March 10, 2022
The Next Terror Wave Looms
As the world focuses on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and others worry that China will copy Putin’s playbook in Taiwan, the next terror wave against the U.S. is looming.
For a United States that is only prepared for a one-front war, this is more bad news. Salafi-jihadist terrorists are still gunning for us, and the measures meant to contain them are falling apart.
The decision to retreat ignominiously from Afghanistan assumed, per President Joe Biden’s promises, that the U.S. would somehow sustain an “over the horizon” counterterrorism pressure. This means keeping the ability to strike terrorist targets, despite not having boots on the ground. This capability is required to keep the country from becoming a haven for Salafi-jihadist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. But as many predicted, it is not viable. Were the Salafi-jihadist movement’s gains confined solely to Afghanistan, the problem might not be so grave. Instead, these groups are embedding themselves anywhere in the world they can find a governance gap. Salafi-jihadist groups are now active in more than 20 African countries.
Crises in Africa
A worrisome crisis is unfolding in Africa. Militaries have launched successful coups in five countries and attempted them in at least four others since 2020. Ethiopia, home to Africa’s second-largest population, has gone from hope to catastrophe in just four years. This level of turmoil is highly unusual for the continent, contrary to the perceptions held by many Americans.
Slowly but surely, these crises in governance are eating away at the existing system, which, though imperfect, has denied terrorist groups the space they need to operate. The most dramatic change is in Mali, where since 2013 French troops have led counterterrorism missions that now include European, UN, and regional personnel. Mali’s junta, which took power through coups in 2020 and 2021, has pushed back on international and regional pressure to hold elections, recently ousting the French ambassador and curtailing French and European operations in the regions targeted by jihadists. French forces will now reposition from Mali to neighboring countries within six months, taking a European special operations task force with them. This will remove many capabilities that enable regional and UN forces to fight back against militants linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Mali and neighboring regions. Neither the Malian government, nor the Russian mercenaries it hired for regime security, will backfill the counterterrorism mission.
Political crises are also relieving the pressure against terrorist groups in East Africa. On Feb. 15, the president of Djibouti, home to the U.S. military’s only permanent military base on the continent, reportedly fended off an attempted coup by senior military officers. Meanwhile, political turmoil in Somalia and a pullback of U.S. support have allowed al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s premier affiliate in East Africa, to expand since 2021. The government of Ethiopia — a regional giant with a key counterterrorism role — faces a real risk of collapse. Meanwhile, terrorists are steadily expanding in Eastern Africa, striking Uganda’s capital and entrenching themselves in Mozambique.
Better policy is not enough
Many argue that counterterrorism missions are deeply flawed. Structural challenges and missteps doomed the French mission in Mali. Corruption undermines the U.S. effort to train an effective counterterrorism force in Somalia. There are many such examples. Counterterrorism missions have short-term effects: disrupting leadership, recapturing terrain, and preventing groups from coordinating larger attacks locally or transnationally. But military victories only buy time to solve the harder problem — closing the governance gaps that allow Salafi-jihadist insurgencies to form and reform. Kinetic counterterrorism efforts at best do little to improve governance, and at worse reinforce the bad actors who caused the problem in the first place.
Recognizing the need for better counterterrorism policy does not justify lifting pressure with no alternative in place. History shows that giving Salafi-jihadists more freedom of action will only stoke the terror threat by allowing globally minded jihadists to plan, gain capabilities, and amass resources. For example, al Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and Somalia have both jumped from regional to global threats by pivoting local skills and personnel to attempt attacks on international aviation. Salafi-jihadists will not content themselves with their local victories, but will interpret success as justification to launch new offensives on their enemies near and far.
The United States is headed for a fortress policy that ignores supposedly minor problems overseas, instead of waking up to the growing threat of proliferating Salafi-jihadist groups and other destabilizing trends including the spread of Russian mercenaries and an ever-more aggressive Chinese outreach in Africa.
It is imperative that the United States wake up to the crisis of governance in Africa, and look for sustainable solutions to contain, and ultimately roll back, the terror threat. All it takes is one successful terrorist attack on the homeland to drive Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping off the front pages. We cannot afford to forget the Salafi-jihadists. They have certainly not forgotten us.