The following is an abridged version of a paper presented at the conference on “Boko Haram and International Law: Mapping the Legal Terrain for Responding to Insurgencies and Armed Conflicts in Africa,” University of Johannesburg, 25-26 February 2015.

The recent massacre of innocent university students in Kenya following a siege by operatives of the extremist group Al-Shabaab has raised concerns whether eradicating extremism is possible. Extremism and radicalization have fueled the violence and terrorism that afflict communities around the world today.1United Nations, “First Report of the Working Group on Radicalisation and Extremism that Lead to Terrorism: Inventory of State Programmes, Counter­Terrorism Implementation Task Force,” para. 1,, accessed January 5, 2015. See also Trevor P. Chimimba, “Defining Terrorism under the United Nations System,” Zanzibar Yearbook of Law (2013): 51–94. These scourges are borderless in their effects, and countering them is in the interest of all states.

An extremist is a person who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm, especially in politics, religion, or culture. Radicalism denotes political principles focused on altering social structures through revolutionary means and changing value systems in fundamental ways. The diverging ideological influences from the colonial era (Arabic, English and French), and the clashes among religious models, have resulted in socioeconomic and religious imbalances in several countries in Africa. At the same time, political instability, which creates power vacuums and security lapses, discrimination, religious marginalization, and economic crises, including social penury and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, has contributed to the breeding of extremist groups.2African Union, “African Union (AU) Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism,” adopted at the 35th Ordinary Session of the OAU Ordinary Summit, Algiers, Algeria, July 1999,, accessed March 10, 2015. These are generally amorphous groups—“combatants without borders”—who recruit individuals willing to conduct terrorist attacks in their home countries or abroad.

With steady funding from drug trafficking and hostage taking, the transnational nature of the actors and the porosity of borders, along with the reduction of the area through modern means of communication, tend to favor the propagation of extremism on the continent. From Somalia, Al-Shabaab extremists have launched attacks across East Africa. In Nigeria and neighboring countries, Boko Haram kills and kidnaps innocent men, women, and children, especially girls. The infiltration into North Africa of the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has caused panic and brought to the fore the search for effective strategies to counter extremism.


Although military force can hypothetically annihilate extremists, it cannot eliminate an ideology. A multipronged approach is needed, including “soft power” mechanisms to engage with, and win the hearts and minds of, the segments of society that are normally targeted by extremists and radical groups for recruitment, support, and funding. These mechanisms are outlined in the following “ten Cs” approach:

Counter-radicalization and de-radicalization programs. Extremists are made, not born, and are therefore receptive to de-radicalization.3Africa Defense Forum (ADF), “Extremists Are Made, Not Born,” Countering Terrorist Recruitment 5, Quarter 2, 45. Date of publication not known. De­radicalization involves programs directed at radicalized individuals to dissuade them from violence and reintegrate them into society through, for example, psychological counseling, vocational education, and employment, and by preventing incarceration facilities from becoming breeding grounds for extremists. Counter­radicalization, on the other hand, aims to protect people from extremism by addressing conditions that may propel individuals to become extremists. It involves undermining leadership, challenging ideology, exposing hypocrisy, and providing incentives to withdraw from extremist groups.4See African Union, “Statement Delivered by the African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ambassador Smäil Chergui, at the Ministerial Component of the White House Summit to Counter Terrorism,”, accessed March 10, 2015.

Countering extremism by condemning violence and correcting misinterpretations. Usually desperate for legitimacy, extremists manipulate ideologies to justify their violence and recruitment. Categorically condemning all acts of violent extremism and correcting misinterpreted ideologies espoused by extremists is thus imperative. Since extremists brainwash young impressionable individuals, leaders and clerics at all levels should provide clear and correct understanding of cultural, religious, and political diversity, including the principle of unity in diversity, and promote tolerance and cooperation among youths.5Ibid.

Countering extremism with respect for human rights and humanitarian law. Oftentimes, counterterrorism programs trample on human rights. Strategies such as gathering intelligence, using military force, and enforcing the law cannot by themselves solve—and, when misused, can exacerbate—the problem of violent extremism. Such measures should, therefore, be developed and implemented in full compliance with international law—in particular, with international human rights and humanitarian law. At the same time, states should be seen protecting the rights as well as the safety and security of individuals, not just monitoring their religious and political expression.6White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement from the Press Secretary on the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” January 11, 2015,, accessed March 9, 2015.

Choking off extremists’ financing. Securing and sustaining funding is at the heart of any extremist or insurgent organization’s success, but it is also its Achilles’ heel. Generally, terrorist groups can draw on financing in two primary ways: internally, through illegal taxation and trade, as well as proceeds from kidnap and ransom; and externally, from donors sympathetic to their causes. Hence, states and individuals need to make concerted efforts to cut extremists off from funding by legislative means, such as outlawing money laundering, and the use of other anti-corruption strategies, such as condemning the payment of ransom to terrorist groups in exchange for the release of hostages.7African Union, “Report of the Chairperson of the Commission on Terrorism and Violent Extremism in Africa at the Peace and Security Council 455th Meeting at the Level of Heads of State and Government, Nairobi, Kenya,” para. 44,, accessed March 10, 2015.

Communication through cross- and intra-cultural faith and political dialogue. Promoting an alliance of civilizations and encouraging intercultural dialogue are important for cultivating a culture of peace and unity in diversity, as well as for bringing about understanding, respect, and tolerance among religious and cultural communities and combating stereotypes and dismantling prejudices on all sides. States should build and bolster bridges of communication and trust to eradicate extremism through dialogue and amplify positive values, especially online. Beginning and maintaining dialogue may not be easy, however, because extremists are not part of a centralized organization but rather comprise factions that subscribe to varying degrees of extremism. Schools and other educational establishments can play a crucial role in the development of a resilient community that upholds values of nonviolence, peaceful coexistence, and tolerance.

Conflict prevention through broad-based socioeconomic development. Economic and social inequalities fuel discontent and encourage grievances that create conditions conducive to the spread of extremism. Governments should address such grievances by formulating policies that ensure broad-based socioeconomic transformation through job creation without discrimination, equalization of opportunities, and expansion of access to social services, including education, especially for girls and women.

Combating corruption and promoting the rule of law and good governance. Democracy is key to lasting stability and real security. To promote democratic principles, states should create structures of governance and transparency. This entails free and periodic elections, in which people can choose their own futures; independent judiciaries that uphold the rule of law; and police and security forces that respect human rights and freedoms—including freedom of religion and speech—for civil society groups as they fight corruption, political patronage, and nepotism.

Curbing terrorist propaganda and recruitment through the Internet. The bright side of the Internet—its low cost, ease of access, lack of regulation, vast potential audience, and fast communication and flow of information—has been turned into its dark side by extremists, who use it as a means for propaganda and recruitment. Extremists capitalize on the poverty and high rate of unemployment among Africans under the age of thirty, who comprise nearly 70 percent of the population, by manipulating them with promises of quick gains. Governments face the choice of limiting the use of the Internet through censorship or allowing the free flow of online traffic, including extremist manipulation, to avoid undermining such democratic values as freedom of expression. They should resolve this dilemma by establishing mechanisms, in collaboration with Internet service providers, to keep track of irresponsible websites. This way, Internet sites that incite violent extremism can either be barred or systematically monitored to counter radicalization and curb brainwashing and indoctrination.8See for example, United Nations, “First Report of the Working Group on Radicalisation and Extremism,” para. 24–27.

Community empowerment to deter extremist groups and control borders. To win the support of communities in areas they control, extremist groups tend to promise them social services and food supplies. Countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts are effective where local communities are well-informed and resilient and not susceptible to false promises. Investing in contacts with local communities not only facilitates and accelerates the process of information gathering; it can also function as a system of early observation or recognition of any violent extremist tendencies, which can permit an early and effective counter­strategy. States should empower communities to protect themselves from violent ideologies and recruitment through the raising of public awareness, the provision of policing services, and the integration of social service providers as part of the broader mandate of community safety and crime prevention. More important, governments must take robust measures to monitor and regulate their borders to keep away terrorists and their weapons while welcoming all legitimate travelers and commerce.9White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement from the Press Secretary on the White House Summit.”

Capability of security agents to protect populations at risk. Dealing with extremism is, in fact, dealing with criminality. Security agents should first train and attain capacity in countering radicalization. Such training is crucial to improving the cultural competence of counter-radicalization agencies, qualifying them to do their jobs, and equipping them with essential knowledge and capability to protect populations at risk. Second, security agents should have a deterrent capability to stop violent extremism at the lowest possible cost and risk. For example, their presence in areas infested by extremists can have a significant deter¬rent effect, through military strategy of show of force that should be accompanied by credible political statements. Third, troops and law enforcement officers should be capable of arresting armed extremists and bringing them to justice.10Dan Kuwali, “Humanitarian Rights: Enforcement of International Humanitarian Law by the African Court of Human Rights,” African Yearbook on International Humanitarian Law (2011): 166–79.


Generally speaking, political instability that creates power vacuums and security lapses has contributed to the breeding of extremist groups, as have discrimination, religious marginalization, economic crisis (including social penury), and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Since the use of force alone to curb extremism can exacerbate the problem, a multipronged approach is needed, including methods to win hearts and minds. Dialogues must take place across faiths, cultures, political groupings, and countries.

To this end, leaders, clerics, and scholars at all levels should devise effective strategies to tackle the root causes of extremism and terrorism. The idea is to cultivate a culture of peace, tolerance, and acceptance of unity in diversity, based on diverse African values. In doing so, governments should provide forums conducive to debunking and correcting misinterpreted political and religious ideologies, as well as cut the access of potentially violent extremist groups to funding. States should confront socioeconomic grievances by promoting broad-based economic growth and development, fighting corruption, and engaging in job creation for youth, including women and girls, without discrimination. They should also devote more resources to education, which is one of the most effective tools for eradicating extremist attitudes. The “ten Cs” approach advanced here provides a roadmap for tackling these tasks and eradicating extremism in Africa.