ISS: How ‘foreign’ are foreign terrorist fighters in Africa?


In September 2018, five people acquitted of the July 2010 terror attacks in Kampala, Uganda, were re-arrested by the Ugandan Police. Omar Awadh Omar and four others were charged with possessing literature for the promotion of terrorism. These charges were later dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions following deportation letters for three of the suspects to Kenya.

Omar contested the orders by the Ugandan authorities to deport him to Kenya on the grounds that although born to a Kenyan father, his nationality is Ugandan by right of birth, as his mother is Ugandan.

Omar, the four other suspects and the eight convicts of the July 2010 bombing in Kampala were trained al-Shabaab operatives and the group claimed responsibility for the attacks. This is one of several situations that raise the question of the applicability of the term ‘foreign terrorist fighter’.

These cases may not be unique to Africa and there are indeed Africans who have travelled to other parts of the world to fight battles. However, within Africa itself there is a need to reflect on a range of issues when considering foreign terrorist fighters.

People affected by terror attacks sometimes find it difficult to seek asylum across state borders

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) defines these fighters as ‘individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration … or participation in terrorist acts’.

In many African contexts where ethnic groups traverse state borders, the notion of ‘foreignness’ is difficult to define. Most borders on the continent have complicated histories and the African context presents particular challenges for understanding the concept of foreign terrorist fighters.

From the Lake Chad Basin to the Horn of Africa, states affected by terrorism have witnessed their citizens cross borders along battle lines. However, the borders they cross are valid reminders of common ethno-religious and traditional roots predating the colonial period.

In the Lake Chad Basin where the Boko Haram crisis has raged for close to a decade, the Kanuri ethnic group extends across borders that separate people in present-day Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. This implies for example that many communities in the Lake Chad Basin area have stronger connections to communities just across the border in a neighbouring country than to communities in Yaounde, N’Djamena, Niamey or Abuja.

So while the existing state boundaries remain, effective policies on countering violent extremism or counter-terrorism need to take into account the local and historical contexts of issues. A similar situation can be observed in the Horn of Africa where communities in the coastal parts of Kenya and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia share ethnic ties with Somalia. This situation is also comparable to the ethnic groups affected by the terror dynamics in the Sahel.

Marriage binds the fighter to that community, rendering the ‘foreign’ distinction somewhat irrelevant

Also, the concept of foreign terrorist fighters in parts of Africa becomes amorphous when marriage occurs between those considered foreign terrorist fighters and local women. Marriage binds the fighter to that community, rendering the ‘foreign’ distinction somewhat irrelevant.

Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar of the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims), who migrated to northern Mali, is said to have garnered local support and rooted himself in the community through marriages to various women of Tuareg and Berabiche origin.

In view of significant displacements and movements of people due to fighting, apart from the issue of fighters, the people affected by terror attacks sometimes find it difficult to seek asylum or join members of their families or ethnic group across state borders. Counter-terrorism policies that concern communities in this type of context would need to understand these nuances and be adapted to the local realities.

Given the complexity of the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon in the African context, the one-size-fits-all application of the term in Africa should be avoided. Instead, the specific realities of the phenomenon in communities must be recognised. UNSC resolutions 2178 and 2396 stress the importance of taking effective measures that are comprehensive and in consultation with local communities. These resolutions provide the backing required by state and regional institutions to do what is necessary.

There is a need for further research into the uniqueness of the African context

In the case of former violent extremists, policy options should reflect a greater recognition of the communal connections in rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. As already witnessed, there are indeed former Boko Haram members from Chad engaged in Nigeria’s rehabilitation initiative known as Operation Safe Corridor.

There is still a need for further research into the uniqueness of the African context. A better understanding of the differentiating features of the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon in Africa compared to that of Europe, the United States and elsewhere should inform efforts to develop more effective national legislation. Improved understanding of the issues will also inspire more effective policy and programmes tailored to addressing these differences.

Written by Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher, Uyo Yenwong-Fai, Researcher, Allan Ngari, Senior Researcher and Willem Els, Senior Training Coordinator, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria.

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