The entanglement between peacekeeping and counterterrorism

With special reference to peacekeeping operations in Africa

Theo Neethling has held the position of Professor and Head of the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State since 1 April 2009. He holds a D.Litt. et Phil. from the University of South Africa and his research interests mainly concern the peace and security landscape in Africa, Africa’s international relations, and the military instrument in South African foreign policy.


A growing emphasis on stabilisation and counterterrorism in international peacekeeping operations has increasingly become apparent. In Africa, the phenomenon of terrorism has become of special importance in contemporary peacekeeping activities and has significantly influenced the nature and profile of peacekeeping operations on the continent. Bloodshed, death, displacement and destruction caused by terrorism and violent extremism are increasingly posing challenges to peacekeepers in African conflict theatres. In view of this, this article analyses the tasks and contours of two of the most important peacekeeping operations on the African continent, namely those in Mali and Somalia. These operations could be considered laboratories for further exploration and innovation in the African peacekeeping landscape. At the same time, any scholarly discussion on contemporary peacekeeping and counterterrorism would be incomplete without reflections on scholars and analysts who consider an increasing entanglement between peacekeeping and counterterrorism as highly problematic. In this regard, the discussion touches on some of the fundamental questions that have started to surface on the future of United Nations and (to some extent) African Union peacekeeping operations.


Peacekeeping operations occupy an important place within the evolving international system as major instruments for conflict resolution in the hands of international organisations ranging from the United Nations (UN) to the African Union (AU). Such operations encapsulate all peace-promoting activities where states, international organisations and other relevant actors are involved in dealing collectively with large-scale or deadly armed conflicts.

Since the first peacekeeping operation conducted by the UN in 1948, peacekeeping operations occupy a crucial place within the evolving international system and have followed the changing contours of the international system. Moreover, such operations have shaped the defence and security policies of state and non-state actors alike (Tardy 2004:3).

In Africa, the phenomenon of terrorism has become of major importance to an understanding of contemporary peacekeeping operations on the continent. In this regard, two issues should be noted. Firstly, since the UN forces experienced a setback in 1993 in Somalia, it became apparent that influential members of the UN were no longer prepared to contemplate complex intervention operations that might require the use of force – especially on the African continent. This reality was reflected in the declining number of UN peacekeepers globally. At the same time, the decline in the number of UN peacekeepers in the late 1990s was accompanied by an increase in the number of non-UN peacekeeping operations. The UN also increasingly ‘delegated’ the large-scale, personnel-intensive functions to regional organisations, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the Liberian conflict and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the Balkans (Malan 2017:46). This coincided with a strong tendency of subsidiarity in African peacekeeping operations, relating to the fact that in governance systems, lower levels may have stronger political legitimacy as they are closer to the level of delivery. In the context of the AU, this means that the continental organisation is closer than the UN for connecting with ‘African people’ (Ndiaye 2016:54).

Secondly, the deployment of international or multinational forces in particular African states has been increasingly concerned with insecurity and conflict caused by terrorist activities. In this regard, the attacks of 11 September 2001 on the United States (US) not only had a defining influence on international security in general, but also on African security in particular. Today, terrorist attacks still have notable consequences on world politics and the realities of international security. Such attacks coincide with a clear intrusion of highly dangerous non-state actors in the domain of the state, and forced states and other relevant actors to reconsider their understanding of their own security. It also forced a reconsideration of the nature, mandates and tasks related to peacekeeping operations, particularly the characteristic of impartiality (Tardy 2004:4–8).

Against this backdrop, this study aims to analyse and reflect on the consequences of an alarming proliferation of terrorists in all regions of Africa on multinational peacekeeping in the African security landscape. As such, the study is focused on the ‘fight against terrorism’ in terms of the way peacekeeping operations are conducted, especially in Africa, and the way international organisations, such as the UN and the AU, as well as other relevant actors, consider and approach contemporary peacekeeping operations on the continent. Africa’s human security challenges require multi-actor, high-intensity and financially sustainable operations which make strategic relationships between the UN and the AU imperative, while also focusing on the right strategies to effectively deal with relatively new and emerging dangers to human and state security on the continent. In view of this, this article analyses the activities and contours of two of the most important peacekeeping operations on the African continent, namely those in Mali and Somalia. The study intends to consider whether UN counterterrorism partnerships should be authorised via UN peacekeeping mandates, or not. This matter is of special relevance given the fact that a rapid expansion of terrorist activities on the African continent will require a proper security response from both UN and African actors, and a worrisome concern is that peacekeepers are not necessarily equipped and trained to deal with terrorist threats in the contemporary peacekeeping environment. This being said, a basic, pressing question is whether peacekeepers should fight terrorists.

Finally, any analysis of contemporary peacekeeping and counterterrorism action need to be mindful of scholarly and expert views that have become more vocal and critical of manifestations of an increasing convergence between UN peacekeeping operations and counterterrorism. As far as these views are concerned, it is believed that such convergence is likely to be counterproductive in the long term. To this end, the article presents a reflection on the entanglement between peacekeeping operations and counterterrorism actions, specifically in Africa, as well as some fundamental questions on the future of peacekeeping operations that have arisen from recent developments in the peacekeeping theatres in Mali and Somalia.

Five generations of peacekeeping operations in Africa

In An Agenda for Peace, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali defined peacekeeping in 1998 as the deployment of UN military and/or police personnel and frequently civilians as well, with the consent of all the parties concerned. Furthermore, peacekeeping is ‘a technique that expands the possibilities for both the prevention of conflict and the making of peace’ (UN Secretary-General 1998a).

In terms of the evolution of peacekeeping operations since 1948, it has become common to divide their development over time into subsequent ‘generations’. Although there is no consensus among scholars or practitioners regarding the exact delineation of peacekeeping operations, Kenkel’s approach of dividing peacekeeping practice into five distinct ‘generations’ is most useful as a way of distinguishing these operations analytically as they evolved over time (Kenkel 2013:124–132).

First generation or traditional peacekeeping operations (also known as ‘classic peacekeeping’) basically followed the rule of deploying an interposing force based on the consent of the warring parties to maintain an agreed peace, as well as maintaining a strict neutrality in the host country as peacekeepers (Adebajo 2011:10). The crux here is the deployment of UN forces as interpositional buffer forces between the frontlines, thereby reducing contact between belligerents (Kenkel 2013:125).

Soon after the Cold War, several important changes had been witnessed in the nature of UN peacekeeping operations. One such change coincided with armed conflict and internal war in Somalia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where no agreement between the warring parties was reached on which a peacekeeping mandate could be based. Still, the UN remained neutral and impartial between the warring parties, without a mandate to stop the aggressor (if identified) or to impose a cessation of hostilities (Kenkel 2013:127–128).

Negotiated settlements increasingly required of the UN to become involved in a wide range of civilian matters. In fact, an unprecedented variety of functions had to be performed by UN peacekeepers, ranging from the supervision of ceasefires to the return of refugees and displaced persons to the verification of respect for human rights (UN Secretary-General 1998b). This represented a move away from traditional peacekeeping to what became known as second generation or ‘multidimensional’ or ‘wider’ peacekeeping (Kenkel 2013:125).

Another challenge faced the UN when the world body was confronted with a proliferation of warlords ‒ in Angola, Liberia and Somalia ‒ attacking peacekeepers in an effort to wreck the peace processes. The UN Security Council (UNSC) historically took a conservative stance and showed a reluctance to use force under any circumstances, but conflict on the African continent steered the UN in mandating the first operation where peacekeepers were granted the explicit right to enforce peace. Thus third generation peacekeeping operations or peace enforcement emerged in 1999 when the UN deployed peacekeepers to a number of armed conflicts in Africa, namely the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sierra Leone, Ethiopia–Eritrea, as well as Kosovo and East Timor. This was followed with deployments to Liberia, Burundi and (the former) Sudan (Adebajo 2011:10). These operations were characterised by increased permission to use force to impose the aims of a mission’s mandate, typically dispatched under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (Kenkel 2013:130). This new approach emerged as more interventionist and thus steered away from the UN’s view of the state in the international system, a view anchored solidly in the sanctity of the state over and above other concerns codified in the UN Charter (Alden 1997:2–3). The UN operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) also demonstrated that UN action with humanitarian aims is sometimes needed in failed states where there is no government available to give that consent or where consent might fade over time (Kenkel 2013:130).

A fourth generation of peacekeeping operations can be identified as robust operations that combine permission to use force with enhanced civilian tasks in what is captured in the concept of peacebuilding. This type of operation emerged in earnest in the aftermath of the Cold War. Although there is widespread contention with regard to the analytical contours of peacebuilding as a concept, it can be described, in the words of former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as comprehensive efforts to identify and support structures, which will tend to consolidate peace and advance a sense of confidence and well-being among people. In several ways, full-scale peacebuilding constituted a departure from the previous logic underlying peacekeeping operations as conflict management (Kenkel 2013:132–134; UN Secretary-General 1998a).

Further to the above, Kenkel (2013:128) suggests that there is sufficient empirical evidence to distinguish the emergence of a fifth generation of peacekeeping operations – which is of much relevance to the African context. What profiles this type of mission is its hybrid character. The shift to hybridity was gradual since the mid-1990s (Kenkel 2013:128; Alden 1997:2) and became evident in a division of labour in peacekeeping operations where several regional organisations, particularly in Europe and Africa, have started to complement the role of the UN in peacekeeping operations (Alden 1997:46).

Lastly, Karlsrud (2018:1) makes another important observation, namely that ‘[l]iberal peacebuilding may be on its way to the scrapyard of history’. The reason is a growing emphasis on stabilisation and counterterrorism in peacekeeping operations. In terms of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, counterterrorism rests on the following four pillars: addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism; preventing and combatting terrorism; building states’ capacity and strengthening the role of the UN; and ensuring human rights and the rule of law. Several peacekeeping functionaries and analysts seem to view this emphasis on counterterrorism as the beginning of a new trend, where UN peacekeeping operations should increasingly expect to deal with violent extremists or terrorist groups (Karlsrud 2017). To examine this shift more closely, the next section specifically reflects on the growing emphasis on stabilisation and counterterrorism in Africa.

Terrorism and the changing dynamics of peacekeeping operations in Africa

The attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 were indeed a defining moment in world politics. These attacks had major consequences on the reality of international security and marked the intrusion of highly dangerous non-state actors on the inter-state arena. States and transnational actors were compelled to dramatically reconsider the understanding of their own security and the means of ensuring it.

At the inter-state level, international organisations dealing with international or regional security such as the UN, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union (EU) all perceived the 11 September events as a direct challenge to their very existence. To this end, they embarked upon policies aimed at suppressing the threat of terrorism or addressing its causes (Tardy 2004:1–3).

However, following the 11 September events, Tardy (2004:25, 23) viewed the two issues of ‘peace operations’ and the ‘fight against terrorism’ as ‘a priori two separate themes that are not spontaneously connected’. Terrorism was not seen as something that would shape or alter the future nature of UN peacekeeping operations as the role of the UN was not defined by the nature of the 11 September attacks. Others, however, were convinced and anticipated that ‘NATO’s agenda, for the longer term, will be dominated by its preoccupation with counterterrorism measures, a debate in which the US has already taken the lead’ (Leurdijk 2004:66, 75–76). In this regard, it was pointed out that operationally, NATO was in the process of redefining its role in combatting international terrorism, specifically with regard to Al-Qaeda networks as well as the so-called ‘sponsor states’ as part of the identification of NATO’s new threats assessments and related responses. This means ‘the biggest challenge for future peace operations, probably, will be the war on terrorism’ (Leurdijk 2004:66, 75).

Since 2009, there has been a fourfold increase in the number of militant attacks and a staggering 850 per cent increase in deaths on the African continent. Groups such as al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) flourish and have made concerted efforts to expand their presence in a broad arc from the Horn of Africa to northeast Nigeria, spanning over much of North Africa and the Sahel (Du Plessis and Allison 2017). Obviously, this means that religious extremism and terrorist networks have increasingly posed new challenges to peacekeeping actors and require the UN and the AU to be responsive to changing conflict patterns.

In December 2015, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. In this plan, references are made to ‘extremism’, ‘violent extremism’ and ‘terrorism’. The linkages between terrorism and violent extremism implied a broad set of peacekeeping tools to deal with these threats (UN Secretary-General 2015:2). It also means that there was a move away from typical post-Cold War peacekeeping operations to operations that are more partial in nature, specifically in places such as the DRC and Mali (Karlsrud 2018:4). In the DRC, for example, where the UN is countering armed rebel groups, it was a defining moment in international peacekeeping when the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) was mandated by the UN Security Council to ‘neutralise and disarm’ identified armed rebels in the strife-riven eastern parts of the country (Karlsrud 2017). Similar to the peacekeeping operations in Mali and Somalia, this essentially made MONUSCO a party to the conflict. In this context, Resolution 2098 (2013) of the UN Security Council approved the creation of a first-ever offensive combat force, intended to focus targeted operations on the notorious March 23 Movement (M23), as well as other rebels and foreign, armed groups in the DRC (UN Security Council 2013). Tull (2017:167–168) regards this development as a ‘sea change in the transition from robust peacekeeping to a qualitatively different kind of UN peace operation’; thereby pushing the parameters of UN peacekeeping beyond traditional principles and doctrine.

Even more significant was the deployment of MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), which was mandated to extend state authority and stabilise the northern parts of Mali where various violent extremist and terrorist groups were operating and causing deaths by means of suicide attacks, mortar attacks and improvised explosive devices (Karlsrud 2017). This will be explored further in the sections below.

Peacekeeping and countering extremism and terrorism in Mali: MINUSMA

In Africa the 2011 Arab Spring not only strengthened the capacity of radical groups or ‘jihadists’ such as AQIM, which has stated its intention to create a caliphate across North Africa by installing political and religious structures that impose a moral order for ‘believers only’ across the region. The situation in Libya also created conditions for others to emerge, such as Ansar al-Sharia, with splinter groups in places like Benghazi and Darnah. Most North African countries face the threat of terrorism to varying degrees, but the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the subsequent lack of state control in Libya especially pigeonholed the country as a haven for terrorists. Al-Qaeda and affiliated extremist and terrorist groups started to roam freely on Libyan soil and started to use the country as a strategic hub (Aning and Abdullaf 2016:23–24).

Gaddafi’s departure also had other important consequences on the regional politics of Africa. During September and October 2011, hundreds of Gaddafi’s armed forces migrated to northern Mali after Libya fell into the hands of anti-Gaddafi forces in the wake of the NATO intervention. Many or most of these armed forces were Malian Tuaregs who served in the armed forces of Libya during the reign of Gaddafi. Their arrival back in Mali led to the creation of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which forged links with Ansar Dine and jointly provided the backbone of the separatist Movement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA). In the course of 2012, the MNLA took control of cities and territories in the northern parts of the country and further advanced in a southwestern direction towards Bamako. In the process, the Malian government suffered a series of devastating defeats. On its part, AQIM notoriously destroyed many historical and cultural sites in Timbuktu (Oluwadare 2014:14).

In December 2012, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2085, authorising under Chapter VII of the UN Charter the establishment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) to assist the Malian government in efforts to retake the northern parts. However, the government in Mali preferred to turn to France for assistance rather than AFISMA. French intervention in Mali was also endorsed by the 20th AU ordinary Session in Addis Ababa. The main reason was that ECOWAS was found not able to mount the required operations, while divisions within ECOWAS and non-ECOWAS member states also played a role. France thus got involved and played a major role to halt the rebel advance on Bamako with airstrikes while French ground forces pushed the insurgents back into the hinterland. By early 2013, France had begun to withdraw some of the 4 000 troops it had deployed. In view of the fact that AFISMA lacked the size, logistics and finances to match the strength of its opponents, appeals were made for the force to be transitioned into a UN peacekeeping operation. This paved the way towards the establishment of MINUSMA, a force that was four times as large as what was envisaged for the AFISMA force. As such, the matter of French intervention was indicative of the fact that African peacekeeping actors, as represented by the AU and ECOWAS, were too weak and too divided to respond effectively to the Malian crisis and that African leaders are still not able to implement their own decisions in conflict theatres where swift action is required (Malan 2017:384; Ndiaye 2016:59; Maru 2013:2–3). Maru (2013:3) puts matters in perspective by stating that French intervention ‘exposed the weakness of ECOWAS and the AU in bridging the gaps between early warning and early response, the mismatch between their sluggish political-decision-making and deployment capacity’.

MINUSMA was inter alia mandated to support the Malian government in the fight against terrorist, extremist and armed groups and to reduce the threat posed by these groups, as well as to stabilise the key population areas in especially the northern parts of the country. From the start, it was clear that MINUSMA has entered history as one of the deadliest operations in the peacekeeping history of the UN as it was deployed in an environment of ongoing conflict where it faced attacks by armed and terrorist groups with suicide bombers, mortars, rockets and improvised explosive devices. A high number of fatalities were suffered in what was described as ‘the wild frontier of peacekeeping’ (Ndiaye 2016:348).

According to Karlsrud (2016:1219), MINUSMA is a relevant peacekeeping operation to examine when assessing how far the UN and the UNSC have moved towards developing a UN counterterrorism operation, both with regard to mandate and practice. In this regard, Duursma (2018:460) points out that in March 2013, the UN Secretary-General repeatedly referred to ‘terrorist groups’ rather than, for instance, ‘armed groups’ as insurgent groups are commonly referred to in reports issued by the Secretary-General.

This makes MINUSMA the first ever UN peacekeeping operation that conducted military operations against terrorist groups or armed groups referred to as ‘terrorist groups’ at the UN Headquarters.

MINUSMA therefore has entered the fight against terrorism, and from a scholarly point of view, demonstrates a number of important characteristics that deviate from other peacekeeping operations (Karlsrud 2016:1219–1221):

  • It is the first time a multidimensional UN peacekeeping operation has conducted operations with ongoing counterterrorist
  • It is operating in a complex security environment that includes asymmetric threats, which include dangerous terrorist organisations, such as
  • As a peacekeeping operation, MINUSMA has been deployed in active support of extending state authority to areas controlled by violent extremists and terrorist groups, making the UN peacekeepers a party to the In this regard, MINUSMA is building on the mandate issued to MONUSCO where the peacekeeping force has been tasked to ‘neutralise’ identified rebel groups in the eastern parts of that country.

The initial mandate of MINUSMA (April 2013) seemed to confirm the UN Security Council’s ‘newly found willingness to provide peace operations with more teeth than traditional doctrine’, but in April 2016, the Security Council went a significant step further (Tull 2017:167–168). MINUSMA was asked to move to ‘[a] more proactive and robust posture’ in carrying out its mandate as well as to engage in ‘direct operations’ pursuant (only) to serious and credible threats (UN Security Council 2016).

There was also another important deviation from previous UN peacekeeping operations: apart from the MINUSMA mandate that allowed for wide latitude for counterterrorism activities, also in terms of using lethal violence, this was the first UN peacekeeping operation deployed with a dedicated intelligence unit – called the All-source Information Fusion Analysis Unit. This unit is staffed by European troops, and this aspect of the operation coincides with the MINUSMA mandate to ‘enhance early warning, to anticipate and deter and counter threats’ (Karlsrud 2018:12–13).

In terms of practices on the ground, MINUSMA has been a laboratory for exploration and innovation in UN peacekeeping. To this end, a high-level debate was requested by the President of the UN General Assembly in 2016 as there was a need to have further reflections on tools and means for UN peacekeeping operations, specifically with regard to terrorism and violent extremism (Karlsrud 2018:12–13). This does not mean that the situation in Mali has been stabilised by MINUSMA. In June 2019, the UNSC expressed ‘grave concern about the continued deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in Mali, including the high level of asymmetric attacks by terrorist groups in the North and the escalation of intercommunal violence in the Centre’. At the same time, the Council decided to extend the mandate of MINUSMA until 30 June 2020 (UN Security Council 2019:1, 5).

As in the case of Mali, the security landscape in Somalia also required the relevant multinational peacekeeping functionaries and actors to operate in the fight against terrorism and extremism. Freear and De Coning (2018) rightly state that in both Mali and Somalia role players have been challenged to contend with capable and determined Islamist-inspired insurgencies. In both cases, these insurgencies have exploited centre-periphery political tensions, ongoing humanitarian crises, weak governance, lawlessness, global criminal networks and banditry. Against this backdrop, the AU tasked the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to protect key functionaries in governmental positions from their main opponent, al-Shabaab. The next section expands on this.

Peacekeeping and countering al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya: AMISOM

Over the last six decades, the Horn of Africa has been the most conflicted region in Africa. No other region experienced so many conflicts over such a long period. The root causes are several, and in Somalia, al-Shabaab has been most active in numerous terrorist attacks in the country and beyond (Shinn 2003).

The origins of al-Shabaab in East Africa (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen) can be traced to the clandestine Somali Islamist group al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI), meaning Islamic unity. AIAI was formed in 1983 by Somalis who studied in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and ideologically subscribed to the paradigm of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The aim of AIAI was to create a Greater Somali state, including Somalis in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, and in the process to get rid of the Somali secular rule of Siad Barre. In 2012, al-Shabaab was formally recognised as the Somali-based cell of al-Qaeda.

Following increasing incidents of bloodshed and fatalities in the eastern parts of Africa and also in view of the absence of peace and stability in Somalia, the AU deployed AMISOM in March 2007. This development promised a new opportunity to reduce the threats posed by al-Shabaab and to create conditions and facilitate the strengthening of state institutions and promote dialogue among the belligerents. The newly created transitional government in Somalia, which existed since 2004, was still very fragile and the political landscape was marked by challenges relating to an absence of stable political agreement amongst the main parties to the conflict. At the same time, terrorism and insurgent groups, especially al-Shabaab (since 2012) but also ISIS-Somalia (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in more recent years (since 2015) had proved to be persistent and determined in their endeavours to undermine any process towards the consolidation of governmental institutions (Wondemagegnehu and Kebede 2017:199–204; Africom 2019).

In this context, AMISOM was initially framed as a stabilisation operation. Its mandate was to stabilise the situation in the country with a view to creating conditions for the conduct of humanitarian activities. It also provided for an immediate takeover by the UN (African Union 2006). AMISOM mainly focused on defending itself and protecting the transitional authorities and key infrastructures in Mogadishu. After its force size had been expanded and its mandate adjusted, it started to undertake more robust stabilisation tasks (Dersso 2016:41). The mandate of 2013 explicitly requires AMISOM peacekeepers to reduce the threat posed by al-Shabaab and other armed movements. The mandate even provided for ‘offensive operations against al-Shabaab and other armed opposition armed groups’, as well as to establish conditions that would provide for effective and legitimate governance across Somalia (African Union 2017).

All in all, AMISOM was simply different from a traditional or conventional peacekeeping operation as one of its tasks was to reclaim territories in Somalia forcefully from al-Shabaab. Wondemagegnehu and Kebede (2017:199–200) makes mention of four peculiar characteristics that distinguished AMISOM from other operations, making it an ‘atypical’ operation:

  • AMISOM was mandated to become a ‘party to the conflict’ in order to protect the Somali transitional government in a highly volatile situation;
  • AMISOM was mandated to conduct counterterrorism operations;
  • Troops from Somalia’s neighbouring environment constituted the bulk of the military personnel; and
  • AMISOM’s logistical support was provided by the UN.

Williams (2013:17) rightly points out:

[AMISOM was not a] peacekeeping mission in the UN sense of the term – but rather an operation which involved various war-fighting, VIP protection and counterinsurgency elements which went well beyond the levels of force and tempo of operations generally expected in UN-led peacekeeping missions.

Only much later, in 2013, AMIS was also given an extended mandate in relation to the protection of civilians (Williams 2013:1), in other words, assuming a role in the framework of fourth generation peacekeeping operations. This included active stabilisation efforts, reconciliation and peacebuilding in Somalia, as well as working towards an electoral process in the country (African Union 2017). As far as challenges in the operational environment are concerned, suffice it to say that AMISOM’s remit naturally generated a considerable number of casualties. The figures were never communicated officially and AMISOM, in fact, always refused to declare the figures, but Bruton and Williams (2014:3) claim that the figures for fatalities and injured personnel were far higher than those sustained in most peacekeeping operations.

Generally, there are several reasons why AMISOM is of considerable significance in the contemporary African peacekeeping environment. Although not all peacekeeping operations in Africa are institutionalised as hybrid operations, AMISOM became the ‘central practical barometer of subsequent debates about the emerging African peace and security architecture as well as UN-regional cooperation’ in the field of the African peace and security dynamic (Bruton and Williams 2014:2). Furthermore, although AMISOM had not been intended or structured as a hybrid operation, several actors played key roles in the functioning of AMISOM since its inception, namely the AU and the relevant African troop-contributing nations (initially Uganda and Burundi, and later Kenya, Djibouti, Sierra Leone and Nigeria). In addition, the UN, the EU, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), as well as specific countries, namely the US, Ethiopia and Turkey, played key roles in supporting and sustaining the operational activities – thereby clearly demonstrating strategic partnerships between Africa and international actors. As far as the UN is concerned, the UN Support Office (UNSOA) has supported AMISOM with considerable logistics, while the EU has provided considerable financial assistance (Freear and De Coning 2018).

Yet, AMISOM has received considerable criticism in recent years on various matters. Du Plessis and Allison (2017) are specifically critical of the strategy adopted by AMISOM in the field of counterterrorism. They argue that with the US as a major funder of the operation, an approach was followed of containing and suppressing al-Shabaab, rather than working towards the creation of a stable state and peaceful, inclusive Somalia. However, in other circles, international talk of recent years emerged around ‘an AMISOM model’. It influenced discussions on how to respond to a variety of crises, most specifically those conflicts in the eastern DRC, Mali and the Central African Republic. Thus, ‘the AMISOM model’ has considerable relevance to the kind of challenges and conflict currently experienced by actors such as the UN and the AU (Bruton and Williams 2014:2; Darkwa 2016:66). The principal mandate of AMISOM is to reduce threats posed by al-Shabaab and other opposition groups, and to an extent, AMISOM has achieved this. Yet, it should also be clear that al-Shabaab is still in control of a fifth of Somalia’s territory, mainly small towns and rural areas in the southern and central parts. At the time of writing, deadly attacks on AMISOM and its local and international partners have continued, but both the AU Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council have decided to implement a process of downsizing AMISOM ‒ leading to questions about the withdrawing of peacekeepers from Somalia without a political solution in sight (Dessu and Yohannes 2019).

Analysis and evaluation

It is evident from the above that terrorism is increasingly posing a difficult set of challenges to peacekeepers on the African continent. Rather than monitoring peace as agreed by conflicting parties as the UN did during the Cold War until the late 1980s, peacekeeping operations, such as MINUSMA and AMISOM, are effectively taking sides and engaging in a variety of activities, including protection of facilities and infrastructure, counterinsurgency and effective warfighting. In addition, they are also expected to facilitate humanitarian assistance as far as possible. However, what is of the utmost importance is that both these operations have been deployed in active support of the respective state authorities and had to deal with and operate in areas controlled by violent extremists. In this context, peacekeeping operations, such as MINUSMA and AMISOM, have – at least to some extent – become barometers in relation to emerging or future peacekeeping operations on the continent. Since its inception, AMISOM has become the biggest, most complex and dangerous operation conducted by the AU, while MINUSMA has been among the deadliest in UN history.

This being said, this discussion on peacekeeping and counterterrorism will be incomplete without reflections on scholarly views that a shift in peacekeeping – as premised on the idea of supporting a political process – to stabilisation and counterterrorism, is likely to be counterproductive (see for instance Charbonneau 2017). In this regard, a matter of serious concern for some scholars and analysts is based on the assertion that AMISOM was designed and implemented as a military-heavy undertaking, and therefore more suited to undertaking military operations than other operations in the spectrum of stabilisation activities. They further maintain that the police and civilian components of AMISOM remained inadequate throughout, not only in size, but also in terms of technical expertise. Another matter of criticism relates to the argument that the AU (at a political level) and AMISOM (at a military level) have not linked operations in Somalia to effective political efforts to resolve the conflicts. This means that AMISOM has been operating in the absence of any meaningful political processes from its inception, while it was also inadequately set up for the tasks of conflict resolution and stabilisation (De Coning, Gelot and Karlsrud 2016:142–143; Dersso 2016:43).

Turning to the UN, several scholars have raised concerns about the increased entanglement between peacekeeping and counterterrorism from the point of view that impartiality should be a distinct characteristic of UN peacekeeping operations, and that experiences in Mali have revealed important political and operational challenges with regard to the need to maintain impartiality. Another concern pertains to the role of the UN in relation to the increasing importance of regional actors – notably in Africa – where increasing numbers of counterterrorist forces in the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin and Somalia have been deployed in recent years (Charbonneau 2018).

As far as MINUSMA and ad hoc regional operations are concerned, the role of the Joint Force of the Group of Five of the Sahel (Force Conjointe du G5Sahel or FC-G5S) should especially be noted. This is a most significant initiative by African actors to counter the threat of terrorism in the Sahel. The FC-G5S, also popularly known as the G5 Sahel Joint Force, is a military force that falls under the auspices of the Group of Five, a sub-regional organisation that was established in February 2014, with a view to enhance cooperation around development, as well as to unify collective action against common threats, such as terrorism and organised crime. The force was authorised by the AU Peace and Security Council on 13 April 2017 and subsequently welcomed by the UN Security Council. It consists of armed forces from Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad with a mandate to combat terrorism in the Sahel.

In recent years, Mali has often been cited as the epicentre of violence in the region, but violent activities also occurred in Burkina Faso and Niger. The G5 Sahel Joint Force is largely military and has been scaled up to 10 000 troops with a 105-strong police force (Rupesinghe 2018:11–15). Furthermore, France had earlier deployed a counterterrorism operation in Mali, Opération Barkhane, in parallel to MINUSMA. Barkhane has been an ongoing and significant regional military operation since August 2014, initially involving 3 500 French soldiers, approximately 20 helicopters, 200 transport trucks, 200 armoured vehicles, six to ten support planes, four to six fighter jets, and five drones. Currently, 4 500 military personnel are deployed, while medium-range missiles have also recently been added to the available equipment of this force. It functions in partnership with the G5 Sahel Joint Force, and supported MINUSMA in an effort to provide stability in the wider Sahel region by helping the governments of the various regions in combatting terrorism (Charbonneau 2018; Global Defense and Security News 2019). Obviously, this boils down to considerable challenges with regard to counterterrorism governance and the division of labour between MINUSMA (in its peacekeeping role) on the one hand, and ad hoc regional forces (and their fight against terrorism) on the other.

According to Charbonneau (2018), three important reports have all made it clear that UN peacekeeping operations cannot and should not engage in counterterrorist operations, namely:

  • the 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), which was produced by an independent panel convened by former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to undertake a thorough review of the current UN peacekeeping operations and the emerging needs of the future;
  • the subsequent report of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the future of UN peacekeeping operations; and
  • the 2018 report of the Special Committee on Peace Operations (C34).

Yet, in practice and contrary to the aforementioned principled stance, the countering and preventing of the violent extremism agenda ‘has moved counterterrorism from the margins to the centre stage’ and thus the UN is likely to continue deploying peacekeepers in settings where organisational partners do counterterrorism (Charbonneau 2018).

In view of the above, the following critical questions arise:

  • How can UN peacekeepers operate in hybrid peacekeeping environments where counterterrorist forces are also deployed?
  • How can UN peacekeeping operations distinguish their responsibilities from those of counterterrorist objectives?
  • How can UN peacekeeping operations cooperate with regional partnerships or coalitions of states that are involved in counterterrorism?
  • Which kind of strategic partnerships between the UN and regional actors should be encouraged, and which ones should be avoided?

These questions are of importance, as the conventional and moral argument has always been that the use of force in peacekeeping is limited and to be used impartially, and that peacekeepers have no enemy to kill and destroy. Contrary to this, counterterrorism is different and involves the seeking, capturing or killing of the enemy. Thus, there are distinctly different ethical frameworks between peacekeeping and counterterrorism (Charbonneau 2018).

Karlsrud (2017) similarly argues that, based on the case of MINUSMA, UN peacekeeping is not ready operationally, doctrinally or politically to take on counterterrorism tasks. From its inception in 2013 until 31 March 2017, MINUSMA has suffered 72 fatalities from attacks by violent extremists and terrorists, making it the deadliest peacekeeping operation of recent times. These developments have come to jeopardise the legal position of UN staff and the ability of the UN to be an impartial arbiter of conflict, as well as the situation of other actors carrying out humanitarian work.

To this end, MINUSMA ‘is an anomaly in the history of UN peacekeeping, and should be avoided as an example for future operations’. Moreover, counterterrorism containment in peacekeeping undermines and challenges any kind of thinking about the ‘root causes’ of a particular conflict. It also creates no incentive to debate the future of the peace, state sovereignty and nationhood in a case such as Mali (Charbonneau 2017:416).

Attree (2018) similarly argues that the logistical support of MINUSMA to the French-led Opération Barkhane and the G5 Sahel Joint Force ‘has painted targets on the backs of U.N. peacekeepers in Mali’. One of the problems is that the UN embraces a stance that assigns blame to just one party in an ongoing conflict, such as Mali and Somalia. It also does not address the grievances that underpin the strength and support of extremists or terrorists, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, or push the Somali government and its allies to improving its human rights record. It further diminishes the ability of the UN to enter into or support dialogue with al-Shabaab, which many believe will be needed to bring an end to the Somali conflict. Furthermore, it is believed that campaigns to counter violent extremism and terrorism may help to obtain more funding for the UN, but such an approach will come at a heavy cost. It could feed cycles of violence and revenge and thus aggravate conflicts for years, and may furthermore not be helpful in creating more people-centred and field-based operations – which is the goal of the UN – but give way to high-cost, endless stabilisation operations (Attree 2018).

Gowan (2015) points out that a blurring between peacekeeping, stabilisation operations and counterterrorism operations in Africa could be a disaster if peacekeepers continue to lack specialised equipment and training, as highlighted earlier by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In Mali, for instance, the UN peacekeepers were not deployed with the required kit or knowledge they needed to handle roadside bombs, leaving the convoys highly vulnerable to the insurgents. Otherwise, capacity gaps also became clear, including shortages of helicopters, medical units and engineers (Gowan 2015).

The question now arises: where do the above-mentioned issues leave the future of UN peacekeeping operations? It seems there are two main broad options. In the first instance, the UN could steer away from counterterrorism operations in peacekeeping. Attree (2018) argues that it is now or never for the UN leadership to safeguard the role of the world body in protecting human rights and building international peace. The future should lie in coherently designed missions focusing on impartial human rights monitoring, protection of civilians, relief, development and mediation. This means that the UN should unequivocally be rejecting any role for blue helmets (i.e. UN peacekeepers) in waging war.

Ostensibly coinciding with the above-mentioned position, Charbonneau (2018) contends that the UN must develop a precise doctrine of UN peacekeeping to protect itself from the ways in which counterterrorism has come to undermine its impartiality. It should also avoid an overstretching of peacekeeping as a concept and maintain its unique moral position in conducting operations in conflict zones as opposed to other kinds of military operations. One way of doing this is to return to the basics of peacekeeping or alternatively to formulate a new typology of peacekeeping. In both cases, any doctrinal work must take seriously the principle that UN peacekeepers have no enemies. Furthermore, the UN should not authorise counterterrorism partnerships via UN peacekeeping mandates.

In the second instance, Gowan (2015) takes a somewhat different view and argues that ‘the challenge of countering violent extremism is not going away, particularly in the large swathes of Africa, Asia and the Middle East’. Ever since the 2003 bombing of the US Baghdad headquarters, the UN increasingly finds itself a target. Moreover, UN peacekeeping operations operate in places where terrorists are present. In fact, African governments are keen to mount robust operations against terrorist threats such as Al-Qaida in the Maghreb, al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. African actors have also been critical of the caution of the UN, and they support robust responses by France to the crisis in Mali and the broader region. At the same time, there could be a further blurring between peacekeeping, stabilisation operations and counterterrorism in African conflict theatres, especially with a mix of UN and regional mandates.


This article analyses the tasks and contours of two of the most important peacekeeping operations on the African continent, namely those in Mali and Somalia. As atypical and fourth generation peacekeeping operations these operations could be considered laboratories for further exploration and innovation in the African peacekeeping landscape. In the international peacekeeping landscape, they are of great significance, specifically with regard to an increasing entanglement between peacekeeping and counterterrorism, which can be considered as highly contentious and problematic. This being said, a basic, pressing question underlying this article is whether peacekeepers should fight terrorists.

There is no doubt that there is an alarming proliferation of terrorist groups on much of the African continent. As African actors have charted new courses in their peacekeeping actions, it is imperative for the UN and the AU to explore new ways of improving the existing response mechanisms with a view to complementing the AU and the relevant sub-regional actors in dealing with emerging or evolving threats on the continent.

In the final analysis, this article concurs with Collingburn (2016) that peacekeepers are often deployed where there is no peace to keep. For future peacekeeping operations, UN peacekeepers will likely have to be capable of conducting a full spectrum of operations: ranging from humanitarian assistance, to disaster relief operations, to missions with more offensive mandates. Where relevant, this includes a counterinsurgency mind-set. A pressing problem is that many UN peacekeepers are not appropriately trained and not adequately equipped to deal with threats in the evolving peacekeeping environment. This is especially of relevance to the African security landscape in view of the fact that the so-called ‘Islamic State’ is under pressure in the Middle East and has been looking elsewhere for safe havens for training and from where they may launch attacks.

A rapid expansion of terrorist activities on the African continent will require a proper security response from both UN and African actors. However, such a response from the UN and the AU must not trump political and development responses. It must be underpinned by initiatives that address the grievances of the relevant sections of local populations. As far as possible, responses should also diminish or reduce the appeal of extremist groups, as well as contribute to building the resilience and nationhood of the states in question. In other words, addressing political, economic and social grievances triggering radicalisation and spreading extremism throughout the region, must not be side-tracked in peacekeeping processes.

As far as the future of African actors are concerned, suffice it to say that in collaboration with international partners, they are currently responding to highly complex and dynamic environments. They need to meet rapidly changing conflict patterns and security trends, and in recent years, African actors have been part of a rich variety of institutional interlinkages and hybrid partnership models that have emerged. Like the UN, the AU and other actors on the continent also need to meet security challenges relating to a wave of violent extremism and terrorism in certain parts of the continent that are causing the deaths of hundreds of Africans, displacement of hundreds of thousands and destruction of public and private properties. This suggests and requires new thinking and efforts around counterterrorism. But, as in the case of the UN, there should be a move away in the AU from a too strong emphasis on the military dimension of stabilisation and counterterrorism operations to the detriment of a focus on, among others, the political objectives of peacekeeping operations, the ‘root causes’ of conflicts, and civilian and police dimensions in peacekeeping operations. After all, the concerns raised in this article about the political and operational risks of an increased entanglement between peacekeeping counterterrorism efforts are of great relevance and importance in the African security landscape. In this regard, the international legitimacy of both the UN and the AU as conflict arbiters is at stake and what is clear is that the atypical peacekeeping operations in Mali and Somalia generate some serious questions about the future of fourth generation peacekeeping operations in general and of the trajectory of counter-terrorism policies and practices in Africa in particular.


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