On Weak States and Threats to the U.S.

Stanford’s Dr. Amy Zegart has written an important piece for Foreign Policy in which she argues that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. I agree with the first half of the piece, in which she takes down the common arguments about why weak states threaten the United States.

To take a brief tangent that goes beyond the scope of this blog, I disagree with parts of the second half, in which Zegart argues that other states – Russia, China, and Pakistan, etc. – are the places with real potential to threaten the U.S. For me, the real threats to the U.S. are (1) climate change and (2) our political elites’ lack of alarm in the face of (a) widespread poverty and suffering, (b) a health care system that is still largely broken, (c) inadequate and crumbling infrastructure, and (d) under-regulated industries that expose Americans to diseases. Of course the thought of nuclear war or wars between great powers frightens me – but the disconnect between our politicians and the ongoing problems in this country scares me more.

Returning to the topic of weak states, Zegart rebuts three arguments often made by those alarmed about weak states. First, she writes, is the argument “that fragile states can become terrorist strongholds that pose existential threats to Western ways of life.” Second is the claim “that poorly governed spaces function as incubators for other global ‘bads,’ like disease, conflict, human rights violations, drug and human trafficking, and criminal networks.” Third is the contention “that globalization connects citizens throughout the world in unprecedented ways, binding the fates of strong states to weak states.”

I won’t rehearse all of Zegart’s arguments, but her counter-arguments to the idea of weak states as terrorist strongholds are worth quoting:

Terrorism experts have found that the vast majority of terrorist attacks strike local targets, not foreign ones. What’s more, the world’s weakest states have not produced the world’s most or worst international terrorists. Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index listed five countries in its worst-of-the-worst category: South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. None are major inspiration bases, training centers, breeding grounds, or exporters of terrorism directed at Western cities.

Now, it’s true that Somalia’s al-Shabab recently urged its supporters to attack Western shopping malls, including the Mall of America. I agree with Slate, however, that it’s not that scary of a threat.

While clearly a bid for publicity after a year of headlines dominated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the video does comes with some weight, given that al-Shabab actually did attack the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing more than 60 people. There’s also evidence that Shabab has actively recruited fighters from Minnesota’s Somali community. But Shabab has never carried out an attack outside East Africa and it seems unlikely that they would warn their targets to step up security before launching the first one.

The U.S. government doesn’t seem that concerned, though with a potential shutdown looming, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson couldn’t help noting that this sort of vague threat is the reason his department needs a budget.

It’s also worth differentiating, as Zegart does, between threats and existential threats. Even Westgate did not pose an existential threat to Kenya.

The idea of weak states as threats to the U.S. has gained such currency in large part because of the structuring metaphor of Afghanistan. Commentators invoke Afghanistan as a metaphor for every country in Africa where a jihadist movement gains ground: Mali, Somalia, Libya, and so on. There’s even a Twitter account called “Bokostan,” referring to Nigeria’s Boko Haram. But the conflicts in each of these places have specific features that are irreducible to Afghanistan’s experience with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Even Afghanistan’s experience is often misunderstood. It’s worth pointing out, yet again, that the 9/11 attacks were planned in various places, including Afghanistan but also Germany.

Analysts can always come up with ways that terrorism in Nigeria (which I wouldn’t call a weak state, though some do), Mali, or Somalia might threaten the West. And the possibility is always there – after all, even one Western sympathizer could do a great deal of harm. But Zegart is right that the threat of weak states has been over-hyped. For example, in thirteen years of existence as a movement and five years as a consistent insurgency, Boko Haram has not attacked the United States; nor has al-Shabab, in its at least nine years of existence; and although Algerian militants carried out attacks in France in the 1990s, since Algeria’s civil war ended (circa 2000-2002) al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib has been a threat primarily to Western tourists in northwest Africa, rather than to Europe itself. It’s worth keeping this background in mind when evaluating the threats that weak states, whether in Africa or elsewhere, might pose to the U.S.

Turning the Lights Back On

After an eighteen-month break, now seems like a good time to start blogging again. Nigeria’s elections (although postponed) are approaching, conflict in northern Mali is escalating, Burkina Faso is working through a transition, and the wider Sahel region is dealing with a number of interrelated crises.

To give a brief professional update, I spent the 2013-2014 academic year as an International Affairs Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. The program, which aims in part to give scholars a hands-on experience in government, placed me in the Department of State as a Desk Officer for Nigeria. After wrapping up the fellowship, I started at Georgetown University’s African Studies Program as a visiting assistant professor. I am teaching courses there on Islam and politics.

I have done some writing during my absence from the blog. I published two academic journal articles, one with African Affairs and another with the Journal of Religion in Africa. In fall 2014, I began writing monthly for the Global Observatory of the International Peace Institute, and I also resumed contributing periodical briefings to World Politics Review. I’ve been doing some writing about the upcoming elections in Nigeria (March 28 and April 11), and I’ll post those pieces separately. I have also completed a book manuscript on Salafism in Nigeria.

The purpose of this blog has not changed – I aim simply to provide informative commentary on current events in Nigeria and the Sahel, and to a lesser extent the Horn of Africa. I do not know that I’ll be able to maintain the pace I set before; my students and my academic research are and must be higher priorities than blogging. I may welcome a few guest bloggers from time to time in order to bring new perspectives.

What may change slightly in this new incarnation is my tone. I want to be more explicit about my values – my effort to write about people in the Sahel as real human beings, not just objects in geopolitical dramas; my distaste for analysts who write breathlessly and speculatively about Africa in order to put forth the most nightmarish picture of global terrorism possible; my opposition to targeted killings, to the West’s strategy of short-term airstrikes followed by long-term neglect (see: Libya), to the shoot-and-vote model, and to unimaginative “train-and-equip” efforts that just flood the world with more weapons; and my impatience with those who can only see Islam in Africa through the lens of “good Sufis” and “bad Salafis.”

The world has enough voices pushing simplistic narratives, quick fixes, and counterproductive violence – let this blog be an advocate for more constructive and promising paths toward peace.

Sahel Blog Goes Dark, at Least for a Time

Today will likely be the last time that I post on this blog for about a year; as readers have likely noticed, the pace already slowed considerably over the summer.

This month marks two major transitions for me. The first transition is that I’ve finished my Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Northwestern University (it was awarded yesterday, in fact). And the second transition is that on Monday, I will start a new position as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I am grateful to the Council for this opportunity, and I am excited to begin this new chapter in my career.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, I will not be blogging. I am sorry to take this pause, but also grateful. I am grateful first for the opportunity to have interacted with so many people through the blog, especially regular commenters here and conversation partners on Twitter and elsewhere. I am grateful too, however, for the chance to step back a bit from this medium. I’ve mentioned some of my struggles with blogging before; here I’ll rehash them.

For most of the time I’ve spent on this project since I started in 2009, I was enthusiastic about the ways in which blogging could provide rapid, timely analysis of events, sometimes even as they unfolded. I think it is vital that at least some academics take up blogging. Through this medium we can showcase some of the things we have to offer: language skills, analytical skills, historical perspective, knowledge of cultural and religious traditions, etc. In a country (America) that often despises intellectuals and asks what they’re good for, blogging gives us a chance to demonstrate our value. (For the record, I don’t think intellectuals need to “justify their existences” to anyone – but it’s easier for all of us if some of us make the effort.) Blogging also allows academics to circumvent some of the barriers that often stand between us and the public. Finally, and most importantly, it gives scholars a chance to counter some of the narratives that dominate in media and policy circles. For me, that has meant trying to present one critical region of Africa in its complexity, and to write about it in a way that seeks to recognize the dignity of the real people who live there. So many “foreign policy” writers seem to view the people they talk about with contempt – an attitude that makes it easy for such writers to recommend the use of violence against those people. Hopefully I have provided some antidote to that point of view here.

During 2013, however, I’ve increasingly felt that my style of blogging – which is highly reactive to events, as well as highly scattered – does little more than skim the surface. I live in dread of making factual errors, translation errors, and sloppy analytical judgments, all of which are strong possibilities if I blog every day, hopping from topic to topic. I have also grown concerned that what I write doesn’t build toward anything, and that staying wedded to the news cycle constrains my ability to work on topics in depth. Writing my dissertation in 2012-2013, as well as trying my hand at a few journal articles, I came to appreciate traditional scholarly formats even more than I did before: in 10,000 words, or 100,000, based on meticulous research over a period of years, the potential for insight and depth vastly exceeds the potential of a rushed, poorly researched blog post of 700 words. Therein lies a dilemma: how much time to devote to the long but relatively isolating intellectual quests that might yield a truly powerful contribution to knowledge, and how much time to devote to the kind of engagement that brings me into dialogue with a greater public? The answer must be some combination of both, but I haven’t gotten the proportions right yet.

In this vein I’ve been experimenting with different writing formats. This month is also an important one for me because Northwestern’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) has released a working paper I co-wrote with Andrew Lebovich. The paper is entitled “A Handbook on Mali’s 2012-2013 Crisis” (.pdf)* and it aims to be exactly that: a comprehensive guide to the events, actors, and institutions that have interacted in Mali over the past twenty-one months and more. I hope the Handbook will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Mali.

I also have another intention for it: I** want it to showcase how empty of empirical content so much writing about the Sahel is. Does the world need more reports that tell us about the “dangers of ungoverned spaces” in the Sahel and the “nexus of terrorism and trafficking” there, or some other tired phrase like that? I don’t think so. I think people need information they can sink their teeth into, and some way to contextualize it that goes beyond stock narratives.

This year I won’t be doing much blogging or traditional scholarship, so perhaps that will give me a chance to reflect on both media, as well as on what kinds of new analytical projects are becoming possible. I welcome readers’ suggestions.

I also welcome their contributions. Some guest writers may pass through here during the coming academic year. And in 2014, if I decide to resume this project, I will likely want to do so in a more expansive and ambitious way. If you have an interest in contributing here – and if you understand and agree with the point I’ve tried to make about recognizing other people’s dignity – then I urge you to contact me.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone for reading!

*The hyperlinks in the current version do not work, but ISITA plans to post an updated, corrected version next week.

**In this post I speak for myself alone.

Africa News Roundup: Mali, Algeria, Senegal, and More

Reuters: “Mali’s interim government has removed General Amadou Sanogo, who led a coup last year, as head of a military committee tasked with reforming the West African country’s armed forces, a government statement said.” For more on Sanogo’s promotion to general, see here.

On Friday, Mali’s President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visited Cote d’Ivoire (French).

Magharebia: “Algeria is offering pardons to thousands of armed extremists, provided their hands are unstained with citizens’ blood…Army units are distributing leaflets and flyers in Tlemcen, Sidi Bel Abbes and Ain Témouchent, urging extremists to lay down arms and benefit from the 2005 Charter for Peace and National ReconciliationEnnahar daily reported this week.”

Imams in Touba, Senegal (French) complain of a lack of water, electricity, and other amenities, and cast blame on political authorities.

Reuters: “Nigerians Seek Refuge in Niger.”

Moulid Hujale: “My Journey Back to Somalia.”

What else is happening?

Africa News Roundup: Nigeria, Mali, South Sudan, Somalia, and More

Africa Review:

Senegal’s Attorney-General Serigne Bassirou Guèye has began a probe into one of the biggest drug scandals ever to rock the country’s police force.

As a first step, he ordered on Wednesday the arrest and detention of a Nigerian believed to be behind the whole scandal.

The issue came to a head after a top Senegalese police was accused of having connections with the detained Nigerian.

Reuters:

Malian troops deployed in the northern town of Kidal on Friday after attacks by light-skinned Tuareg separatists on black residents killed at least one, a week before elections meant to unify the fractured nation.

Nigeria reportedly plans to withdraw some 850 of its 1,200 soldiers from Mali following the elections there.

Garowe:

At least two persons including an African Union soldier (AMISOM) in the southern Somali port of Kismayo were killed in a roadside explosion Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch: “South Sudan: Army Making Ethnic Conflict Worse.”

Nigeria:

Nigerian governor Rotimi Amaechi and four of his northern counterparts have been pelted with stones by opponents in his home state.

Their convoy was attacked as it left the airport of Port Harcourt, the capital of his oil-rich Rivers state.

The northern governors [of Niger, Kano, Jigawa, and Adamawa] were visiting to show their support for Mr Amaechi.

He was suspended from the ruling party for what analysts see as his opposition to President Goodluck Jonathan.

What else is happening?

Africa Blog Roundup: Susan Rice, Mali, Darfur, Kenyan IDPs, and More

Africa in DC: “What Does Susan Rice’s Appointment as National Security Adviser Mean for Africa?”

Bruce Whitehouse:

As French troops hunted Islamist fighters in northern Mali this past winter, historian Greg Mann said that what was taking place in the region was not one war, but several. For a few months starting in January 2013, the various armed conflicts that had broken out over the previous year appeared to converge, as did French and Malian interests. But, as Gregreminded us in March, the French government’s war was not the Malian government’s war. And now it seems that Mali’s war — after a long hiatus — is starting up again, and breaking away from France’s war.

For weeks there have been rumblings of an impending resumption of armed conflict between Malian government forces and the MNLA separatist rebel group that controls the northern region of Kidal. Rumors of Malian troop movements north of Gao have been circulating since February. But this week these were joined by an army statement that government forces had massed midway between Gao and the rebel-occupied town, and by news today that Malian troops took the village of Anafi, 100 km southwest of Kidal. Areport on Malijet claims that Malian soldiers are within 35 km of the town, and that MNLA forces are retreating toward Algeria; a similar report has appeared on Reuters.

Amb. John Campbell: “Racism in Mali and the Upcoming Elections.”

Aly Verjee:

The second honeymoon of Darfur’s Doha peace process lasted just over a month. On April 6, Mohammad Bashar, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement-Sudan (hence referred to as JEM-Bashar) signed the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD; English, Arabic) in the ballroom of the Doha Ritz-Carlton hotel.
In Doha, Bashar told delegates he was looking forward to going home. On May 12 he was dead, killed on the Sudan-Chad borderlands at the hands of his former comrades in the mainstream Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Internally Displaced: “Kenya and South Sudan – The Border Question Resurfaces?”

Africa UP Close: “Youth Farming and Aquaculture Initiatives Aim to Reduce Food and Political Insecurity in Senegal.”

Prisca Kamungi: “Municipal Authorities and IDPs Outside of Camps: The Case of Kenya’s ‘Integrated Displaced Persons’.”

What are you reading?

Africa News Roundup: Ethiopia and Egypt, Chad and Libya, CAR’s Crisis, and More

Los Angeles Times:

A battle over water has turned into a war of colorful rhetoric between Ethiopia and Egypt over the flow of the Nile, which begins in the African highlands but keeps Egypt from being swallowed entirely by desert.

An ambitious Ethiopian dam project is diverting Nile waters that Cairo says will reduce the river’s northward flow. The Egyptians have stumbled into crisis mode: At a meeting hosted by President Mohamed Morsi this week, several politicians, unaware TV cameras were rolling, suggested sabotaging or threatening to bomb the dam.

IRIN: “[Central African Republic] Crisis Remains Dire – and Neglected.”

El Watan (French):

Gao, Kidal, Anefis… Six mois après le lancement de l’opération Serval, que deviennent les villes du Nord-Mali ? Notre envoyée spéciale a échappé à un attentat kamikaze et a vécu des accrochages entre l’armée malienne et le MNLA. Elle témoigne de la peur et de la précarité dans lesquelles vivent les populations.

BBC:

Seven people have died in the Somali port of Kismayo in fighting between two self-declared leaders of the strategic city and surrounding area.

Residents told the BBC the clashes began in the town centre at midday and lasted for about 40 minutes.

They broke out after one of the leaders tried to meet the defence minister who is attempting to resolve the crisis.

VOA: “South Sudan Switches from Arabic Textbooks to English.”

From May (missed it then), Luke Balleny: “What Impact Has the EITI Transparency Initiative Had on Nigeria?”

The Economist: “Could Political Demonstrations in Ethiopia Herald Greater Freedom?”

Wall Street Journal: “Chad’s President Warns of Islamist Threat in Libya.”

What else is happening?