ISS: Repositioning the AU’s role in countering terror


Early in March, senior African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN) officials gathered in Mogadishu to review the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). This was the fifth such review since 2013, as the two organisations seek to gradually transfer primary security responsibilities from AMISOM to Somalia’s security forces.

The AU has mandated and been responsible, at least conceptually, for managing an operation against al-Shabaab and other armed groups for over a decade. Now weak national security institutions, reduced funding and growing fatigue among AMISOM forces are creating uncertainty over the future of Somalia’s security.

This flags a wider policy discussion around the role of the AU in counter-terrorism operations in Africa. In 2019, four out of five AU-mandated or -authorised peace support operations were tasked with reducing the threats of terrorist groups.

A peace support operation is different to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations

In addition to AMISOM, the AU has authorised and supported the G5 Sahel Joint Force, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram and the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army (RCI-LRA).

A peace support operation is different to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations, although in practice the two haven’t been clearly differentiated. This confusion is evident in the way the AU has characterised and deployed counter-terrorism operations. The problem can be attributed to the absence of a multilateral definition of terrorism.

At a strategic level, the AU and regional bodies have mandated or authorised operations such as AMISOM, the MNJTF and G5 Sahel Force as peace operations. However, the tactics used by these operations are synonymous with counter-insurgency, based on a three-pronged ‘clear, hold and build’ approach.

The leadership of the AU and regional actors in mandating, deploying and managing these operations is crucial, and international partners recognise this. However, it may be time for the AU to rethink its position on the front line in the deployment of counter-terrorism operations. The environment in which these operations are carried out is expensive and extremely risky, and the cost of human life is high.

Operations such as AMISOM and MNJTF cost roughly US$1 billion a year. The fatalities (through accidents, illness, malicious acts and other incidents) recorded from Africa-led counter-terrorism operations are much higher compared to traditional UN peacekeeping missions.

By authorising counter-terrorism operations, the AU wouldn’t primarily be expected to fund them

By repositioning its role in authorising or deploying counter-terrorism operations, the AU could reassert its legitimacy – not least by better supporting its member states in their own security approaches to counter-terrorism. Such support could be through political authorisation; force generation of swift capabilities; sourcing predictable funding from multiple stakeholders; and supporting early recovery and stabilisation after offensive operations.

The AU Peace and Security Council should work with the UN Security Council to consistently authorise, rather than mandate, counter-terrorism operations or missions when required. When such operations are driven by national security institutions, or through bilateral partnerships or formal coalitions, there is no need for the AU or UN to mandate or lead operations.

However requests by national actors for multilateral support, as well as the growing presence of regional coalitions in the fight against terrorism, point to a clear need for authorisation from relevant regional and international policy organs. This would allow the AU to continue providing political legitimacy, and voluntary technical and limited financial support to member states.

Successful counter-terrorism operations require specialised capabilities. There is currently a mismatch between equipment and other capabilities deployed for counter-terrorism operations. Swift capabilities are needed such as intelligence, a quick reaction force, combat helicopters, and secure and effective real-time communication. These resources are difficult to negotiate.

The AU Peace Fund’s cost of US$400 million is well below the cost of one counter-terrorism operation

Even when bilateral support is possible, they come with preconditions (e.g. pre-deployment training, including in the area of human rights). The AU could provide significant support in the negotiation, deployment, training and monitoring of the use of these assets. By authorising future counter-terrorism operations, the AU wouldn’t primarily be expected to fund them. The affected states would need to pay for the operations, with complementary financial support from the AU.

The total projection of the AU Peace Fund of US$400 million is significantly below the average cost of a single counter-terrorism operation, and the Peace Fund should only be considered for counter-terrorism operations on a limited and exceptional basis. However, the AU is ideally positioned to get international support – particularly through engaging with the UN for the use of assessed contributions, the establishment of trust funds, or the convening of donor conferences.

Perhaps the most important role for the AU in supporting counter-terrorism operations is the facilitation of early recovery and immediate stabilisation programmes. In areas recovered from terrorist groups, affected communities often fail to receive basic services and aren’t always better off straight after their ‘liberation’ from terror groups. The AU could help by implementing Quick Impact Programmes.

The AU should use its international credibility and legitimacy to help its member states deliver more effective counter-terrorism operations. Failure to take advantage of its unique position could erode confidence and potentially alienate the AU in the dynamic and rapidly changing regional peace and security landscape.

Written by Dr Jide Martyns Okeke, ISS Consultant and Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.