Religious Extremism in Africa

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, DC
August 1, 2016

(As prepared for delivery)

Good afternoon. Thank you, Jennifer, for the warm introduction, and to Richard, Ben, and the terrific teams at CSIS and the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom for bringing us together.

As you probably know, we at State rely on CSIS’s world-class research and analysis to help us look around the corner and make sense of emerging challenges. So I’m pleased that you’ve taken on the topic of religious extremism in Africa.

As your project implies, policymakers need to better understand both how religion affects issues of security and stability, and equally important, how to encourage and reinforce non-violent, tolerant expressions of faith.

And while much global attention to violent extremism focuses on Syria and Iraq, religiously motivated violent extremism is on the rise in Africa – in East Africa, West Africa, the Sahel and the Maghreb. You have picked an understudied yet vitally important issue to examine.

Now let me state the obvious at the outset: freedom of religion and conscience are bedrock principles of U.S. foreign policy. The United States favors no particular faith. Within our own borders we embrace all religions.

The United States abhors the use of any ideology to justify violence or to violate universal rights. It simultaneously rejects claims that specific religions are the cause of terrorism. As President Obama has said repeatedly, “we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

In Africa and around the world, religion propels many people to do inspiring good. In my work as Under Secretary, one of my greatest privileges has been meeting countless faithful who give all they have to their communities.

Last March I traveled to Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania. As I so often do, I met with representatives from different local faith communities. This meeting had particular impact – because it’s where I learned what acid does to a person’s face.

Sheikh Zaraga is more than a local imam; he’s an institution. He won people’s respect not through fiery sermons, but through tireless, thankless work for people in the community. Connecting the unemployed to jobs. Mentoring aimless youth. Preaching tolerance and respect.

His face was the face of Islam – positive, hopeful, peaceful. When attackers hurled acid at it, they shook the community to its core. Extremist violence had come to Zanzibar in the last couple of years, seeking to terrorize in the name of the same religion the community had practiced for centuries. Sheik Zaraga’s faith was being perverted and rebranded.

Elsewhere in Africa, violent extremism is linked to purported religious tenets. Boko Haram abducts young girls who have the audacity to learn. The Lord’s Resistance Army enslaves children to carry out horrors. Rogue followers of traditional religions attack people with albinism to traffic their body parts. Homophobic vitriol spouted in some churches and mosques has inspired mobs to murder gay people in the streets of Abuja, Kampala, and elsewhere.

Many violent extremists harness religious claims to cloak their depravity and inspire followers. Sadly, acts of violence in the name of religion are as old as religion itself, and they persist in communities around the world, from so-called honor killings to wife burnings.

But today we see trends that appear novel and dangerous: the rise of organized, heavily armed, non-state actors that justify violence and territorial ambitions with religious ideologies. Groups like al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, al-Qai’da in the Maghreb, and the LRA. These groups threaten Africa’s every achievement and aspiration: from economic growth, to women’s rights, health care, and education.

For Africa’s future – and for global security – they must be defeated.

That begins with understanding what allowed these groups to take root and spread.

We cannot ignore the influence of violent religious ideologies that inflame passions and dehumanize the other. Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, for example, justify their brutality in twisted interpretations of Salafism. Many al-Shabaab leaders were indoctrinated in ultra-conservative religious schools in the Middle East. The LRA’s purported faith entails a warped version of the Ten Commandments it seeks to impose on others. When these groups repeatedly invoke religion to spill blood and inspire followers, we cannot pretend religion has no role.

But our analysis cannot stop there, because the story is far more complex. Many other factors play a role in spurring people to violence or making them susceptible to violent ideologies, including religious ideologies. These factors will be unique to local circumstances, but they will likely also reflect broad themes such as marginalization, poor or abusive governance, limited opportunity, and feelings of discontent and dislocation.

AQIM exploited feelings of marginalization across northern Mali to establish new outposts of terror. Most of Boko Haram’s followers hail from historically neglected regions of northern Nigeria. Political and economic exclusion among the ethnic Acholi helped spark the LRA in northern Uganda.

In many parts of Africa, vast ungoverned territories provide violent extremists areas to train, recruit, or tax. Deep in the forests of Central Africa, the LRA and Boko Haram are free to sustain their evil. They have safe havens from which to strike and wreak havoc on communities before melting away to recover and strike again.

Government incompetence and abuse also fan extremist violence. In East and West Africa, corruption allows extremists to cast themselves as pious alternatives. In Somalia, years of anarchy in the 1990s led some to welcome al-Shabaab’s promise of security and the rule of law. Unlawful and excessive force by government – often in the name of security – can empower factions arguing that violence is the only option.

After the former Nigerian government’s spate of police brutality and extra-judicial killings, Boko Haram escalated its campaign of terror. Similarly, alleged abuses by the Ethiopian military in Somalia elevated al-Shabaab by allowing the group to tout itself as defender of the faithful.

Violent extremists are also abetted by more recent trends linked to globalization, like the proliferation of information and communications technology, which gives them new platforms to cultivate followers, connect otherwise distant sympathizers, and recruit beyond areas of their physical control.

Violent extremists similarly exploit rapid population growth and industrialization across Africa. Countless people, especially young people, have left villages to find work in teeming cities and make sense of their place in a new economic and social order. Adrift in these rapid changes, violent ideologies promising purpose, community, and identity find appeal. Compounding the problem, extreme weather events made worse by climate change add to experiences of dislocation and discontent.

All these factors help explain the emergence of violent extremist groups, and they raise serious alarm about the vulnerability of communities across Africa struggling with similar issues – especially as Da’esh seek new footholds for expansion on the continent.

The United States stands with all Africans to prevent the spread of extremist violence. Across the continent, but especially in East Africa and the Sahel, we train and equip foreign militaries, share intelligence, and support police to enhance border security. These are well-known elements of our counterterrorism approach in Africa.

However, today I’d like to focus on a newer but equally vital dimension of our approach – what we call Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE.

While counterterrorism focuses on existing extremist threats, CVE seeks to prevent the next generation of threat from emerging.

CVE emphasizes governance, elevating issues of rights in the counterterrorism partnership. It calls on governments to embrace a do no harm approach. This means working with security and police forces to end impunity for abuses, embedding public institutions with mechanisms for transparency, and reforming prisons to separate petty criminals from violent ideologues.

Engagement around CVE can work. After months of outreach by U.S. diplomats, the police chief of Mombasa began to openly question whether the practice of widespread, indiscriminate round-ups was compounding the problem. The County Commissioner of Mombasa confided, “We are trying to stop being firefighters.”

Encouraging that shift can be hard. In the wake of extremist violence, governments and citizens often want quick results and tough shows of force, making it easier to fall into harmful patterns of overreaction that can compound the problem.

Countries must also push back against the propaganda violent extremists use to twist vulnerable minds and pull communities to their orbit. Part of that work is partnering with the tech community to disrupt extremist incitements to violence on the Internet by flagging content or accounts tied to known terrorists.

Another part is amplifying the voices of mainstream religious leaders to denounce violence as an insult to the deepest tenets of true faith. Up to 90 percent of Africans say religion is “very important” in their lives; giving African religious leaders enormous influence.

We help religious leaders make use of that influence, for example by training imams to use Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging to reach a wider audience. We lead efforts to promote inter-faith dialogue to soothe sectarian tensions that can inflame calls for violence. And we encourage the efforts of other governments, like Morocco’s regional initiative to train imams from Gabon, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, and Nigeria on refuting violent perversions of Islam.

These steps are important but insufficient. Violent ideologies and propaganda resonate with some because they offer something to those desperate for purpose, identity, community, and even adventure. So we can’t just refute what they’re offering; we have to offer something better, something more empowering and affirming and connected to their needs.

We must also unleash the power of communities, including local officials and civil society. The voids violent extremists try and fill are often best tackled on the ground, in town halls, schools, and families. Governments that stifle civil society and sideline communities sap their own power against violent extremism. Instead, governments need to lift burdensome restrictions on civil society and give them a meaningful role in identifying and addressing the forces behind violent extremism.

Here again, the engagement of religious actors is vital. In Africa especially, where weak states struggle to perform core functions, religious institutions often fill the void – providing education, employment, and even financing. These roles can be just as important, if not more so, for curbing radicalization.

CVE recognizes this and calls for active engagement with religious communities, and not just religious leaders, who are overwhelmingly male and are not especially young. Often the best messenger is not a crusty authority figure, but a classmate, a sister, a peer. So engaging with younger members of faith communities is vital.

The same is true of women. Although African women hold few formal leadership roles in faith communities, they are often the most active members. When women’s rights and status come under attack, it often foreshadows a broader shift toward radicalization and violence. I remember hearing the anguish of Muslim women in Tanzania, who lamented that they could barely recognize their faith in the weekly sermon because the tone had grown so hardline and exclusionary.

Finally, CVE emphasizes strengthening ties between African governments and the communities they serve. Things we may take for granted – constituency outreach by local officials, town halls between police departments and the neighborhoods they protect – these are not common in many parts of Africa. In their absence, it becomes harder to build trust and cooperation between citizens and government.

By contrast, when communities come together in common purpose, violent groups struggle to infiltrate. When dozens of young Kenyans were arrested last year for links to violent extremism, parents, police, and imams came together to develop a solution. The children were released, but on the condition that their parents vouched for their behavior and that they attended weekly religious instruction. Cooperation, trust, and little creativity by the community put these kids on a better path and saved dozens of young lives from languishing in jail.

That’s what communities of common purpose can do.

Over the last two years, the U.S. government has helped lead a shift toward this more localized and preventive approach to violent extremism in Africa and around the world. Secretary Kerry empowered the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism to embed this broader approach in all our work. This May, State and USAID released their first-ever joint CVE strategy outlining how to unite our diplomatic and development tools. We’ve also stood up a new Global Engagement Center to spearhead our messaging effort and seize the initiative in the battle for vulnerable hearts and minds.

In East Africa, we’ve launched pilot CVE programs to serve as a model going forward. Instead of having a variety of short-term, disparate efforts – a youth outreach program in one area, a counter-messaging initiative in another – here’s what we did. Experts from across our government came together to pool funds, conduct extensive research, develop a common diagnosis, and design a truly integrated program to address the specific forces enabling radicalization to violence in the specific places identified as most vulnerable. This sort of targeted, holistic, and research-driven effort is how we can help communities remain on a path of stability instead of succumbing to extremist violence.

At the global level, State is helping foreign governments, international NGOs, and multilateral bodies establish counter-messaging centers, develop CVE strategies, and share best practices. The United Nations has taken up the cause. The U.N. Secretary General released a Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism, and just last month, the General Assembly endorsed its recommendations calling on member states to emphasize good governance, human rights, community engagement, and development in their approach for violent extremism. UNESCO has mobilized to help teachers prevent radicalization to violence, and the UNDP will assist African governments undertake CVE programs.

These steps represent a positive evolution, a maturing of sorts, in how the world tackles violent extremism. These steps are more holistic and realistic in recognizing a multiplicity of sources of violent extremism and seek to address underlying factors that make people susceptible to messages of extremist violence. They are proactive in that they seek to prevent radicalization. They recognize the limits of governments to shape faith itself, and the necessity of relying upon the mainstream faith community to reassert the tolerant and peaceful tenets of a given religious practice.

As CVE efforts expand, however, governments must be clear-eyed about the challenges.

It takes time to change harmful government practices, strengthen public institutions, and repair trust between communities long neglected by the state. And while there is no guarantee that research can fully disentangle the complex drivers of extremist violence to guide CVE efforts, it is certainly critical for helping governments and civil society better address the causes that render individuals and whole communities vulnerable to violent ideologies.

Some international actors seem reluctant to adapt their programs and priorities to address CVE, even as violent extremists threaten everything they work for – from women’s health and empowerment, to economic development, to human rights.

Resources remain limited. Last year, the U.S. spent less than $200 million on CVE programs worldwide. That’s less than the cost of just one F-22 fighter jet. Despite the attention terrorism garners and the devastation it inflicts globally, there is an unfathomable gap between what the world spends to combat existing threats instead of preventing new ones from emerging. Foreign assistance lacks a constituency, and prevention work is the most difficult to fund because it’s hard to measure dangers that never materialize.

That’s why strengthening monitoring and evaluation will be crucial to building support for a more preventive approach, and we are encouraged that bodies like the World Bank, World Economic Forum, and African Development Bank are starting to lend their expertise in this area.

There are also challenges in identifying and funding the right local partners on the ground. Local groups and leaders with the greatest influence over those most vulnerable to violent extremism often look very different from the partners the international community has grown accustomed to working with.

In addition, current law prohibiting material support for known terrorists can inadvertently prevent us from assisting those best positioned to help. For example, the group Kenya Supkem de-radicalizes and rehabilitates al-Shabaab fighters. This work is essential for peeling off faltering supporters and creating powerful voices to refute al-Shabaab’s lies. But under existing law, Kenya Supkem would have to exhaustively itemize every single expense to confirm that U.S. funds provided no direct assistance to former al-Shabaab fighters.

Moreover, those best positioned on the ground rarely have the means – for reporting, budgeting, administration – to apply for and maintain international funding. So we have to look closely at this issue and consider how to better make use of third parties to empower those on the ground, like the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, which has pilot CVE programs in Nigeria, Mali, and soon in Kenya.

But we are making progress on this front as well. We helped establish the RESOLVE Network (Researching Solutions to Violent Extremism) to connect local researchers studying the drivers of violent extremism in their communities. And we helped launch the Strong Cities Network to link municipal leaders – including from cities in Kenya, Senegal, and Mauritania – struggling on the front lines against violent extremism.

Let me be clear: this is a struggle for the future of countless communities across Africa. The damage wrought by violent extremists measures not only in the blood they spill, but the investments they deter, the textbooks they burn, the women and girls they enslave, the vast human potential they squander.

But despite the grim headlines, I remain hopeful. I’m hopeful because I saw how, even after acid mutilated his face and terrorized his community, Sheikh Zaraga insisted on tolerance, on respect, on peace. I’m hopeful because I remember how hungry he was for answers, how resolved he was to answer the sting of violence with the strength of community.

And we must stand with him and leaders across Africa struggling for the future of their communities and the soul of their religious beliefs.

At the same time, we must reject framing the problem solely around religious ideology – not only because this pits religions against each other, but because it misses the broader picture. It needlessly limits what we can do. We know individuals are not born hating and violent. They become so for a series of complex reasons – personal, communal and structural.

Where violent religious movements operate, we are not powerless to prevent their spread, even if there are limits to what we can achieve. Moreover, much of what we can do to help avert violence is also worth pursuing on its own – giving people a greater stake in their community and greater confidence in their future; ending government abuses; improving basic education and health services.

These are steps we can take, practices we can change, debates we can and must win on behalf of the most vulnerable communities.

So the complexity of this threat is not a call for complacency, but a call to all of us who care about Africa’s future to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Thank you.

To see the video of Under Secretary Sewall’s remarks, click here.