On Weak States and Threats to the U.S.

Stanford’s Dr. Amy Zegart has written an important piece for Foreign Policy in which she argues that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. I agree with the first half of the piece, in which she takes down the common arguments about why weak states threaten the United States.

To take a brief tangent that goes beyond the scope of this blog, I disagree with parts of the second half, in which Zegart argues that other states – Russia, China, and Pakistan, etc. – are the places with real potential to threaten the U.S. For me, the real threats to the U.S. are (1) climate change and (2) our political elites’ lack of alarm in the face of (a) widespread poverty and suffering, (b) a health care system that is still largely broken, (c) inadequate and crumbling infrastructure, and (d) under-regulated industries that expose Americans to diseases. Of course the thought of nuclear war or wars between great powers frightens me – but the disconnect between our politicians and the ongoing problems in this country scares me more.

Returning to the topic of weak states, Zegart rebuts three arguments often made by those alarmed about weak states. First, she writes, is the argument “that fragile states can become terrorist strongholds that pose existential threats to Western ways of life.” Second is the claim “that poorly governed spaces function as incubators for other global ‘bads,’ like disease, conflict, human rights violations, drug and human trafficking, and criminal networks.” Third is the contention “that globalization connects citizens throughout the world in unprecedented ways, binding the fates of strong states to weak states.”

I won’t rehearse all of Zegart’s arguments, but her counter-arguments to the idea of weak states as terrorist strongholds are worth quoting:

Terrorism experts have found that the vast majority of terrorist attacks strike local targets, not foreign ones. What’s more, the world’s weakest states have not produced the world’s most or worst international terrorists. Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index listed five countries in its worst-of-the-worst category: South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. None are major inspiration bases, training centers, breeding grounds, or exporters of terrorism directed at Western cities.

Now, it’s true that Somalia’s al-Shabab recently urged its supporters to attack Western shopping malls, including the Mall of America. I agree with Slate, however, that it’s not that scary of a threat.

While clearly a bid for publicity after a year of headlines dominated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the video does comes with some weight, given that al-Shabab actually did attack the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing more than 60 people. There’s also evidence that Shabab has actively recruited fighters from Minnesota’s Somali community. But Shabab has never carried out an attack outside East Africa and it seems unlikely that they would warn their targets to step up security before launching the first one.

The U.S. government doesn’t seem that concerned, though with a potential shutdown looming, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson couldn’t help noting that this sort of vague threat is the reason his department needs a budget.

It’s also worth differentiating, as Zegart does, between threats and existential threats. Even Westgate did not pose an existential threat to Kenya.

The idea of weak states as threats to the U.S. has gained such currency in large part because of the structuring metaphor of Afghanistan. Commentators invoke Afghanistan as a metaphor for every country in Africa where a jihadist movement gains ground: Mali, Somalia, Libya, and so on. There’s even a Twitter account called “Bokostan,” referring to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. But the conflicts in each of these places have specific features that are irreducible to Afghanistan’s experience with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Even Afghanistan’s experience is often misunderstood. It’s worth pointing out, yet again, that the 9/11 attacks were planned in various places, including Afghanistan but also Germany.

Analysts can always come up with ways that terrorism in Nigeria (which I wouldn’t call a weak state, though some do), Mali, or Somalia might threaten the West. And the possibility is always there – after all, even one Western sympathizer could do a great deal of harm. But Zegart is right that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. For example, in thirteen years of existence as a movement and five years as a consistent insurgency, Boko Haram has not attacked the United States; nor has al-Shabab, in its at least nine years of existence; and although Algerian militants carried out attacks in France in the 1990s, since Algeria’s civil war ended (circa 2000-2002) al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib has been a threat primarily to Western tourists in northwest Africa, rather than to Europe itself. It’s worth keeping this background in mind when evaluating the threats that weak states, whether in Africa or elsewhere, might pose to the U.S.

Africa Blog Roundup: Kenya’s Elections, Nigeria’s Trains, DDR in South Sudan, and More

Ken Opalo: “Who Will Win the Kenyan Presidential Election?”

If the polls are right Uhuru Kenyatta still leads Raila Odinga by about 740,000 votes.  I estimate that Mr. Kenyatta will get 48.87% of the votes cast to Mr. Odinga’s 41.72%, which means that a run-off is almost inevitable. I don’t expect Mr. Kenyatta to hit the 50% mark since my model is slightly biased in his favor (especially coming from the Rift Valley turnout figures from 2007 that I use as a basis of estimating turnout in 2013).

Trains: Will Ross with a link to a BBC podcast segment on the Lagos-Kano Express. And Shelby Grossman with a photograph of a terminal under construction along a planned railway from Lagos to Cotonou.

Afendi Muteki: “The Oromo of Harerghe: On the Evolution of Urban Centers [in Ethiopia],” parts one and two.

Jairo Munive: “Disarmament, Demobilization And Reintegration In South Sudan: Feasible Under Current Conditions?”

Nasser Weddady on George Bush, Francois Hollande, and Mali.

Aaron Zelin compiles three new reports from Somalia’s Al Shabab.

I was thinking yesterday that my “Local Media Sources” list (in the right sidebar) was looking a bit thin, so I made some additions. Any suggestions for others to add?

Africa News Roundup: Burkina Faso Election Results, MUJWA Terrorist Designation, Eastleigh Bombing, and More

I wrote recently about elections in Burkina Faso and Somaliland. Here are legislative and municipal election results from Burkina Faso:

[President Blaise] Compaore’s CDP party secured 58 seats while allies in the broader coalition secured a further 22 seats in the December 2 vote, according to results for 102 constituencies announced late on Thursday.

The results for a further 25 seats have not yet been announced but Compaore’s majority has been secured despite the opposition UPC party winning 15 seats, a record for the opposition in the poor, land-locked nation.

I have not found full results for Somaliland, but preliminary results were released Thursday, causing protests in Hargeisa.


The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) 2009, also known as the Kampala Convention, came into force on 6 December; it is the world’s first legally binding instrument to cater specifically to people displaced within their own countries.

Adopted at an AU summit in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the Convention required ratification by 15 member countries before it could enter into force; Swaziland became the 15th country to do so on 12 November, joining Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda and Zambia. At least 37 AU members have also signed the Convention but have yet to ratify it.

The Committee to Protect Journalists on the shooting of a South Sudanese columnist, the detention of two Al Jazeera employees in Mali, and the convictions of three Cameroonian journalists.

Nigeria’s Guardian on recent attacks by Boko Haram, including the destruction of twenty-seven schools in Borno and Yobe States.

A bombing claimed three lives in Eastleigh, Nairobi, Kenya yesterday.

McClatchy: “Visit to Kismayo, Somalia, Shows al Shabab Militants Still Roam Countryside.”

Yesterday, the US State Department labeled the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), part of the Islamist coalition in northern Mali, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

What else is happening?

Somalia: Amid Continued Fighting with Al Shabab in the South, Fresh Attacks in Puntland

The Islamist militia al Shabab’s home region is southern Somalia, but the group has a presence in Puntland, a semi-autonomous territory in northeastern Somalia. Several of the group’s recent attacks have occurred there.

As Somalia government troops, Kenyan soldiers, and African Union forces have pushed al Shabab out of its urban strongholds in southern Somalia, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia (.pdf, pp. 15-16) and other analysts have observed a partial shift of the group’s operations into Puntland. In February, a militia based in the Golis hills in Puntland formally joined al Shabab, and al Shabab promised to increase its attacks there. In April, Puntland’s President Abdirahman Farole told the BBC that more al Shabab fighters were moving into his territory. The BBC wrote, “Correspondents say the move of some members to Puntland could signal a significant regrouping for al-Shabab.”

The implications of this reported northward move should not be overblown. Losses through the summer, and the loss of the port city of Kismayo in October, have weakened al Shabab. And al Shabab is still attacking targets and attempting to hold territory in southern and central Somalia – for example, this week has seen “fierce fighting” around Jowhar, a reportedly al Shabab-controlled town north of Mogadishu. But with all that said, al Shabab attacks this week in Puntland will likely draw serious attention to the group’s presence there. The BBC has details:

Puntland Information Minister Mohamed Aydid told the BBC Somali Service that a truck carrying soldiers was targeted by a roadside bomb near Bossaso, the main commercial hub in the semi-autonomous region.

Ten soldiers were either killed or wounded in the attack, he said.

Heavily-armed al-Shabab fighters also launched an assault on a military base in the area, but were repelled by troops, Mr Aydid added.

“They fled to their hide-outs in the Galagalo mountains,” he said.

In a statement, the Puntland government said two of its soldiers were killed in this attack.

Its intelligence suggested that at least seven al-Shabab fighters were killed and more than 12 wounded as Puntland government troops fought back, the statement said.

Garowe has more.

Africa Blog Roundup: M23, South Sudan, Mali, al Shabab, and More

Commentary on the Democratic Republic of Congo and the fall of Goma to forces from M23:

Dipnote/US State Department:

What surprised me on this trip, however, were the enormous logistical challenges faced by humanitarians who were trying to help and protect both the refugees and the communities that host them. Yida in Unity State and the Maban camps in Upper Nile are very difficult places to reach and quite far from South Sudan’s capital city of Juba. In the rainy season, the dirt roads to both areas are completely cut off for months at a time. This has meant that aid supplies have to be stockpiled in advance of the rains or flown in at incredible expense.

Internally Displaced: “The South Sudan National Archive: Taking Stock.”

Peter Tinti: “What Has the US Already Tried in Mali?”

Two pieces on Somalia’s al Shabab:

  • Abdi Aynte: “The Somali militant group al-Shabaab is currently losing ferocious battles against Kenyan troops in Southern Somalia –  part of an African Union peacekeeping mission. However, they are winning a strategic war back in Kenya; this is the battle for hearts and minds.”
  • And Amb. David Shinn flags a new study (.pdf), “Lights, Camera, Jihad: Al-Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy.”

Justin Scott:

The richest literary prize in the world, the Nobel Prize, carries a US$1.1 million purse. The richest lit prize in Africa, the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, doesn’t quite match up, but it does guarantee the winner a whopping US$100,000. It’s been around since 2004, with the purse increasing from $20,000 to $40,000 in 2006 and finally to $100,000 in 2008. The latest prize, awarded at the start of November, went to Chika Unigwe for her novel “On Black Sisters Street.” Though there has been widespreadpraise for Unigwe across the Naijanet, talk of the politics of her win has been muted.

These politics have been addressed before, but critiques focus mostly on the kinds of novels — those that confirm Westerners’ pessimism and faithlessness about Africa’s future — that tend to win. Thus far, talk of who sponsors the prize and why that matters has been nonexistent.

What are you reading today?

Africa News Roundup: ECOWAS and Mali, French Commanders in Mauritania, Muslim Protests in Ethiopia, Karim Wade, and More

Details on the Economic Community of West African States’ battle plan for Mali:

“International forces will not do the ground fighting, that role will belong to the Malian army,” a military officer familiar with the plan, who asked not to be named, said on Friday.

“Air strikes will be the responsibility of the international force,” he said, adding foreign partners would also provide logistical and intelligence support and soldiers and police to secure areas captured by the Malian army.

Military planners from Africa, the United Nations and Europe in Mali’s capital Bamako last week drew up a battle plan that would involve a foreign force of more than 4,000 personnel, mostly from West African countries. It remains unclear how much of the force would come from Western nations.

The plan covers a six-month period, with a preparatory phase for training and the establishment of bases in Mali’s south, followed by combat operations in the north.

Top French military commanders visited Mauritania this week to discuss Mali and terrorism.

The ongoing Muslim protests in Ethiopia merit a full post, but two items of note are the announcement of new members of the Islamic Affairs Council and a statement by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom expressing concern “about the increasing deterioration of religious freedoms for Muslims in Ethiopia.”

In other Ethiopia-related news, “Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have agreed to resume jointly working on organizing sustainable management, utilization and development of the Nile waters under the Eastern Nile Basin. The agreement was reached after water Ministers and representatives of the three countries held a meeting in Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Thursday.”


The United Nations warns survivors of Nigeria’s worst flooding in five decades are at risk for waterborne and water-related diseases.  Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency reports the heavy rains have killed 363 people, affected 7.7 million and made more than two million people homeless.

Reuters: “Somalia’s al Shabaab, Squeezed in South, Move to Puntland.”

Senegalese police will again question Karim Wade, a former minister and son of former President Abdoulaye Wade.

What else is happening?

Africa Blog Roundup: Ethiopia and Eritrea, Somalia, Uganda, and More

Aaron Maasho:

Ethiopia and Eritrea are still at each others’ throats. The two neighbours fought hammer and tongs in sun-baked trenches during a two-year war over a decade ago, before a peace deal ended their World War I-style conflict in 2000. Furious veRed Sea, UNrbal battles, however, have continued to this day.

Yet, amid the blistering rhetoric and scares over a return to war, analysts say the feuding rivals are reluctant to lock horns once again. Neighbouring South Sudan and some Ethiopian politicians are working on plans to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

Reem Abbas: “Escaping Military Service and Kidnap, One Eritrean Woman’s Ordeal.”

Somalia Newsroom: “Al Shabaab’s Changing State in Somalia.”

Laura Mann:

On October 11ththe Rift Valley held its first ‘Nairobi Forum’. They invited Ken Menkhaus, Amal Ismail, Jabril Abdulla and Matt Bryden to discuss the post-election climate in Somalia. The former Kenyan ambassador to Somalia, Mohamed Abdi Affey, who was chairing the proceedings, joked: “We wanted to show Kenya what it means to be a democratic nation”.

All parties agreed that Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is a man who combines two clean hands with enormous street cred. There is reason for ‘cautious optimism’ even amidst the challenges ahead. Ken Menkhaus argued that it was not the election of this single remarkable man that was important, but the extensive support network behind him. Describing this network as a ‘constructive elite,’ Menkhaus clarified that this was not a mass uprising ‘Somali Spring’ but a civic mobilization of determined professionals tired of warlordism and ineffective foreign interventions alike. These individuals have been on the ground for the past 20 years, building hospitals, schools, universities and private businesses. They have spent the past 20 years “navigating the streets” as Ken Menkhaus put it. They have learnt how to negotiate deals with difficult parties, how to build trust across clans and most importantly, they know how to get things done. Jabril Abdulla added that these negotiating skills are important. The gradual expansion of the state will not just involve institutions, but people, some benign and some less palatable. Getting warlords to engage in politics is one of the key challenges.

Sociolingo flags UNECA’s 2012 report “Unleashing Africa’s Potential as a Pole of Global Growth.”

UN Dispatch: “UK, Ireland, and Denmark Suspend Aid to Uganda.”

Roving Bandit: “Cash Transfers in Northern Kenya.”

Shelby Grossman: “The Monotony of the Generator Guy’s Work.”

What are you reading today?