Some Things to Remember about Radicalization in the Sahel

The recent attempt by a Nigerian national, Umar Abdulmutallab, to detonate a bomb on US-bound flight has elicited some commentary about where such would-be African terrorists become radicalized.

The Christian Science Monitor turns a lens on London, Mutallab’s home from 2005 to 2008, and asks whether the fact that “his four formative years in London coincided with public anger over the Iraq war and the London subway and bus bombing by Islamists in July 2005” played a role in his terrorist aspirations.

At Foreign Policy, Elizabeth Dickinson makes a related observation:

If the suspect does indeed come from a family of means, as his residence in London suggests (forgive a generalization, but anyone who is anyone in Nigeria has got a house in London), it says much about where the real terror “threat” is (and is not) coming from in Nigeria. Security analysts have been worrying about Nigeria since the Sept 11. attacks — fearing that this about half-Muslim country of 140 million people would be a potential host to extremists. But at the end of the day, something that I’ve learned about Nigeria is that it takes money and connections to get things done. Just think back to the violence earlier this summer by the Boko Haram sect. The mostly-impoverished members of the group raised hell in the local context … but that was it. Taking “jihad” international from Nigeria is still a long ways and a lot of financing off (if it is on the way at all).

Which brings me to one more point about extremism in Nigeria. Much of the religious violence that the country has seen in recent years has been less about religion and more about a country rife with corruption and wanting for institutions. When sharia law was introduced in the North earlier this decade, most analysts believe that it had more to do with a desire for the law — any law — to function. Since the secular government had failed for years, many sought refuge in the laws of religious fundamentalism.

And that brings us back to the alleged terrorist in questioning today. His grievances are different from these, one might imagine, since the lack of rule of law often works in favor of (rather than against) the elite. In short, what I’m trying to say is that there are two different phenomena going on here: mass dissatisfaction among many impoverished in the country’s Muslim North, and the different brand of extremism that would incite a well-off 23-year-old to blow up a plane in Detroit.

Perhaps Abdulmutallab’s case, then, tells us less about radicalization in Nigeria than it does about radicalization in Europe or the Middle East.

My aim here is actually not to weigh in on the case of Abdulmutallab, but rather to use his situation as a jumping-off point to pursue some questions about whether radicalization is or is not occurring in Sahelian Muslim communities, and if so what form it’s taking. Dickinson’s points merit discussion, but before I come back to them I want to draw attention to some real limits of international actors’ abilities to operate in the Sahel. If Abdulmutallab was a product of international terrorist networks, many of his fellow Sahelian Muslims are not.

The story that caught my eye yesterday, more than the media frenzy around Mutallab, was an incident where three Saudi Arabian nationals were attacked in Niger. Speculation has fingered AQIM jihadists or Tuareg rebels as potential culprits, but Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled bin Saud said, “It appears to us so far that it was a robbery.”

We often hear that Saudi Arabian militants influence Sahelian jihadists, but it is striking to me that Arabs can fall victim to violence in the Sahel just as Westerners can. The world’s “ungoverned spaces” (lists of which often prominently features Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel) are supposedly the ideal “breeding ground” for Al Qaeda. But in the most lawless parts of the Sahel, outsiders of any flavor can meet a hostile response. These Saudi Arabians could have been terrorist recruiters or tourists, but whatever the case someone made clear that they were not welcome. Ken Menkhaus has made a similar argument about Somalia – a would-be Arab Al Qaeda mastermind arriving in Somalia would stick out immediately, risking kidnapping or death. One incident does not mean that no Arab radicals can forge connections in Mali, Niger, or other Sahelian countries, but I do wonder whether Sahelian radicalism, and for that matter Somali, Afghan, and Yemeni radicalism, are primarily local phenomena.

That brings us back to Dickinson’s distinction about mass discontent in Northern Nigerian versus individual cases of elite radicalization. Her two categories are broad, but useful. The recent clashes in Bauchi state between police forces and the followers of Kalo Kato, an Islamic sect that claims to be an extension of the Maitatsine group that sparked bloody riots in Northern cities in the 1980s, provide another example of local radicals motivated by local grievances and politics more than by international terrorist agendas.

The availability of more information about Abdulmutallab will clarify his personal trajectory, perhaps allowing analysts to parse out what influences his experiences in Nigeria, London, Yemen, and elsewhere had on his thinking. But policymakers would be wise to pause before generalizing one African radical’s career to entire communities, where the political realities on the ground  – even when they involve political Islam and bloodshed – may have nothing to do with Al Qaeda and its aims.

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