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US terrorism fight in Africa: Does it promote instability there?

After military operations in Libya and Somalia, US counterterrorism appears to 'live on the edge of international law.'

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/File
Hundreds of newly trained Al Shabab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18 km south of Mogadishu, in Somalia, Feb. 17, 2011. International military forces carried out a pre-dawn strike on Oct. 5, 2013 against foreign fighters in the same southern Somalia village where US Navy SEALs four years ago killed a most-wanted Al Qaeda operative, officials said.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Africa in Transition blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Alex Vines, director of Area Studies and International Law, and head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, a London based think-tank, has written a thoughtful article for CNN.

He looks at US counter-terrorism operations in Africa, including questions about their legality under international law and their impact (often unintended) on weak African states.

I agree with his point that US military engagements can -- and have -- caused greater instability in some African venues, rather than countering successfully terrorism and other forms of instability.

Vines tees-off his analysis with discussion of the Oct. 5-6 US military operations in Libya and Somalia.

Vines recalls on-again, off-again American involvement since 1993 in Somalia, and makes a convincing argument (at least to me) that the effect was to promote radicalization in that country.

Turning to contemporary terrorism, he reiterates the crucial point that “jihadi” terrorism is far from homogeneous: Boko Haram in Nigeria is very different from Al Shabab in Somalia. But, such groups do well in weak states that are poorly governed. That reality implies that institution building, promotion of good governance, and more jobs is the way to address terrorism, rather than the quick fix of military action. 

But that prescription requires sustained attention, now sorely lacking in paralyzed Washington.

Also salutary is Vines’ reminder that “counterterrorism policies live on the edge of international law.”

They can have consequences that are directly contrary to U.S. long-term interests.

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