Australia and Africa: cooperation to counter violent extremism and terrorism

Different countries and regions across the African continent have been subject to a range of brutal terrorist activities in recent years. They have included hostage-taking incidents and deadly attacks on the Tigantourine gas facility in Algeria in January 2013, the Westgate shopping Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, and Garissa University College in Kenya in April this year. Terrorist organisations such a Boko Haram (aligned with Islamic State) and al-Shabaab utilise indiscriminate means and asymmetric tactics to target civilians across the continent. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are a regular feature of conflicts in places such as Somalia and Mali. The evolving security threats on the African continent present a risk not only to regional security, but global security.

Australia’s security and economic interests are affected by these developments. Our trade in Africa is valued at $10 billion, and dominated by the mining industry. More than 200 ASX listed companies are engaged in projects across 35 African countries. Australia has an interest in ensuring those companies are able to operate without risk of attack. More broadly, Australia has a strategic interest in ensuring that terrorist organisations aren’t able to destabilise fragile political processes or operate in failed states to further build their presence and influence in the region and beyond. As a supporter of the international rules-based order, we have an interest in ensuring that Africa supports efforts to implement international counter-terrorism frameworks.

Discussions during the recent Aus-Africa Dialogue in Zambia noted that both continents have capabilities and lessons to share when it comes to countering terrorism and violent extremism, particularly in the security sector (also previously discussed here). The Department of Defence and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have developed cooperation programs with some African countries, but our approaches to date have been largely ad-hoc and reactive.

Ensuring Australia has a comprehensive understanding of the security situation in Africa remains an ongoing challenge. We’ve only got one Defence Attaché posted on the continent (in Ethiopia) and one AFP liaison officer (in South Africa). Consideration could be given to further Australian Defence Force (ADF) and AFP personnel to support targeted assistance to African countries, as well as regional and sub-regional organisations. In terms of policing engagement, that could include seconding an officer to the African Police Cooperation Organisation (once established), as well as providing training on forensics, intelligence gathering and social media exploitation.

Peace operations are one mechanism lending support to efforts to prevent terrorist groups from proliferating in ungoverned spaces. African countries deploying personnel to UN and African Union (AU) peace operations are operating in an asymmetric threat environment in places such as Somalia and Mali. Australia has lessons to share from its extensive experience operating in such environments from over a decade of high-tempo operations in Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Bishop pledged that Australia would provide more counter-IED support to UN peacekeeping at a high-level peacekeeping summit hosted by US President Obama in September. But this commitment only referred to better preparing ‘our neighbours’. That’s despite African countries providing close to 50% of the more than 105,000 military and police personnel deployed to UN peacekeeping operations, and even more when you factor in AU peace operations. Australia also pledged further training support for UN peacekeeping at the summit, but again, this was limited to ‘soldiers and police in our region’. The ADF could build on our existing modest peacekeeping training programs in Africa, such as those delivered to the East Africa Standby Force, to provide counter-IED support and training.

While strengthening military and police capacity on the continent will improve the ability of countries to respond to terrorist events, efforts also need to be invested in addressing threats at their source. Recent UN Security Council resolutions on terrorism require states to prevent and suppress recruiting and equipping of foreign terrorist fighters, as well as the financing of foreign terrorist fighters and activities, both through law as well as cooperation and information sharing. Several UNSC mandated international sanctions regimes apply to individuals and organisations in Africa, making regional implementation even more critical. Drawing on our domestic and regional experience, Australia could share lessons on efforts to implement these international obligations.

Our interests are also served by tackling terrorist groups at the source by building local capacity. That could include a special program on counter-terrorism working with the appropriate NGOs or pilot aid projects on countering violent extremism. Australia could support educational institutions that compete with radical messages coming from foreign-funded educational institutions.

Communication via social media is also important in developing counter-narratives. But we have no public diplomacy activities in Africa to promote norms or values in any organised way. Australia could partner here with countries that are ‘like-minded’ on these approaches, such as the UK, US, Germany, and the Nordic states.

The capacity of Australian government to engage comprehensively in Africa is limited. As such, priority should be attached to identifying multilateral and regional programs that support counter-terrorism activities. These might include funding programs through the UNODC, providing support to peacekeeping missions and efforts to train regional standby forces, or engaging with INTERPOL and regional police chief organisations in Africa.

The private sector is also a critical partner in efforts to leverage Australian engagement on counter-terrorism efforts. The government should engage regularly with Australian companies operating in Africa on the security concerns they face, including threats to infrastructure, investment and personnel. This could form part of a whole-of-government engagement strategy which identifies Australia’s strategic interests, as well as regional and geographic priorities. The recently established Advisory Group on Australia-Africa Relations has the potential to provide a platform for engagement on these issues.