Africa’s private sector can play an important role in counter-terrorism. United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2396 is one of several UN initiatives guiding the private sector’s role in security. It highlights member states’ responsibility and legal obligations with regard to counter-terrorism. However, little progress has been made amid the high frequency of attacks in Africa.
The inseparable link between security and development must be recognised by the private sector. It presents an ideal entry point for engagement with counter-terrorism issues. The private sector can provide technological solutions for improved intelligence gathering and effective border management. It can also help address cyber or online radicalisation threats. And job training and placements for reintegration initiatives can come from this sector.
The private sector refers to organisations run by individuals and groups who primarily aim to generate profit, free from government ownership or control. However, making a profit is difficult in a socio-economic or political environment where human security is uncertain. This reality calls for businesses to actively get involved in stabilising communities and strengthening their resilience to violent extremism.
The inseparable link between security and development must be recognised by the private sector
In Africa a wide spectrum of businesses is involved in industries such as telecommunications and information technology, finance and mobile money, natural resources and extractive industry. Private sector engagement is evident in the delivery of humanitarian aid in communities affected by terror attacks. The Aliko Dangote Foundation in Nigeria is an example. In Somalia, the Aamin Ambulance has played a critical role as a private organisation offering free 24-hour services to victims of terror attacks in Mogadishu.
Outside of Africa, stronger cases reflect the potential benefits when governments work in partnership with the private sector. Before the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, when United States federal law enforcement officials asked the courier FedEx for help, the company denied access to its databases, citing concerns about customer privacy.
Following the attacks, FedEx opened the international portion of its databases to government and partnered with the Department of Homeland Security. The company rolled out radiation detectors at overseas facilities to identify dirty bombs and donated an aeroplane to federal researchers looking for a defence against shoulder-fired missiles.
In Sri Lanka the private sector helped government efforts to rehabilitate former violent extremists. As the state lacked sufficient funds, Sri Lankan blue chip companies supported vocational training to build skills and employ former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
IT companies can help tackle the challenges posed by online content disseminated by terror groups
Beyond these examples, Resolution 2396 stresses that member states cooperate with the private sector in accordance with applicable law, especially with IT companies, in gathering digital data and evidence in cases related to terrorism and foreign terrorist fighters. The problems posed by these fighters can, for instance, be more effectively addressed if private sector technological solutions are used to improve intelligence gathering and border management.
The use of biometrics at border points remains a challenge for the implementation of Resolution 2396 in many African countries where terror groups are active. States lack the capacity to fulfil obligations in this regard. But with the intervention of private organisations in the technological industry, implementation can receive a boost.
In the Horn of Africa, Kenya is periodically affected by terror attacks that are partly the result of weaknesses in border management. But Kenya also stands to benefit from innovative thinking inspired by the country’s ‘Silicon Savannah’, a US$1 billion technological hub which is home to over 200 startups.
Sri Lanka shows how the private sector can support rehabilitation of former violent extremists
The entrepreneurial potential emerging from this can help tackle the challenges posed by online content disseminated by terror groups. This is usually in the form of propaganda videos and messages that aim to recruit and sustain membership of terror groups like al-Shabaab.
The same applies to groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province in the Lake Chad Basin. National legislation in affected countries could enable the private sector to monitor and help with the removal of online content that promotes violent extremism.
As in the Sri Lanka case, there are opportunities for the private sector to support rehabilitation and reintegration initiatives. In addition to providing job training and placements for former violent extremists, aid from corporates can be extended to the wider community where victims of terror attacks are also in need.
The work of the Neem Foundation in Nigeria is a good example of the kind of services that the private sector could support. The non-profit provided psychological services to over 7 000 people in Borno State in 2017, through its flagship programme Counselling on Wheels. Therapeutic healing for children is also provided, and state and non-state actors are trained in counselling and trauma care.
Governments in Africa cannot address the complex threat of terrorism alone. An all-of-society approach is vital and that includes the private sector. Global institutions such as the UN already offer a framework for deeper engagement with this sector. When private companies are keen to commit, governments need to step up and outline the scope for their involvement, and requisite oversight measures. This will take skilful negotiations and legal contracting, but is certainly worth the effort.
Written by Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria.