In October 2017, attackers affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State ambushed a small contingent of U.S. special operations forces in Niger. The resulting firefight left four U.S. soldiers dead and sparked a political firestorm. The soldiers’ presence in Niger seemed to catch the U.S. public and Congress by surprise. Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, admitted that he “didn’t know there [were] a thousand troops in Niger.” Senator Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the committee, was equally puzzled: “I think the administration has to be more clear about our role in Niger and our role in other areas in Africa and other parts of the globe.”

Steven Feldstein
Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where he focuses on issues of democracy and technology, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy.
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But the senators should not have been taken aback. Since the creation of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007, the U.S. military has steadily expanded its security footprint in sub-Saharan Africa. Experts estimate that over 6,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed throughout the continent in approximately forty-six sites, which include forward operating bases, cooperative security locations (such as drone installations), and contingency locations.

Yet terrorist attacks have only moderately increased in sub-Saharan Africa since 2007 and have decreased significantly since the 2014–2015 peak. When the two deadliest organizations are removed from the analysis—al-Shabab and Boko Haram—the rise in terrorist incidents over the last decade is very modest. Moreover, few African insurgencies pose a direct threat to U.S. core interests. Most are regionally concentrated and relate to local grievances that have a largely  domestic focus. The scale and growth of the U.S. military response runs the risk of exacerbating rather than mitigating risks to the United States. Civilian efforts are more effective than military actions to prevent extremist groups’ mobilization and recruitment, yet U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration shows no signs of mounting a vigorous civilian-oriented strategy to address the challenges that do exist.

Assessing Terrorist Violence in Africa

Does the terrorist threat in Africa justify the response from the United States?1 A key justification offered is that terrorist violence is climbing at a rapid rate and that U.S. military assets are needed to contain the violence and preserve stability. Policymakers regularly cite statistics that show terrorist attacks in Africa have spiked from around 400 annually in 2007 to over 2,000 by 2016. In a 2015 speech, General Donald Bolduc, head of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), emphasized threats posed by the Islamic State, al-Shabab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as well as the danger posed by “43 other illicit groups.” In an internal military report in 2016, Bolduc additionally asserted: “Africa’s challenges could create a threat that surpasses the threat that the United States currently faces from conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.”

Certainly, violence from terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa has escalated in the past decade. But a close look at the data from two authoritative databases—the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD) and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)—points to more modest increases than what U.S. policymakers and military officials routinely describe.2

The GTD specifically focuses on terrorist incidents, in contrast to the ACLED database, which records broader incidents of political violence. One of the GTD’s most notable findings is a decade-long increase in terrorist attacks and fatalities in Africa: from 114 attacks and 1,944 fatalities in 2006, to 2,051 attacks and 13,182 fatalities in 2016 (fatalities include both perpetrators and victims). Tightening the criteria to only include attacks that are unambiguously terrorist-related (via the “doubt terrorism proper” GTD filter) substantially lowers the numbers: terrorist incidents in 2006 drop to 101 with 1,880 fatalities and in 2016 fall to 1,612 incidents with 9,620 fatalities.

The data set also includes terrorist incidents linked to domestic insurgencies that have little impact on core U.S. interests—such as violence associated with South Sudan’s civil war or the Great Lakes region. Therefore, it is valuable to narrow the criteria to only include (1) unambiguous terrorist incidents and (2) incidents linked to active militant Islamist groups that directly impact core U.S. national security (this analysis uses criteria from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, or ACSS, to include the following organizations: AQIM and its affiliates, al-Shabab, Nusrat al-Islam, Boko Haram, the Islamic State and its affiliates, and related jihadi-inspired extremists).

Two noteworthy findings emerge. First, overall levels of terrorism on the continent drop much further—by an additional 50 percent in 2016. Terrorist incidents in 2006 fall to thirty-five with 122 fatalities. The number of incidents in 2016 falls to 801 with 4,536 fatalities. Second, the data also show that terrorist incidents rise steadily through 2014—where they hit a peak of 1,202 attacks and 16,176 casualties—before sharply plummeting.

Despite using a broader definitional rubric of political violence, the ACLED database reveals similar trends. Narrowing the ACLED’s criteria to only include incidents involving militant Islamist groups shows forty-one attacks in 2006 with thirty-seven fatalities. This climbs to a peak of 15,791 fatalities in 2015 (from 2,129 incidents), before falling steeply in 2017 to 8,386 fatalities (from 2,498 incidents).

The GTD and ACLED data challenge the consensus among policymakers that terrorist attacks in Africa have steadily and persistently increased in the past decade (see figure 1).

What explains the dramatic surge in terrorist attacks between 2014 and 2015 before plunging thereafter? A closer look at the data confirms that Boko Haram and al-Shabab were responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks in Africa during this period (see figure 2).

When al-Shabab and Boko Haram are taken out, the 2014–2015 terrorist surge represents only a modest increase, and likely would have resulted in much less attention from policymakers.

Do al-Shabab and Boko Haram Threaten the United States?

The two groups present two diverging pictures. According to the GTD, al-Shabab’s lethality has decreased since its 2014 peak—from over 2,000 killed to fewer than 1,500 fatalities in 2016—but it can still pull off devastating attacks. The GTD shows a moderate decline between 2014 and 2016 (from 496 attacks and 2,042 fatalities to 334 attacks and 1,476 fatalities). In contrast, the ACLED shows a modest rise—from 1,358 incidents with 3,286 casualties in 2014 to 1,779 incidents with 4,604 fatalities in 2017.

Notwithstanding this variance, both datasets clearly show that al-Shabab remains a potent and active force capable of inflicting substantial harm. The U.S. intelligence community similarly notes that al-Shabab’s operations in the region “have diminished after the deaths of many external plotters since 2015” but that the group “retains the resources, manpower, influence, and operational capabilities to pose a real threat to the region, especially Kenya.” However, to date, the only external operation linked to al-Shabab in Europe or the United States was a failed attack against a Danish cartoonist in 2010. Al-Shabab does have a semi-successful track record of recruiting Somali Americans, mostly from Minnesota, to fight in Somalia, but those numbers remain low.

Al-Shabab is a continuing concern for U.S. policymakers because it operates in a weak, ungoverned area that has a history of harboring lethal terrorist offshoots, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State in Somalia—whose fighters the United States targeted for the first time in early November 2017. Unlike other terrorist organizations, such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab has “excelled” at challenging the Somali authorities and “offering itself as an alternative government option.” A fair argument can also be made that al-Shabab has concentrated its activity in Somalia and the region due to U.S. military success in degrading its capabilities via drone strikes and special operations. If the United States and its allies eased their pressure and allowed the group to rebuild, a future attack against Europe or the United States would not be inconceivable.

Boko Haram presents a very different story: its lethality has plunged from its 2014–2015 peak (see figure 3). While Boko Haram still retains a core capacity to launch destructive attacks, it is on a downward trend and has lost much of its recruiting appeal.

The group publicly pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, renaming itself the Islamic State in West Africa. Subsequently, Boko Haram splintered into two rival factions, with the Islamic State naming a new leader to replace the existing head, Abubakar Shekau. By now, there are serious doubts that much coordination exists between the two Boko Haram groups and the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria.

As Alice Hunt Friend writes in the National Interest, “In the guessing game that is counterterrorism forecasting, West Africa seems to be more on the demand than the supply side of global violent extremism—a market for what Al Qaeda, [the Islamic State] and others are peddling rather than a source of global terrorist entrepreneurs.”

Some argue that judging Boko Haram only by its current actions and disregarding its future potential for threatening the United States would be a grave miscalculation. J. Peter Pham, from the Atlantic Council, contends that “just because the majority of actors and the incidents they are responsible for are domestic to African countries does not mean that they cannot and do not evolve into international threats.” It is true that the intelligence picture for Boko Haram is murky and that the group has a past history of targeting international institutions in Nigeria, such as its 2011 attack against the UN headquarters in Abuja. At the same time, Pham acknowledges that Boko Haram’s success “has largely been the result of its denunciations of the Nigerian political elites resonating with many ordinary citizens.” While this has brought significant instability to neighboring countries, it is less likely to translate to the international context.

What About the Islamic State?

Analysts are paying increased attention to the Islamic State’s expansion on the continent, as a result of both its defeat in Libya’s Sirte last year and the additional militants returning home from Syria. They are focused on three branches: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the Islamic State in Somalia, and Jahba East Africa.

ISGS is a splinter faction from another Sahel group and declared its affiliation with the Islamic State in 2015. For most of 2016 it appeared moribund—only to reemerge with three publicized attacks in late 2016. The group was mostly quiet in 2017 until returning to policymakers’ attention with the October assault that killed four U.S. special forces soldiers.

The Islamic State in Somalia has a small area of operations in Puntland, but it is gaining in strength. The latest report from the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea notes that an “influx of foreign fighters fleeing military pressure in Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic and elsewhere” could enhance the group’s limited capacity. In early November 2017, the U.S. military carried out its first airstrikes against the group. Jabha East Africa is a third splinter group. It has carried out relatively fewer attacks than its cohorts; its most prominent operation was a 2016 assault on a convoy from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

In 2017, cumulative attacks and fatalities linked to Islamic State affiliates (excluding Boko Haram) have significantly increased. ACLED shows forty-nine attacks resulting in 152 deaths in 2017, in contrast to four attacks and twelve casualties in 2016.

But the Islamic State’s underlying strength in Africa is suspect. Attacks linked to the Islamic State still represent a tiny portion of attacks overall on the continent. The affiliates are little more than small breakaway factions that pale in comparison to their larger parent organizations. Joseph Siegle from the ACSS notes that the Islamic State “is, by and large, not well-rooted in the communities where Africa’s most active violent Islamist groups operate. This is particularly so in sub-Saharan Africa.” Policymakers should not conflate intermittent operations with sustained organizational strength.

Conclusions From the Data

Overall trends in terrorist attacks and fatalities have increased at a much more moderate rate over the last ten years in Africa than conventional wisdom suggests. Both the GTD and ACLED clearly show an aggregate decline in violence and fatalities from a peak in 2014–2015.

Much of this decline is due to the collapse of Boko Haram; fatalities linked to the group have fallen by 70 percent. In contrast, al-Shabab has increased its core strength and is moderately expanding. While AMISOM and U.S. strikes have moved al-Shabab out of urban centers and decimated a key portion of its leadership, the group can still carry out major attacks.

If Boko Haram and al-Shabab are discounted from the analysis, the overall growth in terrorist-related violence in Africa is significantly smaller over the ten-year period. The purported rise of the Islamic State has yet to bear out either in terms of frequency or scale of attacks. AQIM remains a real threat, although not to the same scale as Boko Haram or al-Shabab.

Even if certain threats do not directly threaten core U.S. priorities, does it not fall within broader U.S. interests to promote stability in volatile areas like the Lake Chad Basin? This article does not dispute this contention. Denying sanctuary to Boko Haram in Northeast Nigeria and ensuring neighboring countries do not descend into failed states are important considerations. Ultimately they affect U.S. security interests. But in a world of finite resources, it is important to develop a sharper-edged hierarchy of priorities to determine which interventions are most urgent and which are of lesser importance. Unfortunately, the Department of Defense consistently fails to do this. Senior officials name scores of threats emanating from the African continent, but they rarely provide data-driven justifications for resource requests and proposed missions. All threats are not created equal. The United States should consider with more specificity what the data and trends indicate before making decisions. This will lead to a more efficient allocation of resources and will ensure that the biggest threats are dealt with most effectively.

The U.S. Military Buildup

In 2016, approximately 17 percent of all special operations forces deployed overseas were in Africa: 1,700 personnel in twenty countries. In contrast, just 1 percent was based in Africa in 2006. U.S. forces are concentrated in a few areas—largely in East Africa and the Sahel; there are few military assets stationed in southern Africa.

The military has adopted a “hub and spoke” model—Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti (and Stuttgart to a certain extent) serves as the central hub. An array of smaller, temporary installations complement this hub, including basic cooperative security locations in Gabon, Ghana, and Senegal; drone installations in Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, and Somalia; and a new $100 million facility in Agadez, Niger. Investigative journalist Nick Turse estimates that the overall U.S. military network in Africa consists of forty-six sites: two forward operating bases, thirteen cooperative security locations, and thirty-one contingency locations.

Many of these installations have only been established in the past several years. In part, they reflect the United States’ evolving counterterrorism strategy, which has moved away from large-scale conventional warfare (such as in Iraq and Afghanistan) to a “light-footprint model” that emphasizes special operations and drone strikes.

The geotagged map below illustrates this spread, based on open-source documentation, to visually depict the current scale of U.S. military activities in Africa.

Supporting such a dense network of bases is expensive. While documentation is sparse, reports confirm a sharp rise in U.S. military expenditures. Major funding outlays include $1.2 billion to upgrade Camp Lemonnier to a permanent installation; $228 million for a Navy special operations compound in Camp Lemonnier; and a new $49 million air support contract covering nineteen countries. In the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act just signed into law by the president, Congress appropriated $186.5 million for “contingency operations” and $225.3 million for “operation and maintenance costs” for AFRICOM.

But focusing only on military installations provides an incomplete picture of AFRICOM’s full range of activities. As scholars Adam Moore and James Walker observe, “less noted—but just as critical—are various bureaucratic and military practices that are instrumental in ‘forging alignment’ between U.S. and African states and militaries, and facilitating flows of money, weapons, knowledge, people and ideologies in the assemblage.” Specifically, they point to status of force agreements, multinational training exercises, overflight authorizations, security cooperation agreements, and military-to-military assistance programs that have allocated “billions of dollars to the Department of Defense to distribute to select countries to pay for equipment and training for counterterrorism purposes.”

One of the biggest new areas of investment for the U.S. military has been to develop a continent-wide drone and surveillance network. Known facilities include the aforementioned sites in Cameroon and Niger. Additional installations can be found in Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Kenya, the Seychelles, Somalia, and Uganda. These facilities host both lethal and nonlethal aircraft (MQ-1 Predators, MQ-9 Reapers, and PC-12) that are used to undertake continuous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations and to conduct lethal strikes against high-value targets.

U.S. military commanders maintain they are “not at war in Africa,” yet the facts on the ground point to a different conclusion. In March 2017, for example, Trump declared Somalia to be an “area of active hostilities,” thereby loosening civilian protection standards. As of November 2017, AFRICOM had acknowledged carrying out twenty-eight drone strikes that year, including for seven straight days in November, leading to the deaths of over forty-five fighters. While the United States may not be officially at war in Africa, U.S. government officials readily acknowledge that they are operating in a gray zone. In an article in the Small Wars Journal, Bolduc affirmed that his forces “operate in the space between war and peace in a complex, volatile, uncertain and ambiguous environment.”

Indeed, the statistics reveal a sharp increase in U.S. special operations activity in this gray zone. According to a 2016 internal report from SOCAFRICA, Bolduc’s forces are conducting “96 activities in 20 countries” daily. This is a major uptick from even 2014, when the U.S. military carried out a total of 674 military activities, or approximately two per day.

To critics of the U.S. buildup in Africa, this narrative resembles a never-ending commitment: the more the military publicizes new terrorist threats, the more it is justified when increasing troop numbers and equipment on the continent. It also points to an increased blurring of the lines between “war and not-war.” As Rosa Brooks puts it, the military is performing “a thousand other activities . . . intended to ‘shape the battlespace,’ prevent and deter future conflict, and disrupt or destroy the capabilities of potential adversaries, whoever—and wherever—they may be.”

But U.S. military commanders argue that the gray zone is precisely where conflicts are born and must be prevented. The 2017 AFRICOM posture statement is illuminating. It argues that the greatest threat to U.S. interests in Africa comes from violent extremist organizations (VEOs) that are “competing for primacy over other extremist movements in Africa.” It contends that VEOs are taking advantage of ungoverned spaces and are ready to “target our partners, our allies, and the U.S.” The message is blunt: not only is military engagement required to forestall threats to the United States, but the battle will be won or lost in the gray zones.

Is the U.S. Military Buildup Good Policy?

Despite data showing that terrorist attacks are only moderately increasing in Africa—and have decreased significantly since the 2014–2015 peak—U.S. military engagement remains on a sharp upward trajectory.

There are several possible explanations for this divergence. One is that AFRICOM’s expansion has helped reduce terrorist threats and that continued investment is needed to maintain progress. Unfortunately, the data do not support this argument. Boko Haram provides a useful example. A large reason for its reduction in violence is because of losses it suffered in 2015 and 2016. While the United States has played an important role in organizing a multinational force and bolstering regional capabilities against the group, it suffered a falling out with the Nigerian government during that same period. At the low point, Nigeria suspended a planned U.S. training of an infantry battalion, the United States indicated it was hesitant to share intelligence with the Nigerians for fear of infiltration, and the Nigerian ambassador engaged in a war of words with the United States, accusing Washington of hindering the campaign against Boko Haram. It was largely the Nigerian military and partner forces from Cameroon, Chad, and Niger (along with major assistance from South African military contractors) that turned the tide against Boko Haram. At best, the U.S. military played a supporting role.

Another explanation is that public data regarding terrorist trends are incomplete—that the U.S. military has access to clandestine threat information that requires a heightened presence on the continent. However, there are no indications that this scenario is true. U.S. military commanders continue to speak in generalized terms about the broader threat from VEOs. While they have detailed their concern that the Islamic State may gain a foothold on the continent, no one claims that the Islamic State is rapidly mobilizing or successfully recruiting scores of militants to take up their cause; real-time 2018 data do not show a major uptick in violence or casualties attributed to Islamic State affiliates in Africa.

A third explanation is that the nature of terrorism in Africa is changing. Groups that previously focused on domestic objectives—such as AQIM, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and ISGS—are reorienting to launch external attacks in Europe and the United States. Likewise, there is no indication that any of the major terrorist groups operating in Africa have decided to reorient their efforts and strike external targets. Boko Haram has never shown an interest or demonstrated a capability in operating outside the Lake Chad Basin. While policymakers continue to have legitimate concerns that al-Shabab could redirect strikes against the United States or Europe, thus far, it has only been linked to a single knife attack in Europe in 2010. The Islamic State affiliates are too small and diffuse to represent major threats to the United States at this point.

The primary justification that the military provides for continued U.S. expansion is that the gray zone environment is fraught and that threats from large-scale unemployment and “disenfranchisement from corrupt governments and abusive security forces” make African citizens “prime targets for exploitation by criminal and terrorist organizations across the continent.” AFRICOM is not making a military argument; it is making a development argument. In fact, military leaders also acknowledge that the root cause of this fragility is weak governance—something that is “not a core mission of the Department of Defense.”

Therein lies the crux of the issue. It is not clear that the terrorist threat, or AFRICOM’s stated mission, requires a major military buildup. If anything, the U.S. military has made a strong case for a vigorous civilian investment in democracy and governance programming. But rather than intensify investments in civilian programming, successive U.S. administrations, including Barack Obama’s administration, have slashed democracy and governance funding. The Trump administration has not been an outlier in this regard—though it has proposed even more drastic cuts to U.S. foreign aid programs despite that civilian agencies are ideally placed to complement the military mission and to lead longer-term programming to strengthen local institutions, tackle corruption, and empower citizens. The consequence is that the military sees a mission unfilled and takes it on, even if ill-suited to it.

Paradoxically, many experts argue that a large foreign military footprint would exacerbate the very governance vulnerabilities identified by AFRICOM. For example, regarding the increased foreign military presence in the Sahel, Professor Yvan Guichaoua told the Washington Post: “Targeting these groups is the best way to make their leaders heroes, foster unity in jihadi ranks, and inflame communal violence.” He added, “All policymakers working in the area know well the highly inflammable nature of the situation.” Likewise, Alexis Arieff, from the Congressional Research Service, notes that the enlarged foreign military footprint in Niger “appears to have fed local backlash against both the government and Western countries.”

A foreign military buildup can also help strengthen and entrench authoritarian regimes responsible for serious violations of human rights. Over time, these abuses may foment grievances that can lay the groundwork for violent insurgencies and terrorism. A quick look at some of the United States’ key partners in the Sahel is telling. In Mali, reports have emerged about security force abuses, which include “extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests against men accused of supporting Islamist armed groups.” In Cameroon, Amnesty International alleges that the U.S.-trained Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) committed systematic war crimes at two unofficial detention centers. One of the detention centers is located in the village Salak at BIR headquarters, which is a shared military facility with the United States.

Finally, some scholars contend that sustained U.S. military engagement with partner forces foments greater long-term instability, such as increasing the probability of a military coup. Using data from 189 countries over a thirty-nine-year period, one study found that training “alters the balance of power” between military and civilian authorities and increases the likelihood that security services will attempt a violent overthrow. Examples abound of U.S.-trained officers—like Amadou Sanogo in Mali or deposed Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh—who led coups against democratically elected governments.

So why have successive U.S. administrations continued to invest inordinate resources in expanding AFRICOM?

One major reason relates to what Rosa Brooks has coined the “Walmart-ization of the U.S. military.” As the roles and boundaries of what the military ought to be responsible for have become increasingly murky, the U.S. military has become a “Super Walmart” that offers vast resources and economies of scale to address any situation. Former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell describes this phenomenon as the “securitization” of U.S. foreign policy, arguing that since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, huge increases in Pentagon resources have led successive U.S. administrations to entrust the military with solving a growing array of nonmilitary problems. The temptation to turn to the military whenever a crisis hits often proves irresistible to policymakers. Instead of undertaking painstaking diplomacy or development work to help governments untangle deep-rooted grievances, it is far simpler to authorize additional ISR operations and target insurgent leaders for assassination.

The Trump White House shows little awareness of the trade-offs between authorizing increased U.S. military involvement and pursuing a more vigorous civilian strategy. The White House has taken months to settle on a senior White House Africa adviser, let alone nominate a State Department assistant secretary for Africa policy. Sub-Saharan Africa has traditionally received fewer resources and less senior-level attention from the State Department than any other region. The department’s Africa bureau remains weak, attracting less talent from the Foreign Service despite deep challenges requiring comprehensive solutions backed by substantial resources. Rather than redress these issues, the Trump administration has made things worse, further stripping the State Department of personnel and resources.

The few affirmative decisions taken by the White House have been steps in the wrong direction. In the wake of the Niger attack, the Pentagon revealed that it would expand its counterterrorism focus toward Africa and would adopt a “status-based targeting” system. This means that even if a suspected terrorist is a low-level foot soldier who does not represent an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, mid-level U.S. commanders can now authorize lethal strikes against that person. In other words, rather than asking tough questions about whether the U.S. counterterrorism strategy is bringing results, Washington has simply ratcheted up military operations. While this may increase enemy body counts, lessons learned from wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam indicate this will not bring victory.


Based on the data, policymakers and practitioners need to ask hard questions about whether the terrorist threat justifies a continuing U.S. military buildup in Africa. In particular, does the high level of threat from al-Shabab, and the continued (albeit diminished) threat from Boko Haram, justify a broader expansion across the continent? Or would U.S. interests be better served by focusing primarily on confronting al-Shabab and working with partners to contain secondary threats, but otherwise refraining from setting up permanent installations that involve deployments of thousands of personnel?

There is a strong argument to be made that a continuing buildup of U.S. military forces in sub-Saharan Africa is neither strategically smart nor a good use of resources. Many of the terrorist groups currently on the U.S. military’s watch list—for which the military is deploying additional special operations troops and building new installations—do not directly impact core U.S. interests. In addition, past history suggests that the U.S. military is often not the best institution to address some of the root causes driving continuing conflict and instability on the continent.

Given complicated local dynamics, ethnic cleavages, and long-standing resentment against foreign military interventions, adopting innovative diplomatic and development approaches may better serve U.S. policy interests. Such a rebalancing would involve investing greater resources to enhance diplomatic and negotiating capacity in order to head off destabilizing conflicts before they metastasize into serious crises. It would entail providing more funding to longer-term democracy and governance programming that would give greater ownership to local communities, support anticorruption efforts by civil society groups, or improve government responsiveness.

Finally, the Trump administration should think long and hard about its current embrace of authoritarian leaders and their repressive governments. The emergence of insurgent and terrorist groups in response to political repression is well-documented. A diplomatic strategy that seeks to change the behavior of authoritarian states and advance democratic principles, rather than coddle dictators who profess to share counterterrorism objectives, would bring meaningful benefits. Unfortunately, such work is painstaking and requires patience. It does not deliver the immediate satisfaction of a missile strike that eliminates terrorist adversaries. But in the long run, a more balanced approach will reap significant dividends when it comes to bringing peace and stability to the continent.


1 For this analysis, data linked to countries in North Africa are not included; instead, the analysis adopts the geographic delineation of Africa used by the Department of State.

2 This article uses GTD’s definition of terrorism: “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.” Specifically, this means that the incident in question must be intentional, that the incident results in some level of violence or immediate threat of violence, and that the perpetrators of the attacks are subnational actors (which excludes state terrorism). For further information and data tables, see the attached appendix.