Could President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy fuel terrorism?

In patron states, the same US-sponsored resources used to combat terrorism have also been employed against its detractors.

The combination of the numbers 9 and 11 signified another watershed moment in the history of the United States. It was the on the ninth of the eleventh month of 2016 in which Republican candidate, Donald Trump, was elected as the country’s 45th president. 

News of Trump’s election drew emotions as divisive as that of his campaign – evoking as much trepidation as jubilation by those who respectively cite him as destroyer and saviour of American ideals. Outside of the United States borders, the world was less divided on Trump’s appointment with a plethora of internet memes, tweets and Facebook posts likening his election as a political faux pas trumping (excuse the pun) of Britain’s impending exit from the European Union.

As the reality set in, however, the discourse gradually shifted to more serious considerations. While Americans deliberated on how much its domestic politics would pivot in the Trump era, the rest of the world opined on the possible trajectory of the United States’ foreign policy under its president-elect. Many, myself included, were especially interested in Trump’s envisaged policies for Africa, specifically regarding his response to the burgeoning threat of terrorism afflicting all but one corner of the continent.

In this regard, it remains difficult to accurately reflect on Trump’s presumed policy stance. Presidential debates in which he and democrat candidate, Hillary Clinton, were meant to promulgate their respective positions on such issues were dominated by reciprocal mud-slinging contests which spoke volumes of their character but little of their policies. Consequently, any assessment on Trump’s potential counterterrorism approach in Africa needs to be inferred from his position on Islamist extremism elsewhere in the world. On this point, it is worth noting that Trump has been quite comprehensive in expressing his stratagem in defeating the Islamic State – the transnationalist Islamist extremist network Trump accuses the administration of outgoing President Barack Obama of allowing to burgeon under its watch. Uploaded on his campaign website, Trump compiled a blueprint for defeating ISIS and radical Islam which, among other things, would see his government “pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS, international cooperation cut off their funding, expand intelligence sharing, and cyber warfare to disrupt and disable their propaganda and recruiting.” 

Trump further elaborated on his plans for nullifying the ISIS threat in various interviews in which he noted how he would leverage off the prowess of the US military to “knock the hell out of ISIS”.

This rather brazen, military-centric approach to combatting Islamist extremist would be a major shift in the Obama government’s response to the phenomenon on the Africa continent. Outside of failed states such as Libya and Somalia, a marked feature of the incumbent administration’s response to its continental anti-terror approach has been to equip functioning governments with the resources they need to spearhead initiatives against the myriad of armed groups threatening their sovereignty. 

It has achieved this by either providing financial and logistical support to countries which have emerged as bulwarks against terrorist groups, most notably Ethiopia, Egypt and Kenya who annually receive hundreds of millions of US dollars to sustain their counterterrorism efforts. In other countries such as Senegal, Mauritania, Niger and Cameroon, the US has deployed contingents of Special Forces, run large-scale military exercises and/or deployed clandestine drone networks as a means of training and assisting host governments in developing a grassroots response to terrorism. A common feature of both of these approaches is for the United States to assist in countering the threat of Islamist extremism on the African continent without rubber stamping such initiatives.

The efficacy of this strategy remains debatable. In patron states, the same US-sponsored resources used to combat terrorism have also been employed against its detractors with the line separating terrorist from political opponent opaque. 

In an attempt to promote democratisation simultaneous with securitization, the Obama government has sought to leverage political pressure on transgressors, as recently witnessed with Ethiopia, or aimed at developing sounds governance structures alongside its military investment. With terrorism-related attacks and fatalities increasing on the continent on a year-on-year basis, one would be hard-pressed to suggest that this strategy is paying dividends.

Yet, should Trump abandon this policy and adopt a more direct and aggressive approach towards fighting terrorism in Africa, the outcome may still prove worse. In doing this, Trump will be earmarking counterterrorism operations on the continent with a brand which has long been associated with imperialism and the marginalisation of an ethnoreligious identity – both of which have been fundamental in both the creation and evolution of groups such as the Islamic State. 

Should Trump also continue to direct resources to patron states without concomitantly pressuring their governments for democratic reform, he may also end up adopting an anti-terror strategy which continues to birth more extremists than it neutralises. 

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