Roundup of Recent Writing on Jihadism in the Sahel, and Comments on ICG’s New ISWAP Report [Updated]

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.

My Annotated Translation of the Islamic State’s Article “Liptako: Graveyard of Crusaders and Apostates” from Al-Naba 238 (June 2020)

This project has been on the back burner since the summer, and I guess I ended up saving it for a rainy day. Click the link below (or here) for the translation and annotations; my introduction to the translation gives more context and a few thoughts on the conflict between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM).

Rukmini Callimachi’s Broken Clock Moment in Timbuktu

I have been torn about whether to write and post this. In the media furor that has broken out recently over the New York Times‘ ISIS reporter Rukmini Callimachi, I have chimed in substantively, once, in a minor way. I am chiming in again now not because of any animus towards her personally, but because I think her trajectory points to fundamental problems in (1) “terrorism reporting” and (2) what I often call “terrorology.” By terrorology, I mean deliberately alarmist and reductive analysis of jihadist movements and “terrorist groups.” I am interested in seeing terrorology as a whole get discredited, rather than caring about one particular reporter’s fate. Yet individual accountability can help with collective accountability – especially if the critics and their audiences keep zooming out to ask what’s at stake beyond a certain individual.

The recent scrutiny of Callimachi’s journalistic and professional record has concentrated on her reporting on ISIS. Most of the controversies are not new at all – rather, many controversies have been revisited following Canadian authorities’ September 25 arrest of Shehroze Chaudhry or “Abu Huzaifa,” a key but extremely problematic and seemingly unreliable (to say the least) source for Callimachi’s “Caliphate” podcast. To get a sense of the criticisms that circulated prior to Chaudhry’s arrest, I would recommend this August 2018 piece by Rafia Zakaria. Here is an excerpt that devastatingly renders the problem when “terrorism reporting” and “terrorology” intersect with each other:

Callimachi the journalist has to get the story, but Callimachi the terror fighter has to identify the terrorist, get into his head, and bring us back gems of insight. Once she does so, she even wonders why Canadian authorities aren’t acting faster, arresting him and charging him. In this approach, it is impossible to tell where journalism ends and where terror fighting begins. Westerners, journalists among them, see themselves as fighting the good war against terror and everyone else occupying the morally inferior positions of victim or supporter. Predation and scavenging of their stories or selves is thus absolved from the immorality—or at least partisanship—that would otherwise be associated with it.

For a sense of the scrutiny Callimachi’s reporting is now facing, I would recommend this story by Lachlan Cartwright and Maxwell Tani as well as this piece by Jacob Silverman. Cartwright and Tani’s piece, in particular, lays out a litany of disturbing episodes and accusations against Callimachi, including shocking ways that Callimachi allegedly spoke to the family of James Foley, executed by ISIS in 2014, as she reported on that story.

Scrutiny of Callimachi is focusing on her tenure at the New York Times, which makes sense given the extraordinary prestige and influence of the paper and given the size of the controversies that have surrounded her reporting for the Times. There are problems in her earlier reporting, however, including on Mali, that have not received adequate attention. In fact, even in Silverman’s piece, her rise through the journalism world’s hierarchy is described as unproblematic:

In a 2016 interview with Wired, in which she was dubbed “arguably the best reporter on the most important beat in the world,” Callimachi described standing in the remains of an office used by Al Qaeda during its rampage through Timbuktu. The floor was littered with documents in Arabic. Suddenly, she realized, some of them might be able to tell a better story of what happened there than any government official’s report. She started scooping up documents and filling trash bags.

Callimachi’s subsequent series of articles earned her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, the first of four. More than that, it catalyzed in her a belief in the power of original documentation to tell stories that otherwise go untold. It also convinced her that jihadist groups were far more sophisticated than she realized.

Some crucial context is missing here – both about Callimachi’s discovery of documents in Timbuktu, and by Callimachi in her own thought process.

Here is how she describes her find in Timbuktu in that Wired article at the link above:

Other than Hurricane Katrina, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many journalists as I did then in Timbuktu. We were all traipsing around the city doing similar stories, so I started asking the local people if they could show me the buildings where the group had been. They took me first to a bank that had acted as the Islamic police center, and they took me to a hotel that had been turned into a Sharia court, and they took me to a tax building that had been the jihadists’ administrative office. In each of these buildings, I noticed dozens and dozens of loose papers on the ground that were written in Arabic—even though Mali is largely a French-speaking country. Because I couldn’t read them, I didn’t think they were very important. The next day, I realized, “Oh my God, that must be the stuff the jihadists left behind.” So I went back with a bunch of trash bags, and I just went building by building, at least 10 in all, and scooped up every single thing that I could find. People were calling me the trash lady of Timbuktu. I started to translate the documents in my hotel with a translator.

We will unpack the problems with her thought process momentarily. First, though, let’s look at a slightly different narration she gave in a different interview, this one with Slate:

And then everything changed for me in January of 2013 when the French went in. I was able to get to Timbuktu three days after they flushed out the jihadis. I got there in the first wave of reporters that arrived. There were so many reporters at my hotel within a couple of days. At first we all went and interviewed residents. What was it like to live under sharia law? We went and looked at the places where they had executed people and the square where they had cut off somebody’s hand. Then residents began taking me to the buildings that had been occupied. Unbelievably, there were thousands of pages of internal documents that the al-Qaida cell had left behind.


I bet you are going to ask me: How did I know they were al-Qaida documents? In the very first place that I went into, I picked up one of them and went, “This is in Arabic. I can’t read it.” And I dropped it back down. [Laughs.] It took me getting back to my hotel to realize, Oh my God this is Mali. Mali is a French-speaking place. People that went to school here learn French. They don’t learn Arabic. By definition, anything that’s been written in Arabic is from this invading force. I then rushed back to these places with trash bags. I began going building-by-building and just picking up every single thing that I could find and bringing them back to my hotel.

First of all, I want to emphasize that Callimachi does not speak or read Arabic – yet her career has been made on the analysis, and also one might say the fetishization, of Arabic documents (more on this below).

Second, she is describing a real “broken clock” moment here – and unwittingly betraying a breathtaking lack of contextual knowledge about Mali. If someone doesn’t think about Mali or work on Mali, I wouldn’t expect them to know that Mali has a rich history of Arabic-language scholarship, or to know that northern Mali has a significant local population of Arabs. But a journalist working on the conflict in northern Mali in 2012-2013 should really have known both of those things.

Regarding Arabic, Timbuktu became internationally famous all over again in 2012 not just because of executions and amputations, but because of the threat that jihadist occupation posed to the literary heritage of the city, which is a core part of the Islamic literary heritage of northwest Africa as a whole. Not all of the manuscripts in Timbuktu were or are in Arabic, but the vast majority, from everything I’ve ever read, seen, or heard, were either Arabic materials written in Arabic or non-Arabic materials written in Arabic script. At any rate, the struggle to save the manuscripts became famous both as the events of 2012 were unfolding and afterwards. Journalists covered it extensively (example). It has been the subject of at least one book

Regarding Malian Arabs, any journalist covering the conflict in 2012-2013 should have known that there were Malian Arabs. A first-level analysis of the conflict would have described it as one of Tuareg rebels, and then regional and local jihadists, fighting the Malian state. But a journalist should progress to at least a second-level analysis, at which point one would have to become aware of movements such as the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (Arab Movement of Azawad, MAA), which took that name – and, I mean, look at the name – by late 2012/early 2013 (example). Interacting with northern Malians should have also dispelled the notion that Mali was “a French-speaking place”; Mali is quite obviously multi-lingual, and Arabic is one of the key languages in the north. It is not just Arabs, moreover, who can speak and write Arabic there.

So Callimachi’s statement that “by definition, anything that’s been written in Arabic is from this invading force,” in other words the jihadists, is just not true. And so her discovery of these materials has less to do with a flash of insight about a language she does not speak, and more to do with finding jihadist documents in a building jihadists were in. Then, of course, there is the issue of how the translators, fixers, interviewees, and local journalists fade into the background. I wonder how they would narrate the story of these documents’ discovery. Even in the Slate interview, Callimachi (again without much self-awareness) narrates that she couldn’t place the (very well-known, if you follow this stuff) pseudonym of the then-leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and thus couldn’t understand the full context of what she was looking at having translated for her. It was Baba Ahmed, one of the best journaists in Mali, who explained it to her. Tellingly, even though Ahmed was getting bylines in the Associated Press under his own name at that time – in other words, even though he was a fellow reporter – Callimachi refers to him as “my fixer.”

The issue of Arabic and Arabic documents, and the downplaying of translators’ and colleagues’ work, takes us back to Zakaria’s comments above about how Callimachi has made herself the star of much of her own reporting – often with the Arabic language featuring as a kind of talisman or fetish, important to the narrator-hero because Callimachi cannot, or can barely, understand it. Arabic is always out of reach and associated with menace. The journalist Alia Malek puts it well:

Here is another weird way Callimachi talks about Arabic. It is from her major writeup of “the ISIS files,” the hugely controversial cache of ISIS documents that she and others took out of Iraq. She writes, of Mosul, “I learned to read the landscape for clues, starting with باقية — ‘baqiya’ — the first word of the Islamic State slogan.” The journalist’s dominion over her core source, the documents, is proxied by her ability to recognize a single Arabic word. And it’s worth pointing out too that in my view, her and the Times‘ ultimate analysis of jihadist documents was often unexciting. Click through that link, and you will see that the online story is replete with images of documents and of Iraq, particularly Mosul – and yet the conclusions are thin. The core argument seems to be that “the documents and interviews with dozens of people who lived under their rule show that the group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.” But by 2018, when the report came out, this was a relatively commonplace and uncontroversial take. The aura of the documents sometimes counted for more than what Callimachi, and the Times as a whole, could really do with them. The story about the handling of the documents is probably more consequential than any stories the Times produced with the documents. (On the ethical issues connected with these documents, by the way, see this sober and careful thread from Mara Revkin, whom I consider the leading American expert on ISIS at this point.)

The thinness of Callimachi’s analysis relates to her connections to the terrorologist world. The fetishization and decontextualization of jihadist documents is central to terrorology, and it is unsurprising that Callimachi has a pattern of outsourcing much of her analysis to terrorologists such as those at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and its spinoffs. To a profound extent, she became a member of a terrorologist club whose outlines are pretty clear, once you start looking at who collaborates with whom.

To wrap this up, for me there are two takeaways from Callimachi’s career as a whole and from the Timbuktu episode in particular:

  1. When jihadist documents become objects of a bizarre kind of reverence and fascination not so much because of what they say but simply because they offer the promise of access into an illicit and forbidding world, there’s a problem. And that problem is magnified when the analysts and gatekeepers who manage those documents are either ignorant of, or actively dismiss, a sense of context. The repeated quest for that moment of scooping jihadist and specifically Arabic-language documents into a trash bag – whether by journalists in Timbuktu and Mosul, or by Navy Seals in Abbottabad – can start to make that moment crowd out the necessity of scrutinizing sources, talking with people who lived through events, etc. The documents can only ever tell part of the story, and the story the documents tell may not be the most compelling or accurate one. That it was a lack of critical self-reflection about a human source that eventually landed Callimachi in trouble is ironic, but her approach toward “Abu Huzaifa” was just an extension of treating the documents as transparent and unproblematic windows into the jihadist world. 
  2. There is something to be said, too, about Africa as a stepping stone in her career – a sense that for her and the New York Times, it was essentially a single experience in Timbuktu that qualified her to analyze jihadism from Orlando to Mosul. Here, too, we see about the one-millionth example of the idea that it is “understanding terrorism” or “understanding jihadism” that qualifies a terrorologist, or a journalist, to speak to widely different contexts. The most dramatic example of this is the various terrorologists who used to focus on jihadism and now bill themselves as specialists on “white nationalism” and “far-right extremism,” or even on Russiagate. Opportunism is central to terrorology. In any case, Timbuktu is still there, and it is still people like Baba Ahmed to whom I look for insights on Mali, that extraordinarily complex country that I, for one, will never fully understand – but whose history is much bigger than what you can fit in a trash bag. 

Translation and Brief Commentary on the Islamic State’s Claim of Responsibility for the August 9 Attack in Kouré, Niger

Yesterday (September 17), in issue 252 of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter Al-Naba’ (available for registered users at Jihadology), the organization stated that it had perpetrated the August 9 attack that killed six French citizens and two Nigerien citizens in the Kouré giraffe reserve southeast of Niger’s capital Niamey.

From the moment the attack was known, suspicion fixed on the Islamic State and specifically on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which operates primarily in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso borderlands. As I noted at the time, though, the attack and its aftermath – including the lag between the attack and this claim of responsibility – contributed to a climate of uncertainty and fear in the Sahel and in western Niger specifically. This claim of responsibility will not, I think, alleviate that overall sense of dread, which related somewhat to the question of authorship but was even more connected to the location – Kouré (map) is in a zone that was previously considered safer than other parts of the Tillabéry Region, which encompasses Niamey.

Al-Naba’ is sometimes inaccurate, often short on crucial details, and is obviously quite subjective. I do not see anything glaringly inaccurate in my first reading of the article in Al-Naba’ 252 – but the passage describing the Kouré attack is brief and vague. I urge readers to bear this in mind as Western media and analysts extrapolate from what is ultimately a very skeletal write-up.

In particular, as I wrote on Twitter yesterday, beware the slippage you may see between Islamic State, ISGS, and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP can refer to a territorial concept used by the Islamic State to describe events in both the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and ISWAP can also refer specifically to a Lake Chad-based organization that originated as a breakaway, majority faction of the (now rump) Boko Haram in 2016. If Islamic State media file ISGS operations as part of activities within “West Africa Province,” that does not mean that ISWAP, in the sense of that Lake Chad-based organization, is directly supervising and participating in ISGS attacks. To repeated what I said on Twitter, note that Al-Naba’ 252 has separate articles for describing recent events in the Lake Chad Basin (p. 7) and the tri-border Sahelian zone of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso (pp. 9-10). The description of the Kouré attack comes in the latter article (p. 9). So although the Islamic State considers it all “West Africa Province,” even they make an implicit separation in some media products between the Lake Chad Basin (including southeastern Niger) and the Sahel (including western Niger, where Kouré is).

For further context, the section on the Kouré attack is sandwiched between two other sections titled, respectively, “Killing of a Leader in the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad” and “Capture and Killing of a Major Spy for the Forces of Barkhane.” These are two of ISGS’ main enemies – the context is, again, Sahelian and specifically the tri-border zone.

Below I’ve translated the relevant excerpt on Kouré. Three further quick points:

  • The authors at Al-Naba’ seem most excited about the media and propaganda benefits they see in the attack – an opportunity, in the authors’ eyes, to undermine French narratives about counterterrorism in the Sahel.
  • There are no real details about the attack beyond what was known already from press reports.
  • The sense I get is that this was perpetrated by a single unit, most likely belonging to ISGS, and did not represent any complex coordination between ISGS and ISWAP as organizational entities.

Killing of 6 French in a Special Operation Near Niamey

That same Sunday [as an ISGS attack near Indelimane, Mali – map] witnessed a special operation by the soldiers of the Caliphate. The source told Al-Naba’ that a security detachment executed a sudden attack with automatic weapons on a number of France’s Crusader citizens in the Kouré area southeast of Niamey, the capital of Niger. This resulted in the killing of 6 of them after they were captured, and two of their apostate companions from Niger.

The apostates and Crusaders have acknowledged this blow. They demonstrated their fear that it would affect the reputation of their military campaign, through which, they claim, they have been able to kill the mujahidin and curtail their capacity to launch operations against them.

This operation also produced a media hubbub, due to the nationality of those killed and the place in which it occurred, at a distance of only an hour from the capital Niamey in a famous tourist area. It has been considered a major security breach for all the apostates’ defenses.

Snapshots of Sirte, Libya after the Islamic State

Over the past few months, several very strong pieces have come out on Sirte, Libya. The Islamic State controlled parts of the town from very early 2015 until December 2016, when an offensive led by Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) broke their control.

In July, Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour of Airwars described “The Last Days of ISIS’ Libya Stronghold” in the Daily Beast. The piece focuses on harm to civilians during the months-long battle for the city:

The battle for Sirte again makes clear why tracking harm from the perspective of affected civilians themselves is so important. Local reporting clearly suggests that non-combatants weren’t just trapped in the city, but were actively held hostage in besieged neighborhoods by ISIS. Even so, the U.S. still conducted 495 airstrikes at Sirte, while its ground allies the GNA also conducted airstrikes as well as intense artillery shelling during the siege.

See also Airwars’ project on Libya.

At Carnegie last month, Frederic Wehrey and Emad Badi looked at the aftermath of the Islamic State’s expulsion from Sirte:

More than a year after this liberation, Sirte has again faded to the margins, to the chagrin of its war-weary inhabitants. Vast sections of its downtown have been reduced to rubble, schools and universities have been closed, and mines and dead bodies still litter its streets and alleyways. More important than this physical devastation, however, is the damage to the city’s political institutions and communal fabric. To be sure, much of this damage was rooted in the Islamic State’s violent rule. While providing some degree of sought-after order and service provision, the Islamic State accelerated the erosion of tribal authority, upended social norms, and caused widespread displacement and trauma. Yet in many respects, Sirte’s current afflictions are also a continuation of its unbroken history of exclusion in the post-2011 order and deep political wounds that have yet to heal.

Wehrey’s book The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya, also came out this year.

Also in August, Tom Westcott reported from Sirte in a piece for IRIN:

There are still skeletons amongst the rubble, mines and unexploded ordnance have not been cleared, and 3,000 people are registered with local authorities as homeless.

Most of the people displaced from the city centre, like AbuBaker, are living in rented homes elsewhere in the city, unable to return home. According to the UN, 20,000 people are displaced in the city as a whole, and more than half of Sirte’s residents are still shuttling between temporary residences and their homes, while they rebuild. The three central districts of Campo (where AbuBaker’s house is), Giza, and Sirte 3 remain empty.

A grim picture comes through in all three pieces. And one gets the stark sense that most of the international actors who were hyper-concerned about the Islamic State’s presence in Sirte are not nearly so concerned about what happens to people there now.

Four Recent Reports/Translations on Boko Haram

So far this month, two important new reports on Boko Haram have caught my eye, as well as two important new translations.

The first report is Fulan Nasrullah‘s “Strategic Thinking Behind Ongoing Insurgent Offensive Operations In Northeast Nigeria- An Analysis.” Here is an excerpt, describing the period after August 2016, when Boko Haram split into two factions led respectively by Abubakar Shekau and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi (who became head of the official “Islamic State West Africa Province” or ISWAP):

At that point in time, with high tempers on both sides of the divided insurgency, there was a fear within ISWAP that Shekau would either deflect pressure from his group (which was weakened by the split and was solely bearing the heat of pressure from the Nigerian and other regional militaries), by negotiating a deal  with the Nigerian authorities to provide them with intelligence to wipe out ISWAP and get Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi/Mamman Nuur(there were extant suspicions and accusations that Ansarul-Muslimeena Fee Bilaadis-Sudan’s urban operations networks and Cameroonian camps had been wiped out by Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities as part of a deal Shekau had made with them), or, he would launch an all out fratricidal war on the nascent group he was regularly denouncing as deviants.

Although spontaneous clashes would erupt between individual units along a very much undefined mix of territory with no clear front line demarcating them, all out war was prevented by ISWAP’s leadership seeking for and holding deconfliction meetings with the Shekau group[6]. While Abubakar Shekau himself was inclined to disregard attempts to deconflict the situation, his Shuraa (the decision making body, or what was left of it after the split) impressed on him the need to avoid intra-insurgent conflict for religious and operational reasons[7].

The whole piece is fascinating. The weakness, as with other writing by Nasrullah, is in the sourcing. Nearly every endnote says something like “conversations had with people with knowledge of these events at the time they occurred, and recently to confirm the details before writing this paper” (that’s the text of endnote 7). So one’s assessment of the report’s credibility essentially comes down to your assessment of Nasrullah’s credibility. You can attempt to fact-check him by comparing his assertions with other sources and accounts, but you cannot fact-check him by accessing and assessing his own sources. When I cited some of Nasrullah’s writing in my book, particularly when it came to discussing Boko Haram’s fight for Damboa, Borno in summer 2014, I tried to deal with this difficulty by saying things like, “According to [Nasrullah]…” In other words I would treat this as a valuable account but I wouldn’t regard it as confirmed.

The second report is from International Crisis Group, entitled “Cameroon’s Far North: A New Chapter in the Fight Against Boko Haram.” An excerpt:

Since 2014, vigilantes, numbering some 14,000 in the Far North, have played an essential role against Boko Haram. They provide critical intelligence to Cameroonian forces, act as scouts and guides, and sometimes confront jihadists directly and protect their villages, especially against suicide attacks. The authorities offer them little support, however. Some have become disillusioned and abandoned the struggle. Vigilante groups also have come in for criticism. Some members were previously cattle thieves, smugglers or bandits, others have been arrested for collaboration with Boko Haram and some are suspected of human rights abuses against captured Boko Haram suspects. As the conflict quietens, plans for their future will become ever more urgent. The absence of such plans could lead groups to fragment, with some vigilantes turning back to crime.

Two important translations have also appeared this month, both from Aymenn al-Tamimi.

One is the account of Tunisian member of Ansar al-Sharia who helped Boko Haram with communications, perhaps some time in 2014-2015, during the period leading up to Boko Haram’s/Abubakar Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015. Vincent Foucher has a short Twitter thread with some analysis here. One passage from the translated text stood out to me, just because it underscores the remoteness even of Boko Haram’s media people, let alone its fighters:

In order [for the Tunisian author’s Nigerian interlocutor] to upload one of the group’s releases, he had to travel to a place some 300 km away from his village, as mobile phone network coverage would be available to upload a release of poor quality on an upload site, and the time for uploading this release, whose size did not exceed 50 MBs, took 9 whole hours. Then he would give me the link to re-upload it on a number of sites with the help of some of the brothers specialized in Rapidleech. Then we would publish it in the forums and on the page of Ifriqiya lil-‘Ilam.

The Tunisian author also claims to have been the key intermediary between Boko Haram’s media people and the Islamic State’s:

Subsequently we tried to establish connection between our brother and our media guy brothers in the beloved Islamic State and the groups supporting it in Africa, and praise be to God, the desired coordination arose months later, and the blessed Mu’assasat al-Urwa al-Wuthqa was established, and a special transmission was achieved in the quality of the releases. May God bless all who facilitated that and strove for that from near and afar. And that was a key to refute the doubts that some of the hyenas and crows strove to publish in the field of West Africa- they got to the point of sending an envoy from them to there in an attempt to convince the group not to give allegiance to the Caliph at all as they did in the Caucasus, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia. And despite that, and by the grace of God the Exalted and Almighty, the group’s leadership, represented in Sheikh Abu Bakr Shekau, decided to give allegiance to the Caliph in order for ranks to be united, the force to be strengthened, and in order for the enemies of God to become enraged.

This makes it sound like the pledge was orchestrated remotely, rather than through any face-to-face negotiations between Islamic State emissaries and Boko Haram. In any case, read Vincent’s thread, as it makes the important point that the Tunisian author manages to both wax enthusiastic about Shekau and the Islamic State, and simultaneously imply that it was Shekau who held back the pledge to the Islamic State for some time. That’s a pretty self-contradictory position to try to hold onto.

The other translation by al-Tamimi is the full version of the text I discussed here and here, namely the anti-Shekau polemic released in June by “Islamic State West Africa” and authored by the “two sons” of Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf.

I am very glad that al-Tamimi has made the full translation available. It is a fantastic resource for understanding (at least from its authors’ perspective) the history of Boko Haram. I do, however, disagree with some of the analysis al-Tamimi has appended to the text. One point al-Tamimi makes is this:

It has been claimed that Shekau’s group and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province represent two rival factions professing loyalty to Baghdadi and competing for recognition as the Islamic State’s wing in the West Africa. In fact, this claim is incorrect. Shekau clearly does not recognize the Islamic State as a legitimate authority whatsoever, and on multiple occasions his group has actually fought the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, which deems Shekau and his followers to be Khawarij.

Based on both evidence and logic, this doesn’t quite add up. In terms of evidence, there have been a few communications from Shekau to the leadership of the Islamic State where he appeals to them against al-Barnawi/ISWAP. If ISWAP calls Shekau a Khariji, Shekau calls ISWAP murji’is – in other words, each faction tries to delegitimize the other on theological grounds. Perhaps Shekau’s attitude toward the Islamic State central leadership has changed in recent months, but for quite some time he maintained that he was simply misunderstood and that al-Barnawi’s people had lied about him to the central leadership. Logically, too, it doesn’t follow that if Shekau attacks al-Barnawi’s group, that means he has completely rejected the authority of the central leadership – it just means that he has rejected al-Barnawi’s authority. Also, who is the intended audience of this (Arabic-language) book? It seems to me that part of the intended audience might be any waverers, including waverers abroad, who are still sympathetic to Shekau and who may not be completely convinced that deposing him as Islamic State “governor” was the right move. Otherwise why write it?

Another point from al-Tamimi is his assertion that one of the book’s most important parts is its

Discussion of the nature of relations between al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ‘Boko Haram’ after Muhammad Yusuf’s death. It should be noted that ‘Boko Haram’ never became a formal affiliate of al-Qa’ida in the manner of AQIM or al-Shabaab in Somalia, but there were very much concrete links and correspondence between AQIM and ‘Boko Haram’.

This idea of “concrete links and correspondence” is not at all new – indeed, the entire book can be seen as a recapitulation and extension of al-Barnawi’s 2016 interview with al-Naba’, available in translation here, where he also briefly discusses these contacts. This issue has now been analyzed to death by Nigeria watchers, including me, and what this new text describes is in line with sources released during 2015-2017, which confirms links and correspondence – the extent and meaning of which can and should be debated, but the existence of which cannot. In fact, other sources, such as this one, are a better bet if you want a detailed portrait of the Boko Haram-AQIM relationship after Muhammad Yusuf’s death.

But from the perspective of this new text’s authors, the relationship with AQIM is a tertiary issue at best, discussed on a handful of pages. This text is above all a theologically-oriented polemic against Shekau, a drama in which the two factions are the central actors, in which the Islamic State is the central love object, and in which AQIM is a minor player.

There are many other interesting passages from the text to highlight, but let’s close with this one. It comes in the context of intra-Boko Haram debates about calling other Muslims unbelievers – when can you call someone an unbeliever? Was someone an unbeliever all along, or did they at some point commit apostasy? This anecdote from the text (and we should bear in mind it is recounted by Shekau’s bitter enemies) is not dated, but perhaps comes from 2015, given remarks a few paragraphs earlier about Shekau forcibly taking concubines and slaves in northeastern Nigerian cities. The discussion is surprising to me in a way because it hints that the election of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 as Nigeria’s president was something that some Boko Haram members had to sort of debate and process, rather than instantly dismissing out of hand. Here is the passage (bracketed additions mine):

One day a brother quarreled with one of the students of al-Sheikawi, regarding the kufr [unbelief] of Muhammadu Buhari- the Taghut [ungodly tyrant] of Nigeria: was he an original disbeliever or a murtadd [apostate]? So the student went to his sheikh and informed him about the dispute that happened between him and the brother, so al-Sheikawi arose raging and thundering, and raised his voice saying: “Disbeliever! Disbeliever! By God a disbeliever! Disbeliever.” So the people gathered around him- of course the people of his centre and we were in attendance- and he began with idle talk and bleating for a period of around two hours, building one and destroying another, making an argument at one moment and then contradicting it in another, until he drew the following result as a conclusion:

That the principle regarding Muhammad Buhari, Ja’afar Mahmoud Adam [the estranged mentor of Muhammad Yusuf, assassinated in 2007] and other noteworthy names of those who claim affiliation to Islam, is that they are original disbelievers. And he said- and the recording of it is available and published: “The one who asserts the apostasy of Bukhari [sic] from Islam is a disbeliever. Yes, asserting that they are apostates is not allowed. They are not apostates but rather original disbelievers.”

This is crazy extreme, obviously. But again, what’s interesting is the extent of debate within Boko Haram – including debate about the events of the outside world.

Finally, it’s worth concluding with a passage from the Tunisian jihadist, which brings us back to the question of audience:

As we know that regrettably most of those who read our long articles are from the disbelievers, apostates and hypocrites, we conclude by challenging to mubahala the disbelievers, apostates, idolaters, secularists, modernists, moderates, adherents of Islam of enlightenment, tolerance, modernism, Qur’anism, America and secularism, the sheikhs of fabrication and falsehood from the ‘ulama of hypocrisy and shoes of authority, those who claim a doctorate, to be thinkers and to be of good understanding and analysis, and imams of damage and preachers of the pulpits of shame.

This is something for us all to keep in mind, I think – here the author himself admits that perhaps he has a bigger readership among his enemies (and among Western analysts?) than among his intended audience. All these texts, then, whether individually or in the aggregate, are only a partial window into what jihadists think and do.

Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa’s New History of Itself, Part 2

Find Part 1 here. Let’s resume the notes:

  • p. 35: Here, the authors begin discussing Boko Haram’s reconstitution in the wake of the July 2009 uprising, which naturally leads into a discussion of Abubakar Shekau. It is striking to see how little they know, or at least reveal, about this person. The authors relate what we know of his birthplace – Shekau village in Yobe State, as his name would indicate and as other sources have confirmed – although even they do not seem to know what year he was born. They go on to write, “He had a rough upbringing, not knowing any sort of opulence, nor any semblance of wealth.” He then worked as a farm laborer, which the authors believe left “a bad effect on his soul” and instilled qualities such as “abruptness, stinginess, and coldness” in him. Is there a bit of class contempt here? Not that Yusuf came from the upper crust, but there seems to be a hint that Shekau is low-bred.
  • p. 35: Continuing on Shekau’s biography (or their version of it – let us keep in mind that these are now his enemies), they relate that Shekau studied the Qur’an with various teachers in the northeastern Nigerian countryside before coming to Maiduguri. There, he enrolled in an institution the authors call (in English) “High Islam.” All this would be consistent with other accounts, particularly the more detailed one from International Crisis Group, especially if we interpret “High Islam” to mean the Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies (BOCOLIS, now MOGCOLIS). In any case, here it is claimed that Shekau left “High Islam” for ideological reasons (mutabarri’an minhu, i.e. disavowing it) and without earning a degree, after falling under the influence of some Salafi shaykhs and rejecting the Sufi-dominated atmosphere of “High Islam” – which, again, sounds a lot like BOCOLIS. Then he met Yusuf and became one of his early students and devoted supporters. The authors then go on (pp. 35-36) to describe Shekau’s teaching style and overall persona at this time, occasionally slipping in a note of retrospective doubt as to whether his “asceticism” and “piety” were genuine. There is no mention here about Shekau studying in Mauritania, a claim made by Lemine Ould M. Salem but that I do not regard as likely).
  • p. 37: Here is where the account begins to talk about serious contacts with al-Qa’ida, i.e. al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM (and this is when some key correspondence between Shekau and these entities dates from, for example here). In rather vague terms, as in Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi’s 2016 interview, the account relates that Boko Haram fighters began training with AQIM “in the desert” and receiving money and expertise from AQIM. The authors comment, “The tie with them was strong then.” There is not here, however, any mention of AQIM directly helping Boko Haram plan any specific operation. The authors of this book arguably have an incentive to downplay contacts with/help from AQIM, but they do not adopt a polemical tone toward AQIM and it is possible that they are accurately summarizing the overall nature of the relationship.
  • p. 38: Consistent with other anti-Shekau sources from within Boko Haram and its offshoots, the authors write that Shekau began displaying “extremism” at a relatively early point, i.e. around 2011, especially in matters of takfir. The authors further relate that AQIM wrote to Shekau advising him to change his ways (this is again consistent with other sources), but he refused. As a result, the authors continue, Boko Haram split into three factions (I understand them to be describing not official factions at this point in the narrative, but rather tendencies): one that supported Shekau, one that openly opposed him while remaining committed to jihadism, and one that opposed him and in so doing renounced jihadism (and fell into what the authors here term “murji’ism”). The authors frankly state that the majority of the fighters backed Shekau, in part because he successfully blocked his opponents from disseminating their views within the ranks. In this context, his jihadist opponents broke off and formed Ansar al-Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan, better known as Ansaru. The account continues on p. 39, where the authors are full of praise for Ansaru’s knowledge but where they describe Ansaru as being partly dismantled through the deaths and capture of its leaders. The remainder, the authors say, fell into criminality. The authors here do not mention Ansaru reintegrating into Boko Haram as a bloc, again consistent with other sources, although they do allude to some of their individual leaders joining the Islamic State, which I take to mean fighting under Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. Meanwhile, contradictions between different sources remain concerning the identities/status of some key figures, particularly Abu Usama al-Ansari, whom these authors say is dead but whose name was signed to a 2017 Ansaru polemic.
  • p. 41: Here the authors describe Shekau’s control (and, from their perspective) his doctrinal extremism growing amid two developments: the shift from urban to rural combat and the deaths of the remaining key commanders appointed in the time of Muhammad Yusuf. What changed things, the authors say, was the establishment of the Islamic State – at this point, various commanders said that Shekau must pledge allegiance to the Islamic State or be overthrown. “He made the pledge to stay on his throne,” in their telling. Not mentioned here is that the pledge (in March 2015) coincided with major military setbacks for Boko Harm, as its proto-state in northeastern Nigeria crumbled amid a Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian offensive.
  • p. 42: Here the authors are forced to raise and address the obvious, and very sensitive, question: “Why did we refuse to call the group Khawarij before, and now we call them by that name?” In other words, if Ansaru was essentially in the right from these authors’ perspective, back in 2012 or even 2011, why did it take so long for these authors to break with Shekau? The authors explain, rather lamely in my view, that the coming of the Caliphate made Shekau’s group into literal Khawarij (i.e. actual rebels against the “imam,” rather than just extremists) and that Shekau fooled a lot of people for a long time. And here is where I’ll stop, since the text pivots to doctrinal questions after this, although there is a noteworthy passage on p. 45 where they talk about their “sources” for understanding Shekau, which basically come down to their personal experience of him. There are also, I should note, some more narrative passages interspersed in the rest of the book, particularly when it comes to internal conflicts within Boko Haram and the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State – perhaps I’ll post about those later, but again, this is a decent stopping point for now. As I mentioned in the last installment, I may add a part three at some point.

One wonders if anything resembling a decent biography of Shekau will ever emerge. If his own mother does not know much about his own life, if he himself is heavily invested in a certain wild-eyed persona, and if his opponents only know snatches of his early life, then perhaps much of who he was and is will never come to light. It’s striking, really: we live in an age of information saturation, yet the long-time leader of Africa’s most prominent jihadist groups is still hidden, to a significant extent, from almost everyone’s view.


Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa’s New History of Itself, Part 1

Last month, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province released a book by “the two brothers, the two sons of the Shaykh Abu Yusuf al-Barnawi.” This “al-Barnawi” (the name just means “from Borno”) is Muhammad Yusuf, who is widely considered the founder of Boko Haram. The book, available in .pdf at Jihadology, is entitled Khadh’ al-Waram min al-Khawarij al-Shikawiyya bi-Bay’at Ahl al-Karam, or “Taking Out the Tumor of Shekau’s Khawarij Through Pledging Alliance to the People of Benevolence.” As the title indicates, it’s a polemic against Abubakar Shekau, who succeeded Yusuf as Boko Haram’s leader in 2009. Shekau now heads a faction of the group, the “Islamic State West Africa Province” being a fancy name for the other main faction.

To me, from an intellectual standpoint, the main interest of the text is in what it says about Boko Haram’s early years; part one is an auto-history from the anti-Shekau perspective. In many ways, what appears here is not new, but it does lend weight to some of the claims made in other sources – see below. The text’s silences, or the places it contradicts other sources from/about Boko Haram, are also interesting.

The second part, the polemic against Shekau, is less interesting to me. Maybe this is merely a sign of boredom on my part with this whole topic, but it may also be a sign of Boko Haram’s overall intellectual/doctrinal stagnation. Even amid the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 (under Shekau), and the factional split in 2016 (between Shekau and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, who appears to be one of the “two sons” who authored this book), I had a sense that Boko Haram’s most energetic thinking was behind it. The differences between Shekau and al-Barnawi may be real enough, as spelled out from al-Barnawi’s perspective here (.pdf), but the core issues by now are very familiar and the arguments are somewhat repetitive.

In a way, once Salafi-jihadis or even just Salafis or even just Sunnis in general start debating each other over how far to go with takfir (calling other Muslims non-believers), the conversation often devolves into more or less sophisticated versions of the ultra-hardliners calling the hardliners murji’a (i.e., too soft), and the hardliners calling the ultra-hardliners khawarij (i.e., too extreme). Either way, such intra-Salafi or even intra-Sunni debates often devolve into people accusing each other of leaving the theological fold, given that the murji’a and the khawarij were both early Islamic sects not considered part of the Sunni mainstream. Ironically, of course, many Sunnis, including many non-jihadi Salafis, love to accuse all Salafi-jihadis of being khawarij, so it’s ironic to see someone such as al-Barnawi (whom many Sunnis who call a Khariji) calling Shekau a Khariji.

I don’t really like using a “right-left” spectrum to describe Islamist or jihadist movements, but it’s too tempting to pass up here. One could even formulate a theorem: “Any given Salafi, when pressed, will call someone significantly to their ‘right’ on takfir a khariji, and anyone significantly to their ‘left’ on takfir a murji’i.” Daniel Lav’s book is, obviously, quite relevant to cite here.

In any case, here are a few of the interesting parts from the historical section. This post has gotten a bit long, so here in part 1 I’ll summarize some passages connected to the lifetime of Muhammad Yusuf, and in part 2, tomorrow, I’ll summarize some passages connected to Shekau. I may add a part 3 at some point, but likely not this week.

  • p. 9: The basic biographical information given here about Muhammad Yusuf (born in January 1970 in Jakusko to a Tijani Sufi father, etc.) lines up with what most other sources say and with what Yusuf said about himself.
  • p. 10: The book confirms what various other sources have claimed, namely that Yusuf belonged to Ibrahim al-Zakzaky’s “Muslim Brothers” until 1994, when he “noticed portents of rejectionism and Iranian Shi’anization” and left the movement. That Yusuf belonged to the movement is plausible – that it took him until 1994 to detect Iranian influence seems very hard to believe. It seems to me, then, that the hagiographers are here trying to acknowledge a widely known reality (that Yusuf was once Shi’i-leaning, an accusation his critics leveled at him), but then spin it to try to preserve his Salafi bonafides. The book then goes on to describe his affiliation with the Salafi sect Izala, an affiliation also widely reported in other sources. It puts the date of his break with Izala as 2002, a plausible date and the year widely cited as that of Boko Haram’s founding. (Elsewhere I have seen dates ranging from 2000 to 2003 as years when Yusuf began to distance himself from/become unwelcome in Izala circles).
  • p. 11: Here the writers, as in other Boko Haram sources, emphasize the impact of 9/11 on Yusuf’s thinking. Stating that he was on hajj at the time, the writers say, “Among the effects of this blessed raid was that it awakened in his spirit that which had been passive (khamidan).” The writers go on to quote from one of Yusuf’s lectures on how he became outraged over events in Nigeria such as the interreligious clashes in Kafanchan (1987) and elsewhere – essentially, the writers paint a portrait of someone radicalized by both domestic and foreign events. The authors describe the year 2001/2002 (1422 hijri) as the start of his strident preaching, particularly against “the democrats and their devil-scholars,” and they put the year of his complete break with democracy and his call for “monotheism and jihad (al-tawhid wa-l-jihad)” in 2003/2004 (1424 hijri).
  • p. 16: Here is an interesting and detailed overview of Yusuf’s mosques/centers/teaching sites, including the well-known Ibn Taymiyya Markaz and Al-Ta’ifa al-Mansura Mosque but also two sites that are new to me, namely the lessons he gave in Lawan Bor neighborhood and the Abu Hurayra Mosque in Gomari Airport neighborhood.
  • pp. 24-25: This is the fullest glimpse that I have seen into Boko Haram’s administrative structure in the time of Muhammad Yusuf. it contains details about Yusuf’s various committees, including a Hisba force charged with “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” for example by trying to close shops that remained open during Friday prayer time. He also had a military committee, initially responsible for guarding the movement’s leaders and sites, but that developed into something stronger over time.
  • pp. 21-22, p. 26, etc.: Boko Haram is still very angry at the Salafi and Salafi-leaning scholars who debated and denounced Yusuf during his lifetime – figures such as Ja’far Mahmud Adam and Isa Pantami.
  • p. 23, pp. 26-28: These passages essentially confirm the now widespread account of how Boko Haram came into increasing conflict with authorities, particularly in Borno, during the years leading up to the July 2009 uprising. These passages add new (at least to me) details, such as disputes between Boko Haram and the Borno State government over the timing of Eid al-Fitr (perhaps 2008, since Yusuf was dead by the time of Eid al-Fitr 2009?). But essentially the events are the ones we already knew, particularly the conflicts between the Borno State Government’s “Operation Flush” and Boko Haram. One notable section (p. 23) describes how Yusuf was  imprisoned on “false accusations with no basis: they imprisoned him once on the charge that he had connections with ‘the al-Qa’ida Organization’ and that he had a link with the ‘Taliban of Kanamma’ group, which was headed by the so-called Muhammad Ali, and which killed Ja’far Mahmud Adam, the taghut of the murji’a.” I suppose one could draw various conclusions from this passage, but to me there are two: (a) Yusuf had only very weak if not non-existent ties to al-Qa’ida, a conclusion supported by other sources; and (b) ISWAP, or whatever we call it, still has an odd relationship with the Kanamma group. It is known that Yusuf did have some ties to them, since he himself said that they had studied with him. So it’s odd that ISWAP would imply that there was no relationship whatsoever between Yusuf and Ali, or that the mainstream of Boko Haram had nothing to do with killing Adam (in 2007). If you’re not familiar with the events at/around Kanamma (the meaning of which is still heavily debated), here is one contemporary account and here is a scholarly analysis that I don’t fully accept.
  • p. 29: This section describes Boko Haram’s preparations for war under Yusuf, who ordered his followers to sell their belongings and arm themselves with the proceeds. He delegated a man named Abu ‘Amir al-Barnawi (who would die during the fighting) as head of the army, with three commanders under him, four leaders under each of them, and a thousand fighters under each of them (obviously that last part sounds wildly aspirational – Boko Haram may never, even at its height, have had 12,000 fighters). The account goes on to say that Nigerian customs intercepted some of the weapons that were smuggled in, and that this helped precipitate Nigerian forces’ strike on Yusuf’s Ibn Taymiyya Markaz. The account of the preparations and the battle, which goes on until p. 33, does not mention where the weapons came from, nor does it mention al-Qa’ida here.

Overall, one thing that stood out to me was that in reconstructing Yusuf’s life and thought, the authors rely very heavily on his publicly available videos and writings. I find it credible that the authors are indeed his sons, but that status wouldn’t necessarily mean that they have privileged information about their father or about events that occurred when they were children, teenagers, and very young men. At times I had the impression that they were following the same kinds of techniques that a Western analysts would in generating this account; one wonders how much first-hand knowledge about Yusuf really remains within Boko Haram’s ranks, and particularly within the ranks of “Islamic State West Africa.” After all, the guy has now been dead for nine years.

Libya: How Much Local Support Did the Islamic State Have in Sirte?

The Intercept is out with an article that compiles and cross-references various estimates of how many armed drone strikes the United States has conducted in Libya. The authors assess that the number is somewhere around 550 strikes since 2011, although the authors also note that the U.S. government frequently contradicts itself on drone strike numbers, and the various think tanks and non-profits that keep count also produce varying (although not that disparate) figures.

The Intercept’s count of 550 U.S. drone strikes in Libya over the last seven years is based primarily on five U.S. military sources. The first is a retired Air Force squadron commander who said his unit executed 241 drone strikes out of a U.S. base in Sicily in 2011, when the air campaign in Libya began. The second is an Air Force wing commander based in Nevada who told the audience of the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium that drones conducted approximately 300 strikes in the second half of 2016, when the U.S. was attacking the Libyan city of Sirte to oust Islamic State militants. The third is a 2017 Air Force news story that provided roughly the same figures. The fourth and fifth sources are AFRICOM and Pentagon officials, who confirmed that 11 strikes carried out in Libya during the Trump administration involved remotely piloted aircraft.

The Intercept article also builds on a new report from the New America Foundation and Airwars that counts 2,158 airstrikes (manned and unmanned) by “at least four foreign countries and three domestic Libyan factions” between September 2012 and June 10, 2018. The New America/Airwars report focuses heavily on civilian casualties, an area where the U.S. government figures and the independent estimates are quite different.

In any case, what stood out to me from the Intercept’s article is that figure about drone strikes in Sirte, where the Islamic State exercised substantial control beginning in early 2015. U.S. airstrikes in 2016 were supporting Operation Bunyan Marsus under the auspices of Libya’s Government of National Accord, which succeeded in largely expelling the Islamic State from Sirte by December 2016.

It’s become a stock phrase of mine in presentations and a few current paper drafts to say that when jihadists control territory, particularly urban territory, it is only a matter of time before more powerful actors line up to expel them from that territory – see Mosul, Gao/Timbuktu/Kidal, Damboa, Mogadishu, etc. I still think that’s true, but the Sirte campaign shows just how many resources those other actors sometimes need to mobilize. Operation Bunyan Marsus lasted from May 2016 to December 2016. AFRICOM’s “Operation Odyssey Lightning,” targeting the Islamic State in Sirte, ran from 1 August 2016 to 19 August 2016 and entailed “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers and fighting positions.”

The Intercept adds

Of those 495 strikes, more than 60 percent — approximately 300 — were carried out by MQ-9 Reapers, with the balance conducted by manned Marine Corps aircraft flown from Navy ships off Libya’s coast, according to Col. Case Cunningham, the commander of the 432nd Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the headquarters of the Air Force’s RPA operations.

That’s a lot of strikes. And to me, the immediate inference is that the Islamic State must have enjoyed some significant popular support in Sirte. Other sources suggest a similar conclusion. The reasons are too complicated to fully examine here, but a crude version would posit that in Sirte, Muammar Qadhafi’s hometown (of sorts), the Islamic State assembled a coalition that was unhappy with the 2011 revolution’s aftermath, including tribes (Qadhadhfa), local jihadists (Ansar al-Sharia defectors), former regime loyalists, people aggrieved by the conduct of Misratan militias who wrested Sirte from regime control, etc. Here is one journalist’s account (Arabic) from February 2015:

[In 2011] I saw Qadhafi’s green flags in Sirte, and in Neighborhood Number 2, the biggest of the city’s neighborhoods that became famous for its legendary endurance against the forces of Misrata. Whoever goes now to that neighborhood will find the black flags of ‘the Islamic State’ having replaced Qadhafi’s green flags.

The Islamic State in Libya had a significant foreign contingent, including hundreds of Tunisian fighters and a handful of prominent leaders from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the mashriq. But to control Sirte and to hold parts of it for as long as they did against major firepower, they must have had some significant local support.

Now, I want to be careful with arguments like this – I am not saying that ordinary Muslims, in Libya or elsewhere, are crypto-jihadists, eager to raise the black flags whenever they get half a chance. That would be morally offensive and analytically wrong.

I am saying that the way analysts and policymakers talk about jihadism often discounts local agency. There were very particular circumstances in Sirte that facilitated whatever popular support the Islamic State found or built there, but I think analysts (including me!) have more work to do in figuring out why ordinary people in those very particular circumstances might support jihadist projects. A lot of the existing analytical paradigms – “they’re rational actors,” “they’re radicalized,” “jihadists exploit local chaos” – don’t really cut it for me anymore.

Libya Roundup, 6/8

Here are a few items on Libya that caught my eye this week:

  • Jacob Mundy in The Conversation: “Libya’s transitional leaders, some of whom will be presidential candidates, are entangled in – and benefit from – the country’s war economy. So do various armed factions that may view the vote as a threat to their interests and disrupt the process before it begins.” See also Tarek Megerisi.
  • Al Jazeera on Khalifa Haftar’s forces entering into Derna. More at The Independent and Al Arabiya.
  • Reuters: “The United States said on Wednesday [June 6] it had conducted a precision air strike near the Libyan town of Bani Walid, killing four Islamic State militants…One of those killed in the strike was Abd al-Aati Ashtaiwy, a Libyan who had traveled to Syria and had previously been based in Sirte, which Islamic State controlled from 2015-2016, according to the Bani Walid source and local reports.” Here is AFRICOM’s statement.
  • RFI (French) on allegations that various (non-Libyan) African rebels are training in southern Libya.