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).

Recent Developments and Perspectives on Mediterranean Migration Crisis

This year, repeated fatal shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea have shocked the world and highlighted the struggles of migrants who travel from Africa and the Middle East to the shores of the Mediterranean seeking access to Europe. I’ve written on the issue here, especially as it relates to European-Sahelian relations, and now I want to point out a few recent developments and perspectives on the crisis.

Developments

  • Naval Mission: Today, European foreign and defense ministers, meeting in Brussels, backed plans for a European Union naval mission that “will involve European warships and surveillance aircraft gathering intelligence and then raiding boats to crack down on people smugglers.” The mission is supposed to start next month.
  • Italian Rescues: Last week, the Italian Coast Guard rescued nearly 2,500 migrants.
  • Shelters: The European Union, in cooperation with Niger, plans to open shelters in the Nigerien cities of Agadez, Arlit, and Diffa. The centers aim to “dissuade [migrants] from trying to reach Europe and instead offering local alternatives.”
  • Anti-Trafficking Law: On May 11, Niger’s parliament passed a “law that could see human smugglers facing up to 30 years in prison in an effort to stem the flow of illegal immigrants crossing its borders in hopes of getting to Europe.” Together, the shelters and the law attempt to go part of the way toward addressing Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou’s call to address the local roots of the migration crisis.

Perspectives

  • Francis Kornegay: “The Mediterranean crisis is indicative of how intellectually inadequate geopolitical and foreign policy/national security analysis has become at connecting the dots of interdependence between land and sea in the world’s unfolding power dynamics.”
  • Gary Younge: “The facts on immigration don’t fit easily on a mug, whereas the politics of xenophobia can be condensed into a single sentence. ‘They’re coming here to get what’s yours.’ This is, of course, a lie, stemming from a system in which borders reflexively open for capital and close for people.”

A Northern Nigerian Prediction about Syria, Validated

In late 2011, in Kano, I was talking about Syria’s crisis with a friend of mine. “Soon America will bomb them,” he said. At the time, I thought his prediction was wrong. But his tone – which conveyed his sense that the bombing was inevitable – stayed with me. Time has proven him right, and me wrong.

I am not a pollster and I cannot say how a billion Muslims feel about anything. But I think my friend is not alone. I think that many Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, look at American military actions in the Middle East as habitual, predatory, and destructive. My friend also said that “men with long beards” would eventually rule Libya, and that the U.S. had not understood this when it intervened there. We’ll see if he is right about that as well, and we’ll see what unintended consequences stem from American strikes in Syria.

Niger Has Received at Least Four Streams of Refugees Since 2011

Yesterday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that some 6,000 refugees have arrived to Niger from Nigeria, fleeing the Nigerian military’s offensive against Boko Haram. Reuters provides additional context.

Refugees from Nigeria add to existing and recent refugee influxes into Niger. I can count four major streams since 2011:

  1. Refugees from the 2011 post-electoral crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.
  2. Refugees from the Libyan civil war of 2011. In May 2011 AFP put the combined total of refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and Libya at 93,000. Some 60,000 of these were probably from Libya – more here. The final total from Libya, given that the war lasted for months after May, was undoubtedly higher. It is difficult to know how many of these refugees have been successfully resettled, but I would imagine many of them continue to live in precarious conditions.
  3. Refugees from the 2012-2013 crisis in Mali, whom UNHCR counts at 50,000-60,000.
  4. Refugees from northeastern Nigeria.

Throughout the crisis in Niger’s neighbor Mali, it has often been tempting – including for me – to examine Niger’s “success.” More accurate than calling Mali a failure and Niger a success would be to say that Niger faces its own problems and vulnerabilities, including refugee streams from multiple other countries in the region, and limited resources to give those people.

Niger and Libya on the Recent Bombings

(Somehow I goofed and didn’t post this on May 28th, the day I wrote it. It’s still relevant, so I thought I would post it today. – Alex)

Following the May 23 bombings in northern Niger, the country’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, charged that the attackers had come from southern Libya. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan denied this claim.

I do not know who is right. But Issoufou and Zeidan’s statements interest me in large part because of the views they reflect on what post-Qaddhafi Libya has become.

Issoufou:

Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel…I had already warned from the beginning of the Libyan crisis…that it was necessary to avoid solutions after Kadhafi’s defeat that would be even worse, and I had said that if the Libyan state turned into a Somalia or fell into the hands of fundamentalists, the solution would be worse…Today the situation is very difficult, the Libyan authorities are doing their best to control it, but the fact is, Libya continues to be a source of destabilisation for the countries of the Sahel.

It’s noteworthy that Issoufou frames the problem as a regional one and not just as an issue for Libya and Niger.

Zeidan:

It was Gaddafi who exported terrorism…The new Libya will not tolerate that.

Issoufou depicts the bombings as the work of foreigners, Zeidan depicts Libya’s problems as being the fault of Qaddhafi.

Libya and Niger have had some tension since Qaddhafi’s fall. Niger was relatively slow to recognize the new Libyan government, and the two countries have not reached an agreement on the extradition of Qaddhafi family members and lieutenants from Niger back to Libya (Zeidan raised this issue again at his press conference). Issoufou calling Libya a “source of destabilization” is strong language, and suggests that he (and possibly other Sahelian leaders) are deeply unhappy with their northern neighbor’s trajectory. Issoufou’s concerns about Libya, in other words, go well beyond the latest bombing.

Africa News Roundup: Ethiopia and Egypt, Chad and Libya, CAR’s Crisis, and More

Los Angeles Times:

A battle over water has turned into a war of colorful rhetoric between Ethiopia and Egypt over the flow of the Nile, which begins in the African highlands but keeps Egypt from being swallowed entirely by desert.

An ambitious Ethiopian dam project is diverting Nile waters that Cairo says will reduce the river’s northward flow. The Egyptians have stumbled into crisis mode: At a meeting hosted by President Mohamed Morsi this week, several politicians, unaware TV cameras were rolling, suggested sabotaging or threatening to bomb the dam.

IRIN: “[Central African Republic] Crisis Remains Dire – and Neglected.”

El Watan (French):

Gao, Kidal, Anefis… Six mois après le lancement de l’opération Serval, que deviennent les villes du Nord-Mali ? Notre envoyée spéciale a échappé à un attentat kamikaze et a vécu des accrochages entre l’armée malienne et le MNLA. Elle témoigne de la peur et de la précarité dans lesquelles vivent les populations.

BBC:

Seven people have died in the Somali port of Kismayo in fighting between two self-declared leaders of the strategic city and surrounding area.

Residents told the BBC the clashes began in the town centre at midday and lasted for about 40 minutes.

They broke out after one of the leaders tried to meet the defence minister who is attempting to resolve the crisis.

VOA: “South Sudan Switches from Arabic Textbooks to English.”

From May (missed it then), Luke Balleny: “What Impact Has the EITI Transparency Initiative Had on Nigeria?”

The Economist: “Could Political Demonstrations in Ethiopia Herald Greater Freedom?”

Wall Street Journal: “Chad’s President Warns of Islamist Threat in Libya.”

What else is happening?

Regional Interconnections and Conflict in the Sahel

I am curious to hear readers’ reactions to two pieces that have appeared in recent weeks. These pieces, inspired by the recent bombings in Niger, treat interconnections between crises in different Northwest African countries, specifically Libya, Mali, and Niger.

  • AFP: “With its weak government, porous borders and proliferation of weapons, Libya has been accused of destabilising its southern neighbours, but analysts say it is wrong to point the finger at Tripoli alone. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issofou has said those behind two suicide attacks in his country on May 23 came from southern Libya. He also said the same groups had been planning another attack on Chad…Western diplomats and analysts believe that southern Libya has become a regrouping area for jihadist groups pushed out of northern Mali by a French-led offensive launched in January.”
  • Similarly, from Reuters: “Suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have shown how an Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations of the Sahara, meaning France may be tied down there for years to come. Regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for Paris and its Western allies, with a lack of cooperation between Saharan countries helping militants to melt away when they come under pressure and regroup in quieter parts of the vast desert. Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the latest haven for al Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from strongholds in northern Mali this year, killing hundreds.”

Analyses of such interconnections are important. Just as I think the civil war in Libya played some part in intensifying the ongoing crisis in Mali, I think the fallout from war in Mali has been one key motivation for (or, at the very least, a rhetorical image invoked by) jihadist movements attacking Algeria and Niger in the first half of this year. Indeed, I would like to see deeper reflection about the unanticipated consequences of external military and political interventions in this part of the world (and in general). At the same time, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully, to preserve awareness of how localities differ from one another even amid regional interactions, and to minimize analogical thinking (i.e., understanding one place by comparing it with another).

What do you think?