The Legacy of 9/11 on African Civil Society – Foreign Policy Research Institute
A nation must think before it acts.
The September 11, 2001, al Qaeda terror attacks on the United States are undoubtedly one of the deadliest attacks to be carried out by an extremist group. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.
Responding to this act of terror, the United States launched several operations as a part of its Global War on Terror (GWOT). On September 18, President George W. Bush signed the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF). On September 24, he announced the U.S. response: “At 12:01 a.m. this morning, a major thrust of our war on terrorism began with the stroke of a pen. Today, we have launched a strike on the financial foundation of the global terror network. But the American people must understand this war on terrorism will be fought on a variety of fronts, in different ways.” A month later, the GWOT began in earnest with the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The United States invaded Afghanistan and targeted al Qaeda and the Taliban. U.S. military personnel found it difficult to distinguish between terrorists who had committed the act and those who harbored them. Operation Enduring Freedom intended to maintain pressure inside Afghanistan to destroy the al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban government. Within two months, U.S. forces managed to remove the Taliban from operational power. In 2011, President Barack Obama announced the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, which was followed by Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. This next phase of the war prepared for the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces, which concluded in August 2021 under the Biden administration. The U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan does not end the terror threat
Despite the American drawdown, the GWOT is not finished. Recent attacks in Mozambique showcase that Africa is fast becoming a central front for terrorist groups. The security situation in Africa has deteriorated in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mozambique, Chad, Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Libya. U.S. policy choices have an impact on Africa, which is poorly resourced, and Washington is likely to approach counterterrorism in Africa lightly as Americans are weary of these conflicts.
The Afghanistan withdrawal should begin a process of re-evaluating the strategies used during the GWOT, especially the negative ramifications of policies focused on civil society, particularly on civil society organizations in Africa. Now is the time to make civil society in Africa better without stifling it and blocking aid where it is most need.
In 2007, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa under the jurisdiction of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). The operation emphasized diplomacy, defense, and development in helping “negate the drivers of conflict and extremism in Africa.” The areas of responsibility comprised mainly Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Seychelles, and Kenya. The U.S. contribution consisted mainly of advisers, suppliers, Special Forces, non-combat support, and drone strikes on al-Shabaab. In addition, the building of long-term partnerships was forged with African nations, regional organizations, and the African Union. However, 20 years after 9/11 and 14 years after the creation of AFRICOM, violent extremism and terrorism remain one of Africa’s most significant security threats.
Over the past 15 years, rapidly rising insurgency and violent extremism have expanded across the continent. East, West, and Southern Africa have seen the scourge of this phenomenon, as well as West and Central Africa, the Sahel region, Gulf of Guinea, and the Lake Chad region. Washington has been consistent in assisting the continent in combatting violent extremism, and some of the noticeable implications of relying on the United States to fight terrorists have resulted in the inappropriate development of military institutions and the lack of principles for human security.
Moreover, the ruling governments in Africa do not have enough resources to fight these insurgencies. A perfect example is the Cabo Delgado region in Mozambique. Nigeria still struggles with Boko Haram. It is not far-fetched for Africans to worry about the implications of the U.S. withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan as extremist violence continues to rise in Africa.
Moreover, the U.S. exit from Afghanistan represents an opportunity for the Islamic State to target Africa. The African continent could become a safe haven for other terror organizations as the exit from Afghanistan highlights a new level of uncertainty and could motivate regional players into joining in violent extremism. The U.S exit from Afghanistan provides a lesson for countries that they should be advocating for lasting relationships that build ties. The presence of the U.S. army could result in the destabilization of the African continent and could undermine the establishment and growth of civil society in Africa. Most of the security challenges come from underdevelopment, which is the result of an overreliance on the U.S. military.
Civil society organizations and philanthropy play a pivotal role in developing and safeguarding human rights in developing countries, especially in Africa. Before 9/11, Washington was an ardent supporter of civil society organizations. It was a tool to strengthen developing democracies, especially in the post-Cold War era. After 9/11, there was a dramatic shift in attitude and policy towards civil society organizations by governments and heads of states.
Civil society was another front for the GWOT. President Bush spoke plainly when he stated, “To show you how insidious these terrorists are, they often times use nice-sounding, non-governmental organizations as fronts for their activities. We have targeted three such NGOs. We intend to deal with them, just like we intend to deal with others who aid and abet terrorist organizations.”
On September 23, 2001, he issued Executive Order 13224. This order relied on the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which allows the president to restrict donations of food, medicine, and clothing for humanitarian aid. However, a president can only implement these powers if the aid impairs his ability to deal with a national emergency, or if they endanger American troops. The order froze assets and bank accounts of entities and individuals that supported terrorism and terrorists behind 9/11 in the United States. It also compelled and coerced other countries and financial institutions abroad to monitor civil society organizations.
Executive Order 13224 negatively affected the provision of aid and humanitarian assistance in Africa, especially in the Horn of Africa. For example, it is difficult to deliver aid in Somalia without violating the EO’s restrictions. Al Shabaab controls some parts of Somalia, so organizations that deliver aid need to pay tolls and taxes to Al Shabaab.
A few days after Bush signed EO 13224, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution (UNSCR) 1373. The resolution called on states to criminalize acts that may finance terrorism, “Criminalize the wilful provision or collection, by any means, directly or indirectly, of funds by their nationals or in their territories with the intention that the funds should be used, or in the knowledge that they are to be used, in order to carry out terrorist acts.” While these actions attempted to combat terrorism and the financial holdings of terror groups, they negatively impacted regular civil society organizations and organizations that threatened the power of autocrats. Analyst Ben Hayes rightly notes, “In the absence of a commonly agreed definition of terrorism, states implementing the Resolution were left free to decide who the ‘terrorists’ are on the basis of their national interest. At a stroke, longstanding-armed conflicts between states and non-state actors were recast into domestic ‘wars on terror,’ undermining legitimate struggles for self-determination.”
The civil society front of the GWOT has resulted in states taking advantage of these recommendations in suppressing civil society and regulating philanthropy. In Africa, many countries promulgated laws and regulations that negatively affected civil society organizations. For example, in 2010, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is an organization that deals with anti-money laundering, blacklisted Ethiopia for the government’s failure to implement its recommendations. With assistance from FATF, Ethiopia passed a new law on terrorist financing in 2013. This law cemented the already repressive Civil Society Proclamation No. 621/2009. The proclamation put a 10% funding cap on civil society organizations. The effect of the proclamation meant that organizations getting more than 10% of their funding from international organizations were deemed to be foreign organizations and were only allowed to work in service delivery, and on not politics and governance issues. This proclamation was repealed in 2019 after much outcry and criticism from civil society and UN bodies.
The constraints on civil society include onerous vetting, aid capping, or funding sent to a government-controlled account. Organizations must also request prior approval before receiving international aid. All of these restrictions are detrimental to civil society organizations. In addition, the Panama leaks exposed the extent of the unfair targeting of civil society organizations. The leaks reveal that counter-terrorism and money laundering laws and regulations are evaded through tax accountants and off-shore accounts. The extent of the involvement of civil society organizations in the 9/11 terror attacks was minimal for it to warrant this blanket approach. Most importantly, besides shrinking the civil society space, these regulations have not achieved much in halting terrorism and its spread.
It is also time to earnestly start having conversations that are aimed at ensuring transparency in the civil society sector and creating an enabling environment.
The U.S. experience in Afghanistan shows that the operation was not sustainable. As a way forward for the African continent, there is a need to restructure civil society.
The focus of these conversation should include the rule of law, political inclusion, and entrenched constitutionalism. In addition, the African continent needs to focus on building capacity to support security and stability programs. The African continent must provide a better platform for the U.S. government to understand its role in supporting diplomacy and military development, which could be achieved through working with AFRICOM. Rather than deploying hundreds of U.S. Special Forces, this measure will be the only way that AFRICOM can have a positive influence in Africa.
Instead of perceiving civil society as the enemy, governments in Africa should better utilize organizations that emphasize alternative conflict resolution mechanisms, humanitarian aid interventions, and human rights advocacy. With an enabling regulation environment, civil society can be an ally instead of an enemy in fighting extremism in Africa.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Amukelani Matsilele is a Communications and Public Diplomacy Research Associate at the African Centre for the Study of the United States, University of the Witwatersrand.
Prince Mudau is a Partnerships, Fundraising and Outreach research associate at the African Centre for the Study of the United States, University of the Witwatersrand.
The al Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, reshaped U.S. and international security policies and signalled a new…
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