Sahel (and Adjacent Zones) Roundup, Including Some Long Reads

United Nations Development Programme, “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Pathways to Recruitment and Disengagement,” February 2023. This is a follow-up to an impactful and insightful 2017 study that focused on state abuses as a “tipping point” for recruitment. This follow-on report makes a key distinction between recruits who join, often quite quickly, due to a trigger event, versus “slow” recruits who do not have a single trigger event. There’s a lot to think about here.

Rahmane Idrissa, “In Bamako,” London Review of Books, 2 February 2023. Prof. Idrissa is essential reading on the Sahel, although I paused over almost every sentence in the below paragraph – I don’t agree with the implication that Dicko had or has a master plan.

Doumbi’s talk of ‘wars of religion’ tells us something about the clashing visions that could easily destroy Hampâté Bâ’s multicultural vision of Mali. Doumbi’s main adversary is Imam Mahmoud Dicko, a charismatic Salafi cleric who has been working for decades to turn Mali into an Islamic republic. He was instrumental in Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s accession to the presidency in 2013: in return for Dicko’s support, Keïta promised to promote an Islamist platform championed by the youth wing of Dicko’s unofficial movement. But Keïta didn’t come good, and in the summer of 2020, Dicko helped to engineer his downfall. Until the military takeover later that year, Dicko could almost smell the ultimate prize – a constitutional change that would turn his informal position as Mali’s ‘moral authority’ (a label given to him by the media) into an official one in an Islamised or even fully Islamic republic. That would have brought jihadist leaders into the political process, and driven Doumbi, and others like him, into the wilderness.

Timbuktu Institute, “Mali: Évolutions de la transition et nouvelles dynamiques sociopolitiques et sécuritaires au nord,” January 2023. Here’s the table of contents:

Kalidou Sy, “Le désarroi de Youssouf, le policier qui failli arrêter Malam Dicko,” afriqueXXI, 6 January 2023. Amazing details here:

À Djibo, le rapport à la religion a toujours été mesuré. Différents courants de l’islam cohabitaient. « Il y avait deux confréries : la Tidjaniya (les Doucouré) et la mosquée de Woursababé (les Cissé). Ces derniers furent les premiers à s’être installés à Djibo. » Mais au début des années 1990, l’arrivée d’un homme a tout changé : « C’était en 1991 ou en 1992, je ne sais plus. Le père de Malam Dicko est arrivé d’un village malien situé à la frontière du Burkina. »

Il commence par demander une parcelle de terre pour construire sa mosquée – requête qui est acceptée par les Tidjanes et les Woursababés. Avec ses discours « révolutionnaires », il cherche à déconstruire l’ordre social et n’hésite pas à s’en prendre ouvertement à ses pairs marabouts. « Dans ses prêches, il soutient qu’un marabout ne doit pas attendre d’aumône, qu’il doit travailler lui-même, qu’il ne faut pas faire de mariages fastueux avec de grosses dépenses pour ensuite vivre dans la précarité », explique Youssouf. Cela ne plaît guère aux autres confréries, d’autant qu’au fil du temps, le nombre de ses adeptes a augmenté.

Au début des années 2010, son fils Ibrahim Malam Dicko a pris la relève. Très éloquent, il était vu comme un gourou par ses adeptes : « Il prêchait du social, se remémore Youssouf. Malam disait qu’il n’est pas permis d’égorger plus de deux moutons durant les fêtes. Il avait beaucoup d’adeptes qui voyaient en ses discours une révolution au sens noble de leur islam. »

James Courtwright, “A Small Town in Ghana Erupted in Violence. Were Jihadists Fueling the Fight?” New Lines Magazine, 25 January 2023. An excerpt:

New Lines traveled to Bawku to investigate the conflict and found that, rather than creeping jihadism, residents, local politicians and community leaders described a dispute with deep historical and political roots being fueled by partisanship, social media and weapons proliferation. The war on terror may be on Ghana’s doorstep, but an eagerness to conflate local conflict with international jihadism may in fact only be fanning the flames further.

Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s New Order,” New Left Review, 26 January 2023. Quoting:

Some might dismiss this episode [of fighting in Tripoli in August 2022] as yet another skirmish in an interminable conflict between the shifting armed alliances in Tripoli. And so it may be. But there is also a broader trend at work here. Over the years, these repeated confrontations have entrenched the power of several fearsome militias, which have become increasingly professionalized while gradually expanding their territory. Post-Qadhafi Libya offered exceptionally favourable conditions for such groups, most of which operate as official security forces and enjoy generous state funding. At first, these organizations were unruly, fractious and unambitious – prone to splits and petty internal rivalries. Yet over time they have developed centralized leadership structures and absorbed growing numbers of the former regime’s military and intelligence officers. The result has been the consolidation of a militia landscape that, in Tripoli alone, initially involved dozens of different armed groups.

Obi Anyadike, ” ‘Everyone knows somebody who has been kidnapped’: Inside Nigeria’s Banditry Epidemic,” The New Humanitarian, 30 January 2023. A key paragraph:

The most feared bandit leaders levy taxes, settle local disputes, and have praise songs sung about them. These are young men, typically in their 30s, casual in their use of violence, who claim a political solidarity with the pastoralists even though Fulani – like Ismael – are among their victims. When not feuding, they cooperate with one another in shifting alliances, but also compete in a perpetual arms race for deadlier military equipment. 

Jared Miller, “The Politics and Profit of a Crisis: A Political Marketplace Analysis of the Humanitarian Crisis in Northeast Nigeria,” World Peace Foundation, 1 February 2023. An important section (p. 24):

Since the conflict began, more than $3.8 billion in international aid has flowed into the northeast. In 2020, UNOCHA estimated that $1.1 billion was needed to provide necessary humanitarian aid to an estimated 7.8 million people, 3.8 million of whom needed food security assistance. The diversion of humanitarian aid is not unique to Nigeria, but it has become part of the political economy of the northeast and has created vested interests in a continued crisis.


Humanitarian actors report immense pressure to shift the narrative, and the corresponding agenda, from humanitarian response to development despite the continued insecurity or lack of government control. This is a call that is shared by both the Nigerian government and Nigerians in the northeast, though their reasons are likely very different. Some sought a return to normal life while others may have seen it as an opportunity to use development rents to fund their political budgets. Regardless of the motivation, collective calls to shift to development also came with an input of funds for rebuilding.

Piece for The Maydan on the Contemporary Maliki Madhhab

At George Mason University’s The Maydan, I have a new post looking at present-day dynamics within the Maliki school of Islamic law. An excerpt:

Against Salafis’ criticisms of the madhahib and audiences’ hunger for evidence, major Maliki scholars have not abandoned the traditional canon of the school. However, they have increasingly subjected the Maliki canon to a process that I would call “dalil-ization.” This process entails two maneuvers: first, moving the process of istidlal, or evidence-based argumentation, from the realm of legal specialists into the reach of the beginner; and second, breaking with some of the school’s famous rulings and selectively siding with other schools and/or with minority Maliki perspectives on those issues. Neither of these processes is new for Malikis or for followers of other schools, and the difference is one of degree rather than kind; in the past, istidlal would be introduced in stages throughout the learning process, and experts’ awareness of minority views within the madhhab was often paired with a sense that laypersons were better off adhering to the majority positions on given issues.

My Review of Ahmed El Shamsy’s Rediscovering the Islamic Classics – at Reading Religion

At the American Academy of Religion’s Reading Religion site, I have a review up of Ahmed El Shamsy’s Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2020). El Shamsy is a marvelous scholar and someone whose work has deeply influenced mine. Nevertheless I have a few disagreements with him, especially about his assessment of postclassical Islamic literature.

From the DRC, A Serious Warning for and about Aid Workers Elsewhere

The New Humanitarian last month published the results of their investigation, conducted jointly with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, into a ghastly story involving international aid workers pressuring Congolese women for sex:

In interviews, 51 women – many of whose accounts were backed up by aid agency drivers and local NGO workers – recounted multiple incidents of abuse during the 2018 to 2020 Ebola crisis, mainly by men who said they were international workers.

The majority of the women said numerous men had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or terminated their contracts when they refused.

The organizations named in interviews are huge ones: “UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, ALIMA, and the International Organization for Migration.” The New Humanitarian’s writeup also

The scandal (I am searching for a stronger word, actually – “outrage” comes to mind) reminds me, as it may remind you, of a sexual abuse scandal uncovered (and arguably very poorly handled) involving United Nations Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.

The implications for the region this blog covers, the Sahel and Nigeria, should be clear. I talk about jihadism a lot here at the blog, and one way this post could go would be to spin out the implications of this for the counter-jihadism fight and the perceptions of humanitarian workers in conflict zones. But I think that line of argument – while perhaps valid – might be too securitized for my taste (“don’t exploit women, it hurts the counterterrorism fight” is a crude and even offensive argument).

Rather, what I want to really emphasize is that incidents where trust is broken can leave long, long memories. In 1996, Pfizer was accused of killing 11 children and disabling others in Kano, Nigeria through a meningitis drug trial. The aftermath of the incident included widespread suspicion about polio vaccination campaigns in subsequent years. Pfizer paid compensation ($175,000 each to four families) in 2011. People often remember the harm caused by those who came (purportedly) to help. And as seen with the Kano example, one actor’s choices can affect myriad other actors carrying out seemingly unrelated projects.

I guess if someone is so depraved that they would attempt to coerce women living through a public health emergency, then they probably wouldn’t be receptive to these warnings about unanticipated consequences of abuse. But their bosses are a different story. The problems described in the DRC seem systemic, and organizations and supervisors clearly have some real soul-searching to do, if they have the courage to do it:

Aid sector experts blamed the failures on a male-dominated operation with little funding to combat sexual abuse; income and power inequalities that opened the door to abuses; and poor communication with local residents – mirroring problems they said they had seen in numerous other emergency responses.

I hope the branches of these organizations that work in the Sahel and Nigeria are paying attention and are scrutinizing their own accountability mechanisms. There are ongoing investigations – I hope they are substantive.

Another Perspective on “Local Versus Global” in Analyzing Jihadism: “Contingent Versus Cohesive”

Continuing to reflect on the death of Abdelmalek Droukdel, and on this recent thread from Yvan Guichaoua, led me to revisit the debate over whether and how much analysts should  privilege “global jihadism” versus “local dynamics”* in analyzing jihadist movements. I’ve been a pretty strong proponent of the latter approach, although when the evidence warrants it I turn to global and transnational dynamics.

But actually, I think much of what’s at stake in such debates is not necessarily geographical scope but a more fundamental question: Is jihadism cohesive or contingent? Do jihadists proceed according to strategic blueprints, or do they react to events with just as much acuity and sloppiness as any other type of actor? Are jihadist organizations tightly organized and controlled, from the (supposed) masterminds at the top to the (supposed) dupes at the bottom, or is there infighting, improvisation, and indecision up and down the chain? Does jihadism look essentially the same in different parts of the world, or is its evolution deeply situational and contextual?

I incline heavily toward the “contingent” view – or maybe it would be better to just call it the “messy” view. This is also my view of how history and politics work in general. I might be more favorable toward the “globalist” school if it acknowledged more of that messiness, contingency, indiscipline, improvisation, frustration, negotiation, etc. – both within jihadists’ ranks, and between jihadists and the societies around them. Yet globalism in jihadism studies is often completely bound up with the idea of jihadism as a highly cohesive project, the idea that jihadist hierarchies function in a top-down, disciplined, and cohesive way.

The implication from analysts is often that a top leader’s statements can be taken as a blueprint for how the emirs heading affiliates, the field commanders, and the rank and file will all behave. In the cohesive view, at its most exaggerated, jihadists are depicted as the only actors with real agency – they may fight with each other, but otherwise they are the only actors who move in a color across a landscape where all other actors are merely bystanders, depicted in black-and-white, helpless to do much more than react to jihadists’ machinations. And even when jihadists fight with each other, the cohesive/globalist school tends to make top leaders the only figures who matter: Baghdadi versus Jolani, Baghdadi versus Zawahiri, Shekau versus Barnawi and Nur, Droukdel versus Belmokhtar, etc. It is not an accident that the privileged sources for the cohesive school of analysis are jihadist propaganda materials, leaked correspondence, etc. – it is easy and tempting to conclude the jihadists’ documents map directly onto reality. Yet as Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Jihadists react just as much as they act.

I would say that I’m not necessarily a “localist” but rather someone who sees contingency operating at every level – I don’t say that the local is cohesive while the global is contingent, but rather that the jihadist project is shot through with contingency and improvisation – as are, again, the projects of every other actor. In fact, the cohesive view would be equally problematic even if it were applied in a strictly “localist” framework. And the “contingent” view can be really compelling when applied in a global context – I think this is one reason I really like Barak Mendelsohn’s The Al Qaeda Franchise, because Mendelsohn foregrounds contingency and messiness in his global comparative analysis.

Many other authors’ global comparative analysis of jihadist groups, however, shows a tendency to flatten contextual differences (Mali, Yemen, and Afghanistan are all “failed states,” right? how different can they be?). That tendency is even more pronounced when analysts have a penchant for promoting the cohesive view of al-Qaida and the Islamic State at the global level. Then analysts just apply the same frameworks regardless of context. This is how you get the kind of paint-by-the-numbers analysis one often reads of jihadist groups, especially emerging jihadist groups in understudied countries, where the analysis is essentially interchangeable with analysis of a jihadist group in some other country. For example, I personally don’t know anything about Mozambique, but I bet that with 2-3 hours, a story or two from al-Naba’, and a few reports from the wire services, I could write you an analysis that would look a lot like some you may have read.

Yet if jihadist materials are merely one source among many that are necessary to understand a given conflict, then the task of analysis becomes much harder – and triangulating among multiple sources necessitates at least an implicit admission that, as Guichaoua says in the thread cited above, there is a Rashomon-like quality to the competing narratives, with jihadists’ accounts not necessarily more authoritative than any other actor’s.

The localist or contingent school of analysis tends to come out of area studies. I think area studies provides a kind of training that often inculcates a sense that events are contingent, that actors are flummoxed by events just as often as they master them, etc. A lot of area studies scholars are political scientists, but often not the kind of heavily quantitative political scientist who views the world in a highly schematic way (a way often untenable in its own right). The weakness of area studies, however, is frequently a lack of engagement with jihadist materials, sometimes because area studies scholars do not speak/read Arabic and sometimes because – even when they do – they either lack the interest in or the familiarity with jihadist ideologies and idioms that is necessary to follow what jihadist sources are saying. Sometimes that means that “localists” are too dismissive of the jihadist content, and this then opens the door for the propaganda-focused cohesive/globalist school to attract wide audiences, particularly among policymakers, by promising unique insights supposed gleaned from jihadist materials.

There is a third pole of the debate, meanwhile: structuralist analyses. The perennial discussion about identifying the “root causes” of conflict can be productive or tedious, depending on how sophisticated the effort is. The localist and globalist analysts of jihadism are often in rare agreement, though, in rejecting the over-determined, simplistic, and monocausal structuralist accounts that regularly surface in an attempt to explain jihadism. “Boko Haram is an outgrowth of overpopulation.” “Climate change explains Sahelian jihadism.” etc. With that said, though, the more sophisticated structuralist accounts cannot be dismissed, and often form part of the kind of localist/contingent analysis that I think works best. An analysis of Boko Haram that didn’t take account of population growth, poverty, corruption, urbanization, etc. would not be workable. And an analysis of jihadism in central Mali that didn’t take account of population growth, resource competition, the interaction of legal frameworks and land use, etc. would not be workable either. But thinking about those structural factors reinforces my sense that much of any particular jihadist group’s evolution is contingent, both on macro factors and micro factors.

I’m not saying that it’s all whim and accident. I do think jihadists sometimes make plans and carry them out effectively. But they often don’t – I return to the image (and who knows if this is what really happened) of Muhammad Yusuf “hiding in a goat pen” when he was captured by Nigerian authorities amid Boko Haram’s July 2009 uprising. Some master plan. And I don’t think that everything turns on the individual, but individual decisions and outcomes matter, especially when you start to add them up, and then you can think about all the different ways things might have gone. What if Chérif Gousmi had not been killed in 1994? What if Hassan Hattab had remained leader of the GSPC? What if Mokhtar Belmokhtar had surrendered to Algerian authorities in the mid-2000s? What if Muhammad Yusuf had survived the 2009 uprising? What if Iyad ag Ghali had been accepted as leader of the MNLA in 2011? What if Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok had not tried to hold exams in 2014? What if Belmokhtar had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, instead of rejoining AQIM? Etc. etc. And that’s just at the level of the jihadist leadership. We could pose similar questions regarding politicians’ decisions, military officers’ decisions, etc. And think of all the small-group dynamics that are mostly out of sight, all the consequential micro-decisions that could go one or the other, that add up in their aggregate to the picture we see (or think we see). To think that all this can be explained through jihadist source materials is, for me, too much.

*Problematically, including in some of my own writing, what is meant by “local” is sometimes not properly fleshed out. Is it the national level? The level of some bounded sub-national unit? The level of a city? A neighborhood? I incline more and more toward the sub-national level, although I think one has to move between the regional, the national, and the sub-national (and yes, when necessary, the global) to try to capture the full picture.

A Note About Blogging Amid Crisis in My Own Country

As readers are undoubtedly aware, the United States is in crisis – an overt, undeniable crisis that grows directly out of long-term crises that many Americans were and are all too willing to overlook or deny. The United States was built on slavery and oppression, and this country, my country, is riven with grotesque inequalities that are both long-standing and freshly visible amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have catalyzed a new wave of protests. But the core demands – for the state to stop killing and abusing citizens, above all black citizens, and for the country to dismantle systems of racism, exclusion, and inequality – are not new. I support the protesters unequivocally and I condemn state violence against both protesters and against African Americans generally.

My plan, vis-a-vis blogging here, is to continue to cover events in the Sahel as I normally would. In the Sahel, crises are continuing and unfolding as well – a human rights crisis amid widespread abuses by security forces, a security crisis amid substantial violence by jihadists and militias, a public health and economic crisis accelerated by COVID-19, a food security crisis, and on and on. All of those topics merit attention and analysis now as always.

Within the wider world of African Studies, there are some commentators who do the noble and vital work of calling out and lampooning the most egregious instances of racist narratives about Africa. There is no shortage of such narratives. Yet focusing on the worst caricatures of Africa has rarely been my approach here. I view this blog as being anti-racist in a more subtle way, namely that in my view it is an inherently anti-racist act to write about other societies in a straightforward, non-sensationalized (anti-sensationalist?) way, to try to take them on their own terms, to draw heavily on local journalism to try to understand events and actors. My core approach would be the same whether this was a blog about the Sahel, or about Southeast Asia, or about Norway, or about Ohio; the Sahel just happens to be the part of the world I’m most interested in. I’m not saying that this blog is an activist project or some beacon of anti-racism; it’s just a place for analysis and I don’t think there’s anything noble or ignoble about that. But there are a lot of commentators out there in American and European media, still, who do not meet the minimum bar of talking about Africans as human beings. I want to do what I can to depict the Sahel as three-dimensional, and to the extent possible model the kind of analysis I think is most humanizing.

The crisis in the United States has also generated a conversation, more honest than I have ever seen before but still deeply flawed, about hypocrisy, injustice, and racism in American foreign policy. Here is the optimistic version of that conversation, from Michelle Gavin of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Representatives of the United States can acknowledge that our society is not free from oppression without suggesting that oppression is acceptable anywhere. They can acknowledge all of the truths of our own experience, even the ugly ones, without abandoning our principles or embracing a purely transactional diplomacy grounded in the most narrow idea of self-interest. They can exercise American leadership not grounded in a façade of perfection, but in a steadfast belief that our society is a partner to others around the world in the pursuit of justice and dignity for all people. Waging that struggle with humility and clarity and honesty will make for not just a stronger America, but stronger, more resilient, and more stable American partners.

I would go much further. The United States government has on many occasions been the author of injustice and violence in many foreign countries, and my government has far too often supported and tolerated abusive regimes and rulers elsewhere, including in Africa. The many tragedies created and abetted by U.S. foreign policy have been just as systemic as the tragedies created and abetted inside our own country. I have met well-meaning public servants from numerous sectors of the U.S. government, but all of their dedication to making the world a better place does not cancel out the fact that the system within which they operate remains unjust, weighted as it is toward violence and domination.

This moment demands introspection and action from everyone, no matter where they sit. For my own part, every institution that I have ever been a part of has its own ongoing reckoning to make with its institutional participation in oppression and racism, from Northwestern to the State Department to the Council on Foreign Relations to Georgetown to the University of Cincinnati. Just last year, my university decided to remove the name of a slaveowner from a building and a college – the college in which I teach. Decisions like that are hopefully a step toward more comprehensive reckonings, not just with the past but with the present.

I’m not even sure how to tie this post together, much less how to address the problems in my own society. My overall point is that if I maintain a certain normalcy here at the blog, that doesn’t mean that I’m working with blinders on. I feel guilty, in fact, over how paltry my efforts are in other spheres, including in my own small town in Ohio – although as one of my dearest teachers said to me the other day, focusing on that guilt doesn’t really help much, and I would add that it can be self-indulgent to dwell on one’s own feelings of guilt. The coming weeks, then, will – in sha Allah – bring more posts here but also, mostly in other venues, more outspokenness on my part. As various academics have pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, the justification of “I’ll wait to speak my mind until I get tenure” is flimsier than ever now. So I and others, even if we’re relatively low on various career ladders, have to ante up more.

Recurring Definitional Issues Surrounding Salafism, or Why Analysts Are Too Quick to Equate Salafism with Early Islam

A quotation:

[Part of faith is] that the best of generations is the generation who saw the Messenger of God (SAW) and believed in him, then those who followed them, then those who followed them. The best of the Companions are the Orthodox, Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu Bakr, then ‘Umar, then ‘Uthman, then ‘Ali, may God be pleased with them all. None of the Companions of the Messenger should be mentioned except in the best way, refraining [from mentioning] the [quarrels] that broke out between them…

[And another part of faith is] obedience to the imams of the Muslims among the people in charge, and their scholars, and the followers of al-salaf al-salih (the pious predecessors), imitating their traces and seeking forgiveness for them, and leaving off quarrel and controversy in religion, and leaving all that the innovators have innovated.

Salafism, right? Not in the way I define it. This is quotation from the Risala (Epistle) of ‘Abd Allah Ibn Abdi Zayd al-Qayrawani (d. 996). The Risala is one of the foundational texts of the Maliki school of Islamic law. From Mauritania to Nigeria and likely further, almost any classically trained scholar you meet (and not a few of the Salafis, I should add) has read this book. It belongs, at least in its usual context, to a tradition that blends the Maliki school with Sufism – and let us recall that Salafis often consider Sufis to be dubious Muslims at best, heretics at worst, and that many Salafis say that they do not follow any legal school, instead depending solely on the Qur’an and the Sunna.

I bring all this up because far too many analysts are quick to define Salafism as an effort to return to original Islam. Two recent examples:

  • A RAND analyst, discussing Libya: “Salafi-jihadis and traditionalist Madkhalis may share ultra-conservative views, such as strictly applying Shariՙa law in everyday life, morally policing the public sphere, and returning Islam to its purist [sic?] form, during and immediately following the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.”
  • CSIS’ big (and flawed) report on Salafi-jihadism (p. 4): “First, the group or individual emphasizes the importance of returning to a ‘pure’ Islam, that of the Salaf, the pious ancestors.” CSIS also counts the Taliban (Deobandi by orientation, rather than Salafis) as Salafis based on this minimal definition (p. 5): “Deobandism follows a Salafist model and seeks to emulate the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad It holds that a Muslim’s primary obligation and loyalty are to his religion, and loyalty to country is always secondary.”

Such analysts are way too quick to take Salafis’ claims at face value – and they also evidence little knowledge of how other kinds of Muslims talk about the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. Most Muslims are at least nominally committed to imitating the Prophet and his Companions and avoiding “blameworthy innovations” in the religion. The important question when defining Salafism is not whether Salafis are more committed to this project than are other Muslims, but rather how/what Salafis understand the early community to have been, and how that understanding furnishes a model for action in the present. Put differently, there are a lot of Sufi Malikis in northwest Africa today who “share ultra-conservative views, such as strictly applying Shariՙa law in everyday life, morally policing the public sphere, and returning Islam to its purist [again, sic?] form, during and immediately following the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.”

Now, some Salafis today are keen to reach into the past and claim figures such as al-Qayrawani as a Salafi of sorts. The Nigerian Salafi/proto-Salafi Abubakar Gumi (1924-1992) said that the Risala was one of his favorite books. But even if you, the analyst, said, “The Risala is Salafism” (I think you would be wrong, but nevermind), you would still have to confront the sociological fact that thousands of non-Salafis read, study, even memorize this book, and take what it says very seriously.

So take a little more time when you define Salafism, so that you don’t sound like you’re implicitly labeling them the most authentic Muslims.

Thoughts on the 2019 AFRICOM Posture Statement

Last week, AFRICOM’s commander, General Thomas Waldhauser, presented the command’s posture statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Alexis Arieff and Jason Warner had good threads highlighting important points of the document:

I have a few points to add:

  1. I have no insight into how the document was put together, but it felt as though within the statement you could feel three voices wrestling with one another for control: one voice that sees terrorism as the main concern in Africa, another focused on Russia and China, and a third that looks ahead to a grim future of dense, restless, and disease-prone populations. In other words, the document’s zigging and zagging between “Violent Extremist Organizations,” “Great Power Competition,” and “stability” talk did not feel coherent to me, but rather seemed to reflect layers of editing and insertion by constituencies with different priorities and attitudes. The sections on “Great Power Competition” felt the most grafted-on; I wonder whether AFRICOM would have preferred to just talk about terrorism and (in)stability. It was interesting to note that sometimes “Great Power Competition” and mentions of Russia and China fell out of the document for pages at a time, especially in the middle of the statement. It was also interesting to see moments where “Great Power Competition” was conspicuously downplayed (see p. 12, for example, with the “five objectives”). Some of this, I think, must reflect an uncertainty within various U.S. government agencies and offices about whether all the talk of “Great Power Competition” is headed and what the relationship between that and the “War on Terror” (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) is going to be. In other words, some sections might be spliced in just to make various bosses happy.
  2. I was struck by the frequent moments when the document put forth ideological rather than clinical statements on jihadist groups’ histories, characters, and intentions. On p. 7, for example, the document says, “VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] cultivate and encourage an environment of distrust, despair, and hopelessness to undermine governments, allowing for the expansion of their radical ideology.” A sentence like this makes me throw up my hands. The persistent and sometimes explicit suggestion, in U.S. policy circles, that jihadists are essentially nihilists misses a lot about what they say, what they do, and what their strategies are or may be. This kind of language from AFRICOM is so crude as to verge on being plain wrong; I’ve tried to show, including in some recent writing, that there is a lot more *politics* going on with jihadists than just “let’s undermine the government.”
  3. The overall crudeness of the document is striking. Maybe this is just inevitable in policy documents, but I don’t think it has to be. Take this sentence from p. 10: “Despite the challenges on the continent, Africans are eager and receptive to work with the U.S. to advance common strategic interests.” Do U.S. policymakers and generals have to talk this way? It just sounds silly. There were also several more specific passages that seemed to me absurdly rosy, especially the brief mention of Burkina Faso on p. 28. The section on Cameroon (pp. 31-32) also reads a bit strangely given that this news broke the day after Waldhauser testified. Couldn’t AFRICOM be a bit more forthcoming and blunt about challenges, frictions, and things that are going badly?
  4. The names of many operations remain ridiculous. “Exercise Lightning Handshake” was my favorite.

Finally, it’s worth noting that some euphemisms – including “advise, assist, and accompany” may be wearing thin as the public gets more information:


A Flawed Estimate of Salafi-Jihadis, and Some of the Politics Surrounding It

This month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Transnational Threats Project released a study entitled “The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat.” The study received an uncritical write-up in the New York Times, and the study’s high estimate of the number of “Salafi-jihadis” worldwide – 230,000 – began to make the rounds. As someone on the left, I was dismayed to see prominent leftist voices picking up the 230,000 figure. More on that below, but first let’s look at the problems with the figure.

The 230,000 figure is way too high. First of all, the authors (Seth Jones et al.) give both a low estimate (100,000) and a high estimate (230,000), but it is the latter that has gotten traction. Even without all the objections below, we should note that the high estimate is simply too high – credible estimates for the individual groups discussed in the report sometimes fall well short of the high estimates that the report tallies up.

Second, the authors determined both the low and the high estimates by adding up estimates for various armed movements around the world – and they counted some movements that I don’t think they should have. Most problematically, they included the Taliban, which is not even Salafi, theologically speaking, and whose basic political orientation and strategy is different from that of al-Qaida and/or the Islamic State. The authors attempt to gloss over this problem by staking out a minimal definition of Salafi-jihadism (p. 4) and then conflating some iterations of the Deobandi school (to which the Taliban belong) with Salafism (p. 5) while pointing to the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida. We should note that the figures given for Afghanistan alone (27,000 for the low estimate, and 64,060 for the high estimate – see p. 10) already represent over a quarter of the total, while the figures given for Pakistan (17,900 for the low estimate, and 39,540 for the high estimate – again, see p. 10) represent over a sixth of the total. If we carve out the Taliban from the world of Salafi-jihadism, the numbers start to look much, much different.

Third, the authors take an extremely broad view of who counts as a Salafi-jihadi in Syria. If South Asia is the largest single region in their estimate, Syria is the largest single country: 70,550 fighters in the high estimate, and 43,650 in the low estimate. From what I can tell, these figures involve counting every member of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham as well as Ahrar al-Sham as Salafi-jihadis. Syria expert Sam Heller (whose thread on this topic we will return to below) has argued that Ahrar al-Sham should not be counted, and I (although not a Syria expert) would add that counting all HTS members would seem to contradict common sense, given that HTS is a coalition of multiple groups. So once we interrogate the Syria figure, it seems that the estimate should drop again, and that subtracting the Taliban and adjusting the Syria figure might bring even the high estimate below 100,000.

Fourth, the authors define every single fighter in every single group as a Salafi-jihadi. Heller and others have pointed out that the nature of jihadist movements has changed dramatically since 2001 and especially since 2011, amid the rise of jihadist insurgencies and “porto-states” with a much wider social base than, say, al-Qaida in the 1990s. Should all members of that social base be understood as committed Salafi-jihadis? I would say not, given the contextual factors that might drive masses of fighters to Salafi-jihadi big tent coalitions in the midst of civil war and/or pervasive insecurity and central state weakness. If we start asking critical questions about who is truly committed to a Salafi-jihadi vision, at the local level or especially at the global level, the numbers might drop drastically.

Now for the politics of the report. The left (including me) is keen to make the case that the War on Terror is bad and counterproductive. But I do not think that using flawed and alarmist figures is ultimately helpful. Here, the left should take note that the report is not arguing for an abandonment of the War on Terror, nor is the report at all concerned with leftist critiques and alternatives; rather, the authors wish to argue with the Jim Mattis school that favors prioritizing “great power competition” over counterterrorism. The report argues for a maintenance of the counterterrorism status quo. Here is a flavor of that argument (p. 45):

While it is sensible for countries like the United States to rebalance its resources to compete with state adversaries like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, the terrorism threat remains notable. Neither the Islamic State nor al-Qaeda have been defeated. More importantly, there are—and will likely continue to be—a large pool of Salafi-jihad- ists across the globe that present a threat to Western countries and their allies.

And here is more (p. 51):

The challenge is not that U.S. officials are devoting attention to deal with state adversaries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. These countries present legitimate threats to the United States at home and abroad. Rather, the mistake would be declaring victory too quickly against terrorism—and then shifting too many resources and too much attention away when the threat remains significant. A significant withdrawal of U.S. special operations forces, intelligence operatives, intelligence resources, and development and diplomatic experts for counterterrorism in key areas of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia would be unnecessarily risky.

In other words, the report wants to be part of an intra-Washington conversation over which hyper-militarized global posture the United States should adopt, and not whether it should adopt such a posture at all.

For further context, the report fits in with a broader genre of “terrorology” that advocates a permanent, richly-resourced, highly militarized approach to counterterrorism. Typically, the terrorologists offer few concrete policy recommendations other than “don’t take your eye off the ball” – a refrain they repeat ad nauseam, even in times of relative peace and even in the wake of massive military operations against jihadist groups. The terrorologists are not friends of the left, even inadvertently, and in my view leftists should not lend credence to alarmist estimates. Or, at the very least, I would say the left needs to go beyond arguing that the War on Terror is counterproductive (even though it is, just not to the extent of generating a quarter of a million jihadis). The more damning criticisms, in my view, are that the War on Terror (a) breeds atrocities such as widespread torture, (b) distorts our incentives regarding alliances, and (c) distracts precious attention away from fighting climate change – the most serious threat to Americans’ lives and livelihoods.

Meanwhile, debates about counterterrorism that are couched primarily in terms of efficacy are a double-edged sword for the left. Although it is tempting to say “the numbers are rising so the policy is bad,” this argumentation can easily be flipped around by those who say “the numbers are rising so we need to double down on the policy – the rise comes from deviating from the policy and/or from events beyond our control.” Debating efficacy is important, but I think it’s more important to attack the very premises of the War on Terror and to show its core ugliness. After all, even if long-term occupations of foreign countries, widespread torture and detention, and prolonged assassination campaigns all somehow “worked,” I at least would still oppose them.

As I mentioned above, Sam Heller had a nice thread on the CSIS report, and so I leave you with that:

Post at Fellow Travelers on Left Foreign Policy

I have a post today at Fellow Travelers, a left foreign policy blog. My post there is different fare than what I usually post here. At Fellow Travelers I look at the question of how a leftist president would implement and conduct foreign policy in the United States, especially in terms of making sure that the executive branch actually carried out the left’s preferred policies (whatever those may be…this is an incipient and ongoing conversation). In my post, I take two recent books – Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace and Ben Rhodes’ The World As It Is – and use them as a starting point to think through how a leftist White House/National Security Council might function, at least in its broad outlines, and also how a leftist White House would relate to the career State Department and Foreign Service.

These themes are, again, very different than the ones that I usually discuss on Sahel Blog. But part of what underlies my analysis on this site, although I rarely spell it out, is a feeling that much of the way governments approach conflict and politics today is wrong and broken. Plainly stated, I see the left as the vehicle for a better United States – in both the domestic and foreign policy spheres – and for a better world. You mileage on that question may vary, but if these issues interest you then Fellow Travelers is an important space in an emerging and increasingly refined conversation about left foreign policy.