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.