Military Aid Will Not End Terrorism in Africa

March 10, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Africa Tags: NigerBurkina FasoInsurgenciesSomaliaU.S. Military

Military Aid Will Not End Terrorism in Africa

The U.S.’s continued emphasis on security in its dealings with African countries is not making the continent any safer.

As the Islamist military group al-Shabaab continues to pose a threat to Somalia, the United States continues to take action. In February, the administration announced its plan to build five new military bases for Somalia’s Danab brigade, an elite special operations unit of 3,000 soldiers trained and equipped by U.S. troops to fight terrorist group al-Shabaab.

However, the U.S.’s continued emphasis on security over democracy in its dealings with African countries is not making the continent any safer. The data is clear on this point: Africa has seen a twenty percent uptick in fatalities from Islamist violence (with 83 percent of those fatalities occurring in the Sahel and Somalia) alongside six coups since 2021.

These issues are inextricably linked to U.S. policy. American policymakers’ efforts to combat Islamist groups via regional military assistance have inadvertently spurred military coups. Instead, the United States must alter its emphasis on military aid towards diplomacy and democracy to combat these groups’ influence effectively.

Niger offers a case study of this phenomenon. Although the United States eventually ended military aid to the country after the July 2023 coup led by Nigerien General Abdourahmane Tchiani, it continues to operate an “expensive and ineffective” drone base that houses 1,100 American troops. At least five members of Niger’s junta received military training from the United States, including Tchiani, who attended a seminar on counterterrorism at the National Defense University in Washington, DC from 2009 to 2010.

The link between military training and coups is no coincidence. While discussing their 2017 article, Jesse Dillion Savage and Jonathan Caverly noted, “By strengthening the military in states with few counterbalancing civilian institutions, U.S. foreign military training can lead to both more military-backed coup attempts, as well as a higher likelihood of a coup’s success.” According to the authors, the “professional identity” of the military gives soldiers a sense of separation and superiority in relation to their government, which could lead to a “temptation to intervene in political affairs.”

The chain of events for these coups is clear. The United States provides security assistance to the military of a state facing an insurgency, only for that military to turn against the civilian government in the name of fighting said insurgency. The leadership of the juntas in Burkina Faso and Niger both claimed that the civilian government had failed to deal with insurgent violence. Meanwhile, civilians continue to suffer under the rule of repressive regimes and face violence from insurgents and soldiers alike.

Despite these failings, the Biden administration is pursuing the same policy in Somalia. Security assistance to Somalia is not a new policy, as the United States provided $500 million in assistance to the Somali military between 2010 and 2020, notwithstanding the additional $2.5 billion it has sent to different African Union missions in the country. While President Trump withdrew all 700 U.S. troops from Somalia in 2020, President Biden later reversed this decision and returned an estimated 450 soldiers to the country. The United States has also supported the Somali military with drone strikes, launching 262 attacks since 2007.

But this aid has not led to the defeat of al-Shabaab. Although a recent offensive by the Somali National Army and its clan militia allies, along with drone strikes by the United States and Turkey, had success in taking back towns and villages in Hirshabelle and Galmudug in central Somalia, al-Shababb has proven to be a national fixture. The group gains $100 million in annual revenue from extorting taxes from Somali civilians and intimidates local businesses in Mogadishu through attacks with improvised explosive devices.

Al-Shabaab’s success is directly linked to the ineffectiveness of governing institutions in Somalia. The rule of law is nearly nonexistent—as indicated by its 0/16 score across all “Rule of Law” categories in Freedom House’s 2023 rankings. Political authority remains divided, and corruption is rampant. Grievances from these conditions assist the group’s recruitment while also allowing al-Shabaab to take on a governing role by providing essential services to local populations and implementing a Sharia-based legal system.

The Somali government’s weakness means that al-Shabaab will retain its influence for the foreseeable future. If the government remains weak as the military gets stronger through U.S. aid and training, a military takeover becomes more likely—and Somali civilians will continue to suffer.

The United States must reject its military-focused approach to Somalia to prevent this outcome and engage with its civil society. This approach requires the United States to adjust its target. “Western governments must therefore be ready to engage not only a junta and its supporting forces but also local officials, civil society groups, and religious and community leaders,” argued Joseph Sany and Kehinde A. Togun in Foreign Affairs.

Engaging with local groups and businesses through conversations and displays of mutual recognition will help promote democracy by empowering Somalia’s civil society. From this position of strength, these groups can better advocate for policies to improve the lives of Somalians—such as by improving infrastructure or implementing business-friendly policies—despite facing repression from the central government and al-Shabaab.

Another tangible step the United States could take in this regard is to increase bilateral trade between the United States and Somalia, specifically by accepting Somalia’s application to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides African countries increased access to U.S. markets through the removal of import tariffs on African goods. The increased investment resulting from improved trade ties can improve Somalia’s poor economic growth, helping set the conditions for higher wages and better access to education and healthcare. Somali businesses and workers should not be punished for the democratic failure of its government, as the Biden administration decided regarding Gabon, Niger, Uganda, and the Central African Republic.

Unfortunately, none of these proposals can be effectively implemented in the throes of a civil war. This means that the Somali government must engage with al-Shabaab and local authorities to achieve some consensus on governance for Somalia. The United States ought to focus on helping leaders open lines of communication through proactive negotiations so that both sides can gain a deeper understanding of each other’s long-term objectives while also working towards a ceasefire that allows for the free flow of people and goods. Complete agreement on a proper course of action is unlikely. Still, U.S. and Somali leaders alike should focus on creating the conditions for all sides to mutually exist without conflict, whether this includes integration or another approach.

There is no magic formula for making Somalia—and Africa as a whole—generally safer for its people. But it’s clear that an emphasis on democracy, diplomacy, and economic growth will go further than the U.S.’s continued prioritization of military aid.

William Rampe is a Young Voices contributor studying Government at Hamilton College. His commentary on foreign policy has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Reason,, and the Organization for World Peace. Follow him on Twitter @WRampe7.