(New York, N.Y.) — The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) released a new report today, Civilian Counterterrorism Forces and the Fight Against Extremism – A Review of Nigeria, Somalia, and Burkina Faso. Local terrorist affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS have subjected sub-Saharan countries to decades-long insurgencies, necessitating alternative counterterrorism strategies to offset unrelenting violence. The report, authored by CEP research analyst Riza Kumar, analyzes the effectiveness of civilian-led forces to supplement each nation’s counterterrorism strategies.
The report finds that incorporating civilian militias into national counterterrorism programs provides short-term benefits at the cost of long-term risks. On the one hand, local militias are cost-effective, quick to assemble, and knowledgeable of the communities they protect. However, due to a lack of structure and inconsistent training, civilian troops can be unreliable, personally motivated, and ultimately undermine government authority.
In 2013, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) was established in Borno State, Nigeria, in direct response to the insurgency waged by Boko Haram, and ultimately, Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP).
While the CJTF gained support from local communities through shared language and communal ties, the CJTF has also faced allegations of sexual harassment, exploitation, abuse, intimidation of civilians, and extortion of humanitarian aid. Furthermore, despite the initial success against Boko Haram, the terror group and its splinter group ISWAP have proved resilient and have intimidated communities from cooperating with the CJTF through reprisal attacks.
In Somalia, al-Qaeda’s well-resourced affiliate al-Shabaab is the country's most significant threat to stability. The Macawisley or Ma'awisley, are civilian militias comprised primarily of local farmers, who first emerged in 2014 but later regrouped in 2022 to supplement the Somali National Army (SNA) after the national force failed to effectively defend civilians from al-Shabaab. Nonetheless, the government has not provided the militias with sufficient support or oversight. The SNA is also not always privy to the Macawisley’s operations, leaving room for civilian forces to carry out campaigns motivated by personal vendettas rather than counterterrorism motives.
For Burkina Faso, Ansarul Islam, the al-Qaeda-linked Jama'at Nasrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) in Mali, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have waged a multipronged insurgency since 2015. Civilian militias, formalized under the Volunteer for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP) in early 2020 mobilized effectively to protect their communities from attacks. However, close to a hundred thousand VDP members are currently deployed and not subject to consistent monitoring, resulting in inadequate preparation, corruption, and human rights abuses throughout their ranks.
Overall, the report finds that civilian militias can provide a successful short-term solution to insurgencies but are rife with challenges in the long term. CEP recommends implementing accountability mechanisms to hold the CJTF responsible in Nigeria, providing condition-based government support to the Macawisley in Somalia, and encouraging the Burkinabe government to develop proper reintegration mechanisms for almost 100,000 VDP troops who will be hesitant to give up their status as they return to civilian life.
To read CEP’s report Civilian Counterterrorism Forces and the Fight Against Extremism, please click here.