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Stephanie Savell on Why Counter-Terrorism Policy is Failing


Stephanie Savell is a rising star in anthropology. Her skills are an unusual mix. She is an expert on narcotics gangs and drug violence in Brazil. She is also a specialist in US counter-terrorism policy with particular expertise in Burkina Faso. Her takes in both arenas are that policing and security procedures can be incredibly stupid. What is done to reduce violence increases violence. The people we pay to produce security produce insecurity. The people we pay to pacify regions intensity conflict in those regions. The decisions being made are just bad.

Worse, if you look at why these bad decisions are being made … it is for reasons that are particularly embarrassing.


I cover her arguments about anti-terrorism policy in Burkina Faso here. If you are interested in Brazilian policing, check out her article in the November 2021 issue of American Ethnologist.


Let's start with some general background on the determinants of conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa in general. We then go to the substance of Savell's arguments.    

1. Most African nations are completely arbitrary mixtures of ethnic groups thrown together by European diplomats for their own convenience. The current borders of Sub-Saharan African nations are the legacies of what nations held what colonies. When independence came, the old colonial lines were somewhat maintained with some fast-breaking late interventions to protect the interests of individual European businesses or European military interests. There was zero attempt to take contiguous ethnic groups and give them their own homeland or capacity for self-governance. This led to three enduring sources of violence that continue to the present day.


a. Rival ethnic groups would be fighting for the control of the central government. Whoever got that control could steer all government benefits, all social services, all access to top jobs and all corruption to their own group. Everyone else would be outside looking in.

b. Ethnic groups that had collaborated with the old colonialists got preferential treatment in both border drawing and first dibs on Round One of the national government. Generally, this favored groups in fertile agricultural areas, groups on the coast, and groups near the capital city. Frontier people had been stiffed under the colonial regimes and continued to be stiffed in the new independent states. Herders were particularly likely to be stiffed because herding was of no interest to European colonialists who had no way to make money from it. So people on the desert’s edge were thrown into the role of rebel early – a role they often continue to play today.


c. National borders often divided coherent ethnic groups in half. This gave a huge strategic advantage to border rebels, because fighting groups could retreat across the border to ethnic supporters on the other side who would support them.


2. African rebellions are often about legitimate human interests. To be sure, warlordism exists. To be sure, gangs of organized criminals use political struggles as a means to advance their territory for further illicit activity. But not every armed group is led by some sort of Batman villain with insidious selfish plans. Nor are they all run by religious fanatics trying to impose sharia law. People can turn to arms because they face very real injustices that are not being resolved by peaceful measures. People can turn to arms to prevent their own land or their own water from being taken away from them. People can turn to arms out of legitimate aspirations for political self-determination and freedom. African conflicts are very hard to understand unless one knows the exact issues that people are fighting about.

Spoiler: One of Savell’s points is that many of these issues can be resolved by peaceful means.

3. Ecologically, the desert borderlands of Africa are dying. This locks the herders and farmers of Africa into a life and death struggle over access to land and water. The desert borderlands underneath the Sahara are what is technically termed as semiarid. They can support small gardens and the herding of animals. There is not enough water to support major agriculture.

Unfortunately, the water supply of the Sahel is drying up. Overpopulation led to herds that were too large for the ecosystem to support. The herds ate the ground cover. With no ground cover, the land could no longer hold water. The rain that had once supported marginal agriculture now runs off into the soil and disappears. The semiarid turned into desert that cannot support human life.

The herders who once lived on that land are desperate. They have no place to go and need to move south finding some grazing land and some source of water. The problem, however, is that that Southern land is already filled with farmers living in this territory and using their land for crops. Worse, the farmers themselves are getting rich and expanding. Some of them want to expand into the last semiarid lands where the herders are desperately trying to maintain control over their few remaining sources of water. The conflict between the herders and the ranchers is a matter of survival. Without a fair and equitable division of the water, and without conservationist measures being taken to maintain or increase the supply of water that is available, these two groups will be drawn into fundamental conflicts.


*  *  *

Enough background.


Now Stephanie Savell’s story.


The United States supports counterterrorism projects in over 85 different countries. They have done so since the George W. Bush’s administration and 9/11 – and this has continued in a bipartisan manner over multiple administrations.  One of these nations is Burkina Faso in the Sahel, just underneath Mali and Niger. Most of these 85 countries are of very minor salience to American security interests. Most Americans would never notice if Burkina Faso was ruled by pro-Westerners, by pro-Iranians or by the Vatican. It has few resources we need, and a very small population.

American counterterrorism aid generally is used to militarily suppress Islamic militants. Many of the groups fighting in the Sahel are Islamic. Levels of violence are high. Savell notes that there have been over 1000 attacks by Islamic militants in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali just in the year 2020 alone.


In Burkina Faso, antiterrorism programs target one ethnic group, the Fulani. The Fulani are a true minority, representing only 8% of Burkina Faso’s population. They are herders. They are Moslems. Like other herding populations in the Sahel, the Fulani have turned to arms to resolve the problems they are facing.


Savell argues that the Fulani are concerned about poverty. (Burkina Faso’s regional development plans most definitely target other groups.) They are concerned about corruption (as is nearly every citizen in every country in Africa who is not currently on some payroll). They are concerned about incursions into their herding lands by foreign economic interests with other plans.


None of this is remotely related to Islam, or Sharia law. These are all simple problems that could be resolved by negotiation and fair treatment.


Anti-terrorism measures were imposed in West Africa long before there was any history of insurgency or sectarian violence. While the Horn of Africa had long been characterized by combative Islamic groups, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali were quiet and peaceful. Rapid military response groups were trained in all of these settings – with potential targets being identified as possible breeding grounds for terrorism.


Savell argues that racism and ethnic prejudice contributed somewhat to the selection of these targets. Within the American military, within the foreign policy establishment and often within the White House itself, there was overt and implicit hostility to Islamic groups. There was also a belief that African countries might require a continuing military presence to keep such potential dangers in line. This was often despite technical reports from low level security analysts finding no significant danger to American interests in these settings.


The prediction that Islamic groups would become a danger to security became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The measures taken against Islamic groups were military. The casualties caused by military measures was radicalizing. People who had seen children, family members of loved ones destroyed in Burkina Faso government anti-terrorism actions became shocked and embittered. They turned against the “violent murderous” government troops and joined their own violent murderous groups for protection and revenge.


A further complication is that other counterterrorist operations in West Africa ended up with spillover effects in Burkina Faso. For various reasons, sometimes legitimate, there were military operations in Libya and Mali. The effects of these were to push militants into neighboring countries. Burkina Faso picked up some of the backwash from Malian operations requiring an intensification of conflict in Burkina Faso itself. Some of those external militants were plain ordinary citizens with localized issues. Some were more attuned to warlordism and criminal activity. They brought their own smuggling and cattle raiding operations with them. These fighters mixed with Fulani locals, complicating those campaigns. Furthermore, Fulani had to defend themselves against imported cattle raiders – leading to what would have appeared to outsiders as rival Islamic groups fighting for supremacy.


The Burkina Faso dominant ethnic group is the Mossi, a group that has controlled the national government since independence. Counterterrorism is particularly useful as an excuse for Mossi or allies of the Mossi to seize economic resources that are held by Fulani. Clearing out an oasis held by “radical Islamic groups” can be a cover for a well-connected farmer who wants to add land with spring water to his pre-existing assets.


How has the counterterrorism campaign been ineffective?

a. Military expenditure crowds out aid on economic development and poverty relief. More importantly, it crowds out aid for ecological preservation and water conservation. The Sahel will continue to be violent as long as poverty is widespread and as long as the ecological basis of rural residents’ survival is being undercut by desertification.


b. The majority of violent deaths in Burkina Faso are caused by the security forces. Our forces to maintain peace are the most important killers in the area.


c. Youth are becoming increasingly radicalized. Some of this is in response to persistent corruption on the part of the government. Some of this is due to frustration with poverty. But much of this is in response to the continuous violence which they rightly blame on the government and the security forces.


d. The militarization of Burkina Faso has created employment possibilities for unemployed youth fighting either for the security forces or for the militants. Persistent prejudice against Fulanis by government forces, as well as astute diplomacy by the militants who often make economic concessions to local residents in order to build goodwill, combine to push most of this recruitment on to the side of the militants. Security forces’ killings of the Fulani have pushed much of the desert borderland population into actively joining up with the opposition.

*  *  *

Savell concludes that counterterrorism policy in Burkina Faso (and much of Africa) has failed. I would have to share that perception. The same money put into ecological conservation, economic development and developing equitable divisions of resources between rival ethnic groups would have gone a long way to produce a peaceful prosperous Burkina Faso, with reasonable rates of economic growth and relative political stability.


The operation of ethnic stereotypes in the setting of American policy may have been subtle. But the effect was an ethnically based policy that led to significant destruction of human life.


Geopolitics often requires the use of force. One would have to be naïve not to acknowledge that reality.


But there really are regions in the world where economic growth divided equitably among ethnic groups can provide prosperity, peace and human progress. Sometimes it can even do so sustainably. The militarization of “suspect areas” undercuts all of this.


Savell warns us that when we make the decision to send in the killers, we can undercut all of those positive possibilities.


Let us hope that those decisions will be based on a detailed knowledge of the people in a country, and not ethnic stereotypes based on convenience.

For More Information


Readers looking to read Stephanie Savell in the original can follow this link (here) and read “The Costs of United States Post-9/11 Security Assistance: How Counterterrorism Intensified Conflict In Burkina Faso and Around the World”.

For more on the ecological issues and conflict in Africa, see my own All Societies Die: How To Keep Hope Alive (Cornell) or the essay Ecological Decline and Conflict: The Environmental Causes of Violence in the Middle East

on this website.

On desertification in general, see Alan Grainger’s book, The Threatening Desert. (Earthscan)

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