Comments on WaPo Article about Deradicalization of Boko Haram Members in Niger

I’m still catching up on important reporting that came out last month and throughout the fall. One such report is the Washington Post‘s November 20 article about deradicalization efforts for former Boko Haram members in Niger. The article, which is very good, focuses especially on the State Department’s role in shaping and possibly, soon, funding the program (see some official background here).

I’m enthusiastic about such programs, not because they’re perfect but because (a) these fighters or ex-fighters are human beings, and maybe they can be redeemed, and (b) concrete non-violent solutions seem more promising to me than just straight counterinsurgency paired with vague talk of socioeconomic reconstruction. If the fighters in the bush hear that they have choices beyond continued combat or unconditional surrender, perhaps more of them will turn themselves in.

No one says this is easy, though. The following excerpt was, for me, the core of the article:

“It was in D.C. that I realized the Americans might suffocate this program, even with good intentions,” [former Diffa Region Governor Dan Dano] Lawaly said. “They would say, ‘These defectors of yours may have committed war crimes, so we have to get the legal framework sorted out.’ And I’d say, ‘They’re abused kids, for God’s sake.’ ”

A legal framework would, however, codify the program, ensuring its survival beyond Lawaly’s tenure. And as it happened, Lawaly was sacked earlier this year when his party pulled out of Niger’s ruling coalition.

“It can’t be a one-man show if this is going to be sustainable,” said [Neal] Kringel, the State Department official. “We have to have a process that categorizes and then deals with each defector appropriately.”

I lean more toward Lawaly’s perspective, but you definitely don’t want hardened offenders slipping through the cracks or taking advantage of the program.

Yet as the article’s anecdotes suggest (and as Sarah Topol’s amazing reporting also suggests), much of Boko Haram’s recruiting was circumstantial and partly coerced. Such recruits came to do horrendous things, but I believe there is a road back for them, albeit one that might fade if authorities (American or Nigerien) place too much emphasis on retributive and punitive justice. That’s a grim thing to say – who wants to choose between justice and peace? This is not my choice to make when it comes to Niger, of course, but I would say that the State Department should heed the voices who prioritize peace.

The other voices who matter, though, include the communities affected by Boko Haram’s violence. This theme comes up in the article, and it came up on my trip to Nigeria last month. It is eminently understandable that survivors and victims may not forgive. In Kano, including in conversations with people from northeastern Nigeria, I heard very different perspectives on what might be done with “rehabilitated” Boko Haram fighters. Some very smart people said that it was impossible for such fighters to go home, given the level of anger and even violence they may face from victims and survivors. Other Nigerians I spoke with even doubted that rehabilitated fighters could successfully integrate in big cities, given that they might somehow stand out and raise questions even in neighborhoods in Kano or Lagos or other cities outside the epicenter of the conflict. But some folks I met did think that big cities might afford a degree of anonymity that would facilitate a new start for the genuinely repentant. In any case, I’m not sure anyone has really worked out a promising solution for the long-term dilemmas about how ex-fighters can lead successful lives – or what compensation the affected communities deserve (a lot) and what they might realistically get (probably much less than what they deserve).


Comments on the CNESS Study on Youth Radicalization in Niger

In June of this year, Niger’s Centre National d’Études Stratégiques et du Sécurité (National Center for Strategic Studies and Security, CNESS) released a study on youth radicalization. (See also this article from Sahelien).

On reading the study, one immediately confronts two things: (1) it is based on some really impressive and expansive research and (2) it is quite explicitly stamped as a product bearing the approval of the Nigerien government, European governments, and the National Democratic Institute. One can admire the report’s occasional frankness about corruption and other governance issues, but one can also question how independent the analysis was.

Regarding the quality of the research, as Sahelien lays out, the report is based on 2,376 interviews with youth and 25 focus groups involving a total of 250 leaders and key informants. The report covers five regions of Niger (Diffa, Niamey, Tahoua, Tillabery, and Zinder) and a variety of different settings: cities, villages, universities, prisons. One critical finding from the report is that urban youth actually appear less susceptible to radicalization than rural youth – a finding that parallels a growing literature on rural jihadism in the Sahel.

But regarding the question of analytical independence, right from the forward one can see the intersection of official voices and perspectives in framing the report: CNESS is a government center, headed by a brigadier general, Ibra Boulama Issa, who thanks Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou in the forward. Issa also acknowledges funding from the governments of Norway and Denmark, routed through the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based NGO that receives considerable U.S. government funding.

None of this is problematic per se, except that one should note how smoothly the report fits into existing narratives about youth radicalization in the Sahel or the Muslim world writ large. The categories used, the categories that shape the analysis, are drawn heavily from the kinds of liberal-technocratic frameworks that lie at the heart of most “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. To me, the basic problem with such frameworks is that they depoliticize jihadism and treat it as a kind of epidemic that just needs to be diagnosed and cured with apolitical remedies. CVE also approaches religion in terms of, as G. Willow Wilson recently and eloquently put it, “social engineering strategies.” But these strategies often target wide swaths of people who have not engaged in violence. It’s also a bit disturbing to think about how the Sahel – some of the poorest countries in the world – has become a kind of laboratory for CVE, with processes managed from Washington through the medium of local states and their technocrats.

To hear Sahelian voices speaking the language of CVE no longer surprises me; at one meeting on youth and radicalization in Nouakchott in fall 2017, for example, I was struck by how closely the conversation resembled meetings I had attended in Washington. Virtually the only differences were the nationalities of the participants and the fact that the meeting was conducted in French instead of English.

This report, too, reads like a standard-issue Washington think tank report on CVE. On p. 6, for example, a table shows four “vulnerability factors” affecting non-university youth: ignorance/misunderstanding of the laws of the republic, ignorance/misunderstanding of the Qur’an, unemployment, and illiteracy. The text then adds two more “push factors,” to use a loose translation: feelings of injustice and feelings that public resources are badly governed/managed.

Then we find hard numbers attached to these categories. 93%-96% of youth in rural areas who have studied the Qur’an, we learn, misunderstand it, while 95% misunderstand or are ignorant of the laws of the republic. But what do these numbers mean?

It’s hard to tell, in part because the report uses categories in a vague and problematic way.  The definitions given on pp. 12-13, especially for “radicalization” and “violent extremism,” rest on the idea that radicalization involves breaking with majority societal viewpoints on key questions, and that violent extremism entails using violence “to defend political, ideological, religious, ethnocentric, or racist ideas that are very far from what the majority of people judge to be correct.” This vagueness is misleading, in that the report is essentially about jihadism rather than about, say, racism.

The vagueness also represents a step back from the USAID-funded Overseas Development Institute study of radicalization in Agadez from 2017, where the authors rightly called attention (p. 6) to a few crucial points, namely:

  • authorities and civil society actors had no consensus on what radicalization or violent extremism meant, and some (if I’m reading the report right) were just as concerned about arms trafficking, drug trafficking, and money laundering as they were about jihadism, and
  • many interviewees favored the imposition of sharia (as they defined it, of course) and viewed democracy as easily corruptible, and these interviewees’ views were in line with available survey results about the overall preferences of Nigeriens regarding sharia.

To go back to the CNESS study then, and to engage in a bit of reductio ad absurdem, would a violent extremist in the context of Niger, according to their definition of radicalization as ideas that go against majority views, be someone ready to use violence in the service of secularism?

My real concern is not with the definitions, but rather with the way that these definitions and the overall language of the report – and many other similar products – seem to frame large numbers of people’s views as inherently dangerous and problematic regardless of whether people have engaged in, or are likely to engage in, violence. There is an analytical problem here in that jihadist violence, from everything I have read and observed, seems to grow out of specific and combustible situations rather than out of generic and widespread vulnerabilities and push factors.

And if there is an analytical problem, then there is also a policy problem, in that the consumers of the report risk casting too wide a net when attempting to deradicalize people. More specifically, they risk demonizing and harassing people who have not and likely will not commit violence. These concerns are not just mine – they also seem to have been shared by some of the communities the research team approached, especially in rural areas, where the researchers note that they encountered significant reluctance among those they hoped to interview (pp. 19-20).

What, then, are the real policy implications of such reports – and of worldviews that see wide swaths of Sahelian populations (or, let’s be honest, Muslim populations generally) as needing reform? The report’s recommendations (starting on p. 96) have mix of policies that I think are good ideas (most of which boil down to public sector employment programs for youth, especially rural youth) and policies that I think are questionable. On the latter side are some of the recommendations on p. 98, which envision enlisting religious leaders (“marabouts”) to teach youth about how to interpret the Qur’an and conceive of citizenship, tolerance, etc. This is perhaps innocuous, but I am concerned about the conceptual logics underpinning this proposal – the idea that youth come to jihadism through certain Qur’anic verses, rather than through, again, specific circumstances. In short, promoting public sector employment is good, but social engineering (especially at this crude level of generalization) is problematic. Moreover, I find this type of thinking (“let’s get the marabouts to teach the youth how to understand the Qur’an!”) reflects larger, and equally problematic assumptions about how conflict-torn societies work – namely, the assumption that there are untapped religious leaders, “customary authorities,” and “tribal leaders” waiting in the wings to solve all of the problems, if only someone would listen to them.





Comment on the NYT Article on Post-Tongo Tongo Reprimands

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a report on the American military’s internal investigation and accountability efforts following the ambush of American soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger in October 2017. Commentators, and the NYT itself, have rightly called attention to the ways the punishments reflect hierarchy and protect senior officers:

To me, though, there is another criticism to make. The reprimands handed down all related to technical issues: training, approvals, oversight, etc. The implication becomes that had these technical issues been handled better, such disasters would not occur.

Maybe that’s true. But it seems to me that the problem is not just technical but political and conceptual. Why should villagers near the Niger-Mali border, under regular pressure from nearby jihadists and other militias and connected through social ties to some of the jihadists themselves, welcome intermittent government and foreign patrols with open arms and share vital intelligence with them? Why should American soldiers assume that conceptual frameworks focused on transnational jihadism will help them understand hyper-local complexities? Do – and here I am guessing a bit, although I would call it an educated guess – hackneyed and simplistic trainings about “local culture” truly prepare soldiers to win over local populations and move safely through their territory? Has the military really prioritized language training – what was the level of French proficiency of the American soldiers on this patrol, let alone their proficiency in Fulfulde or other languages that would have been crucial to their understanding of the environment they were in? How blunt are American military strategies with themselves and with the government of Niger about the fact that these two governments’ interests do not completely align, no matter how much good will there may be between them? How well do American soldiers understand villagers’ feelings toward the Nigerien state? To me, as an outside observer, it seems that the military has not grappled fully with these questions, preferring to use models transplanted from Afghanistan and Iraq (or, one might say, a semi-imagined Afghanistan and a semi-imagined Iraq) to the Sahel and other parts of Africa. All the intelligence, training, and oversight in the world might help prevent bad decisions and thus might have prevented this Tongo Tongo debacle, but technical fixes do not remove political problems. American soldiers operating in environments they do not seriously understand, on missions that blur the line between peace and war to the point where intentions become ambiguous to all involved, are at inherent risk of fatal miscalculation.



A Ministerial Security Meeting in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On 16 October, ministers from Benin, Togo, Niger, and Burkina Faso met in Ouagadougou to discuss security issues and cross-border cooperation. In public remarks, attendees stressed the inter-connectedness of their sub-region and the desire for greater collaboration between police, gendarmes, and soldiers. The ministers also met Burkina’s President Roch Kaboré.

Clearly, then, the violence in Burkina Faso’s east has its neighbors worried.

These four countries are already part of different political, economic, and security organizations. All of them are members of the Economic Community of West African States. Niger and Burkina Faso are members of the G5 Sahel, which has its own Joint Force. Those two countries re also members of the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Niger and Benin are both members of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (to counter Boko Haram), although Benin is a minor member. There is not, to my knowledge, a formal common framework for these four countries. Perhaps we will see one emerge. [Update: On Twitter, Nicolas Desgrais points out that there is an  intelligence and counter-criminality framework, ratified in April of this year, that groups together these four countries and Cote d’Ivoire.]

I am, in general, a skeptic about the efficacy and prospects of regional approaches to counterterrorism. The MNJTF, I think, has been less integrated than advertised, and the G5 Joint Force has gotten off to a slow and problematic start. With that said, though, more cooperation is obviously better than less. We’ll see where this goes.

Notes on the Outcome Statement of the Lake Chad Conference in Berlin

On 3-4 September, the governments of Germany, Nigeria, and Norway, together with the United Nations, hosted a “High-Level Conference on the Lake Chad Region.” The primary aim of the conference was to close the funding shortfall for humanitarian operations in the region affected by Boko Haram – namely, northeastern Nigeria, southeastern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, the islands of Lake Chad, as well as some parts of western Chad. The conference generated some $2.17 billion in pledges, more than the organizers had hoped.

This post offers a few notes on the outcome statement, but first, here is the program, which is also worth a glance. The panel I would have most liked to see was on the afternoon of 3 September, and entitled “Regional cross-border cooperation: Interventions of the Lake Chad Basin Commission and Governors from the region.” The speakers were Mamman Nuhu, Executive Secretary, Lake Chad Basin Commission; Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno State, Nigeria; Abali Salah Mahamat, Governor of Lac Chad Province, Chad; Midjiyawa Bakary, Governor of the Extreme North Region, Cameroon; and Mahamadou Bakabe, Governor of Diffa, Niger.

Turning to the outcome statement, a lot of the language is pretty banal and predictable. So here I’m only highlighting points that struck me as unusually substantive or noteworthy:

  • It is worth reading the statement in conjunction with UN Security Council Resolution 2349 (2017), which is referenced on p. 1. That resolution, among other matters, “Calls upon relevant United Nations entities, including UNOCA, UNOWAS, and the United Nations Office to the African Union (UNOAU) to redouble their support for Governments in the Region, as well as sub-regional and regional organizations, to address the impact of Boko Haram and ISIL violence on the peace and stability of the Region, including by addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, and violent extremism that can be conducive to terrorism, in line with the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, and to conduct and gather gender-sensitive research and data collection on the drivers of radicalization for women, and the impacts of counter-terrorism strategies on women’s human rights and women’s organizations, in order to develop targeted and evidence-based policy and programming responses” (p. 4).
  • Laudably, the statement repeatedly emphasizes the need for programming that specifically addresses the needs of women and girls.
  • In the three main pages of the Outcome Statement’s text, the word “resilience” appears eight times and seems to me to have been the buzzword of the conference (as it is in various other development and humanitarian settings these days). Here is some sample language: “Strengthening resilience for sustainable development is essential for reducing vulnerabilities in the long term and efforts are already under way. We highlighted the leadership of governments in the region and the centrality of resilience-building measures at all levels.” Honestly, I have troubling telling what this means concretely. There is a section on p. 3 that clarifies things a bit: “Resilience means going beyond simply restoring the status quo ante, which contributed to giving rise to the crisis: it means building a better standard of living than before. There is an urgent need for governments and partners to continue to scale up efforts for transformational change.” But the language is so vague, even here, that I don’t quite know what the authors meant. I understand “resilience” as the capacity to withstand and even thrive amid setbacks; I suppose the real subtext here is that the donors are worried about either a real worsening of the conflict, or a future conflict, and so “resilience” becomes a code word for saying that governments need to prevent something like this from happening again.
  • Here is some more language that I found odd, from p. 2: “The conference highlighted that stabilization in the Lake Chad region is understood as supporting political processes on the ground and supporting security efforts in order to reduce violence. Stabilization seeks to enable first steps towards reconciliation between parties to the conflict and to establish social and political consensus as a foundation for legitimate political structures and long-term development. The conference underlined the importance of joint efforts to prevent further outbreaks of violent conflict and an escalation of conflicts into crises. The conference further underscored that supporting political processes to develop a common regional approach on stabilization is pivotal. The conference welcomed the establishment of the Governors’ Forum in Maiduguri in May 2018 as an important tool for cross-border cooperation. In this regard, we welcomed enhanced cooperation by the Governors of the riparian provinces and states and the consultation processes which increased civil society participation at the local level, especially of traditional and religious leaders, youth and women movements, and community health workers.” One could read “political processes” here as referring to the possibility of negotiations with Boko Haram (“reconciliation between parties to the conflict”), but one could also read it as coordination between different governments and different levels of government (“a common regional approach on stabilization”). Perhaps both senses are meant or implied.
  • The notes of criticism toward the Lake Chad governments are subtle, but they are there. From p. 3: “The conference stressed that reforms are needed to pursue more effective decentralization, and reach greater geographical equity in the allocation of public resources based on national realities. This would help building the capacity of public institutions to deliver key public services and serve their citizens to build resilience.” And from p. 2: “The conference called upon all parties to uphold their obligation to allow and facilitate timely and unhindered passage of impartial humanitarian relief for civilians in need. We expressed concern about the dangers faced by aid workers and reminded all parties that humanitarian personnel and assets must be respected and protected.” I’m sure the text of the statement was carefully negotiated, but reading between the lines suggests – to me, at least – that donors are concerned about how hierarchy, corruption, and authoritarianism are impeding humanitarian responses.
  • p. 4 of the statement breaks down the pledges made.

Three Recent Items on Niger, the Western Security Presence, and Domestic Dissent

Here are three items on Niger, from July and August, that caught my eye:

  • On 19 July, five U.S. Senators sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing concern about Niger’s arrests of civil society activists. Two key lines from the letter: “It is vital that Niger’s leaders do not interpret our counterterrorism cooperation as license for shirking their responsibilities for good governance…We urge the State Department to speak out in support of civil society leaders jailed for exercising their freedom of expression, association, and assembly.” The signatories are Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Michael Bennet (D-CO). The group visited Niger in April of this year, on a trip that also included stops in Burkina Faso, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
  • At the Guardian, Ruth Maclean and Omar Hama Saley write about Niger’s “suppression of dissent.” Here is one key passage: “Niger is one of the most militarised countries in Africa. The government spends 21% of its small budget on defence, which means there is much less to spend on things like health and education. Hence the need for higher taxes, which the government says do not affect the poor but which have nevertheless sparked fierce opposition. Civil society leaders and rights groups say protests against this and any controversial government policies have been ‘almost systematically denied’, while pro-government marches are allowed. Detained civil society leaders have been spread out in jails across the country, meaning their families struggle to visit and feed them; several were convicted of instigating an unarmed, banned gathering last month, and released having already served their time.”
  • At the Intercept, Nick Turse writes that the projected costs of the U.S. drone facility in Agadez are rising: “The outpost — officially a new airfield and associated facilities at Nigerien Air Base 201, or AB 201 — was once billed as a $50 million base dedicated to surveillance drones, and it was to be completed in 2016.  Now, it’s slated to be a $100 million base for armed MQ-9 Reaper drones which will finally take flight in 2019, though the construction cost is hardly the end of the tab for the facility.” The costs, notably, are not just financial but also political.

The authoritarian trendline is worrying – it’s hard to summarize Niger’s political history since 1991, but “civilian authoritarianism” seems to now be a recurring theme. Meanwhile, I’m glad to see journalists continuing to assess the multi-faceted effects of the drone base on civilians in the north; I don’t want to excerpt too much from Turse Maclean and Saley, but there’s a striking paragraph in there with quotations from a man who had barely heard of the United States. The pace of social change and globalization everyone now is rapid, but this base project seems to be accelerating that pace to an even faster clip in one of the most remote parts of the world. That’s going to generate unpredictable effects (and here I’m not talking of violence, actually, but more of chaotic social change). In any case, all of these documents are worth reading in full.

Armed Drones in Niger Wouldn’t Be My Recommendation


The United States started arming drones in the West African nation of Niger earlier this year, according to the U.S. Africa Command.

“In coordination with the Government of Niger, U.S. Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger to improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region. Armed ISR aircraft began flying in early 2018,” Samantha Reho, spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press.

The armed drones are currently deployed to Niger’s Air Base 101 in Niamey. The effort was supported by Niger, and is part of the long-term strategic partnership between the U.S. and Niger to help counter violent extremists in the region, she said.

As a matter of operational security, Reho said she could not discuss whether strikes have already been carried out by the armed drones.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I do not favor the use of armed drones or policies of assassination in the Sahel (or anywhere, really). I understand the main argument for their use, I think – namely, the idea that killing key bad guys will make a bad situation less bad. But evidence from elsewhere seems to suggest that things often don’t go that way. For example, much has been written in a critical vein about the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen. To take one critic’s comments, here is Jillian Schwedler, from 2015, discussing Yemen:

I would like to focus on different metric: the longer-term impact of the drone strikes on the legitimacy and attractiveness of al-Qaida’s message in Yemen and its ability to recruit among Yemenis themselves. Drone strikes are widely reported in local media and online and are a regular topic of discussion at weekly qat chewing sessions across the country. Cell phone calls spike after drone strikes, which are also widely reported on Twitter and Facebook. The strikes are wildly unpopular, with attitudes toward the United States increasingly negative. An Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S. involvement in the region justified attacks on Americans everywhere.


The dual effect of U.S. acceleration in drone strikes since 2010 and of their continued use during the “transitional” period that was intended to usher in more accountable governance has shown Yemenis how consistently their leaders will cede sovereignty and citizens’ security to the United States. While Yemenis may recognize that AQAP does target the United States, the hundreds of drone strikes are viewed as an excessive response. The weak sovereignty of the Yemeni state is then treated as the “problem” that has allowed AQAP to expand, even as state sovereignty has been directly undermined by U.S. policy – both under President Ali Abdullah Salih and during the transition. American “security” is placed above Yemeni security, with Yemeni sovereignty violated repeatedly in service of that cause. Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks – most of them failed – against U.S. targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar set of interactions playing out in the Sahel – strikes that feed both anti-Americanism and contempt/mistrust for national states that willingly cede their already limited sovereignty.

I also question whether it’s really worth it to kill the top guys, especially the smart ones. Is it better to have a smart enemy, or a dumb one? It might seem intuitive that it’s better to fight a dumb guy, but dumb guys can be vicious and impetuous and if they sometimes act against their own long-term interests, their vicious and short-sighted moves can nevertheless make everything worse for everyone, including you. Then, too, dumb guys can be hard to talk to when it eventually comes time for jaw-jaw instead of war-war. Dumb guys also sometimes have a harder time holding coalitions together, so maybe that means when the dumb guy takes over from the smart guy, before too long you’re dealing not just with one smart guy but with the new dumb guy and with a couple of other guys (smart and dumb!) who didn’t want to take orders from the new dumb guy. Does that make your life better or worse? Or maybe you never get the top guy, because his whole life now turns into hiding from you and bragging about how you can’t get him, so now you content yourself with killing second-tier figures, but somehow guys keep signing up for that role. And then all of a sudden you’re killing quite a few people, and you make mistakes and kill a lot of civilians, and then you find yourself in something like the situation that Schwedler describes above, with broad swaths of the civilian population turning against both you and your “partner” governments.

So my two cents is, don’t start the cycle in the Sahel. And if you’ve started, stop it now.