Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Afghanistan Reminiscences

Mokhtar Belmokhtar (b. 1972) is an Algerian jihadist sub-commander within al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. He may or may not be dead. As part of a research project, I recently re-read an Arabic-language interview with him from 2006; the original link, which was hosted at the jihadist website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, is defunct, but the interview has been reproduced here. One passage stood out to me from the interview. In it, the interviewer asks Belmokhtar to reminisce about his time in Afghanistan. Belmokhtar was there for a year and half from 1991-1992, after the withdrawal of Soviet forces but during the final push to topple the government of Muhammad Najibullah.

Here is the exchange:

Interviewer: Are there are any beautiful memories, images, or events that have stuck in your mind from lofty Afghanistan?

Belmokhtar: […] The first story is the story of an old man who was our neighbor at one of the fronts. He loved the Arab mujahidin. God decreed that I was struck in my eye with a fragment of a shell. After my return from the hospital, when I had been away from him for a period of time, he saw on my eye the mark of the blow and he embraced me. He wept so intensely that we were concerned about him, and he was saying in his Afghan language, ‘What was the sin of this boy, who came from distant Arab lands to help us, and this has been done to him.’ He called me to accept [it]. That was how the Ansar [Muslims in Medina] were toward the Muhajirin [Muslim emigrants to Medina from Mecca] in the time of the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace.

The second story: I remember one day we were close to one of the valleys at the battle lines of Gardez. The battles were on the verge of starting. A car stopped close to us and an old man got out, walking slowly, wearing a white garment, and carrying an English rifle. He came near to us for the sake of doing his prayer. After the prayer we invited him to our post. We sat and talked with him in his Pashtun language. We asked him about his age. He said, ‘My age is about one hundred and one.’  When one of the brothers asked him why he had come to the front, even though he was an old man, he said, ‘I’m a warrior, and I can’t stay in my home hearing about fighting at the front, and not want to do some fighting myself.’

The two stories give us a view of Belmokhtar at an impressionable age, a view that contrasts with later versions of him as a hardened desert fighter-slash-criminal. They provide insight into the emotional aspects of fighting in Afghanistan, and the sense of camaraderie that some jihadists find in their lifestyle. This is a camaraderie that many of the “Afghan Arabs” have been chasing ever since, I suspect – often, I also suspect, without finding it in the same degree as they found it in Afghanistan.

The experience of fighting in Afghanistan left such a deep mark on many “Arab Afghans” that I do not believe contemporary jihadism can be properly understood without some analysis of those experiences. When I contributed some research for a report on “Milestones to Militancy” about a year ago, I was struck by the recurring presence of Afghanistan as a key moment in many jihadists’ life trajectories. Someone (not me) should write a book or a dissertation about what people such as Belmokhtar experienced there, and how it shaped their subsequent actions.

New Article: “Islamic Modernism and Colonial Education in Northern Nigeria: Na’ibi Sulaiman Wali (1927–2013)”

I’ve published a new article with the journal Religion & Education. The article is part of a special issue on “Life Trajectories of Educators Between Religion and Religious Education,” edited by Professor Abdulkader Tayob of the University of Cape Town, South Africa. My article is entitled “Islamic Modernism and Colonial Education in Northern Nigeria: Na’ibi Sulaiman Wali (1927–2013).” It discusses the career of a major intellectual from Kano, Nigeria, who played a major role in book publishing in northern Nigeria during the decades before and after independence. In the 1970s, he published two polemical books denouncing what he saw as neo-colonialism and Muslim “backwardness” in Nigeria; part of my paper discusses those two books. The article can be found here, although it is only available to those with access to the Taylor & Francis system, whether through a university library or other such system.

Some Details on Moussa Faki Mahamat’s Election as AU Commission Chair

On January 30, Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat was elected the new chair of the African Union Commission (a position distinct from that of AU chair, which is always a head of state and is currently Guinean President Alpha Conde). Here are some key points about how and why he was elected:

  • The election (French) initially involved five candidates: Senegal’s Abdoulaye Bathily, Botswana’s Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Equatorial Guinea’s Agapito Mba Moku, Kenya’s Amina Mohammed, and Mahamat. After four rounds of voting, the race narrowed to Mohammed and Mahamat. After Mahamat began to pass Mohammed in the sixth round (French), she withdrew and he was elected on the seventh ballot, 39 to 15 (the 15 being abstentions). The winner needed not just a simple majority, but a majority of two-thirds (i.e., at least 36).
  • As I wrote last July (paywalled), the election of a the new AU Commission chair was meant to be decided then. But West Africa balked at the list of candidates available (which included some of the candidates from this time – Venson-Moitoi and Moku – but not the others), and was not able to insert a last-minute candidate of its own.
  • In a formal sense, Chad is in Central Africa rather than West Africa, but West African (and particularly Sahelian) support was crucial in Mahamat’s ultimate victory. One report (French) says that Mahamat won in part because of fragmentation within regional blocs during the early rounds – even on the first round, West Africa’s Bathily only received 10 of West Africa’s 15 votes. West Africa’s support steadily shifted to Mahamat during subsequent rounds. The same report talks about an anti-Senegal sentiment among certain key countries, reflecting displeasure with President Macky Sall’s foreign policy as well as suspicions that Senegal is too pro-Morocco (Morocco was just readmitted to the AU after a long suspension, and some countries opposed its re-entry).
  • The key backers of Mahamat after round four of voting were reportedly (French) North Africa (especially Libya, Algeria, Mauritania), the Sahel, and Southern Africa, especially Angola and Mozambique. In other words, much of the continent aligned in favor of Mahamat, while Mohammed retained East African support until the end. Mahamat received only fourteen votes on the first ballot, but he emerged as a consensus candidate.
  • The victory has been widely interpreted as a sign of Chad’s influence and particularly the influence of its President Idriss Deby. As RFI (French) wrote, “It is a victory for Idriss Deby who waged a discreet, but methodical campaign in favor of his protege. It is a victory for Chadian diplomacy, but still more for the Chadian army, which for five years has paid a bloody price in Africa for defending Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon against the terrorists of al-Qaida and Boko Haram. Finally, it is a victory for Francophone [Africa] because the outgoing president, Madame [Nkosazana] Dlamini-Zuma [of South Africa], did not speak a word of French.”
  • Chad’s military deployments in recent years directly mapped onto the voting for Mahamat: the West African countries that supported Mahamat over Bathily included (French) Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, as well as Burkina Faso, which borders Mali and Niger and suffered a major terrorist attack in 2016. Chad’s deployments have been expensive financially, but rewarding in foreign affairs. There has been much analysis of how Chad has positioned itself as a key African counterterrorism partner for France and the United States, but clearly Chad has also positioned itself as a key ally for other African countries.

Some biographical details on Mahamat, as well as some coverage of his election, can be found in English here.

The Gambia: The Logic of Adama Barrow’s Cabinet

Yesterday, a list of new Gambian President Adama Barrow’s cabinet was released on Twitter. I believe it to be genuine, although there has been some uncertainty about whether Barrow’s account is really his or not. Here is the list:

  • Ousainou Darboe, Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Hamat Bah, Minister of Tourism and Culture
  • Omar Amadou Jallow, Minister of Agriculture
  • Mai Ahmad Fatty, Minister of Interior
  • Henry Gomez, Minister of Youth and Sports
  • Lamin Dibba, Minister of Forestry, Environment and Natural Resources
  • Isatou Touray, Minister of Trade, Regional Integration and Employment
  • Amadou Sanneh, Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs
  • James Gomez, Minister of Fisheries, Water Resources and National Assembly Matters

Some of the names on the list will be familiar to readers of last week’s post on the people close to Barrow. Recall that Barrow was the candidate of a seven-party opposition coalition. Bah, Fatty, Jallow, Henry Gomez, and James Gomez are leaders of individual parties within that coalition, and one assumes that Halifa Sallah will remain spokesman. If my count is right, that means that each of the seven parties got a major post. And one party got more: Darboe, Dibba, and Sanneh, who were still political prisoners at the time of the December 1 presidential election, are long-time leaders within Barrow’s own United Democratic Party (UDP).

Touray was another opposition candidate for president, who withdrew in favor of Barrow.

In other words, Barrow has formed a cabinet that attempts to reward and preserve the coalition that brought him to power, while giving the UDP preeminence.

Relatedly, Niklas Hultin has “the five big questions facing the New Gambia’s new government.”

Guest Post on Salafism in Nigeria for CFR

Today’s post is outsourced to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa in Transition blog, which is authored by former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell. In my guest post there last week, I wrote about “Salafism in Northern Nigeria Beyond Boko Haram” – a summary, of sorts, of my recent book.

If you read the post, I welcome your thoughts here in the comments section.

African Studies Association Statement Against Trump’s Refugee/Muslim Ban

The African Studies Association, of which I am a member, has issued a strong and laudable statement against President Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. A few key excerpts from the statement:

The fact that all seven are majority Muslim countries and that the rhetoric preceding the exclusion specifically talked about a ban of Muslims suggest that US policy is targeting Muslims. This creates an image of bias and hostility that undermines efforts to build understanding and cooperation. It also blatantly disregards constitutional protections of freedom of religion enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and makes those of us who work abroad less safe.

[…]

The ASA includes many scholars who have worked in countries with autocratic governments, and who conduct research on authoritarianism, and we are particularly troubled by the signs of emerging authoritarian practices in the United States. We are alarmed by the administration’s attacks on the free press and the harassment of civil society. This executive order targets people based on race, religion, and national origin and is a form of scapegoating commonly associated with authoritarian regimes. The failure to adequately consult with Congress on this order and the disregard for court rulings limiting its impact represent an overreach of executive authority that undermines democracy.

I am proud to be a member of ASA.

On Gambia and ECOWAS for World Politics Review

Today’s post, on the role that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) played in the Gambia’s recent crisis, is outsourced to World Politics Review (paywalled). An excerpt:

Do ECOWAS’ actions in Gambia’s crisis show a growing willingness by the bloc to use force against West African leaders who overstay their welcome? Likely not. The overall trend in West Africa from the past decade suggests that ECOWAS takes political crises case by case, and that its default mode is to proceed cautiously.

If you read the whole piece, please share your reactions in the comments section below.