The Islamic State in Libya and Sahelian Recruitment

In late May, the Islamic State’s Wilayat Tarabulus (Tripolitania Province, i.e. northwestern Libya) released a video aimed at recruiting West African Muslims. Entitled “From Humiliation to Glory,” the video’s core argument is that Muslims will face damnation if they do not journey to what the Islamic State considers the land of true Islam.

The titular “humiliation” refers to the idea that West African Muslims live in societies marked by unbelief – societies where Islam has been stripped of “jihad, shari’a, and the Caliphate.” The opening sequence of the video shows pictures of Muslim heads of state like Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, and Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, and denounces these rulers as puppets of “Crusaders” (i.e., the West – Jammeh, for example, is shown standing next to U.S. President Barack Obama). Western African Muslims, the video argues, should leave the land of de facto unbelief for the Islamic State’s territory in Libya, depicted as a land of both military glory and material prosperity and security.

Scripturally, this argument rests on verses such as Qur’an 9:38-39 – verses that the Islamic State reads, without applying any historical context, as speaking directly to West African Muslim today. The video repeatedly invokes the idea of punishment in Hell for allegedly lax Muslims.

The bulk of the video features five West African speakers – a Malian, a Nigerian, a Ghanaian, a Senegalese, and an English-speaking “immigrant” with no identified nationality. The video makes liberal use of West African languages: Hausa from the Nigerian and Wolof from the Senegalese, and two other languages I can’t identify (readers, feel free to comment if you can identify these languages). The Nigerian and the Ghanaian also speak in English. Interestingly, the video makes little use of French.

Will the video be effective at recruitment? Perhaps, in the hands of the right recruiter and the right combination of circumstances and social networks. The video is slickly produced, and the young speakers seem charming, calm, and dedicated. Perhaps some young men (and women) could be lured by the religious argument, the overall vibe, the appeal of participating in a revolutionary lifestyle, and/or the negative characterization of leaders like Issoufou and Jammeh. Certainly there is some discontent in West Africa with such leaders, especially with an autocrat such as Jammeh, and there is also some discontent with secularism itself.

At the same time, however, the video’s argument about damnation will not be new to many listeners. There are many Muslim clerics across West Africa working hard to rebut that argument, and to insist that conducting moral reform at home is better than fighting for a dubious cause abroad. Moreover, the levels of political discontent and identity crisis also seem to be far lower in much of West Africa than in, say, Tunisia, which has supplied a strikingly high number of fighters for the Islamic State.

In a way, it was most jarring to see the Senegalese speaker. I’ve grown a bit cynical about Senegalese exceptionalism – the idea that Senegal’s history, religious landscape, and/or national character make it immune to “extremism” – but I’m not immune to the pull of that notion. Seeing a Wolof speaker promoting the Islamic State seemed bizarre. (Even though I should have been prepared for it; there have already been reports of isolated Senegalese heading to Libya.)

Will facts on the ground undermine the video’s appeal? Quite possibly. Presumably any aspiring jihadist in West Africa, especially one with access to radio or television, would conclude that now is a bad time to head to the Libyan city of Sirte, which was until recently the Islamic State’s stronghold in Libya and is now under heavy attack by forces loyal to Libya’s unity government. The speakers in the video were keen to contradict “Western media” portrayals of Libya, but June’s events are making May’s propaganda seem far-fetched.

Implications for Boko Haram?

It is telling that the video made no reference to Boko Haram. The Nigerian speaker urges West African Muslims to come to Sirte – and not to Nigeria, or to other countries around Lake Chad. How should one interpret this silence? On the one hand, the video’s message provides more evidence of the mobility and adaptability of jihadists in the region; if Boko Haram’s fortunes flag in Nigeria, jihadists can shift their attention and their rhetoric to Libya. On the other hand, the video’s silence about Boko Haram suggests a kind of competition between the Islamic State’s Libyan and West African affiliates. If, as I suspect, there is a fairly limited pool of West African Muslims ready to participate in armed jihad far from their homes, then the competition becomes almost zero-sum: fighters cannot go to both Libya and Nigeria.

Interestingly, the video appeared as a debate is playing out in the media about Boko Haram and its relationship with the Islamic State. This debate seems to reflect an analytical disagreement within the United States government: we hear some U.S. officials saying that cooperation between Boko Haram and the Islamic State (especially its Libyan affiliate) is growing,  and others saying that “there is no meaningful connection between [the Islamic State] and Boko [Haram].” The tone and message of Tripolitania Province’s video gives support to the latter view. Although Boko Haram is a formal “province” of the Islam State, the leaders in Libya appear to writing Boko Haram off – to the extent that the video features a Nigerian asking Nigerians to come to Libya.

No doubt the terror-ologists will insist that this is all evidence of Boko Haram’s master plan to take over Africa, and/or that Boko Haram will cleverly regroup inside Libya before re-emerging later. I think that kind of perspective ignores how logistically difficult much of this kind of movement and fighting must be. For West Africans to cross the Sahara, find their way to whatever (southern?) Libyan holdout the Islamic State is groping for now, and then to spend months or possibly years on the run, has got to be an unpleasant and dangerous undertaking. Even the jihadists who have unusual tenacity and luck at the game of strike-and-run in northwest Africa, such as al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar, are (a) rare and (b) probably more often hiding and running than actively attacking or even plotting. How many West African Muslims are really going to sign up for that life? I don’t think Boko Haram should be written off (witness the recent attacks in southeastern Niger), but neither do I think that fears of African jihadist super-groups, or some kind of trans-Saharan empire connecting Libya to Nigeria, are well-founded.

The video, for all that it is slickly produced, could even be read as evincing a kind of desperation on the Islamic State’s part – which makes sense. For now, at least, the Islamic State in Libya seems to be on the decline. Attracting a small Libyan support base, an (admittedly sizable) contingent of Tunisians, and a (much smaller) number of sub-Saharan African fighters was enough to allow the Islamic State to cause severe disruption in Libya, but it was not enough to build an enduring political and territorial unit in the face of better-armed and better-funded competitors. If the Islamic State can regroup in southern Libya or elsewhere, perhaps the recruitment of West Africans will continue apace or even increase; but such a regrouping would presumably take months, and would inevitably run into the same problems the Islamic State faced in Sirte (and before that, Derna).

So it will be interesting to see how the Islamic State’s recruitment of West Africans fares now that Sirte seems to be falling. And it will also be consequential how West African governments respond to those fighters who do go, and then return; even if I am right and the flow is just a trickle, how that trickle is handled will matter a great deal (see Afghanistan, aftermath of).

On Doctrine, Politics, and Boko Haram

I’ve published a paper with the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, entitled “‘The Disease Is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview.” It deals with the Boko Haram crisis, which has caused untold damage in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding regions over the past six years and more. The paper’s title derives from a video where Boko Haram’s (deceased?) leader, Abubakar Shekau, responded to former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s denunciation of Boko Haram as a “cancer.”

The paper is the length of a journal article, so I won’t say too much to summarize it here. I do want to emphasize that it’s an attempt to take Boko Haram’s religious discourses seriously: not to excuse those messages or the violence, of course, but to try to understand them and even to give the group’s ideology *some* analytical weight in the quest for an explanation of the violence.

That latter proposition has proven controversial for some audiences and colleagues I’ve encountered. For some, the idea that armed groups might actually believe what they say they believe is anathema. Many analysts view jihadist leaders as either psychopaths or opportunists, and their followers as either dupes or victims. Certainly there is reason to feel that way, especially when there is evidence that leaders are hypocritical, power-hungry, etc, or that followers have been coerced. But people are not simple and it is possible that even if a leader is a hypocrite or an opportunist, it’s still worth paying attention to what he says, because it might give hints as to why a group behaves the way it does. Moreover, if jihadists were all mere opportunists or psychopaths, why would they develop such systematic and detailed ideologies?

So the paper tries to get at some of those questions. I doubt that it will convince those who believe material forces are the sole determinants of the violence. But if you’re interested, I go through various official statements from Boko Haram and discuss the remarkable consistency in their messages from circa 2008 (and probably before) to the present, and show that a core combination of religious exclusivism and perceived victimhood has underlain many of their other ideas, including their rejection of Western-style education.

If you do read the paper, I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and criticisms here. I will be continuing to work on this topic, and your feedback will help me refine my thinking and research.

Guest Post: An Account from Diffa, Niger about the War with Boko Haram

[The post below comes from Jochen Stahnke, a staff writer at the German national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He traveled to Diffa, Niger in May of this year to report on the fight against Boko Haram. He has graciously agreed to share some of his reflections here. – Alex]

The first corpse comes into view lying in the dust two hundred metres behind the closed border between Niger and Nigeria. It is the body of a Boko Haram fighter, probably middle aged, dressed in Islamic male robes. A couple of metres further into northeast Nigeria, the next corpse lies decomposing in the sand. I walk with Lieutenant Issoufou Umara, who is in command of Niger’s 50 gendarmerie troops positioned just behind the bridge that crosses the border river Koumadougou. The soldiers close to Diffa city are tasked with curbing Boko Haram’s influx into the neighbouring states that has already been going on for long time. The army of Nigeria has fled some 30 kilometres into the province of Borno, Umara tells me. His last battle against the Islamist sect here took place at the end of February. “In the night they hung their flag in the tree over there,” Umara explains. The battle raged for more than an hour. Umara’s soldiers claim to have killed 100 fighters. But they do not bury their enemies. “These people are not human beings,“ declares Umara.

The impact of the war is visible at every corner in Diffa city. As the immediate border is closed, there are fewer goods to trade in the marketplaces. This region of Niger, probably the poorest of an already poor country, has been the worst afflicted. Diffa used to import almost everything from the big neighbour to the south. But instead of traders, soldiers now roam the streets in their pickups, machine-guns or anti-aircraft cannons welded onto their flatbeds. The soldiers belong to the armies of two countries: Niger and Chad.

Chad has deployed two Mil-24 helicopter gunships, now stationed on the airstrip at Diffa airport. French special forces patrol the airport area. But neither they nor the roughly 50 Canadian and US special forces fight Boko Haram directly. Mostly they share reconnaissance and intelligence data, predominantly gained from three drones that are operated in the region. The French and North Americans occupy two separate camps right in the middle of the garrison of Niger’s army. Colonel Major Moussa Salaou Barmou, the zone commander for Diffa province, would prefer to receive more than reconnaissance support, military advice and “non-lethal“ support. Niger and Chad run a joint operations center in Diffa. But cooperation with Nigeria was difficult – at least when I visited Diffa in May, just before Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as new president of Nigeria. At that time, Nigeria only gave Niger permission to have a single liaison officer in Maiduguri. Joint operations did not take place, even though Boko Haram has no regard for national borders.

In Diffa, the sect recruits young men mainly among the poor Kanuri population. Most Boko Haram fighters are Kanuri, the major ethnicity in this region. Indeed, says regional commander Salaou, Boko Haram is “a Kanuri thing as well.“ But not exclusively. “Over there in northern Nigeria there were a lot of bandits and gangs that fought for politicians – in return for money they intimidated political opponents.“ Upon assuming power, these politicians forgot their fighters. “And now they demand their share,“ says commander Salaou.

A couple of kilometres outside of Diffa city at the Koumadougou river lies Bagara, a small Kanuri village, where 30 or more young men have joined Boko Haram. A couple of others are detained at Diffa prison. Many of them have waited months there without trial. People in Bagara say Boko Haram pays new recruits 300.000 Francs-CFA, plus a motorbike and the promise of a bride. Often, Boko Haram issues threats via mobile phone and coerces locals in Bagara into buying food and fuel for them in Diffa city. At this time of year, the Koumadougou river is only a couple of metres wide and easy to cross. The rainy season has not yet started.

The army of Niger operates two checkpoints at the entrance to and the exit from the town of Bagara. People here are as afraid of the army as they are of the sect. There is a mandatory curfew after 6:00 pm. Recently, authorities have also banned the wearing of full-face veils. Local religious authorities are caught in between. An Imam in Bagara tells me that the boys who joined Boko Haram, while they were not his students, had not previously studied extremist ideology or attended anything like a salafi madrassa. Since the army has been operating the area, the Imam has not left his village. “I am afraid of the soldiers,“ he says.

Niger hardly spares its own population from harsh treatment. Ever since the Nigerian army has finally started entering Sambisa Forest to battle Boko Haram, a big share of Boko Haram fighters has withdrawn towards Lake Chad – a largely ungoverned area with hundreds of small islands where the sect has already suppressed the local population and controls a large portion of the fishery trade. In order to fight Boko Haram at Lake Chad, Niger has ordered all residents to leave – anybody still encountered at Lake Chad is going to be considered Boko Haram. (Chad is said to have issued the same order just this weekend). But Niamey did not prepare for what evidently had to follow: A mass flight of tenth of thousands, largely towards Diffa. Diffa city has been flooded with IDPs. To determine who is Nigerien or Nigerian is largely an academic question. Almost no one here has ID or passport. At first Niger did not allow UNHCR to set up refugee camps due to the fear that IDP settlements might become permanent and that Boko Haram could use them as hiding and recruiting grounds. But even after UNHCR was finally permitted to set up camps in Diffa, they largely remain empty. Most of the refugees and IDPs find refuge with relatives or leave Niger for Maiduguri and other Nigerian cities.

In Niamey, Niger’s Interior Minister Hassoumi Massoudou, who is considered a hardliner and close ally of president Mahammadou Issoufou, explains to me: “Soon“ there will be aerial attacks at Lake Chad. Therefore, in his view, “evacuating“ the population was inevitable. But to win the war, he says, it is absolutely necessary that Nigeria “pushes“ from south to north to prevent Boko Haram from retreating in the other direction. But can Boko Haram be fought with only military force? Massoudou explains: “Boko Haram are not rebels. They are criminals. When they raid a village, they kill almost everybody, enslave the young girls, and steal what is of value. You cannot see any logic to this mob. If they want to occupy territory, they will need to set up some kind of administration, to convince the population. But they do not do any of that.“ According to Massoudou, at least a thousand members of Boko Haram are imprisoned in Niger alone. “Many of them are also citizens of Niger.“ Boko Haram’s influence has long been spilling over from Nigeria into its neighboring countries, and this trend is not likely to end anytime soon. In fact, the most terrible part of the war, at least in the Lake Chad region, may be just about to begin. But will air raids be able to change what is also a problem of society?

Article on Salafis and Boko Haram in Nigeria

This month, the journal Islamic Africa published a special issue on Salafism in Africa. The issue includes an introductory essay by the University of Florida’s Dr. Terje Østebø, as well as articles on Tanzania, Ghana, Niger, Somalia, and Sudan. I contributed an article on Nigeria entitled “Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis between Boko Haram and the State.” In brief, the article argues that the rise of Boko Haram on the one hand, and state suspicions of Salafis on the other hand, have made life awkward for those Salafis who oppose Boko Haram. The article deals primarily with life under President Goodluck Jonathan (served 2010-2015); at some point I may post an update here or elsewhere giving a few thoughts on how non-jihadi Salafis are faring under new President Muhammadu Buhari, but it’s early yet.

Islamic Africa is normally paywalled, but the publisher, Brill, is offering free access to those who register. Details are here.

If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Blinken in Nigeria and Niger

Washington’s map of the world still gives Africa much less importance than it is due, but U.S. policymakers do pay substantial attention to Nigeria. The Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is in Nigeria and neighboring Niger this week. Blinken is there as part of a series of U.S. diplomatic engagements with the new Nigerian administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. In particular, Blinken is there to help prepare the ground for Buhari’s visit to the White House on July 20. You can read a brief statement about Blinken’s agenda here, and a biography of him here.

If I learned anything in the year I spent on a fellowship at the State Department, it’s that from the perspective of the U.S. government, trips abroad by senior State Department officials are a big deal. I doubt that more than one in two hundred Americans could name the Deputy Secretary of State at any given time, but inside the U.S. government, that person is a demigod. Whether the Nigerians and the Nigeriens perceive the Deputy’s visit as a big deal is, of course, up to them – but Washington is attempting to send a signal that it cares about Nigeria a lot.

The shadow of Boko Haram will hang over the trip. The sect’s violence has been horrific in recent months, including a wave of shootings and bombings in just the past week. Southeastern Niger has been suffering as well, as has Chad, though the latter is not on Blinken’s itinerary. The violence has confirmed grim predictions that neither the election of Buhari, nor the destruction of Boko Haram’s would-be Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, would be sufficient to end the group’s violence.

Blinken is hosting a Facebook chat today at 10:45 am EST to take questions and comments on his Nigeria/Niger trip. Many people have already posted.

If I were advising Blinken, and if his trip is partly about scaling up U.S. assistance in one or more spheres, I would urge him to prioritize humanitarian relief over military aid. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering in the Lake Chad region, and I believe that it would be more appropriate – and more productive – for the United States to help feed and resettle people than to offer military training and equipment. If all it took to defeat Boko Haram was a few more helicopters, a few more guns, and a few more months of training, Boko Haram would already be defeated. The Nigerian government and its military clearly face a long-term, multi-faceted struggle against Boko Haram; it will take time and sophistication on their part to unravel the Gordian knot, and no outsider can slice through this problem in one stroke. In the meantime, the U.S. government should help Nigeria’s neediest citizens. How better to show that Boko Haram is wrong about the West?

Chad: A Suicide Bombing and Its Response [Updated]

On June 15, four suicide bombers killed twenty-seven* people and wounded 101 others at the Central Police Station and the National Police School in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Chadian authorities (French, .pdf) and most observers attribute responsibility to Boko Haram, the Nigerian-born jihadi group. Boko Haram has motive. Starting in January, Chadian soldiers helped to dislodge Boko Haram from territory it controlled in northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram has long had the habit of conducting reprisals against those it considers enemies, and the sect’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has been threatening and criticizing Chadian President Idriss Deby for months. Deby even said (French) that he was “not surprised” by the incident. The attacks in N’Djamena also occurred in a context where Boko Haram, reacting to the loss of its territory, is increasing its suicide attacks in and around northeastern Nigeria. This is, however, the first suicide bombing in N’Djamena, and the first major attack by Boko Haram in Chad.

The Chadian government’s reaction has been multi-faceted but, in my view, problematic. Since the attacks, the government has bombed suspected Boko Haram camps in Nigeria. The actual military effects of the bombing will be hard to assess, though Chadian authorities have been quick to claim a major success. Politically, the bombings seem to be a predictable step, one that governments in similar positions often take. The effects in that sphere are also hard to assess. The retaliatory bombings have generated some irritation among Nigerians, directed both at Chadian authorities (for potentially violating Nigerian sovereignty) and at Nigerian authorities (for “sleeping”). Meanwhile, Chad does not seem to have an end-game strategy beyond killing everyone in Boko Haram – which may prove impossible. In the long term, Chad may already be facing the dilemma that its very efficacy against Boko Haram draws it further into violent conflict with the sect.

More controversially, and for me unadvisedly, the Chadian government has also banned full-face veils for Muslim women (the BBC and the Chadian government say “burqa,” but I think they also mean the niqab, which I suspect is more common in Chad). The government’s rationale is that such clothing could be used to conceal identities and weapons, but the attackers on Monday seem to have come on motorbikes and it is unclear whether they were men or women. In any case, to me, such a ban represents a dangerous conflation of jihadism and (what label should one use?) other interpretations of Islam, including non-jihadi Salafism. If a woman wears a niqab, does it mean she is in league with Boko Haram? Of course not. And if you start telling Muslim women what they can wear, and telling Muslim men how their wives should dress, you risk antagonizing people. I don’t think that Chadians will pick up weapons or join Boko Haram over this issue, but in the long term, it is problematic to use incidents of terrorism as a reason to pick sides within non-violent, intra-Muslim struggles. Again, I don’t think non-jihadi Salafis in Chad are going to fight the government over this, but – especially in a context of pre-existing issues of potential government bias against Salafis – it’s possible that the Chadian government is sowing the seeds of future non-cooperation among a significant segment of its Muslim population.

Finally, Chad’s Prime Minister Kalzeubé Payimi Deubet has called (French) on religious leaders to tell their audiences to cooperate with the security forces and to denounce suspicious persons. This seems like a wise step to me, although context and tone matter – if audiences get the impression that religious leaders are being co-opted or intimidated by the government, those leaders’ credibility will suffer alongside that of the government itself. Here too, I think the niqab/burqa ban will work against the government’s other goals.

I do not envy the position in which the Chadian government finds itself. Boko Haram is a genuine threat to Chad, as the suicide bombings show. The challenge is, and will remain, how to respond to that threat without exacerbating it, and without needlessly elevating internal social and political tensions that may, in the long run, have little to do with Boko Haram except where they intersect with the violence almost by accident. Ultimately, much may depend – as it already has – on Deby’s relationship with the new government in Nigeria, because Chad’s ability to strike and bomb Boko Haram will mean less if the governments of the region, working together, cannot develop a strategy for ending the threat of Boko Haram completely. That endeavor will require more than bombs.

*I’ve also seen twenty-eight and thirty-three as counts of those killed.

[Update June 19]: Two reactions from religious bodies:

  • Chad’s Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs has endorsed the burqa/niqab ban, telling the BBC “the hijab is recommended, but wearing a burka is not part of the Chadian culture.”
  • Nigeria’s Jama’at Izalat al-Bida wa-Iqamat al-Sunna (The Society for the Removal of Heresy and the Establishment of the Sunna, better known as Izala), a Salafi organization, has denounced the ban (Hausa), asking, “if [a government bans niqab], where is democracy?”