The Contagion of Violent Extremism in West African coastal states: a joint Report by the ACSRT and NATO by STRATEGIC DIRECTION-SOUTH HUB


The findings of this joint project have pointed out that violent extremist activities have been growing in recent years in West African coastal states, radiating there from the Sahel. Although the security situations of the four countries assessed herein are not directly comparable to the very severe situation in the Sahel, the appearance of certain violent extremist groups at the northern border areas of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo is cause for concern. Equally worrisome is that the spread of violent extremism is multi-directional: TVEOs do not exclusively expand southward, but in any direction where circumstances permit.

Kinetic actions, conducted by military and police forces at national or international levels, are essential in dismantling TVEOs and are equally necessary regarding related criminal gangs, smugglers and bandits. Many existing operations could be overlapping, causing duplication of effort. This could cause financing problems and even conflicts of interest among stakeholders. This issue could be addressed through discussions headed by a supranational organization or by coordinating conferences with the participation of both local and international actors.

It is fundamental that such kinetic activities do not abuse or exclusively target certain communities to the exclusion of others, even if that ethnic group is predominant in a particular VEO. This practice can cause prejudice, resulting in the stigmatization and marginalization of whole communities, thus deepening inter-communal tensions.
The Accra Initiative could become the coastal states’ spearhead in the fight against terrorism. Although it was designed by the countries to provide for information sharing, common training and operations, its expansion could greatly benefit all stakeholders. The Initiative is governed and financed by its members, which gives them full control and the freedom to choose their own direction in the fight against violent extremism. The inclusion of human security programmes and the involvement of existing national organizations from the member countries could raise the effectiveness of the Initiative.

Our project also focused on the fact that local populations in these vulnerable border areas are exposed to extremist influences, especially if their basic needs are not met, or are only weakly provided by the state (security, justice, health, education, employment opportunities). For various reasons, communities in these border areas are often marginalized, receiving less attention from central governments. Rural banditry, kidnappings, local disputes, prolonged and unsolved conflicts, the vast quantity of youths lacking vision and a satisfactory means of livelihood are considered the main factors creating instability. The weak presence of state authorities causes dissatisfaction among populations and motivates them to accept other sources of income. Akin to the tactics used in the Sahel, violent extremist groups aim to usurp the role of the governing authority and gain trust and support among local communities. TVEOs purport to be the security, justice and livelihood providers, which makes them popular and facilitates their true objective – to spread radical ideologies and gain financial, personnel or other support and to appear as the legitimate alternative to the current government.

Research has shown that conventional P/CVE approaches (military and police operations) are still the most widely employed by the various stakeholders. Undeniably, the development of armed and police forces against violent extremist activities is fundamental, but human factors and non-kinetic action in prevention are equally significant. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that the matter of human security is included in all mainstream security discussions and strategy development in order to achieve a comprehensive picture of the phenomenon of violent extremism.

A human security approach to P/CVE, with the citizenry and local communities as the primary focus of national security policy formulation and implementation, is a worthwhile pathway to eschewing impunity and the abuse of human rights. This would help build mutual trust, social cohesion and a sense of common purpose between the government and the citizenry. Without these, effective counter-terrorism operations in conflict zones where poverty and marginalization are pervasive could remain a mirage.

While there is the need to do more to support counter-terrorism operations underpinned by actionable intelligence in order to improve security and stability, a human security response approach should inform military concepts of operation. Ensuring future stability will require far more than a purely military approach unless conducted in tandem with addressing the root causes, such as: (perceived) marginalization, poverty and social exclusion, injustice, lack of rule of law and bad governance. Although military strategies are justifiable in combative situations, more pragmatic preventive measures are required for lasting solutions. P/CVE policies must necessarily consider creating a conducive economic atmosphere and a sense of belonging, particularly for young people, to be productive and contribute to the socioeconomic development of their communities and countries.

Communication is a key TVEO tool for recruitment and the spreading of violent extremist ideologies. These groups quickly adapt to changes in communication channels and the accelerating flow of information. Terrorists have expanded their field of recruitment in cyberspace, where they easily reach the youth and take advantage of their uncertainty to spread radical ideologies. The most vital counter-measures have proven to be the active and effective use of communication tools, both in mainstream media and in cyber domains, in order to prevent TVEOs from misleading the youth and the general population.

Besides kinetic and non-kinetic CVE action, an improvement in the population’s economic circumstances would likely deeply influence the attitude towards violent extremism. The four countries are committed to greater development in the economic sphere in order to improve the general population’s employment and livelihood prospects . Better incorporation of marginalized communities and well-formulated plans for the inclusion of the youth and women could increase resistance against violent extremist ideologies.

TVEOs are currently operating in a cross-border manner throughout Western Sahel and coastal states, which indicates the need for strong regional cohesion and cooperation in P/CVE. The synchronization of National Security and Violent Extremism-related Strategies could provide a solid foundation for P/CVE efforts. It is already clear that affected countries are willing to work together to increase their security. However, it has been noted that the plethora of international, regional, governmental and civil P/CVE initiati ves make coordinated work challenging. The four selected countries have created institutions for communicating and coordinating with the numerous stakeholders in order to ensure a comprehensive approach, but the outcome – a positive response from the local populations – will only be visible in the long term.

The need to blend the kinetic approach with P/CVE approaches which address the vulnerabilities in local communities must be reinforced, as military/police power per se as a guarantor of national security needs to be present on the entire territory. The referent object of national security need necessarily be the individual citizenry and their local communities. This entails the identification of their vulnerabilities, ensuring their protection and their empowerment to acquire the required resilience that enables them to live in dignity. The protection and empowerment of local communities should be prioritized in order to ensure their resilience. The lack of opportunities for young people, political impunity, exclusion, marginalization, effects of climate change, competition for scarce resources and underdevelopment are all concerns which if not addressed, in local communities, present a high risk of further e scalation of discontent that could lead to the commission of more atrocities. The pursuit of justice, participatory political policies and the promotion of favourable socioeconomic conditions that promote human development, human rights and inclusive policies in local communities should be regarded as effective means of addressing the conditions that are conducive for the spread of extremist ideologies