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Time to re-assess terrorism prevention in Africa?

This year’s Global Terrorism Index reveals that 60 percent of deaths attributed to violent extremist groups in 2022 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Intercommunal violence and lack of social cohesion contribute to recruitment by groups on the continent, and despite many prevention efforts, the threat of terrorism persists.

Is it time to reassess what needs to go into preventing violent extremism and specifically, recruitment into terror groups in Africa?

The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) recent Journey to Extremism in Africa report outlines two types of factors behind voluntary recruitment or vulnerability to being recruited by terrorist groups.

Social factors include economic marginalization, lack of access to basic services, political exclusion and human rights abuses. Behavioral factors cover how an individual or community reacts to these social drivers. Responses could result in feelings of disconnectedness from one’s identity or ethnic or religious group; feeling distrustful towards other ethnic and religious groups; or experiencing strong feelings of hate, anger or vengeance towards a group or government.

Many Africans have borne the brunt of decades-long insecurity. Communities have been experiencing continuous trauma resulting from insurgencies, terrorist attacks, political violence, socio-economic, political, religious and ethnic marginalization, genocides and civil wars.

For many, trauma has become an intergenerational issue rarely prioritized in development and humanitarian interventions. As a result, experts are now recommending integrating mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) into existing development programs to address deep-rooted trauma and grievances. Doing so could also prevent violent extremism.

The UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) – the oldest and most high-level humanitarian coordination council – defines MHPSS as ‘multi-layered support to address psychological-nature problems (e.g. grief, severe mental disorder, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder) and social-nature problems (e.g. extreme poverty, political oppression, family separation, community destruction).’ MHPSS support may comprise health, education or community-based interventions.

The IASC and UNDP categorize mental health into three types. First are issues that affected the community before the conflict, such as poverty and discrimination. Second are social issues caused by the conflict, such as family separation, disruption of networks and breakdown of cohesion and trust. Third are social issues brought on by post-conflict stabilization and humanitarian aid efforts, such as undermining social identity and community structures.

According to the UNDP, MHPSS interventions have various objectives, depending on the individual and community. These could include trauma counselling following traumatic events, resolving intercommunal hostilities and grievances, promoting recovery and resilience, and providing holistic therapy to aid decision making and understanding one’s emotions.

MHPSS should address intergenerational trauma, build trust and resilience, and allow for the discussion and validation of grievances facing many vulnerable communities across Africa. These approaches can take place on an individual level, with gender-specific groups (especially where sensitive topics such as sexual trauma are discussed), or in mixed-group settings.

There are several case studies where MHPSS activities have been integrated into ongoing prevention and post-conflict interventions. In north-east Nigeria, the population faces severe social problems stemming from the climate crisis and depletion of natural resources, as well as attacks and kidnappings by Boko Haram and affiliated groups.

The communities considered most marginalized are in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states.  MHPSS interventions in these states are implemented mostly by local civil society groups and international organizations, including the International Organization for Migration and Save the Children. Due to ongoing insecurity, most of these organizations have minimal human and logistical resources, and limited access to communities needing MHPSS support.

In Kenya, Green String Network has been implementing MHPSS activities in coastal areas and the capital for several years. Counter-terrorism efforts have resulted in severe distrust of the state security apparatus, given human rights abuses by the military and police and discrimination towards certain ethnic groups, such as Somalis. Green String Network’s post-program evaluation showed that participants better understood their trauma and how it affects their daily lives, and improved social cohesion within communities.

An often-overlooked function of MHPSS is the rehabilitation and reintegration of defectors or individuals freed from capture by violent extremist groups. The Lake Chad Basin Regional Stabilization Strategy defines MHPSS as incorporated into broader rehabilitation, reinsertion and reintegration activities. This helps prevent recidivism of defectors and ensures a more sustainable re-entry into society, along with preparing communities for the return of these individuals.

Rehabilitation and reintegration programs often fail when communities who are expected to accept back the defectors are neither consulted nor prepared.

In the case of Rwanda, MHPSS programs implemented after the 1994 genocide proved invaluable. They brought communities from different ethnic groups together to mediate grievances and repair social cohesion.

Making MHPSS activities part of existing efforts to prevent terrorism could provide much-needed relief from trauma and behavioral effects resulting from violent extremist activity. It could also help communities prevent and withstand other types of conflict in the future.

(Isel Ras is a research consultant, justice and violence prevention at ISS Pretoria.) This article first appeared on the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Contributed by Isel Ras

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