist activity by treating them as military targets, and also addresses the limitations that U.S. criminal justice procedures place on prosecuting terrorists apprehended in failed states.

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