Héni Nsaibia and RIda Lyammouri, “Digital Dunes and Shrublands: A Comparative Introduction to the Sahelian Jihadi Propaganda Ecosystem,” Global Network on Extremism and Technology, October 27. You cannot ask for a better duo of authors for this topic. An excerpt:
The Sahelian propaganda ecosystem could be divided into two spheres: the global and the local. The global sphere includes the propaganda intended for the international community broadly, and consists primarily of ‘official’ public messaging in the form of claims of responsibility for military operations, videos, and audio-visual statements. Media products are communicated in world languages: Arabic, French, and English. The local sphere encompasses propaganda for local consumption and is disseminated in local languages: Hassaniya Arabic, Tamashek (or Tuareg language), Fulfulde (or Fulani language), Bambara, Songhai, Zarma, and other local languages and dialects. Locally-oriented items often come out as low-quality videos and audio diffused via closed local WhatsApp groups, including community-focused platforms, and as printed statements handed out to residents. The linguistic barriers and limited accessibility to locally-distributed items represents a gap that should not be neglected in terms of our understanding of these groups.
Luca Raineri, “Explaining the Rise of Jihadism in Africa: The Crucial Case of the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara,” Terrorism and Political Violence, published online October 22. The abstract:
While jihadism appears to be on the rise in Africa, the explanations of violent extremist groups’ capacity to foment jihadi insurgencies and mobilize recruits remain poorly understood. Recent studies have challenged the assumption that the rise of jihadism in Africa is the result of poor governance in areas of limited state reach, highlighting instead the significance of the (perception of) abuses perpetrated by state authorities. Looking at collective action and its structural determinants, it is rather state action—and not the lack thereof—that best explains the capacity of mobilization of jihadi insurgencies in African borderlands. In order to test this theory in a least-likely case, the article explores the genealogy and evolution of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), mobilizing extensive qualitative evidence. Borrowing the analytical framework from civil war studies, it argues that the contentious political dynamics observed in Niger’s borderlands amount to a case of symmetric non-conventional warfare, where abuses perpetrated by state proxies trigger an escalation of homegrown terrorism. It therefore supplies a further specification of the theories investigating the complex interplay between the processes of jihadi mobilization/rebel governance and the practices of counter-terrorism in weak states.
I like that approach.
[UPDATE – November 2, 2020]: Because it fits so well with this roundup, I’m adding Anouar Boukhars’ new article “The Logic of Violence in Africa’s Jihadist Insurgencies,” out at Perspectives on Terrorism. An excerpt (p. 119):
Two implications can be drawn from the relative target preferences of IS affiliates in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. First, if insurgent groups are dependent on support from local populations, they may exercise restraint in their violence against civilians. Second, in multi-actor conflict environments, locations marked by intense in-group–out-group divides—a dynamic that comes about because of pre-conflict tensions and tensions endogenous to the conflict—tend to be places of violent attacks against civilians, as out-group members are suspected of being sympathizers of VE groups or collaborators with the government and allied ethnic militias.
For RFI, Kaourou Magassa reports from Bamako, Mali on the trial of Fawaz Ould Ahmed or “Ibrahim 10,” a Mauritanian who killed five people at a Bamako bar in March 2015. He also helped plan the even more infamous attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako later in 2015. He and a co-defendant have now been sentenced to death. He was initially reported in some accounts to have been among those prisoners released earlier this month in Mali – but, obviously, he wasn’t, and perhaps the timing of the trial (pure speculation on my part!) is meant to make that very clear.
Finally, International Crisis Group has an important new report out on the relationship between Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram, the Islamic State, and what became the breakaway Boko Haram faction now known as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). [Note that the report sometimes uses ISWAP to refer to Boko Haram during the period between Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015 and the split within Boko Haram in August 2016, so the meaning of ISWAP within the report can depend on where in the chronology you are. This usage accurately reflects how the name ISWAP was applied both pre-August 2016 and post, but can be confusing for the reader.] The report is based on interviews with sixteen defectors, the last of whom left the group in 2018 – and so the report mostly only transmits other analysts’ perspectives when discussing post-2018 Islamic Stat influence on ISWAP.
I found the report pretty balanced in how it assesses the relationship and the evidence. On the one hand, the report contains major findings pointing to substantial Islamic State influence, such as the reported presence of a group of Islamic State trainers in Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest who arrived after Shekau’s pledge. Here though it is important to underline that the report’s account adds weight to something that I have argued before, namely that the decisive factor in the timing of Shekau’s pledge was the military pressure Boko Haram was under in early 2015. Note then that the Islamic State, as the relationship is described in the report, does not appear to have played any significant role in Boko Haram’s conquest of territory in northeastern Nigeria in 2014 or even early 2015. And even the most bullish accounts of Shekau’s relationship with al-Qaida tend now to acknowledge that his relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had frayed well before 2014. So at its peak, Boko Haram was more or less independent.
The report also details what are, to my mind, surprisingly complex financial processes: “Assistance [this is 2015 and perhaps early 2016, if I’m reading correctly] came at least every two weeks in amounts varying from $10,000 to $100,000 via occasional transfers to associated individuals or companies in Nigeria or deliveries by Nigerian couriers who would visit Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to collect the cash on ISWAP’s behalf.” There are a lot of explosive claims here, and whereas the account of the trainers I can accept without pause, the description of the transfers – if it rests solely on the testimony of defectors, even if they corroborate each other’s accounts – would need to be corroborated by some other source, in my view. This is not because of the amounts involved,* but not so much that I doubt them; it is more the asserted mechanisms that give me a bit of pause.
There, then, are some of the report’s most serious details concerning the Islamic State’s impact. On the other hand, the report points out some serious instances of parochialism and idiosyncrasy on Boko Haram’s part that made it hard for the organization to maximize and sometimes sustain what the Islamic State had to offer. Weak internet connections, inconsistent application of the trainers’ teachings, Shekau’s resistance to directives and his suspicion of the on-site trainers, etc.
Speaking of parochialism, one detail that surprised me, though maybe it shouldn’t have, was that Shekau submitted the 2009 manifesto of the late Muhammad Yusuf as part of the vetting process for the Islamic State; the 2009 manifesto is certainly a crypto-jihadist document, but it was written under far different circumstances, still in the context of an above-ground movement rather than an underground, full-blown insurgency. It points to Shekau’s and Boko Haram’s sloppiness that in the roughly six years between the writing of that manifesto and the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, the group could generate no fresher manifesto. Shekau killing some of the top clerics within the group circa 2011-2012 didn’t help with ideological production, obviously, but still, the group seems to have suffered from a lack of talent in that department.
More importantly for the purposes of assessing Islamic State influence, we see that the most fundamental decisions, even among Shekau’s internal rivals, were taken locally: “The breakaway group [now known as ISWAP] only informed ISIS [sic] of its decision once the split [announced in August 2016, but undertaken months earlier] was a fait accompli.” The Islamic State central leadership apparently bowed only reluctantly to realities on the ground in northeastern Nigeria, trying to reconcile the two factions before eventually backing the breakaway group.
Given its own findings, moreover, the report’s framing that “ISWAP [i.e., post-split] has continued to progress in adopting the global movement’s doctrines on governance and other matters” is too simplistic. The idea that ISWAP’s efforts at administrative sophistication and military professionalism reflect Islamic State influence makes a lot of sense; the report is less persuasive when it suggests that Islamic State guidance spurred ISWAP’s overall efforts “to mend fences with Muslim civilians in the areas under its influence.” If concerns with Shekau’s bloodthirstiness, capriciousness, predatoriness, etc. were what prompted a split that was a “fait accompli” before the Islamic State was informed, then it stands to reason that ISWAP’s political orientation towards Muslim civilians largely reflects the core impetus for the split in the first place. And again, according to the report that impetus came out of facts on the ground first and foremost. If you break with your emir because he kills everyone who disagrees with him and hoards money, and if you’re eating leaves and bark in the forest after getting routed by multiple armies and South African mercenaries, you don’t need some guy in Syria to tell you it’s time to try something new. But you would probably take their money and their tips on administration.
So, in short, a very mixed picture of Islamic State influence over ISWAP emerges – stronger than I would have thought in many dimensions, but even I, a perennial skeptic about global jihadist influence in West Africa, was equally surprised by some of Boko Haram’s parochialism as described in the report, as well as by the ways the Islamic State was either ignored or rebuffed at key moments in this history. My main critique would be that I wish the author/s would have more systematically compared the account from defectors to the account in ISWAP’s book Removing the Tumor; I will have to compare at some point myself, but if memory serves there are some interesting parallels, as well as some key details mentioned in this report that are not mentioned at all in Removing the Tumor (the trainers and the money, for example, if memory serves), and then perhaps some instances of contradictions. Anyways, the Crisis Group report is worth reading in full, as are the other pieces mentioned above.
*Is the amount of money described here large or small? At first it sounded huge to me – a steady flow of sizable chunks of money. But if you do the math over a year, it actually starts to sound smaller. Assume for example that we take an estimate toward the high end of the numbers and frequency described above, and we say that $100,000 arrived every two weeks for a year, or $200,000 a month: that’s $2.4 million in the first year. But on the sending end, this seems to have represented a tiny portion of the Islamic State’s wealth and income circa 2015-2016, and on the receiving end, I wonder how far the money went. Just a few years earlier, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was collecting that kind of sum per hostage in some of its biggest ransoms, and yet such cash infusions only went so far – and AQIM had fewer fighters than Boko Haram at their respective peaks, most likely. How far does $2.4 million go in terms of paying fighters and buying loyalty? I’ll have to think about it more. Not saying the money doesn’t matter, but even the high end estimate may be relatively modest even in the context of African jihadist groups’ budgets. Or one could say the money had a much greater impact because of the tough circumstances Boko Haram was in when the money started flowing. Or one could say the money’s impact was less than it might have been, because Shekau may have hoarded some of it…etc. The point is, it’s easier to argue that ties between jihadist groups occurred than it is to say exactly what those ties meant.