A new corps of dedicated African counter-terrorism experts

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The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) is assisting African police to understand and combat terrorism on the continent and to investigate and prosecute terrorism cases.

Willem Els, senior training co-ordinator at the Pretoria headquartered ISS, is building a corps of properly trained African counter-terrorism experts and adapting international best practice to local conditions.

Threats include Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia and al-Qaida affiliates across the Sahel and North Africa.

Three African countries – Nigeria, Somalia and Egypt – are in the global top ten countries most affected by terrorism, according to the 2016 Global Terrorism Index.

Terrorism on the continent is particularly lethal, with six African states (Nigeria, Tunisia, Chad, Niger, Kenya and Cameroon) in the top ten countries with the highest average deaths per attack.

Police and prosecution services need specific skills to detect, combat, investigate and prosecute terrorism. The ISS helps build these capacities through its expert staff and professional networks.

Els has an abundance of skills and experience. He spent 28 years as a police officer in South Africa, with leadership positions in the national bomb squad and time as an undercover sky marshal in the aviation anti-hijacking unit. He is a member of the International Association for Bomb Technicians and Investigators and has experience preparing disposal experts to work in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He is now sharing his knowledge with African police and prosecutors, working in partnership with policing organisations in East and West Africa, as well as Interpol, the United Nations, African Union and the EU.
“It is rewarding to see my skills and experience embraced and integrated into the daily operations of people dealing with terrorism in Africa. We are investing in and empowering the next generation of passionate and competent counter-terrorism experts,” he said.

Effective counter-terrorism requires an integrated training approach. ISS has helped to create the official counter-terrorism manual for police agencies in East, West and southern Africa. Essentially an African counter-terrorism training handbook, it covers intelligence, explosives and bomb disposal, crime scene handling, weapons of mass destruction, causes of radicalisation and the evolution of terror.

ISS training spans national, regional and international legal instruments, extradition, state-sponsored terror, counter-intelligence, border control, biological weapons, dirty bombs and evidence collection. ISS trainers are supported by African experts with top-class experience in subjects ranging from hostage negotiations, incident management and prosecution of terrorists.

Discussions are underway with a top South African university to accredit training to diploma or post-graduate level and then offer it as a distance learning module.

The recognised value and impact of ISS training is based on its comprehensive and integrated counter-terrorism curriculum and the solid working relationships with African police services and Interpol offices across the continent.
“We go beyond professional relationships based on technical expertise. We bond as friends and comrades facing a common threat,” Els said.
“ISS is welcomed and respected as an African organisation which cares about the continent’s security. We are embraced as true African partners who find local solutions to African challenges.”

Working with east African police, Els and other experts produced standard operating procedures (SOPs) which serve as an investigator’s field guide following an incident. Terrorism is a threat that keeps evolving, so he runs refresher courses for investigators and specialised training when required. This includes bringing together frontline bomb technicians and intelligence experts from different terror hotspots to share experiences.

Annual field training supported by ISS sees hundreds of police from across Africa participate in simulated hijackings, hostage negotiations, tactical interventions, defusing explosives, working with dogs and investigating terror scenes.

ISS also hosts annual workshops where African heads of counter-terrorism and crime investigation discuss and agree regional priorities and identify new focus areas, such as the role of women in extremism. These discussions are informed by original ISS research on violent extremism in Africa.



Working as a counter-terrorism trainer is not without its emotional challenges. Els tells a harrowing story of a late-night call from Somalia where three policemen were blown up after following on-site instructions to approach a suspect vehicle. The caller survived the incident because he followed protocols learned in his ISS training.