Recent Journalism on Boko Haram

A few recent journalists’ articles on Boko Haram caught my eye, and probably those of many readers as well. But in case you missed them, here they are.

Sarah Topol, “The Boys from Baga,” New York Times Magazine. An excerpt:

The rhythm of camp life enveloped the new abductees. Activity was concentrated around the palace, everyone working to fortify the heart of the base against the Nigerian military, which periodically probed their defenses, trying to retake Malam Fatori. Boko Haram had declared itself a caliphate and pledged its alliance to ISIS. A tug of war for the arid earth had ensued. Every morning, the deputy emirs, whose units lived in the surrounding villages to protect the center, would come to greet the babban emir, entering his building for a private audience. Directives from Shekau may have been conveyed by satellite phone. There was coordination with the other babban emirs as well, but the boys of Malam Fatori never interacted with neighboring fiefs. Though Boko Haram was hierarchal, it was also fragmented, each division preoccupied with ensuring its own survival.

In the morning, groups set out on patrol in their trucks, checking the areas around Malam Fatori for traces of movement overnight — new tire prints, footsteps or animal tracks. Mustapha would quietly accompany the insurgents on patrol. He wanted to see how everything worked. Throughout the day, women who had been captured from nearby towns cooked food, which the insurgents ate from communal troughs. At night, the boys could sleep in any room in the palace compound, so long as it wasn’t in a room where women were kept. They barely prayed, and no one knew what day it was — only Fridays stood out, because on that day, they were fed rice with meat stew.

Le Monde‘s Joan Tilouine is releasing a five-part series (in French) of reporting from Maiduguri. Here are links for parts one, two, three, and four. I found the first part, about life in Maiduguri, the most interesting. Unfortunately, these reports are paywalled.

Libyan National Army Slowly Conquering Benghazi

Back in January, I wrote about the Libyan National Army (LNA)’s slow territorial conquest of Benghazi. The LNA is the military force commanded by Khalifa Haftar, an ex-Qadhafi general turned eastern Libyan warlord (and recently profiled by Mattia Toaldo here). As of January, two main neighborhoods in Benghazi remained outside the LNA’s control: Suq al-Hout and Sabiri/Sabri.

Over the weekend, the LNA took much of Suq al-Hout. The slow speed of the advance is partly due to the numerous land mines (Arabic) and improvised explosive devices in the remaining neighborhoods. The LNA has launched numerous airstrikes targeting both Suq al-Hout and al-Sabiri (Arabic).

Haftar’s military enemies in eastern Libya appear to be weakening. Inside Benghazi, jihadist groups like the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council are losing territory and fighters. Meanwhile, as Reuters notes, the anti-Haftar Companies for Defending Benghazi/Benghazi Defense Brigades, a force based outside Benghazi, are now stating their willingness to “disband and be integrated into national security forces.” Al Jazeera (Arabic) adds that the Companies are accusing France and the United Arab Emirates of pressuring the United States government to declare the Companies a foreign terrorist organization, i.e. to blacklist them. (I’ve explained, here, why I think it’s simplistic to consider the Companies a part of al-Qaida.)

With the Companies unable to mount a successful offensive against the LNA in Benghazi and with the LNA slowly expanding its control of the city, Haftar’s position there – and in eastern Libya generally – is looking stronger and stronger.

Mali’s Delayed Referendum: A Victory for the Opposition?

About two weeks ago I wrote about Mali’s constitutional referendum, which was originally scheduled for July 9. The referendum, backed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, would expand presidential powers and create a Senate.

At a cabinet meeting on June 21, however, Keita’s government postponed the referendum to a date as yet undetermined. (A video summary of the cabinet’s decisions can be found here, with reference to the postponement around the 2:00 mark.)

The government gave no reasons for the delay, but some Malian observers (French) are calling the postponement a “victory for the opposition” – an opposition that opposes not just Keita but also the referendum. Worth noting is that pushback against the referendum came not just from Keita’s enemies but also from some of his allies, including three parties (French) that asked for a delay and a rethinking of the proposed changes. These parties are l’Alliance pour la démocratie au Mali (The Alliance for Democracy in Mali, Adema), le Congrès national d’initiative démocratique (The National Congress of Democratic Initiative, Cnid), and le Yelema (meaning “change” in Bambara, a widely spoken language in Mali). The referendum had also evoked street demonstrations and a significant civil society mobilization.

Faced with all that, IBK may have begun to fear that his side might lose the referendum or that it would too close to risk going forward. It seems now that the proposed text will be reworked so as to garner broader support – or, more drastically, perhaps it will be shelved altogether.

It’s also possible that the June 18 attack outside the capital Bamako played a role in the government’s decision. With renewed international focus on insecurity throughout much of the country, and with renewed questions about whether it is even possible to hold a fair referendum under current security conditions, it makes sense to postpone the vote.

My Latest Journal Article: “Salafis and the Prophet’s Sermon of Necessity”

The Islamic studies journal Die Welt des Islams has published my latest academic article, entitled “Coded Language Among Muslim Activists: Salafis and the Prophet’s Sermon of Necessity.” The abstract is available here; the full article is paywalled. The article deals with a short text called the Sermon of Necessity that Salafis around the world use to introduce their lectures, sermons, and books. The text’s widespread use speaks to the enduring influence of Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999), one of the luminaries of contemporary Salafism. Al-Albani popularized the Sermon of Necessity starting in the 1950s. One interesting thing about the Sermon’s use is that even though al-Albani is widely classified as a “quietist” by Western scholars, today one can find the Sermon being used by both jihadi and non-jihadi Salafis. That makes it a kind of unifying tool for Salafis, despite their many internal political divisions. That also makes it a useful tool for scholars, including in the ongoing effort to decide when Salafism really became a cohesive movement.

In a way, the article is an outgrowth of my book Salafism in Nigeria; I first got interested in the Sermon of Necessity after I noticed many Nigerian preachers using it. The article, however, only deals with Nigeria briefly and is more focused on developments in the Arab world.

If you are able to access the article, I welcome any feedback you may have.

Three Recent, Compelling Pieces on Mali

Recently I’ve read three new pieces on Mali, all of which were very strong and which readers may find of interest:

  • Arthur Boutellis and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, “A Process in Search of Peace: Lessons from the Inter-Malian Agreement,” for International Peace Institute;
  • Ferdaous Bouhlel, Yvan Guichaoua and Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, “The stoning that didn’t happen, and why it matters,” for African Arguments; and
  • Niagalé Bagayoko, Boubacar Ba, Boukary Sangaré, and Kalilou Sidibé, “Masters of the land: Competing customary and legal systems for resource management in the conflicting environment of the Mopti region, Central Mali” for The Broker.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Stoning That Didn’t Happen”:

The episode stresses how complicated it is to gather information about northern Mali. AFP and RFI work from Bamako and Paris, respectively 1,500 km and 4,500 km away from the town of Kidal, where the reported events unfolded. Researchers operate from similar distances for the same security reasons.

The consequence of this is that journalists and researchers rely on indirect sources of information that are far from perfect and then do their best to triangulate them. It can often be difficult to tell whether two accounts are distinct or if they derive from the same source of information, since the same story can circulate through networks under multiple guises.

[…]

The timing of the stoning story is also important. It came as some civil society activists and politicians were calling for negotiations with Islamist leaders – calls that were abruptly rejected by authorities. It also immediately preceded French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Mali in which he met with French troops and re-affirmed France’s pledge to fight terrorism.

And here’s an excerpt from “Masters of the Land”:

Customary institutions are still highly relevant – and legitimate – in Central Mali today. Local communities often find it hard to grasp the role of the government in resource management. Decentralization provided a national framework for resource management in Mali by establishing regions, cercles, and communes as units of local government. Governance units are entitled to manage their own natural resources, while electing assemblies or councils to manage these collectively. This decentralization process, which was accompanied by the adoption of a number of new laws for resource management, has deeply affected agro-pastoral management principles.

This overlap and competition between customary and legal institutions (and laws) for the management of resources often triggers tensions between communities and networks involved in farming, livestock breeding and fisheries, fuelling century-old conflicts between the different communities in the Mopti region. Furthermore, the priority given by most development programmes to agriculture-oriented policies, at the expense of pastoralism, has triggered intra- and inter-communal tension, resulting in the emergence of new power relations within communities involved in resource exploitation. This is especially the case within the Fulani community, where domination between pastoral and farming populations has changed since the colonial period due to the enforced settlement imposed on nomadic populations. These upheavals have upset historical balances.

“Masters of the Land” provides an important corrective to the alarmist narrative of “Fulani radicalization” that various irresponsible people are pushing. True, the piece points to a trend where Fulani pastoralists join jihadist groups in order to gain weapons with which to fight local rivals, as well as a trend where some Fulanis are nostalgic for past Islamic empires, but the piece also shows that central Mali has witnessed a growth in (non-jihadist) “politico-military militia” and “self-defence groups.” The authors note, “These groups are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other and their followers do not fit neatly into one sociological category.” The authors conclude, “The complexity of the recurrent and violent crises, as well as the overlapping and competing customary and legal institutions involved in the management of resources, calls for security and development activities to be better grounded on the socio-cultural context in Central Mali.” Endorsing a shallow, region-wide narrative of “Fulani radicalization” would undermine, rather than advance, such an effort to better ground security and development activities.

Nigeria’s First Sukuk

This month, the Nigerian government will issue a $328 million (100 billion naira) sukuk, a kind of sharia-compliant bond that avoids Islamic prohibitions on interests. The government will use the bond “to help fund road projects.” As the Financial Times explains,

Sukuk represents undivided shares in the ownership of tangible assets relating to particular projects or special investment activity. A sukuk investor has a common share in the ownership of the assets linked to the investment although this does not represent a debt owed to the issuer of the bond.

In the case of conventional bonds the issuer has a contractual obligation to pay to bond holders, on certain specified dates, interest and principal. In contrast, under a sukuk structure the sukuk holders each hold an undivided beneficial ownership in the underlying assets.

Consequently, sukuk holders are entitled to a share in the revenues generated by the Sukuk assets. The sale of sukuk relates to the sale of a proportionate share in the assets.

Reuters reports on how the bond will work in Nigeria:

The Islamic bond with a 7-year tenor will go on sale on June 28 for three days via book building, the [Debt Management Office, DMO] said. The bond will be tradable on the Nigerian Stock Exchange and on FMDQ over-the-counter platform.

[…]

The DMO said the issue was “part of the plan to fast track the development of infrastructure and engage in … project-tied capital raising.” It said Nigeria has challenges with road, railway and power infrastructures.

In 2013, Nigeria’s Osun State issued 10 billion naira worth of sukuk, but no other sukuk transaction followed.

The latest issuance is part of plans to develop alternative funding sources for government and to establish a benchmark curve for corporates to follow, the debt office said.

If you’re financially illiterate like me, you can learn about “book building” here.

Worth noting is that the DMO is experimenting with other types of new bonds, such as the recently issued diaspora bond. The sukuk is part of the DMO’s 2013-2017 Strategic Plan (p. 21), which mentions the goal of using “non-interest debt financing instruments (e.g. Sukuk) for investment in critical national development priorities and sectors.”

The Nigerian press is predicting that the sukuk will do well, given the past experience in Nigeria’s Osun State and given global trends. Here is This Day:

The likely success of the N100 billion Sukuk may not be an issue considering the huge booming international market for the product. Besides, Osun State, which issued N10 billion Sukuk in 2013 had a successful outing as it was 120 per cent subscribed…Currently, Sukuk issuances across the globe stand at about $120 billion, up from just $15 billion in 2008…By the end of 2015, total assets under management in the global Islamic finance industry surpassed $2.5 trillion as more and more investors continue allocating their funds to Shariah compliant instruments across the globe. There is therefore a huge, unmet demand for Sukuk issuances from high-potential economies like Nigeria, especially in view of the fact that similar issues by peer countries were oversubscribed.

Islamic finance has a relatively short history in Nigeria. The country’s first Islamic/non-interest bank, Jaiz, opened in 2012. So Nigeria is an experimental phase with regard to instruments like the sukuk. It will be interesting to see how the sukuk does, and what reactions it elicits from different religious communities in Nigeria.

 

Mali: A Few Details on the June 18 Attack on the Kangaba Resort

On Sunday, June 18, an estimated nine gunmen attacked the Kangaba tourist resort in Dougourakoro, which is east of Mali’s capital Bamako (map). The resort is popular with expatriates. According to Reuters, four of the attackers were killed, five were arrested, and at least five guests at the resort were killed (“a French-Malian, a French-Gabonese, a Chinese, a Portuguese and a Malian soldier”). The attack ended when Malian, French, and United Nations forces mounted a hostage rescue – and in contrast to previous incidents, this time there was praise from various quarters for the speedy response by authorities. (Read more on the response here, in French.)

A claim of responsibility (Arabic) soon came from Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). JNIM, an umbrella group for Malian and Saharan jihadists, formed in March of this year. It is part of al-Qaida’s northwest African affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. JNIM’s statement emphasizes the idea that the attack targeted “the Crusaders occupying our homes and violating our security and our identity.” JNIM added that the attack was meant “to announce…once again to the Crusaders that there is no safety for them on our land.” Not much subtlety there: JNIM wants to weaken the will of Western expatriates to live in Mali, work with the Malian government, train Mali’s armed forces, etc. The attack is in keeping with the strategy laid out this spring by JNIM’s leader Iyad Ag Ghali, who hopes in part “to exhaust the enemy by targeting him in every place in which he is present.”

Several analysts have also pointed out that JNIM identified three of its fighters and explicitly identified them as part of the Fulani/Peul, a widespread ethnic group in the Sahel. One key component of JNIM is the central Malian jihadist group the Macina Liberation Front, which is Fulani-led and heavily Fulani in composition. (Read some background on central Malian jihadism here.) The statement’s ethnic emphasis also hearkens backs to Ag Ghali’s articulated strategy, where he speaks of the necessity of building popular support.

Finally, in related news, the United Nations Security Council is expected to approve the deployment of a “G-5” (Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania) counter-terrorism force in the Sahel. The United States and France have reached an agreement that softened the original text of the resolution as proposed by France.