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Counterterrorism in North Africa: From Police State to Militia Rule and the Quagmire of “CVE”

Counterterrorism in North Africa: From Police State to Militia Rule and the Quagmire of “CVE”
9th August 2021 ICSR Team
In Reports

The full report can be accessed here. An overview of its findings can be found here.

Please read on for the Introduction.


It has been ten years since protests in which demonstrators called for dignity and civil rights spread across North Africa. The political landscape there remains diverse, ranging from a constitutional monarchy (Morocco) to ailing army rule (Algeria) to challenged democracy (Tunisia) to civil institutions alongside militia rule (Libya) and an authoritarian, aspiring dictatorship (Egypt).

From a Western perspective, two security policy concerns dominate foreign strategy deliberations about the North Africa region: first, there is the continuous apprehension about migration via these countries into Europe, which is seen by some as too burdensome for European societies and economies. Second, there is the fear of security threats, such as terrorism, spilling over into Europe or endangering foreigners in North Africa. For example, an Islamic State gunman launched an attack in the Tunisian holiday town of Sousse in 2015 and killed 38 people, 30 of them British citizens.

Naturally, these two policy areas have some overlap. For instance, the threat of insecurity from terrorism, inter alia, can motivate people to migrate. Likewise, the financial and/or military support of local armed groups that promise to curb migration to Europe can end up financing terrorism if the “wrong” armed groups are provided with support.

The purpose of this report is to summarise and synthesise the counterterrorism (CT) policies and practices of North African countries in order to provide an overview of the eclectic handling of counterterrorism efforts. In this report, the term “counterterrorism” will cover various aspects, from military responses to attempts at prevention as well as deradicalisation. Traditionally, the literature discussing counterterrorism clusters around two models: a military (or war) model and a criminal justice model.

While the criminal justice approach is mostly associated with liberal democracies, some of its features are also found in North Africa. Overall, however, the military approach has been favoured for recent North African CT policies. In other words, the region is defined by a security-heavy approach, with most countries relying on military means to fight terrorism (Algeria is the prime example). Simultaneously this means that community approaches of preventing radicalisation or the joining of terrorist groups are more scarcely represented. Nonetheless this varies for the different countries. For instance, in Tunisia genuine civil society efforts have developed in this regard. Furthermore, the influx of international money bolstered society-based programmes for countering terrorism in the long term, but often these programmes are largely state-controlled, as in Morocco, for instance.

While this report refers to terrorist attacks in the region, it does not claim to provide a causation between certain CT policies and the number of terrorist incidents. Scholars have proved repeatedly that terrorism cannot be entirely eradicated and that the occurrence of terrorist incidents, as well as the radicalisation of individuals, is multifactorial.9 In addition, state authorities have interests in claiming and framing terrorist incidents. On the one hand, if a country is interested in receiving (foreign) security assistance, for example, conveying a tangible terrorist threat to the entities it is in negotiation with for financial or military support can be beneficial. Similar dynamics ring true for various countering violent extremism (CVE) programmes. On the other hand, downplaying terrorist activity can serve a purpose as well: for instance, if leaders want to portray the country in general and leadership in particular as stable and “having everything under control.”

Furthermore, as with any policy, the effects of CT policies are usually delayed. In other words, effective CT policy shows itself in reduced terrorist incidents and low levels of radicalisation in the years after it was implemented rather than immediately. Even then, any serious assessment would argue for correlation rather than causation.

For the instances in this report, for which I incorporate terrorist activity in the different countries, I triangulated the available data and am relying on open-source data collection that I conducted myself, internal releases by terrorist groups operating in North Africa, relevant secondary source reports on terrorism in North Africa and government-reported figures.

Overall, this report fills a gap as it provides a much needed, contemporary overview of CT policies as well as the institutional setup in which these policies are formulated and enacted by North African states. Secondly, it contributes to the literature that examines if military CT approaches are successful; finally, it offers a summary that categorises North African CT policies along shared as well as differing characteristics. This model will prove useful for future analyses of CT policies in non-Western contexts. The report does not claim to provide a comprehensive overview of all CT programmes in the countries, including international ones, but outlines the main features and formulates recommendations for Western policymakers based on this analysis.

For future analysis, the focus away from CVE policy towards human rights abuses highlighting the correlation between the two in each context could be expanded by local evidence on work that tackles issues which are presumably part of the root causes (and likely tackle radicalisation more efficiently).

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