Too often, the United States and its partners have failed to prioritize Africa in global counterterrorism efforts — leaving the door open for violent extremist movements to further destabilize the continent. The U.S. Institute of Peace’s Andrew Cheatham spoke with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, former director of strategy for the National Counterterrorism Center and a current member of USIP's Senior Military Advisory Group, about the evolution of violent extremism in Africa. Their conversation looks at how an overreliance on the use of force to combat terrorism neglects the societal, economic and political issues that breed violent extremist movements to begin with, as well as ways to bridge the mismatch between what Africans care about in terms of counterterrorism and what other nations tend to prioritize.

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When announcing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 2021, President Joe Biden identified counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan as an enduring and critical US national security interest. This priority became even more pronounced after the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, the discovery of al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul less than a year later, and the increasing threat of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) from Afghanistan. However, owing to the escalating pressures of strategic competition with China and Russia, counterterrorism has significantly dropped in importance in the policy agenda.

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From wars in Ukraine and the Middle East to rising tensions in the South China Sea, there is no shortage of crises to occupy the time and attention of U.S. policymakers. But three years after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the threat of terrorism emanating from South Asia remains strong and policymakers need to be more vigilant. Indeed, at the end of March, an Afghanistan-based affiliate of ISIS launched a devastating attack outside of Moscow, killing over 140 people.

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As military coups and violent insurgencies have spread across Africa’s Sahel over the past decade, U.S. policy has professed to recognize and address their interconnections across the region, notably through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. Yet this effort remains insufficient to meet the scale and complexity of the violence and the underlying failures of governance.

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