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African Jihadi Movements Are an International Issue

Walter Russell Mead

The ISIS-affiliated jihadi movement Boko Haram and other extremist groups continue to spread across the northern reaches of sub-Saharan Africa—and the U.S. has begun to respond. The WSJ reports:

The U.S. deployed 90 military personnel to Cameroon and plans to send surveillance drones to amass intelligence on the Boko Haram militant group and aid counterinsurgency efforts, military and administration officials said Wednesday.

The Defense Department plans to send as many as 300 U.S. troops to the West African nation, in what officials said is expected to be a temporary mission against the militant group. Flushed from its Nigerian base by that country’s armed forces, Boko Haram is threatening neighboring countries like Cameroon.

The U.S. troops in Cameroon, who began arriving Tuesday, will support the operation of unarmed MQ-1 Predator drones to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance operations against Boko Haram.

Even in the best of times, the generally weak and poorly structured governments of this region exercise only sketchy control over their own territory, and they lack the financial resources, the competent armed forces, and the organizational capacity to do much about it. A recent suicide bombing in Maiduguri that has left at least four dead, in addition to the female bombers who let off the explosives, is just the latest example of the growing violence this region is seeing.

As a result, western countries have a choice: Either they can let the jihadi movements grow, or they can step up western engagement in a region where, until recently, outside involvement has been minimal. For its part, the Obama administration has chosen the path of cautious but growing engagement, and its successor is likely to do the same. U.S. military engagement across much of Africa seems destined slowly to grow.

As that happens, Americans should be asking themselves some questions: How successful are we at bringing European allies along? Can China, which also has significant interests in Africa that would be imperiled by a collapse of civil order, play a constructive role? What are the sources of jihadi training, ideological indoctrination, and funds and arms, and what can be done to interdict them? (Some of our friends in the Gulf might want to check what is being taught in the religious education programs they sponsor.) Are we developing the ability to deal with the political underpinnings of the jihadi movement — in the local and tribal politics of the region, for example — so that we can develop political and developmental strategies for ending insurgencies, giving military efforts a better hope of success? How do we continue to help African regional and multilateral organizations build the capacity to take more of the leadership in a struggle that, in the end, is more important to Africans than it is to anybody else?

Jihadi movements based in countries with weak states, tribal divisions, corrupt elites, and poor records of social and economic development will be hard targets. 60 years of postcolonial history have seen well-intentioned (and some not so well-intentioned) development efforts pile up a pretty miserable record of failure in this part of the world. Moreover, civil wars and military coups—and, in some countries, a string of murderous rulers like Idi Amin and the “Emperor” Bokassa—have left deep wounds in what were already frail polities.

That’s all true, but it’s also all irrelevant to this reality: The establishment of jihadi-controlled territory on a significant scale anywhere in this territory would provide a foundation for attacks against European and other western targets, and it would likely plunge much of Africa into a murderous series of religious wars that could see deaths and displacements in the millions.

Jihadism in Africa is like Ebola in Africa: It isn’t just a local problem, and it requires an international response.

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