Q&A with Katherine Zimmerman: What Accounts for the Rise of Terrorism in Africa?

Q&A with Katherine Zimmerman: What Accounts for the Rise of Terrorism in Africa?

Katherine Zimmerman and Dr. Muhammad Fraser-Rahim will speak at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in a special program.

Katherine Zimmerman is a terrorism expert and research fellow affiliated with the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Tonight at 7 p.m. at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Zimmerman and Dr. Muhammad Fraser-Rahim will discuss the problem of terrorism in Africa and how the continent can best counter this threat.

In the Q&A below, Zimmerman talks about the rise and risks of terrorism in Africa as well as her career and research.

In your academic career, what was it that first led you to an interest in terrorism?
I came to work in the terrorism field by chance. My studies focused on comparative politics, especially the role of Islamist groups in authoritarian states, and the efficacy of U.S. foreign assistance in achieving national security objectives. My expertise on al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi groups has all been learned while in the field—studying how these groups operate in local contexts and absorbing the research of other experts. My work seeks to correct a pervasive misunderstanding of the Salafi-jihadi threat as a terrorism threat that has misinformed U.S. foreign policy and driven a counterterrorism-centric focus.

What are some of the factors contributing to the rise in terrorist activity in Africa?
Africa’s terrorism tale began early with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa and even before, when al-Qaeda had its “Africa Corps” operating alongside local groups in an advise-and-assist capacity in the early 1990s. But the threat changed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring as the Libyan Civil War helped stoke another round of a Tuareg rebellion in Mali, and al-Qaeda capitalized on mobilizing identity groups in the Sahel. The failures of African states to uphold their basic social contracts with large segments of their populations has created opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to expand.

What’s one of the risks of the United States underestimating terrorism in Africa?
Americans tend to dismiss the importance of Africa—the continent seems to lie outside of core U.S. interests. But developments in Africa can ricochet: America’s European allies are under significant pressure from a surge in migration north. Key networks supporting threats in the Middle East and elsewhere also run through Africa. Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and now the ISIS benefit from smuggling and recruitment networks today, for example.

Explain the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. What sort of work does this group do?
The Critical Threats Project conducts open-source intelligence analysis to assess threats to the U.S. and its allies from Iran and the Salafi-jihadi movement, especially in Yemen, the Horn of Africa, Libya and West Africa. The research team develops these assessments into concrete policy recommendations for the U.S. government, military, intelligence community and diplomatic corps as well as the media and the general public. The project partners closely with the Institute for the Study of War research team, which focuses on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Russia and ISIS’ global network.

What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects/research?
My ongoing project focuses on developing a recommended strategy to counter the Salafi-jihadi movement—this will certainly not be a counterterrorism strategy, as such a strategy by design focuses narrowly on the terrorist threats posed by groups rather than on the long-term defeat of those groups. An initial working paper on how the Salafi-jihadi movement has transformed according to circumstance and adapted to U.S. counterterrorism pressures will be released through the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute in mid-November. Emily Estelle, the senior analyst on Africa, will also be releasing work on the Salafi-jihadi network in the Sahel in the next month.

By 9/11 Memorial Staff