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Counterterrorism in African Failed States: Challenges and Potential Solutions

Authored by Colonel Thomas A Dempsey. | April 2006

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SUMMARY

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.1 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.2 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.

INTRODUCTION

Monrovia, the national capital of Liberia, was a frightening place in 1998. Eighteen months after the end of active hostilities and 7 months after the inauguration of a democratically elected government, Liberia remained a classic example of a failed state. Liberian security services remained factionalized, dysfunctional and inherently violent, and frequently preyed upon the very civilians they were charged with protecting. The criminal justice system was nonexistent: courts were, for the most part, not operating at all, and extra-judicial killings by Liberian police were common. The only forces enjoying any real legitimacy and displaying any genuine functionality were the African soldiers of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) peacekeeping forces.

Beyond the limitations of government security forces, conditions within Liberia made any effort to assert government authority or identify criminal elements problematic. The country was without public utilities: no power, no running water, no functioning communications system, and no public transport. Road systems were primitive at best, with most of the country served by seasonal roads that became completely impassable during the two rainy seasons. Government administration, whether at the local, county or national level, was almost nonexistent. There were no written or electronic records of residents, births, deaths, tax compliance, no drivers licenses, no government data bases, nothing left of the prewar criminal justice record system, and no functioning intelligence system. This environment, typical of states which have failed completely during extended periods of conflict, makes identifying, apprehending, or targeting terrorist actors very difficult.

Such circumstances would appear to make failed states very attractive venues for terrorists and terrorist groups seeking to avoid the reach of criminal justice systems and of military counterterrorist forces. U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Director Stephen Krasner and Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization Coordinator Carlos Pascual endorsed that view in 2004, when they identified failed states as an ?acute risk? to U.S. national security, due in part to their potential as havens for terrorist groups. Other U.S. government officials, prominent academics, and independent think tanks have echoed Krasner?s and Pascaul?s concerns, asserting that U.S. policymakers should be giving more recognition to the threat posed by terrorist groups operating in and from failed states.

This monograph will examine the terrorist threat posed by groups and individuals operating from failed states in Sub-Saharan Africa. It will assess the nature of that threat and analyze the strategies developed by the United States in response to it. In the concluding section, alternative approaches will be presented that may prove more effective in countering terrorist activities and groups in failed states.

author will argue that terrorists operating from failed states in Sub- Saharan Africa pose a real and significant threat to the U.S. homeland. Current strategies being pursued by U.S. law enforcement and military forces are not likely to be effective, given the challenges posed by the failed state environment. Countering this threat within failed states will require a cooperative effort by both law enforcement and the military instrument of power: the military to secure protected access to these areas, and law enforcement to exploit that access for the purpose of locating and taking into custody the terrorists posing the threat.

CONCLUSION

a reality. The nexus of terrorist hubs operating from failed states, terrorist nodes located in or with access to areas of vital interest to the United States, and nuclear weapons technology or devices is one that demands strategies that will be effective immediately. Current strategies being pursued by the United States in the GWOT are not likely to be effective in identifying and neutralizing terrorist hubs operating from 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 synergies created by integrating the military instrument of power with American law enforcement core competencies can be exploited most effectively if they are supported by an intelligence capability that blends traditional foreign intelligence collection and analysis with intelligence-led policing practices from the criminal justice sector.

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.

ENDNOTES

  1. Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004.
  2. Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson, eds., Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2005.
  3. Stephen D. Krasner and Carlos Pascual, ?Addressing State Failure,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 4, July/August 2005, p. 153.
  4. Joseph Melrose, ?Testimony of Hon. Joseph Melrose, Former U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone,? Illicit Diamonds, Conflict and Terrorism: The Role of U.S. Agencies in Fighting the Conflict Diamond Trade, Hearing before the Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring, and the District of Columbia Subcommittee of the Committee on Governmental Affairs. Washington, DC: U.S. Senate, February 13, 2002; John J. Hamre and Gordon R. Sullivan, ?Toward Postconflict Reconstruction,? The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4, Autumn, 2002, pp. 85-96; Princeton N. Lyman and J. Stephen Morrison, ?The Terrorist Threat in Africa,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 1, January/February, 2004, p. 75; Brennan M. Kraxberger, ?The United States and Africa: Shifting Geopolitics in an ?Age of Terror?,? Africa Today, Vol. 52,