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Africa’s responses to the threat posed by returning terrorist fighters

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African terrorist fighters returning home from Syria and Iraq could pose a serious risk to peace and security in Africa.


Following the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, many African terrorist fighters are now returning home. Although numbers are difficult to verify, they could pose a serious risk to peace and security in Africa.

The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) in a meeting in 2018 expressed ‘deep concern over the growing influx of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) from outside the continent and the threat they are increasingly posing to peace and security in Africa’.

This is an evolving transnational threat for which a continental strategy and response by the AU must become a priority, in addition to action taken by member states.

It is important that policymakers grasp the extent of the phenomenon, develop appropriate policy frameworks and design strategies to address the issue in collaboration with regional economic communities (RECs), AU specialised bodies working on the prevention and countering of terrorism, and local communities.

The impact of past returnees

The return of terrorist fighters is nothing new in Africa. Many, especially from North Africa, joined the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, alongside al-Qaeda. The 1990s saw the return of these fighters mostly to Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Libya and Sudan.

Some of these returnees, such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar of Algeria and Ahmed Rafiki (Abou Houdeyfa) of Morocco, created affiliate terrorist organisations in their respective countries, intent on overthrowing governments. Both men were also engaged in elaborate transnational criminal networks that smuggled goods, natural resources, people and drugs, and engaged in kidnapping for ransom.

Their criminal activities financed terrorism across the Sahel region, including in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia.

Multiple dimensions of an evolving threat

More recently, according to a report by The Soufan Group, almost as many African fighters as those from the Middle East joined Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Many of them are from the Maghreb region and around 6 000 from Tunisia alone.

Those returnees who were forced to leave the group through defeat in battle and others who voluntarily left Syria and Iraq to set up affiliates elsewhere in Africa present the greatest threat.

The Combating Terrorism Center estimates that in mid-2018, by which time most returnees had reached their destinations in Africa, the total number of fighters in Daesh-affiliated groups on the continent were around 6 050.

While their numbers are small, their geographical reach is significant. Countries as far removed from Daesh strongholds in Syria and Iraq as South Africa saw their citizens travel to join Daesh. Their return could thus spread the threat of terrorism across Africa – even to places hitherto alien to their activities.

A multi-faceted threat

Returnees pose various potential threats, with some believed to have the basic field experience to plan and manage terror attacks while others may also have the ability to give training in handling sophisticated artillery and in manufacturing in-house explosives and other weapons.

Many returnees also have a network of affiliates across the world, simplifying the transfer of supplies and the logistics of executing and financing their terror operations. This means they get support for their social media campaigns and by broadcasting their terror attacks. As a node in a global network, they may also act as entry points and facilitators for terror groups in countries that traditionally have not been terrorist strongholds.

Returnees may also go to other conflict zones upon their return, further destabilising conflict regions. For example, many returnees from Syria and Iraq went to Libya and the Sahel region to join existing affiliate terrorist cells.

The potential threat posed by unaffiliated terrorist fighters cannot be overstated, as Daesh has called upon supporters to wage attacks wherever and whenever possible. Such uncoordinated and unsupervised terror tactics mean that lone terrorists can carry out attacks anytime and anywhere. It is more difficult for law enforcement agencies to trace and apprehend individuals, making them more versatile in carrying out attacks.

Finally, returnees from Daesh-held territories are perceived to have had first-hand experience in what a successful terror group should emulate. Thus, they act as mentors to aspirants, encouraging further radicalisation and violence.

Support to home-grown terror groups

The proliferation of home-grown terrorist groups in Africa that have pledged allegiance to Daesh is clearly a major threat to peace on the continent. Numbers vary across different studies and are difficult to verify.

When returnees join such affiliate groups, they help create a stronger network and greater coordination among terrorist groups across the continent. Their affiliation also means they take on Daesh’s brand of brutal terror tactics.

Recent claims by terror groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique tend to confirm these fears. Experts, however, have questioned such direct links with Daesh, especially in Mozambique.

According to a report to the United Nations (UN) Security Council in April 2019, as well as an AU PSC communiqué from November 2018, such ‘under-radar’ countries as Benin, Togo and other coastal states in West Africa have become terrorist incubators, with the noted presence of returnees.

The potential to use chemical agents and biological weapons has also emerged as a terror threat in Africa. The Kenyan government thwarted a potential anthrax attack by a group affiliated with Daesh in 2016.

The ideological nature of a caliphate, advocated by Daesh sympathisers, is incompatible with the global system of nation-states, which means they pose a threat to all governments and states on the continent.

Continental response to a complex threat

The AU has developed several legal and policy frameworks for preventing and countering terrorism since 1999. Despite these provisions there has been a rise in the terrorist threat in Africa. The return of terrorist fighters compounds this threat.

Recognising this, in 2018 the PSC asked the AU Commission to ‘urgently compile a continental list composed of a database of persons, groups and entities involved in terrorist acts, including FTFs’ in collaboration with the AU Mechanism for Police Cooperation, the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, and the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa.

However, the list is not forthcoming, as many of these entities either lack the capacity to implement their mandates or encounter information-sharing gaps. At the heart of the problem is how well member states can coordinate and collaborate in sharing sensitive information from their intelligence agencies.

Although member states in the Lake Chad Basin, and others such as Morocco, Kenya and Sudan, have developed processes for the rehabilitation, reintegration or prosecution of returnees from within and outside of Africa, the continent lacks a comprehensive framework that guides the extradition and/or prosecution of returnees deemed a security threat.

In order to enable member states to more effectively respond to the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters, the AU should enact appropriate policy frameworks that adopt the UN’s Madrid Guiding Principles (2015) and the 2017 UN Security Council Resolution (2396) on how to respond to such challenges.

A compilation of lessons learned from member states that have experience in successfully responding to the threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters can assist the development of such policy frameworks. For example, Algeria has managed to employ a diverse and multifaceted response in dealing with returnees, including counter-terror measures as well as negotiation and national reconciliation processes.

Such lessons learned from across the continent should inform the development of AU policy frameworks meant to respond to the return of terrorist fighters.

The AU should closely work with RECs, regional mechanisms, member states and local communities if it is to successfully implement such policy frameworks.