Blog Post for RESOLVE Network on the Dapchi, Nigeria Kidnapping

Over at RESOLVE Network, I have a blog post on the kidnapping of over 100 schoolgirls in Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigeria.

Here’s an excerpt:

The students Boko Haram often targets are those who come from relatively more privileged backgrounds, and in contrast to its effort to entice and coerce young men into joining in other settings, it is striking that Boko Haram often chooses to simply slaughter the young men it finds in boarding schools. If Boko Haram’s treatment of the Chibok girls is any indication, the group relishes having power not just over girls in general, but particularly over girls from families with means and mobility that are poised to go on to university or to independent careers.


My New Article on the Tijaniyya and Al-Azhar in JAAR

The Journal of the American Academy of Religion has published my article on the relationship between the Tijaniyya Sufi brotherhood, particularly the community of Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), and Egypt’s Al-Azhar University. You can find the abstract here.

My Annotated Translation of al-Naba’s Interview with Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi

The file below is my annotated translation of an interview that an Islamic State newsletter, al-Naba’, did with Boko Haram’s (or, if you prefer, “ISWAP’s”) Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, who is likely the son of Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf. The interview was published in August 2016, marking a rupture between al-Barnawi (whom the Islamic State recognized as its “governor” for West Africa) and Abubakar Shekau, Muhammad Yusuf’s successor as Boko Haram leader (and the previous, official “governor” for West Africa in the Islamic State’s eyes). My translation was in the publication pipeline, otherwise I would have posted it sooner, but it recently came out in the Journal for Islamic Studies , which has given me permission to post it. Please find it here.


A Response to a Review of My Book on Boko Haram

Sam Wilkins, a U.S. Special Forces officer who deployed to Nigeria earlier this year, has written a fairly negative review of my new book on Boko Haram. Most of Wilkins’ review reacts to one section dealing with the Islamic State and Boko Haram, and to a second section discussing how the War on Terror has shaped Nigeria’s responses to the group.

Wilkins makes some good points, but he also attributes positions to me that I do not hold:

  • “Thurston’s treatment of the CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force, the civilian vigilantes] mirrors his treatment of the Nigerian military as a whole. He dismisses the contributions of both groups due to human rights concerns.”
  • “A policy of humanitarian assistance without military assistance, as advocated by Thurston and others…”
  • “[Thurston] posit[s] a false equivalence between the security forces and the insurgency.”

Wilkins misinterprets analytical points as moral judgments. In the book, when dealing with the Nigerian military and the C-JTF, I try to explain unintended consequences. The Nigerian military’s heavy-handed approach exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. The C-JTF partly secured cities but ended up pushing Boko Haram into the countryside, contributing to Boko Haram’s bid to take mass territory in 2014. I suppose there is an implicit moral judgment in those arguments, but the point is to explain what happened. On p. 13, however, I do say that I “unequivocally condem[n] Boko Haram.” The book contains no equivalent statement directed at the Nigerian military or the C-JTF.

Wilkins says that because he’s been in Nigeria, he can determine where my arguments are “theoretical and divorced from the reality on the ground.” But many foreigners have been “on the ground” in Nigeria, and then there are obviously the millions of Nigerians who live in Nigeria and whose perspectives must also be taken seriously. To say the least, all of these people often disagree with one another about how to interpret events. Nigeria is a complicated place.

Wilkins says, “During my time in Nigeria, I learned to see the CJTF as the Nigerians saw it.” This is a red flag. If he feels that “the Nigerians” see anything in just one way, then he is being overconfident about his experience. For what it’s worth, in my fieldwork in Kano for my first book – when I was speaking with people in Hausa and Arabic, when I met leading religious figures, and when I was an independent researcher unaffiliated with any government – I always knew that I had only gotten part of the story. You have to triangulate between your experience and other points of view, and even then you will not get everything right.

Wilkins also, I think accidentally but also revealingly, puts some of Amnesty International’s words in my mouth when he dismisses my writing on the U.S.-Nigeria security relationship. Obviously, I agree with Amnesty and quoted them for that reason (p. 287). But Wilkins’ mistake matters: Amnesty has researchers “on the ground” in Nigeria, so Wilkins’ rhetorical strategy wouldn’t work as well against them. Easier, perhaps, to attribute Amnesty’s words to me, and then dismiss me.

Notably, two pages before, I discuss the Nigerian military’s open hostility toward Amnesty. I write, “The War on Terror has given Nigerian military and political hardliners a set of rhetorical tools with which they can easily rebut and undermine criticism: Boko Haram or ‘the terrorists’ are depicted as purely evil, Nigeria’s government is presented as a heroic participant in a global struggle, and all critics are cast as either deliberately or unwittingly proterrorist.” Is there no relationship between what Wilkins does in his review, where he bristles against criticism of the Nigerian military or the U.S. government, and the way that Nigerian senior military officers castigate Amnesty?

On Wilkins’ other major objection to my book – that I’m not sufficiently alarmed by “Islamic State West Africa” – I have less to say. I take them seriously. I suppose I’m just a bit more cautious than Wilkins about hyping them as a threat, and about reifying their Islamic State ties.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning Wilkins’ plan to defeat Boko Haram (and “ISWA,” if you go for that stark division between the two groups). Here, there is significant common ground between us – we both favor a combination of military and political measures, and Wilkins thoughtfully considers some of the more unattractive but probably necessary political measures I mention, such as amnesties for fighters. But Wilkins emphasizes the military approach more than I do, and he is more optimistic than I am about what will follow military campaigns. Much of the process Wilkins advocates – “a meaningful ‘follow-through’ of governance, pro-government religious messages [seriously?!], and enduring local security” – seems unlikely to happen, or at least to happen cleanly. That’s why I think the government of Nigeria should start, or rather restart, negotiations now, and keep looking for political opportunities even as the military conflict continues. Some of this is already happening, of course, perhaps more in Niger than in Nigeria. The point is that the end of the Boko Haram conflict is probably going to be messy. No one has all the answers, including me.

In any case, I encourage you to read the review. And perhaps read the book as well! There’s a bit more to it than Wilkins lets on.


Foreign Policy Article on Chad and the Travel Ban

I’m up at Foreign Policy today with an article on how Chad is reacting to the Trump administration’s travel ban. As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section here.


Analysis of Senegal’s Legislative Elections

I’m up at World Politics Review with a piece on Senegal’s legislative elections, which took place July 30. An excerpt:

A closely fought site was Dakar, symbolically important as the home turf of the president’s main rival and politically important as the country’s capital and most populous city. Initially, both [the ruling coalition Benno Bokk Yakaar] BBY and [Dakar mayor] Khalifa Sall’s coalition claimed victory there, with a margin of less than 3,000 votes. Winning Dakar would not fundamentally change the balance of power in parliament, but the opposition hoped to prevent a rout. In the end, official results accorded a narrow victory to BBY.


Libya: Press Roundup, Key Documents on the Sarraj-Haftar Meeting in Paris

On July 25, two of the most important figures in Libyan politics – Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, and Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army – met in Paris and agreed on a ceasefire.

Here are a few a relevant statements:

  • The joint declaration by Sarraj and Haftar.
  • The speech by President Macron (French).
  • United Nations Security Council: “The members of the Security Council welcome the meeting of Fayez Al Sarraj, President of the Presidency Council of Libya, and General Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the LNA, hosted in Paris by the President of the French Republic on the 25th of July, and the Joint Declaration issued after the meeting. Council members urge all Libyans to support a negotiated political solution, national reconciliation, and an immediate ceasefire, as called for in the Joint Declaration.”
  • U.S. State Department: “We welcome the Joint Declaration from the July 25, meeting between Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar, hosted outside of Paris by French President Emmanuel Macron. We call on all Libyans to support political dialogue and adhere to a cease-fire, as stated in the Joint Declaration.”

Here’s a roundup of some press coverage. Much of the coverage has been quite critical, including when it comes to assessing the role of French President Emmanuel Macron:

  • L’Express (French): “If the initiative seems praiseworthy, nevertheless the hardest [part] remains to be done.”
  • Bloomberg: “A French-led effort to reunify fractured Libya failed to consult powerful local forces and risks achieving little beyond boosting the legitimacy of a renegade general who has recently racked up significant battlefield gains.”
  • The Economist: “The deal is but a small step. More agreements are needed before elections can be held and the fighting, which now involves myriad groups, is likely to continue. As it is, the LNA, which backs a separate government in the east, rarely battles the forces aligned with Mr Serraj. But General Haftar is free to keep pummelling terrorists, which is what he labels most of his opponents. The country’s powerful militias were left out of the talks in Paris, which were chaired by the newly appointed UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. So like previous deals brokered by the UN, this one lacks widespread support, at least for now.”
  • VOA: “The meeting…was not coordinated with the Italian government. [Italian Prime Minister Paolo] Gentiloni’s ministers took the unusual step of openly criticizing the French president this week, voicing their frustration with Macron’s efforts, which they argue distract from a coordinated U.N. and European Union effort to engineer a political deal in Libya between three rival governments and dozens of militias.