Radicalization in Senegal?

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS), headquartered in South Africa, has released three installments of its “ECOWAS Peace and Security Report” – ECOWAS being the acronym, as many readers know, for the Economic Community of West African States. As the ISS’ overview of the project says, the report aims to provide ECOWAS policymakers with analyses of important issues. The first installment, “Mali: Making Peace while Preparing for War” (October 2012) is available here (.pdf). The second installment, “The Political Economy of Conflicts in Northern Mali” (April 2013) is here (.pdf). The third installment, “Overview of Religious Radicalism and the Terrorist Threat in Senegal,” came out recently and is available in French here (.pdf). An English-language abstract is online.

The report examines whether Senegal could become a space for jihadist activity amid the broader Sahelian crisis. Here are a few (in my view) key sentences:

  • p. 2, “The minority discourse favorable to jihadism is present in many spheres of Senegalese society, notably in urban peripheries, among the youngest populations.”
  • p. 5, “Discourse favorable to jihadist ideology rests on three platforms – ‘pan-Islamic’ solidarity, anti-Sufism, and a fundamentally anti-Western attitude – even though a number of socio-economic factors seem to underpin these functional alibis.”
  •  p. 7, “The duality of the Senegalese educational system in its current form could generate in the next decades – if it is not already the case – major frustrations that could be tapped into by Islamist movements and which could result in a deep social fracture…” The author describes this “duality” in greater detail on p. 5, in a section on French-language and Arabic-language schools.

IRIN has an article based on the report.

The report is well-researched. But I have mixed feelings about broader conversation surrounding the question it treats. On the one hand, we see incidents of jihadist violence in Mauritania, Mali, and recently Niger. So we know it’s a dangerous neighborhood. And there are reasons why Senegal might be an attractive target for jihadists: the presence of many NGOs and foreign assets in Dakar, the media spectacle that a bombing there might generate, grievances stemming the participation of Senegal in the stabilization mission in Mali, etc. The wide circulation of images depicting Senegal as the “land of hospitality” or a country of peace-loving Sufis do not confer immunity from attacks. So I do not think it is wise to dismiss outright the threat of violence or radicalization in Senegal.

On the other hand, I am wary, and weary, of alarmism. Some voices are keen now to depict all of West Africa – even all of Africa – as a site of Muslim extremism, interreligious conflict, and instability. The report’s recommendations (listed on p. 7) are sensible – developing a strategy for vigilance regarding religious extremism, holding a national dialogue on the education system, etc. – but other voices will likely push for greater militarization in the face of perceived and actual threats. If one can discuss the issue of radicalization in Senegal soberly, I am all for evaluating the level of such radicalization and seeking to generate reasonable counter-measures, as the report does. But I worry about the broader conversation running off the rails.

On a final note, I think one needs to be careful in making casual linkages between poverty and extremism. I am not well-versed in quantitative studies of jihadist recruitment, but my impression has long been that it is not typically the poorest of the poor who join jihadist outfits. Indeed, jihadist recruits often seem to be surprisingly middle-class, partially-educated, etc. Readers should correct me if this impression is mistaken. But I hope that discussions of potential radicalization in Senegal will take into account that profiles of jihadi recruits need to include more elements than poverty, youth, urbanity, and frustration.


6 thoughts on “Radicalization in Senegal?

  1. Thanks Alex. In relation to your final note, surely it’s the purely ‘ideological’ recruits to extremism who often tend to be middle class, often university educated etc. The ‘economic’ recruits, by which I mean those who join up or work for jihadist groups, such as AQIM, primarily for economic gain and employment and only secondarily for ideological reasons, are often from much poorer backgrounds. There’s evidence that many young men who joined AQIM and MUJAO in northern Mali did so primarily for economic reasons, although many were also attracted by ideology or a mix of ideology and gainful employment. Best, Andy.

    • Thanks Andy. That could be a really useful division – into “ideological” and “economic” recruits – but I’d be curious to see the evidence you mention, actually.

  2. I’m not an expert on any of these topics, but I need to ask a question – which narrative is most attractive to Senegal’s poor – especially poor young men.

    I speak from experience, the kind of Christianity that was dominant in Nigeria in the early eighties is a lot different from the Christianity practiced today. Why? Because, starting from the late eighties an evangelical narrative & it seemed more in tune with the times.

    Will Evangelical Christianity always be dominant in Nigeria? Possible, but not guaranteed.

    My point is that we should stick with assumptions like “Muslims in Senegal have been traditionally tolerant”, that could change and change very rapidly. Who are the most prominent & dynamic preachers and what is their narrative?

    In summary, I don’t think it is about “poverty and extremism”, but what narrative is most attractive to the poor. We’ve seen it with Communism, Pentecostal Christianity & Fundamentalist Islam. The poor choose these narratives because they are attractive. Places that have historically been Catholic turn Pentecostal. “Westernized” Iranians adopt a stricter version of Islam

    • These are really good points. People get caught up believing certain stereotypes about a place, but as you say things can change quite rapidly.

      • Exactly, things change rapidly, poor people experiment with new ideas & they adopt the most appealing ones.

        Let us also remember that nobody is “imposing” these ideas on them.

        Ideas that appeal the most to the poor are ideas that position their poverty & the lack of justice they see in their daily lives within a context. For poor Christians, the promise of prosperity & the temporary nature of this World must be appealing.

        For poor Muslims (especially in the Sahel), any movement that offers the promise of social justice will be appealing- as the established order (governance, law & order) is crumbling.

        Consider Northern Nigeria, Yerima & his people did not create the desire for Shari’a law, they merely rode the wave. But what was one major factors responsible for the renewed desire for Shari’a? The breakdown of law & justice in the established (post-independence) order.

        So the most appealing idea, the most attractive narrative for the future always carries the day among the poor – it doesn’t matter who is doing the preaching: whether Mao, Al Qaeda or a Nigerian Evangelical pastor.

  3. Pingback: On Appraising Threats | Sahel Blog

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