January 25, 2021

IntelBrief: Countering Terrorism and Insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa: Opportunities for the Biden-Harris Administration

President Joe Biden, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • President Biden’s executive order to rescind the Muslim Ban was warmly welcomed by African countries.
  • Responses to calls for racial justice domestically will also impact perceptions of the U.S. in Africa.
  • Key cabinet picks like Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Lloyd Austin, and Dana Banks – will play a pivotal role in defining Africa policy
  • Strategic counterterrorism will be critical to countering Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates, particularly in East Africa and the Sahel.
  • After the recent withdrawal, the Biden administration will need to quickly reconsider U.S. military engagement in Somalia.

Soon after U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. took the oath of office on January 20, the new administration immediately got to work. Among the first policy initiatives which affected Africa was rescinding the prior administration’s ‘Muslim ban.’ President Biden’s Executive Order noted that in targeting Muslim-majority countries, it particularly impacted several African countries. One of the most bewildering inclusions on the list was Chad, which has virtually no record of hosting jihadists. The removal of these restrictions was immediately welcomed by African countries. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 42,000 people were prevented from entering the U.S. due to the “Muslim Ban.”

While this step by President Biden undoubtedly has positive implications for the U.S. immigration system and for soft power more broadly, how the Biden administration approaches racial justice issues domestically will also have broader foreign policy effects. The Black Lives Matter movement, and the Biden-Harris administration’s engagement with it, was seen positively in Africa. Moreover, countries like Nigeria, with a high level of social media users, took advantage of platforms like Twitter to organize protests against police corruption and abuse in recent months in the ‘END SARS’ campaign. Social media platforms have strengthened the global resonance of social justice movements and helped build momentum for political action and calls for government accountability around the globe. While the Biden-Harris administration may seek to avoid an overly interventionist policy in Africa, there will be opportunities for collaboration between U.S. and African civil society organizations on human rights issues, especially regarding police and security sector reform, including through the Global Fragility Act.

Cabinet Picks

Among the most experienced members of Biden’s cabinet and senior policy team who will be advising on Africa are Linda Thomas-Greenfield, nominated for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, previously Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs in President Obama’s second presidential term, and Secretary Lloyd Austin, recently confirmed to lead on Defense. Although President Obama’s “Power Africa” initiative progressed slower than expected, it is probable the Biden-Harris team will renew U.S. focus on collaboration with African countries on economic, COVID-19, climate and migration, and social justice. Secretary Austin was Commander of CENTCOM in the Obama administration and will now set the tone and prioritization of U.S. military and counterterrorism egagement in Africa. Additionally, Dana Banks will be the Biden-Harris administration’s Senior Director for Africa on the National Security Council (NSC). Banks has extensive foreign service experience in Africa and will be an asset to the development of Biden administration policies in Africa.

Counterterrorism Threats

Secretary Austin, for his part, will have to address the fact that the Islamic State is gaining strength in sub-Saharan Africa; it has already proved resilient in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. Collaboration with European partners may be a fruitful route – for example, France is already active in the Sahel combatting Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the al-Qaeda affiliate in the region. In addition, France may step up its efforts to combat Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in Mozambique from French bases in nearby Mayotte island. At the same time, Secretary Austin will have to work with southern African countries that may be needed to support Mozambique’s military, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. The U.S. has already built up extensive military facilities in Niger from which it can counter ISGS and also conduct aerial surveillance in Nigeria. The United Nations has already designated a number of ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates through the ‘1267’ ISIL and al-Qaeda sanctions regime, internationalizing sanctions designed to deny them access to support and resources. As President Biden took office, reports emerged that Chad and Cameroon were planning to enter Nigerian territory to combat Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), otherwise known as “Boko Haram,” in a new offensive. This sub-regional effort against ISWAP could benefit from U.S. intelligence.

Beyond kinetic operations against Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Africa, the Biden administration will also have to work with national partners to cut off jihadist funding streams. Thus far, foreign terrorist designations against these groups have been largely symbolic, but have also provided justification for US military action and sanctions. Nonetheless, reports continue to emerge of groups like ISWAP, ISCAP, and al-Shabaab receiving funding from abroad, including the Gulf region. The U.S. could use its intelligence apparatus and partnerships as well as the foreign terrorist designations to more effectively investigate, restrict, and punish any entities involved in these financial transactions, and strengthen the role of 1267 sanctions through the United Nations when the mandate of the related expert body, the Monitoring Team, is renewed later this year.

U.S. Military Engagement in Africa

In East Africa, the Trump administration recently removed all U.S. troops from Somalia as part of a global troop reduction. Thus, the Biden administration will have to decide whether to continue the drawdown globally or in Africa. President Biden will likely seek Secretary Austin’s advice on troops in Kenya, who have continued airstrikes in Somalia and are somewhat less vulnerable to al-Shabaab attacks there. However, the Biden administration may consider using its forces in Kenya to also launch operations or conduct surveillance in Mozambique, if not also Congo, which also hosts an ISCAP branch on its territory. Various experts have raised concern that ISCAP’s recent evolution and insurgent successes resemble those of Boko Haram previously. As a member of the UN Security Council, Kenya is also likely to renew a call for the UN to designate al-Shabab under the terrorism sanctions regime, reigniting a contentious debate about the impact of counterterrorism measures on humanitarian action.

The risk the Biden-Harris administration faces, however, is that, like the Obama administration, Africa will be one of several key geopolitical priorities. Meanwhile, China continues to build ports and naval infrastructure in East Africa. China has also increased its engagement in counterterrorism in Africa through the United Nations, putting forward its first ever presidential statement in the Security Council last March and investing more heavily in counterterrorism capacity-building on the continent. In addition, and Russian influence is growing, especially in Central African Republic and through arms sales in Sahelian countries. African governments and citizens will be able to tell if the U.S. approach to Africa is serious or mostly rhetorical – it will be up to leading diplomats in the Biden administration to ensure that the continent remains a priority and to engage with Africa in a substantive and meaningful manner that reflects a broad set of security, development and human rights priorities.