In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the premier French daily Le Monde’s headline read, “We Are All Americans!” Without doubt, the “we” referred not just to the French, but also to the West as a whole. It was meant to signal compassion and solidarity as well as acknowledge the birth of a new era—an era characterized by what is now referred to as “the global war on terror.” No such headline appeared in 1998 to express the same solidarity with Kenyans or Tanzanians when they bore the brunt of the bombing of the US embassy that killed and injured hundreds of them.After the outrage, the anguish, and the tears, the time has come to reflect soberly on the significance of these terrorist attacks and what lessons must be drawn to prevent another tragedy. The massacre that took place over four days in September cannot simply be constructed as an isolated, terrifying sucker punch by a terrorist outfit on the run, lashing out before waning.

In Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt, self-styled jihadist extremists have wreaked havoc in events eerily similar to the Westgate attack, coldly murdering innocent civilians by the dozens. In Mali, the ultimate nightmare of seeing a whole country taken over by narco-Islamists and separatists was averted only by France’s military intervention. Fifty-odd years after decolonization, it is telling that Mali’s entire security apparatus, and whatever stood for the collective security framework of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), had to rely on French intervention as the only alternative to disaster.

While the threat is continent-wide, its manifestations are local and must first be tackled effectively on a regional basis. Currently, none of the regional economic organizations (RECs) seems ready to play their role in the African Union’s (AU) African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Despite its deservedly touted Conflict Prevention Framework (ECPF), ECOWAS gave ample evidence at the height of the Malian crisis that it was not ready to effectively address a severe security threat should it suddenly materialize. It made no proactive or resolute decisions as the threat unmistakably escalated, and, as the collapse of Mali’s central government became imminent, key countries (with the military capacity that could have made a difference) also shirked their responsibilities. Many other states (supposedly at a safe distance from the Sahel “danger zone”) refused to commit troops. Most important, the standby security force that was supposed to have already been set up was far from ready. In short, even ECOWAS, reputed to be ahead of other RECs in conflict prevention and the setting and planning of a security framework regime, was distressingly ill-prepared—both politically and technically.

Whether embodied by Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ançar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), or any other terrorist group, the threat of fundamentalism clearly concerns not just those countries bordering on crisis-plagued states (whether they are legitimately involved or not in those crises) but also countries with aggrieved Muslims (either as minorities or as majorities). For most African states whose fragile political order rests on deficient security sectors, fundamentalism can be deadly. This realization is the conditio sine qua non that must be met if our continent, its states, and its people are to stand a chance.

Even as Kenyan parliamentary investigations get into full gear to determine all the details of the Westgate attack, it is already quite apparent that the security agencies, though highly reputed for their professional outlook, training, and close collaboration with their Western counterparts, were unable to prevent the attack on Westgate Mall and had an extremely hard time ending it. For every attack similar to Westgate that has taken place to date, it is more than likely a result of members of the responsible terrorist/fundamentalist groups crossing a border at least once (and with weapons), sometimes with the full knowledge of border security officers who either did not do their jobs conscientiously or, more likely, looked the other way in exchange for bribes. For each of these attacks, chances are the intelligence services—because of ill-defined missions and/or ill-equipped, incompetent, ineffective, unprofessional, or complacent personnel—failed to collect, analyze, and properly connect pieces of information that could have helped prevent it. This lack of training or professionalism on the part of the police, paramilitary, or regular armed forces in the countries where these attacks have taken place has often led to operational flaws and serious mistakes on the part of security agencies who responded to and were ultimately unable to counter the attacks, rescue victims, or secure the premises (although admittedly sometimes this failure was for reasons unrelated to intelligence failures). These deficiencies, in all likelihood, added to the devastation wrought by the attacks.

Furthermore, before each attack, the judicial system most likely let one or more of the authors slip through for one fraudulent reason or another. Civil society organizations or ordinary citizens who could have made a difference did not care enough to do so because they were shut out of security-related policies or decisions and therefore did not identify with the security apparatus’s motives, methods, or ultimate purpose. In short, critical subregional cooperation that could have made a difference was forgone or not properly carried out.

Socioeconomic and political causes always underlie security woes, and they must be given due weight in any overall security strategy. The imminent danger, however, remains the inability of our states’ security institutions and our regional and continental security instruments to effectively tackle extremism-related acts of violence and terrorism. A vast movement must take place to ready the continent to meet this clear and present danger. Its formation was hopefully made easier by the adoption in January 2013 of the African Union’s Security Sector Reform Policy Framework. It is time for states across the continent to engage in a genuine security sector reform process by readying their citizens, state institutions, political systems, and security apparatuses to meet this existential challenge. Africans have certainly felt Kenyan, and Malian, and Nigerian, and Nigerien. This unsettling pan-Africanism of pain, angst, and vulnerability must be transformed into a pan-Africanism of determination. That is the lesson Westgate and all the other Westgates teach us.

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