Revisiting the state of counter-terrorism in the Horn of Africa

In PublicationsNovember 10, 20229 Minutes

Revisiting the state of counter-terrorism in the Horn of Africa

Staff Writer

On 30 October 2022, twin car bomb explosions at the busy Zobe intersection in Mogadishu, followed by gunfire targeting the country’s education ministry, took place in Somalia.

A total of 120 people are now known to have died and more than 300 were injured due to the attack. The attack is an eerie reminder of a similar attack that took place at the same junction on October 14, 2017, killing nearly 600 people and injuring more than 290. It was the most horrific attack in terms of the death toll and the scope of destruction it wrought on the capital city. Both attacks were carried out by Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in the Horn region since the early 2000s. Despite the sustained drop, in the last three years, in the momentum of the group to mount attacks in Somalia, there has been a recent uptick in activity by Al Shabaab in Somalia and in the wider Horn of Africa region since 2022.

The ubiquity of terror attacks by Al-Shabab

The Horn of Africa region has been a safe haven for international terrorism since the US-backed war on terror began post-9/11, with Al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabab being the major regional threat.

The group has carried out several large-scale attacks in and outside of Somalia. Some of the recent ones include coordinated attacks in Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu and Beledweyne cities on 23 March 2022, attacks on African Union Peacekeeping forces in Somalia on 03 May 2022, a Hotel siege in Mogadishu on 21 August 2022, attack on food convoy in Hiran region on 04 September 2022, a twin car bomb explosion in Beledweyne on 3 October 2022, and a car bomb and shooting attack on a hotel in the Somali city of Kismayu on 24 October 2022.

Al-Shabab has also attacked various targets in Kenya. The most notable was the brazen attack on Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi in September 2013. Other include a series of raids against villages close to Mpeketoni in mid-2014, an attack on Garissa University compound in April 2015, an attack on the 14 Riverside complex in Nairobi on January 2019, and the targeting of a US military base in Lamu in January 2020.

And in what appears to be an attempt to expand its terror into Ethiopia, the group conducted a cross-border raid in eastern Ethiopia on July 2022. It was reported that fighters of the terrorist group had moved 150 kilometers deep inside Ethiopian territory before they were contained and repelled by the Ethiopian military and regional forces.

Prevailing counter-terrorism strategies

With a global increase in the frequency and intensity of terror attacks, there has also been a proliferation in the range of counter-terrorism policies and strategies by states and regional as well as international institutions.

For example, The United Nations unanimously adopted a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (A/RES/60/288) in 2006. It is composed of 4 pillars: addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism; measures to prevent and combat terrorism; measures to build states’ capacity to prevent and combat terrorism; and measures to ensure respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism.

The African Union, on the other hand, adopted the 1999 Algiers Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism and the related 2004 Protocol. The AU has deliberated on the issue of terrorism in its extraordinary summit on terrorism in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea from 25-28 May 2022.

The AU has also deployed several counter-terrorism-related peace-support missions in various parts of the continent such as the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram, the G-5 Sahel Joint Force, Southern Africa Development Community Mission in Mozambique, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia and the Regional Cooperation Initiative against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

At a state level, Many African states have developed their own policy frameworks and strategies to prevent and mitigate the threat of terrorism. These strategies range from military and securitization of different sectors to political, legal, and economic approaches, targeting the leaders and key enablers of terrorism.

The effort by African countries to combat terrorism has been supported, on both policy and operational levels, by the United States since 2001. It has provided intelligence and continues to conduct deadly airstrikes in Somalia targeting the leadership and capacity of Al-Shabab. It has also sanctioned the Islamic State group (IS) in Somalia and several of its alleged members who were smuggling arms and coordinating high-profile attacks in East Africa.

Ethiopia has been a front-runner in the fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Following the change in political leadership in Somalia and Kenya as a result of the elections in 2022, a new phase in the fight against terrorism in the Horn is expected to take place. After assuming power in May 2022, Somalia’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohmoud, made it clear that defeating Al Shabaab remained his priority.

Despite the deployment of multiple strategies, the Horn continues to suffer from terrorism and many are arguing a revisit of AU’s current strategy to control the spread of terrorism in the continent has now become necessary.
Al-Shabab’s frequent terror attacks in Somalia and trans-border attacks in Ethiopia indicate that more needs to be done urgently to stem the expansion of attacks in the Horn.

How to counter terrorism effectively in the Horn of Africa?

It is generally believed that counter-terrorism strategies should be holistic and coordinated, and must address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.

The fight against terrorism should also consider that terrorism is highly interlinked with transnational organized crime, small arms and light weapons, illicit financial flows, and with remote ‘ungoverned’ regions. The efforts by individual states should also be coordinated with other states in a regional approach to effectively share intelligence and coordinate measures on the ground. In this regard, Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia should make coordination on information sharing and harmonized strategies a key pillar of security and geo-political integration.

Moreover, counter-terrorism strategies should adequately address conditions conducive to terrorism including internal political instability and recurrent source of conflict. The war in Northern Ethiopia is a case in point. The conflict made Ethiopia vulnerable to multi-domain and cross-border attacks by Al-Shabab as well as increasing attacks by OLF-Shane, a terrorist-designated group operating in the Oromia region of Ethiopia.

Lessons from these contexts in the Horn clearly indicate that the most effective counter-terrorism strategies are those that allow the local population to function as key stakeholders, and consider input from civil-society groups, the private sector, and all others impacted by the outcomes of terrorism.