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).

Headlines out of Today’s ECOWAS Summit

Between May 15 and 19 (today), Ghana has hosted three important meetings for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS): (1) an Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers from May 15-16; (2) a Session of the Mediation and Security Council on May 17; and (3) a Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on May 19.

The Council of Ministers is made up of member states’ Ministers in charge of ECOWAS Affairs, while the Mediation and Security Council is composed of member states’ Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense. More details about the agendas for these meetings can be found here, with additional information on the Heads of State summit here. I should note also that Ghana’s President John Mahama has been the ECOWAS Chairman since 2014.

Here are some key takeaways, readouts, and headlines from the meetings:

  • Term limits: “West African leaders on Tuesday rejected a proposal to impose a region-wide limit to the number of terms presidents can serve, after opposition to the idea from Togo and Gambia, Ghana’s foreign minister said.”
  • Mahama’s remarks/Jonathan’s farewell: Reiterating his earlier praise for Nigeria’s “historic elections,” Chairman Mahama lauded President Goodluck Jonathan for his “mature statesmanship” in conceding defeat, and “salute[d]” President-elect Muhammadu Buhari for his victory. You can read Jonathan’s remarks at the summit here.
  • Youth Employment: Mahama also urged greater focus on job creation for youth, saying, “considering the fact that we have the fastest growing youth population; young people are coming out of school at every level of the educational system in the hope of finding jobs, it’s going to be a major hurdle for us.”
  • Common External Tariff: “Regarding the [ECOWAS Common External Tariff or CET], which entered into force in January this year, the Commission indicated that as at 30 April 2015, only eight Member States had started the implementation, namely, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, with the remaining seven countries, lagging behind due to various reasons, such as legal requirements, public health and other technical considerations. Council commended the eight Member States and urged the remaining seven to take the necessary steps to ensure effective implementation of the CET before the end of the year in accordance with the decision of the Authority of Heads of State and Government.”

Varieties of Selecting Muslim Leaders in West Africa

When it comes to Sahelian countries such as Mali and Niger, I tend to think of strong national-level, top-down Muslim clerical bodies as a phenomenon of the period before liberalization, and especially as a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s. There are still bodies like the Islamic Council of Niger, but they don’t seem to have the monopoly over religious decision-making that their predecessor organizations enjoyed.

That’s why this link from Ghana caught my eye, especially the role of the National Chief Imam:

Sheikh Abdul Wadud Haruna, a Kumasi-based Islamic cleric, has been appointed the President or Zaeem of the Tijaniyya Sufi sect in Ghana.

The conferment of the title and the presentation of a certificate of honour were performed by the National Chief Imam, Sheikh Osman Nuhu Sharubutu, during the 47th annual birthday of Prophet Mohammed held in Kumasi last weekend.

Until the elevation, the appointee was the regional head of the Tijaniyya sect in the Ashanti Region.

The appointment was done with the consent of clerics responsible for such decisions and based in Madina Kaolak, Senegal, according to a release.

President John Dramani Mahama, who was the guest of honour at the activity, promised to promote religious tolerance in the country after making a presentation of GH¢12,000, 50 bags of rice and 10 bags of cooking oil to the organisers.

Also present were Sheikh Tijani Aliyu Cise, the Grand Imam of the Tijaniyya sect worldwide, who is also the Imam of Madina Kaolak.

The Tijaniyya is one of the most important Sufi orders in West Africa. Although founded in North Africa in the early nineteenth century, the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975) was responsible for much of the order’s spread in places like Ghana. Kaolack was Niasse’s home and is the seat of his successors. Worth mentioning is that Ghana’s Chief Imam is himself a member of the Tijaniyya. So it’s interesting that the selection of a new representative of the Tijaniyya in Ghana is a decision made jointly by the National Chief Imam and the shaykhs in Kaolack (presumably with some input from other Tijanis, but nevertheless presented as a top-down selection).

I’ve been strongly influenced by Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori‘s notion of a “fragmentation of sacred authority” in the Muslim world, a concept Ousmane Kane uses quite effectively in his book on Nigeria. But this Ghanaian example reminded me that top-down selections of new Muslim leaders are not always a thing of the past. On the other hand, some Ghanaians are worried that when the current National Chief Imam passes (he is over ninety years old, and has served since 1993, when he succeeded his cousin), the Ghanaian Muslim community will divide bitterly over the question of succession – not all Ghanaian Muslims are Tijanis, to say the least. So perhaps further fragmentation is in store.

Africa Blog Roundup: Media Piracy in Nigeria, Ghana’s 2012 Elections, Malian Politics, and More

Yinka Ibukun on piracy, music, and movies in Nigeria.

Dennis Laumann: “Six Lessons from Ghana’s 2012 Elections.”

Peter Tinti: “Mali’s Coup 2.0: Adjusting to the New Normal.”

Lesley Anne Warner:

Until the political situation in Bamako becomes less unstable, the U.S. and European allies can agree on an approach to intervention, and ECOWAS can get boots on the ground (perhaps not until late 2013), I think containment is going to be the name of the game in northern Mali.

Aly Verjee on the resignation of US Special Envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman and the trajectory of “US diplomacy in the Sudans.”

Derica: “Dear K’naan, Africa Is Not The Only Place Where ‘Politics Happens’.”

Internally Displaced:

What I am enjoying…in the South Sudan National Archives, as they take shape, is looking at how a determined researcher – with a significant amount of time on their hands – could write a very interesting, if a bit scattergun, history of women in South Sudan from these records.

The main body of the collection sits in the 1920s to late 1970s, and is dogged by the sex-centric, patriarchal mode of governments with respect to their female citizenry.  There are files and files of adultery cases, domestic violence disputes – including whole files on chiefs’ violence against their wives and resulting punishments – runaway women and girls, and prostitution; illustrated nicely by the page above, in a letter from a local Sudanese official deciding not to pursue abductors of “genuine incest children or undesirable harlots”  – clearly these are unwanted and unpleasant things.

However, there are also women in politics: local chapters of the Liberal and Federal Parties and the Southern Front include women members, at least until the government banned their participation; their role in chiefly disputes and tribal affairs includes spying, informing on disputes and suspects, protecting and harboring criminals and suspects, and encouraging clashes – and that’s just the stuff I’ve had time to read.

Jimmy Kainja: “The Virtuous Circle of Malawi Politics That Sustains Poverty.”

Richard Joseph makes recommendations concerning US policy toward sub-Saharan Africa during President Barack Obama’s second term.

What are you reading?

Africa Blog Roundup: Colonialism, Ghana’s Elections, Ethnicity in Northern Mali, and More

Via Chris Blattman, a new paper that argues, “In the light of plausible counter-factuals, colonialism probably had a uniformly negative effect on development in Africa.”

Via Michael Nelson, George Ayittey on elections in Ghana.

Gregory Mann: “Foreign Correspondents and False Notes”:

Local color and snide observations aside, anyone who can keep shining light on the intertwined dangers of an undisciplined army and the bugbear of ethnic militias—as the author of “the West’s Latest Afghanistan” does, and as Tamasin Ford and Bonnie Allen have done—is making a contribution.

So is it the editors who are ginning up and cashing in bad analogies at will? Who wants us to believe that Mali is like Afghanistan?

Andrew Lebovich: “Northern Mali: The Politics of Ethnicity and Locality.”

The Moor Next Door rounds up recent articles on Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia, and the Sahel region.

Lesley Warner highlights key points from General Carter Ham’s recent remarks on counterterrorism in Africa.

Owen Barder: “DFID Transparency Policy Is a Game-Changer.”

Loomnie flags a nice quote on the idea of “Africa rising”:

I wonder if we should perhaps think of sub-Saharan Africa as a collection not so much of jointly emerging markets, but of diverging ones.

Roving Bandit: “Mapping Rebel Groups in the Congo.”

Vote for the name of the US State Department’s blog.

Africa Blog Roundup: Meles Zenawi, Drug Cartels, South Africa, Kismayo, and More

Toni Weis on the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi:

When I recently asked someone who knew Meles well about his legacy as a person, not just a political leader, my interlocutor rejected that distinction as artificial: “Meles was a profoundly political person”.

I’m not sure all of those who penned his obituaries – the eulogists as much as the detractors – have understood the importance of this point. If there is a consensus among the multitude of voices, it seems to be that Meles left behind a “mixed” legacy, a “checkered” or “conflicted” one: good for the Ethiopian economy (the famous ‘double-digit growth’), less so for Ethiopian politics (the infamous ‘authoritarian tendencies’).

What the commentators fail to understand is that, to Meles, these were two sides of the same coin. Development, in his eyes, was primarily a political process, not an economic one.

Ken Opalo: “The Drug War Moves East As Cartels’ Influence in Africa Grows”

The Economist on Christian religiosity in Ghana and Nigeria, with special attention to issues of security in the latter country.

Two complementary takes on mining strikes and violence in South Africa:

  • Keith Somerville: “Under a democratic government committed to righting the wrongs of apartheid, distributing wealth and providing services to ALL South Africans, events like the Marikana strikes and killings should never happen. Even before the strikes, the living conditions of the miners were appalling and wages had not improved to match higher costs of living.  Yet, senior politicians who had fought their way to prominence as union leaders and opponents of apartheid, are seen to be reaping the benefits of investments in mining and of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). They have become increasingly distant from those whose support made them national leaders.  Every newspaper I read told this story and it was reflected in a general atmosphere of gloom, brooding resentment and a certain amount of fear.”
  • Amb. John Campbell: “The Zuma government is handling poorly the upsurge in mining unrest at the Marikana platinum mine, which is spreading to gold mines near Johannesburg. Julius Malema, expelled African National Congress (ANC) bad boy, is exploiting these government errors to discredit President Jacob Zuma in the run up to the African National Congress (ANC) December party convention.”

Lesley Anne Warner on Kenya, Somalia, and the battle for Kismayo.

Africa Blog Roundup: Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, and More

Alula Alex Iyasu argues that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s illness is “a terrible [crisis] to waste.”

The next Prime Minister of Ethiopia should take this [economic] potential and impending leadership crisis and turn it into an opportunity – to reform and improve areas hampered by overreaching government policy and an absence of democratic institutions.  There is a golden opportunity to view the private sector as a true partner in national economic growth and not an entity to be feared and stymied. An opportunity to encourage public-private partnership as a means to raise capital for the kinds of ambitious development goals Ethiopia has outlined but lacks the funds. An opportunity to create democratic institutions with truly independent bodies that facilitate, arbitrate and encourage entrepreneurship.

Amb. David Shinn on the oil revenue sharing agreement between Sudan and South Sudan:

If the agreement is confirmed by both sides, I suggested this is a major breakthrough in resolving differences between the two sides. There are, however, at least two other issues that are preventing a reconciliation between Khartoum and Juba.

Amb. Shinn goes on to discuss citizenship and security issues.

G. Paschal Zachary on the death of Ghanaian President John Atta Mills.

Dr. Kim Yi Dionne comments on a recent news article about the deaths of African presidents.

Focus on the Horn: “What Does Ethiopia Represent in the 21st Century?”

The Economist‘s Baobab reports from Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria.

The US State Department’s Dipnote on refugees in Burkina Faso.

What are you reading today?