Violent non-state actors: The challenges of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in Africa

Caroline Varin

Introduction

The African continent has been the operating theatre for a large number of violent non-state actors (VNSAs). These have been categorised as insurgents, terrorists, criminals, rebels, guerrillas, warlords, pirates and so on. The distinctions are based on group size, operational capabilities, tactics, legitimacy, but very often end up being politicised depending on the authority of the central government and their relationship with the VNSA. Part of the challenge to countering violent non-state actors in Africa is defining the appropriate strategy to address the type of violence taking place. The public discourse on violent actors has further conflated all manifestations of political violence into the term “terrorism”. However, there are significant differences between terrorism and other types of violence, especially on the continent. While some violence is politically motivated, many VNSAs are driven by economic, ethnic or historical reasons to pick up arms. These require a different strategy depending on whether the population is heavily involved in or victimised by the group.

Furthermore, the local geographical and political landscape has made it easy for VNSAs to work together, merge and adapt, thereby changing their nature as they cross borders and encounter other like-minded groups. This has made it increasingly difficult to organise effective counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies, all the more so as most countries on the continent still refuse to invest in intelligence gathering domestically and share their findings regionally.

This chapter will begin by outlining the differences between terrorism and insurgency as defined in the literature. It argues that these labels are important but often politicised and not adapted to the situation in many African conflicts. As a result, it is critical to understand the type of violence taking place in each location and take note of the increasing trend of groups to work together and learn from each other, leading to hybridisation of VNSAs. This makes it all the more difficult to address and counter these combatants, requiring governments and the armed forces to work together and adapt to the threat at hand.

 
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