By Emily Estelle
Great-power competition and the terrorist threat intersect and interact with one another in Africa and the Middle East.
Interventions on Behalf of Autocratic Rulers
Foreign intervention that adds matériel, fighters, money, and diplomatic cover to prolong and expand wars creates conditions favorable to extremist movements, even if the intervener seeks to install a representative government. But foreign backers do particular damage when they prop up a real or aspirational autocrat.
Such support for autocracies may be intended to preserve an ally in regional competitions or to prevent a change to a governance model that threatens the backers’ own model. Democratic states may also support autocrats in the hopes that a strong leader can deliver security. Unfortunately, this trade-off eventually destroys the potential for legitimate and responsive governance.
Autocracies provide security only temporarily and worsen grievances while they do so. By attempting to crush popular dissent, they instead lay the groundwork for insurgencies. Autocrats make this situation worse by targeting the most broadly palatable parts of the opposition, which are most threatening to their rule.
They leave behind the more extreme wings and use them to discredit all opposition as extremists. Take anti-Islamist autocrats’ crackdowns on political Islam for example. By closing space to a peaceful expression of Islamist opposition, such crackdowns reinforce the arguments of Salafi-jihadis themselves, who claim that the system does not allow peaceful change and that therefore bullets, not ballots—to borrow an al Qaeda leader’s turn of phrase—deliver results.
Crackdowns can create the problem they seek to solve by forcing the government’s opponents into survival mode, driving networks underground and in some cases toward militarization. When autocracies fall, extremist organizations are often the ones to benefit.
The chaos of a regime collapse and the low bar for governance favors actors who come prepared with a plan and can generally quash their internal divisions, a dynamic that favors extremist organizations over diverse and representative oppositions.
This dynamic played out in Tunisia, where Salafi-jihadi activity exploded after its longtime president’s 2011 ouster and yielded both a domestic terrorism challenge and Tunisia’s high foreign fighter outflows to Syria.
Highly repressive governance can also favor extremist groups by forcing opposition groups that would normally resist Salafi-jihadis to cooperate tactically against their common enemy to survive, creating space for Salafi-jihadis to attempt to enforce their ideology over time.
These dynamics played out during Haftar’s 2014–17 campaign to seize Benghazi. His blanket targeting of populations—including displacing civilians of certain tribal and ethnic backgrounds— created an opportunity for Salafi-jihadi groups to form coalitions with other militias, masking their presence and opening a conduit to resources. Some regimes empower extremists deliberately.
Assad and his backers have targeted moderate opposition forces that posed the most serious threat to Assad’s regime. More egregiously, the Assad regime took deliberate steps to strengthen extremist groups by freeing Salafi-jihadi prisoners and covertly transferring weapons to anti-Assad protesters.
These actions sought to prove domestically and internationally that Assad’s opponents were terrorists. This strategy worked in a fashion: The international community rallied to fight the Islamic State threat, leaving the Assad regime to focus on establishing its control in priority areas of the country.
This strategy was also a boon to al Qaeda and related Salafi-jihadi groups that gradually infiltrated the opposition in parts of the country. Assad’s control of Syria is tenuous, even as he tries to present his rule as fait accompli, and Syria has become a base for the Salafi-jihad movement for the foreseeable future.
An autocrats’ success at crushing, buying off, or neutralizing dissenters at home is unlikely to translate to similar success in another country. Regimes that have the resources and savvy to secure their domestic interests struggle to implement this model when intervening in countries that lack the necessary resources, leadership, infrastructure, and level of social control.
The repercussions of autocrats’ interventions are all the more dangerous because autocratic regimes tend to extend conflicts by pursuing maximalist objectives that are grounded in regime security.
They therefore struggle to accept compromises because the implications of those compromises threaten core interests, such as the legitimacy of the state. This results in a pursuit of objectives that appear out of step with the state’s apparent security and economic interests.
For example, the UAE’s support for Haftar’s offensive in Tripoli appeared out of scale with the UAE’s relatively limited security and economic interests in Libya. But the level of Emirati engagement makes more sense as part of the UAE’s ongoing regional battle against real and perceived Islamists, which Emirati leaders consider a threat to regime security.
This does not mean that autocrats pursue existential objectives in all foreign activities to include interventions, but it does mean that they can be more destructive when core interests are at stake; see the significance of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine compared to its comparatively low-stakes deployment to Mozambique.
Repressive governance benefits the Salafi-jihadi movement over time as grievances deepen. This creates a long-term danger for repressive states, but one they de-prioritize for near-term gains. This trade-off is heightened because the real or assumed presence of Salafi-jihadi militants can be a near-term benefit for intervening states seeking cover or justification for subversive intensions.
Extremists and the Vicious Feedback Loop
Revisionist powers capitalize on real and imagined Salafi-jihadi threats to pursue other objectives while making actually combating the Salafi-jihadi threat more difficult. External powers in Libya and Syria have touted military interventions as counterterrorism while focusing their attacks on political rivals instead
of, and sometimes to the benefit of, Salafi-jihadi groups. Claiming the language of counterterrorism hinders international responses to revisionist actions and is ineffective, disruptive, and causes long-term damage to actual counterterrorism objectives.
Revisionist states can claim the counterterrorism mantle to legitimize themselves and shape the international system to their benefit. Russia’s claim to be fighting the Islamic State in Syria was cover for its intervention to prop up Assad and establish a beachhead on the eastern Mediterranean.
But Moscow also sees subtler opportunities to use international counterterrorism missions to legitimize Russian-led security organizations in support of an overarching effort to use regional and international organizations to build a “constellation of alliances and friendly states.”
States may also claim terrorist attacks as justification for operations that they seek to carry out anyway. Egypt responded to domestic terrorist attacks in 2017 by conducting retaliatory strikes against the Islamic State in Libya, but the strikes actually targeted anti-Haftar Islamist militias that were not responsible for the attacks in Egypt.
Intervening states may also conduct counterterrorism operations but often do so in ways that backfire and worsen grievances. Russia has deployed mercenaries to several African conflicts as part of its effort to expand influence on the continent, but these deployments also represent the export of a militarized counterterrorism strategy that is more likely to inflame insurgencies than address their causes.
In other cases, counterterrorism interventions may disrupt Salafi-jihadi groups in the near term while setting conditions for long-term instability. The Emirati counterterrorism mission in Yemen has disrupted al Qaeda’s franchise there but has also led to greater fragmentation and a potential future conflict in southern Yemen due partly to Emirati patronage-building among secessionist groups.
Even if intervening states do not engage in counterproductive counterterrorism efforts or directly undermine counterterrorism, their progress toward their objectives can make it harder for other actors to carry out a bare minimum of counterterrorism actions.
Current US counterterrorism efforts are insufficient to contain, much less defeat, the Salafi-jihadi movement. However, certain counterterrorism actions—such as high-value targeting, direct military action to disrupt Salafi-jihadi operations, and intelligence sharing—have near-term effects that can disrupt Salafi-jihadi attack planning and slow groups’ growth. The prolonging and expanding of conflicts can block or interrupt these efforts.
Most concretely, revisionist powers are conducting military buildups and operations that threaten US freedom of movement, including the ability to sustain current counterterrorism operations. Stand-offs between American and Russian forces in northeastern Syria in February 2020 are an obvious case.
Turkish operations against Kurdish forces, the primary US counterterrorism partner in Syria, have also disrupted the fight against the Islamic State. In Yemen, the Iranian regime has delivered weaponry to the al Houthi movement for targeting Saudi Arabia, but that weaponry is also capable of shooting down US drones and military aircraft engaged in counter-terrorism. Foreign intervention in the Libyan war poses the same risk.
Russian mercenaries shot down a US drone over Tripoli in November 2019. The introduction of more advanced systems by Russia, Turkey, or the UAE may make it difficult for the US to continue the limited strikes that have slowed the Islamic State’s rebuilding in the country—particularly if the Department of Defense moves ahead with potential plans to shutter a drone base in neighboring Niger, leaving the US more dependent on European bases.
Finally, China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti has already been used to disrupt US military operations. A future expansion into the Gulf of Guinea, where China has already begun counter-piracy efforts, would extend this risk to Africa’s Atlantic coast.
Regional squabbles enabled by the weakening of the global order also disrupt governance and undercut counterterrorism initiatives. This effect is most obvious in the Syrian, Libyan, and Yemeni wars but also occurs at a diplomatic level that nonetheless weakens already fragile states. Somalia’s federal government, which relies heavily on foreign aid, has been caught between the Saudi-Emirati and Qatari-Turkish axes since the schism in 2017.
A competition over Somalia’s allegiance—in the context of the militarization of the Horn of Africa—has disrupted foreign security and training missions in the country and even escalated to brawls in the Somali parliament.
The UAE has intensified its support for Somali federal member states, weakening the already extremely fragile federal government and incentivizing the diversion of resources from fighting al Shabaab. This competition is happening as al Shabaab increases its attacks on Americans and seeks to train pilots for international terrorist attacks.
Challenges to US alliances and partnerships can also disrupt counterterrorism coordination. For example, states’ adoption of Chinese telecommunications technology may harm intelligence sharing.
The weakening of the global order and reduced US leadership will make building coalitions, such as the 82-country Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, even more difficult.
Emily Estelle is the research manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. She specializes in the Libya conflict and the Sahel. Ms. Estelle has appeared on MSNBC and published for numerous news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, National Interest, The Hill, and FoxNews.com.