Softer approaches to jihadi threats

Africa’s struggle against Islamic extremism shows fresh thinking on nonmilitary approaches.

The al-Hol camp in northeast Syria holds displaced people and families of Islamic State fighters.

Two trends in Africa have prompted a challenge to the military model of countering terrorist threats. Each trend bears watching for the global struggle against terrorism.

The first is negative. During the past decade, the United States, France, and others have spent billions of dollars helping African governments and militaries fight Islamist extremism in countries upward from the Sahara. Yet violence by these groups has continued to grow. In addition, six countries in the region have seen attempted or successful military coups since 2020. Last Friday, Burkina Faso had its second putsch this year. That instability has prompted France to step back and reassess its military strategy in the region.

Those developments have given momentum to a second, more encouraging trend. As national militaries and central governments falter in Africa, local leaders are stepping forward. Their efforts to rebuild their communities are redefining what countering terrorism involves. Instead of waging war, they are battling corruption, breaking down traditional norms that perpetuate social inequality, and building trust between jihadis and villagers.

“The mediation of local conflicts will contribute to rethinking the paths to peace,” wrote Senegalese historian Mamadou Diouf in a preface to a recent study on reconciliation in the Sahel by the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. That involves, for example, local approaches to reconciliation and traditional justice, as well as upending practices that fuel economic grievance – like norms that sideline women and favor first-born sons over their younger siblings.

African countries “are gradually recognising the limitations of an overly centralized and securitised approach to addressing a threat that has become more localized than ever,” a new United Nations study of local counterterrorism responses noted last month. In its place, a “whole-of-society” approach, recognizing “the importance of local and non-security actors and the need to address the drivers and not simply the manifestations of extremist violence – has begun to gain traction, albeit gradually.”

It also signals the use of empathy and mercy to help soften the hard approaches to violent jihadis. One example is in Australia’s plan to repatriate more than 60 widows and children of slain Islamic State fighters. The women, who have Australian citizenship and were enticed or coerced to join the jihadi group, have been held in detention camps in Syria for years.

The move partly reflects a change in government in Canberra. Until a few months ago, Australia regarded the women as a potential security threat. But that view is increasingly out of sync with global attitudes. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, condemned France last month for refusing to repatriate its own nationals in similar positions. In the first-ever decision of its kind, the court found that denying a request for protection “made on the basis of the fundamental values” of democratic societies by vulnerable citizens to their own government was “incompatible with respect for human dignity.”

The world still relies on meeting violence with violence in responding to terrorism. Yet after more than two decades since 9/11, the wisdom of softer approaches may be gaining ground. Africa serves as a test case.

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