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US Combating African Extremism with Public Diplomacy

  • Pamela Dockins

U.S. Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine being interviewed by VOA's Press Conference USA

U.S. Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine being interviewed by VOA's Press Conference USA

The United States is working to counter violent extremism in Africa by providing an "alternative narrative" and "alternative scenarios," according to Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine.
In an interview with VOA's Press Conference USA, Sonenshine said the goal is to help Africans see alternative routes to extremism - such as education, employment and health care.

"Our job is to make those opportunities available and to push back on the violent extremist narrative," said Sonenshine.
Her comments come at a time when militant groups have launched a series of deadly attacks across Africa in a bid to gain footholds in the region.
Those groups include Boko Haram, an Islamist militant sect blamed for more than 1,000 deaths in northern Nigeria since 2009, and al-Shabab, an al-Qaida linked group that has carried out suicide and guerrilla attacks as part of an insurgency against the Somali government.
Sonenshine said it is important to bring models of education, vocation and entrepreneurism to regions such as northern Nigeria and northern Mali, where ethnic and economic disparities have contributed to unrest.
French and African forces continue to assist Malian troops in battling Islamist militants who seized control of northern Mali last year. France intervened in January as the militants began moving south toward Mali's capital, Bamako.
Sonenshine said one way in which the U.S. is providing assistance is by partnering with other groups to promote the development of civil societies - institutions such as professional associations and citizens’ advocacy groups that can help support democracies.
She said she views civil society as a "table with legs" to hold it up. The "legs" include religious freedom, freedom of the press and empowered women, said Sonenshine.
The undersecretary also commented on China's widening influence in Africa.
China surpassed the U.S. in 2009 to become Africa's largest trading partner. Angola, South Africa and Sudan are among the continent's top traders with Beijing.
Chinese President Hu Jintao pledged $20 billion in new loans to Africa during a July summit in Beijing.
Sonenshine said the strengthening Sino-African trade ties is not something the U.S. should worry about, but it should prompt the U.S. to "sit up straight" and "up" its game by putting more resources into U.S. public diplomacy.
"I think of it as a good challenge," said Sonenshine.
The undersecretary was asked what she perceived as her biggest challenge in projecting the U.S. image around world, given the rise of violent extremism and China's rising global influence.
"There is so much to be done," said Sonenshine. "The challenge is meeting people where they are in their lives - if they are worried about health or education or jobs or their businesses or philanthropy," she said.
Sonenshine is the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department. Her responsibilities include overseeing the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. The center responds to extremist commentary on the Internet by correcting what it considers misperceptions about the United States.
Sonenshine also oversees U.S. educational, cultural and academic exchange programs.
She is a key player in U.S. international broadcasting. Sonenshine is Secretary of State John Kerry's delegate to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees agencies including the Voice of America.