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Do Terrorist Trends in Africa Justify the U.S. Military’s Expansion?

Steve Feldstein explains the role of the US in Africa and its consequences.

In October 2017, attackers affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State ambushed a small contingent of U.S. special operations forces in Niger. The resulting firefight left four U.S. soldiers dead and sparked a political firestorm. The soldiers’ presence in Niger seemed to catch the U.S. public and Congress by surprise. Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, admitted that he “didn’t know there [were] a thousand troops in Niger.” Senator Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the committee, was equally puzzled: “I think the administration has to be more clear about our role in Niger and our role in other areas in Africa and other parts of the globe.”

But the senators should not have been taken aback. Since the creation of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007, the U.S. military has steadily expanded its security footprint in sub-Saharan Africa. Experts estimate that over 6,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed throughout the continent in approximately forty-six sites, which include forward operating bases, cooperative security locations (such as drone installations), and contingency locations.

Yet terrorist attacks have only moderately increased in sub-Saharan Africa since 2007 and have decreased significantly since the 2014–2015 peak. When the two deadliest organizations are removed from the analysis—al-Shabab and Boko Haram—the rise in terrorist incidents over the last decade is very modest. Moreover, few African insurgencies pose a direct threat to U.S. core interests. Most are regionally concentrated and relate to local grievances that have a largely  domestic focus. The scale and growth of the U.S. military response runs the risk of exacerbating rather than mitigating risks to the United States. Civilian efforts are more effective than military actions to prevent extremist groups’ mobilization and recruitment, yet U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration shows no signs of mounting a vigorous civilian-oriented strategy to address the challenges that do exist.


Does the terrorist threat in Africa justify the response from the United States?1 A key justification offered is that terrorist violence is climbing at a rapid rate and that U.S. military assets are needed to contain the violence and preserve stability. Policymakers regularly cite statistics that show terrorist attacks in Africa have spiked from around 400 annually in 2007 to over 2,000 by 2016. In a 2015 speech, General Donald Bolduc, head of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), emphasized threatsposed by the Islamic State, al-Shabab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as well as the danger posed by “43 other illicit groups.” In an internal military report in 2016, Bolduc additionally asserted: “Africa’s challenges could create a threat that surpasses the threat that the United States currently faces from conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.”

Certainly, violence from terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa has escalated in the past decade. But a close look at the data from two authoritative databases—the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database(GTD) and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)—points to more modest increases than what U.S. policymakers and military officials routinely describe.2

The GTD specifically focuses on terrorist incidents, in contrast to the ACLED database, which records broader incidents of political violence. One of the GTD’s most notable findings is a decade-long increase in terrorist attacks and fatalities in Africa: from 114 attacks and 1,944 fatalities in 2006, to 2,051 attacks and 13,182 fatalities in 2016 (fatalities include both perpetrators and victims). Tightening the criteria to only include attacks that are unambiguously terrorist-related (via the “doubt terrorism proper” GTD filter) substantially lowers the numbers: terrorist incidents in 2006 drop to 101 with 1,880 fatalities and in 2016 fall to 1,612 incidents with 9,620 fatalities.

The data set also includes terrorist incidents linked to domestic insurgencies that have little impact on core U.S. interests—such as violence associated with South Sudan’s civil war or the Great Lakes region. Therefore, it is valuable to narrow the criteria to only include (1) unambiguous terrorist incidents and (2) incidents linked to active militant Islamist groups that directly impact core U.S. national security (this analysis uses criteria from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, or ACSS, to include the following organizations: AQIM and its affiliates, al-Shabab, Nusrat al-Islam, Boko Haram, the Islamic State and its affiliates, and related jihadi-inspired extremists).

Two noteworthy findings emerge. First, overall levels of terrorism on the continent drop much further—by an additional 50 percent in 2016. Terrorist incidents in 2006 fall to thirty-five with 122 fatalities. The number of incidents in 2016 falls to 801 with 4,536 fatalities. Second, the data also show that terrorist incidents rise steadily through 2014—where they hit a peak of 1,202 attacks and 16,176 casualties—before sharply plummeting.

Despite using a broader definitional rubric of political violence, the ACLED database reveals similar trends. Narrowing the ACLED’s criteria to only include incidents involving militant Islamist groups shows forty-one attacks in 2006 with thirty-seven fatalities. This climbs to a peak of 15,791 fatalities in 2015 (from 2,129 incidents), before falling steeply in 2017 to 8,386 fatalities (from 2,498 incidents).

The GTD and ACLED data challenge the consensus among policymakers that terrorist attacks in Africa have steadily and persistently increased in the past decade (see figure 1).

What explains the dramatic surge in terrorist attacks between 2014 and 2015 before plunging thereafter? A closer look at the data confirms that Boko Haram and al-Shabab were responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks in Africa during this period (see figure 2).

When al-Shabab and Boko Haram are taken out, the 2014–2015 terrorist surge represents only a modest increase, and likely would have resulted in much less attention from policymakers.


The two groups present two diverging pictures. According to the GTD, al-Shabab’s lethality has decreased since its 2014 peak—from over 2,000 killed to fewer than 1,500 fatalities in 2016—but it can still pull off devastating attacks. The GTD shows a moderate decline between 2014 and 2016 (from 496 attacks and 2,042 fatalities to 334 attacks and 1,476 fatalities). In contrast, the ACLED shows a modest rise—from 1,358 incidents with 3,286 casualties in 2014 to 1,779 incidents with 4,604 fatalities in 2017.

Notwithstanding this variance, both datasets clearly show that al-Shabab remains a potent and active force capable of inflicting substantial harm. The U.S. intelligence community similarly notes that al-Shabab’s operations in the region “have diminished after the deaths of many external plotters since 2015” but that the group “retains the resources, manpower, influence, and operational capabilities to pose a real threat to the region, especially Kenya.” However, to date, the only external operation linked to al-Shabab in Europe or the United States was a failed attack against a Danish cartoonist in 2010. Al-Shabab does have a semi-successful track record of recruiting Somali Americans, mostly from Minnesota, to fight in Somalia, but those numbers remain low.

Al-Shabab is a continuing concern for U.S. policymakers because it operates in a weak, ungoverned area that has a history of harboring lethal terrorist offshoots, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State in Somalia—whose fighters the United States targeted for the first time in early November 2017. Unlike other terrorist organizations, such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab has “excelled” at challenging the Somali authorities and “offering itself as an alternative government option.” A fair argument can also be made that al-Shabab has concentrated its activity in Somalia and the region due to U.S. military success in degrading its capabilities via drone strikes and special operations. If the United States and its allies eased their pressure and allowed the group to rebuild, a future attack against Europe or the United States would not be inconceivable.

Boko Haram presents a very different story: its lethality has plunged from its 2014–2015 peak (see figure 3). While Boko Haram still retains a core capacity to launch destructive attacks, it is on a downward trend and has lost much of its recruiting appeal.

The group publicly pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, renaming itself the Islamic State in West Africa. Subsequently, Boko Haram splintered into two rival factions, with the Islamic State naming a new leader to replace the existing head, Abubakar Shekau. By now, there are serious doubts that much coordination exists between the two Boko Haram groups and the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria.

As Alice Hunt Friend writes in the National Interest, “In the guessing game that is counterterrorism forecasting, West Africa seems to be more on the demand than the supply side of global violent extremism—a market for what Al Qaeda, [the Islamic State] and others are peddling rather than a source of global terrorist entrepreneurs.”

Some argue that judging Boko Haram only by its current actions and disregarding its future potential for threatening the United States would be a grave miscalculation. J. Peter Pham, from the Atlantic Council, contends that “just because the majority of actors and the incidents they are responsible for are domestic to African countries does not mean that they cannot and do not evolve into international threats.” It is true that the intelligence picture for Boko Haram is murky and that the group has a past history of targeting international institutions in Nigeria, such as its 2011 attack against the UN headquarters in Abuja. At the same time, Pham acknowledges that Boko Haram’s success “has largely been the result of its denunciations of the Nigerian political elites resonating with many ordinary citizens.” While this has brought significant instability to neighboring countries, it is less likely to translate to the international context.

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This article was originally published by The Carnegie Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program.


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