State Department Looks to Combat African Terrorism with Prevention Program

August 2, 2016 11:15 AM - Updated: August 2, 2016 1:05 PM
Members of Boko Haram
Members of Boko Haram

The State Department has launched a pilot program to prevent the growth of terrorism – set to complement the ongoing U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa.

Speaking Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, Sarah Sewall, under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, said while the program and similar ones in the United Nations are in their early days, they hold promise.

She added, it was important to “be clear-eyed about the challenges,” the largest being resources.

The U.S. is spending about $200 million a year on preventative programs in countering extremism, she said.

“Preventive work is probably the hardest” to find resources for.

Sewall said it also “takes time to change harmful government practices” from round-ups of political opponents, jailing petty criminals with violent and ideological extremists, failure to deliver basic services, etc. in countries in Africa that can drive the young to violent extremism to find solutions.

The young are particularly vulnerable of being set adrift and industrializing societies. Extremists, such as al Shabaab in Somalia, make attractive promises of security and law and project themselves as “the defender of the faithful.”

Also, there is no guarantee that research gained from these preventative efforts will “give the perfect formula” for each community, district or country to meet the challenges they face. What has been shown is that building trust between governments at all levels and the communities they are supposed to represent helps. Sewall mentioned town hall meetings — “uncommon in Africa,” schools and families as being critical in building trust.

“Religious institutions [can] fill that void.” Sewall cited the lead Morocco has taken in training imams from a host of nations in how to help clerics preach moderation and trust. “to refute the violent perversion of Islam.” Clerics also need to be shown how to use social media and texting to reach their communities to counter the extremists, she said.

“Women too can play a role — in and out of religious institutions,” she said.

At the same time “some international humanitarian actors don’t want to address [questions of] violent extremism.”

She added some of the most effective community members in countering violent extremism may not be the people the U.S. government or non-governmental organizations usually work with. These people likely are not ones who would be used to or want to fill out required forms on how money was spent.

Seawall said, “We are at war with people who perverted Islam” and others claiming a religious base for their violence. She included the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Christian cult operating in Uganda, South Sudan and other African nations, “who harness religious claims” to carry out “heavily armed violence” in this broader group.

These groups, “who spill blood and inspire followers” by doing so “must be defeated” in ways beyond military confrontation.

“We are in a struggle to protect communities across Africa.” In answer to a later question, she cited Mali as a country increasingly at risk from violent extremists, as again are parts of Nigeria that had recently been liberated from Boko Haram.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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