Through my professional background in the military, law enforcement and risk management industry as well as my academic journey where I studied security and terrorism, I have developed a comprehensive understanding of the vulnerabilities we face in the Africa and our beloved Malawi in particular.
Having personally experienced the aftermath of a terrorist attack when I attended the scene after the Manchester bombing, the loss of life, destruction, panic and confusion caused by a terrorist attack is something I would never wish on my people. I have also had a work colleague severely injured as he tried to protect civilians during the London Bridge terrorist attack.
The emergence of Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia have completely changed the landscape all over Africa. In the past few years, we have witnessed a rapid rise in terrorism and violent extremism across Africa which has generated threats and problems of considerable cost, gravity and complexity. Due to the expansion of social media and other information sharing platforms like WhatsApp, materials for radicalizing potential terrorist are easily being shared.
The terrorist attacks that have been brazenly carried out in Nairobi and other parts of Africa should serve as a timely reminder that terrorism can take place anywhere, any time, and that something needs to change now rather than later – or, as Martin Luther King Jr once put it, the fierce urgency of now.
Kenya has become a target of Islamic militants al-Shabaab due to its porous borders where militants can infiltrate into the country easily without being detected as well as Kenya’s continued armed intervention in Somalia. Al-Shabaab have targeted Kenya for both logical and opportunistic reasons. The militants’ attacks aim at influencing Kenya’s foreign policy and force it to withdraw from Somalia.
As much as the likelihood for a terrorist attack remains limited in Malawi due to Malawi’s geographic location and proximity to terrorist breeding grounds, Malawi present the same conditions similar to Kenya making the country susceptible to a terrorist attack, Apart from its porous borders, Malawi’s continued participation in UN peacekeeping missions in Democratic Republic of Congo where the MDF has fought against an Islamist group, the Allied Democratic Forces.
It’s important to take note that terrorism is actually closer to home than we might think. Terrorist related activities have occurred in Malawi in the past two decades although this has been under reported in the local media. In 2003, law-enforcement officers in Malawi, working alongside the CIA,arrested five men suspected of helping to funnel money to al-Qaeda. According to the Malawi National Intelligence Bureau, the five foreigners were arrested in Blantyre with CIA’s assistance after being suspected of running charities that channeled money to al-Qaeda operatives in Africa and elsewhere. The men were later whisked out of the country by CIA.
“We are dealing with matters of state security,” said Primrose Chimwaza, a state prosecutor at the time.
And according to a BBC article published on 6th July 2013, also mentioned a British terror suspect Assan Ali Iqbar, who was suspected to have been involved in the bombings in the northern part of Tanzania as well as suspected to have been involved in terrorism activities in the UK. The suspect was arrested as he attempted to cross the border into Malawi using a forged Tanzanian passport.
Another Malawian identified as Kristen Kishombe was arrested and charged by Kenyan police for terror charges.
The lack of intelligence-sharing mechanisms between law enforcement agencies in sub-Saharan Africa also poses a continuous risk to Malawi. These activities should be looked at as a wake-up call for the government on the one hand, and the police and intelligence apparatus on the other, so that we begin to take terrorism seriously.
In a Nyasa Times article dated 16th December, 2015, our former Inspector General of Police Lexten Kachama is quoted as saying, “The Malawi police is well-skilled and equipped to fight terrorism.”
As sweet as these words might sound to the ear, I have great reservations with regard to Malawi’s capabilities to fight terrorism. We have also heard our president mentioning about terrorism, but I doubt if we have any initiatives in place to prevent terrorism from taking place.
Deterring terrorism should start from terrorism awareness amongst the population. This awareness would help individuals to report any suspicious activities in their communities. For anyone who has travelled on the British rail transport system, I am sure you have been bored with the slogan “see it, say it and we will sort it.”
As much as the message can become annoying sometimes because of its frequency, a lot of intelligence has been gathered by law enforcement and intelligence apparatus which has led to interception of homemade explosive devices as well as suspects.
In the UK, the government introduced a Counter-terrorism Strategy, also known as CONTEST, which is made of four strands namely, prevent, pursue, protect and prepare. Prevent is the most important aspect where you target individuals who are vulnerable to radicalization. The prevent attempts to tackle causes of radicalization like poverty and lack of integration, bullying, online radical preachers as well as mental health problems. It also focuses on early intervention where support is provided to those identified to be at risk to radicalization. The final aspect is rehabilitation where those already engaged in terrorism are supported to disengage and rehabilitate.
For Malawi to emulate what others like Britain are doing, we need to develop a strategic framework for dealing with terrorism. We could start with target-hardening, rapid response as well as reliable emergency services.By target-hardening I mean strengthening the security of important buildings or installations in order to fortify them in the event of a terror attack.
We also need to look at socio-economic factors that may tempt some individuals to become radicalized.
As much as it is almost impossible to stop every terrorist attack, we need to bring about a security culture in Malawi. Security culture refers to a set of values shared by everyone. These values determine how people are expected to think about their approaches to security. Getting security culture right in Malawi would help us develop a security-conscious in the population, and promote the desired security behaviors required.
It has become a second nature to me that I’m continuously assessing risks wherever I go, and so far, I haven’t been impressed by our current capabilities in Malawi. Without dwelling into the individual vulnerabilities, I suggest that we rethink the way the public, government as well as law enforcement personnel perceive terrorism. We have to begin to understand that terrorism won’t only take place in Kenya, Somalia, Mali, Chad, Tanzania, Niger and Nigeria. We need to start looking at the fight against terrorism as our battle and not their war.
The creation of the Africa Command for the US military in sub-Saharan Africa also indicates that the US views the region as a growing terrorist threat. The general weakness of central government and high levels of corruption make it easier to operate in Africa than in countries that have effective security, intelligence and military capabilities. The Southern African Development Corporation (SADC) already has a counterterrorism strategy which is modelled on The United Nations Counterterrorism Strategy. The coordinated and harmonized efforts to counter terrorism would enhance collaboration on border security and intelligence sharing in the SADC region.
While the counterterrorism frameworks provide concrete guidelines on how to combat terrorism, localized factors should be taken into consideration resource capacities in the region. The capacity for Malawi and South Africa in combatting terrorism would differ due to financial factors, and probably partners could be sought to address the gap.
In conclusion, time is now to set the ball rolling to ensure we are not taken by surprise.
- The author Wilson Khembo is a Malawian born law enforcement officer currently based in the United Kingdom. After graduating from Chancellor College, he served as an officer at the rank of Lieutenant in the Malawi Defence Force. After leaving the military, the author obtained a master’s degree in Security and Terrorism at the University of Kent in England as a Commonwealth Scholar. He then joined the risk management industry where he Operational Security Analyst for Bradburys Global Risk in charge of the African continent. For the past six years, Wilson has also served as a Geopolitical Analyst for Wikistrat which is a global network of over 5,000 subject-matter experts working collaboratively to help decision makers identify solutions for complex strategic challenges. Wilson also has interest in security sector reform and governance.
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