Comments on the CNESS Study on Youth Radicalization in Niger

In June of this year, Niger’s Centre National d’Études Stratégiques et du Sécurité (National Center for Strategic Studies and Security, CNESS) released a study on youth radicalization. (See also this article from Sahelien).

On reading the study, one immediately confronts two things: (1) it is based on some really impressive and expansive research and (2) it is quite explicitly stamped as a product bearing the approval of the Nigerien government, European governments, and the National Democratic Institute. One can admire the report’s occasional frankness about corruption and other governance issues, but one can also question how independent the analysis was.

Regarding the quality of the research, as Sahelien lays out, the report is based on 2,376 interviews with youth and 25 focus groups involving a total of 250 leaders and key informants. The report covers five regions of Niger (Diffa, Niamey, Tahoua, Tillabery, and Zinder) and a variety of different settings: cities, villages, universities, prisons. One critical finding from the report is that urban youth actually appear less susceptible to radicalization than rural youth – a finding that parallels a growing literature on rural jihadism in the Sahel.

But regarding the question of analytical independence, right from the forward one can see the intersection of official voices and perspectives in framing the report: CNESS is a government center, headed by a brigadier general, Ibra Boulama Issa, who thanks Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou in the forward. Issa also acknowledges funding from the governments of Norway and Denmark, routed through the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based NGO that receives considerable U.S. government funding.

None of this is problematic per se, except that one should note how smoothly the report fits into existing narratives about youth radicalization in the Sahel or the Muslim world writ large. The categories used, the categories that shape the analysis, are drawn heavily from the kinds of liberal-technocratic frameworks that lie at the heart of most “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. To me, the basic problem with such frameworks is that they depoliticize jihadism and treat it as a kind of epidemic that just needs to be diagnosed and cured with apolitical remedies. CVE also approaches religion in terms of, as G. Willow Wilson recently and eloquently put it, “social engineering strategies.” But these strategies often target wide swaths of people who have not engaged in violence. It’s also a bit disturbing to think about how the Sahel – some of the poorest countries in the world – has become a kind of laboratory for CVE, with processes managed from Washington through the medium of local states and their technocrats.

To hear Sahelian voices speaking the language of CVE no longer surprises me; at one meeting on youth and radicalization in Nouakchott in fall 2017, for example, I was struck by how closely the conversation resembled meetings I had attended in Washington. Virtually the only differences were the nationalities of the participants and the fact that the meeting was conducted in French instead of English.

This report, too, reads like a standard-issue Washington think tank report on CVE. On p. 6, for example, a table shows four “vulnerability factors” affecting non-university youth: ignorance/misunderstanding of the laws of the republic, ignorance/misunderstanding of the Qur’an, unemployment, and illiteracy. The text then adds two more “push factors,” to use a loose translation: feelings of injustice and feelings that public resources are badly governed/managed.

Then we find hard numbers attached to these categories. 93%-96% of youth in rural areas who have studied the Qur’an, we learn, misunderstand it, while 95% misunderstand or are ignorant of the laws of the republic. But what do these numbers mean?

It’s hard to tell, in part because the report uses categories in a vague and problematic way.  The definitions given on pp. 12-13, especially for “radicalization” and “violent extremism,” rest on the idea that radicalization involves breaking with majority societal viewpoints on key questions, and that violent extremism entails using violence “to defend political, ideological, religious, ethnocentric, or racist ideas that are very far from what the majority of people judge to be correct.” This vagueness is misleading, in that the report is essentially about jihadism rather than about, say, racism.

The vagueness also represents a step back from the USAID-funded Overseas Development Institute study of radicalization in Agadez from 2017, where the authors rightly called attention (p. 6) to a few crucial points, namely:

  • authorities and civil society actors had no consensus on what radicalization or violent extremism meant, and some (if I’m reading the report right) were just as concerned about arms trafficking, drug trafficking, and money laundering as they were about jihadism, and
  • many interviewees favored the imposition of sharia (as they defined it, of course) and viewed democracy as easily corruptible, and these interviewees’ views were in line with available survey results about the overall preferences of Nigeriens regarding sharia.

To go back to the CNESS study then, and to engage in a bit of reductio ad absurdem, would a violent extremist in the context of Niger, according to their definition of radicalization as ideas that go against majority views, be someone ready to use violence in the service of secularism?

My real concern is not with the definitions, but rather with the way that these definitions and the overall language of the report – and many other similar products – seem to frame large numbers of people’s views as inherently dangerous and problematic regardless of whether people have engaged in, or are likely to engage in, violence. There is an analytical problem here in that jihadist violence, from everything I have read and observed, seems to grow out of specific and combustible situations rather than out of generic and widespread vulnerabilities and push factors.

And if there is an analytical problem, then there is also a policy problem, in that the consumers of the report risk casting too wide a net when attempting to deradicalize people. More specifically, they risk demonizing and harassing people who have not and likely will not commit violence. These concerns are not just mine – they also seem to have been shared by some of the communities the research team approached, especially in rural areas, where the researchers note that they encountered significant reluctance among those they hoped to interview (pp. 19-20).

What, then, are the real policy implications of such reports – and of worldviews that see wide swaths of Sahelian populations (or, let’s be honest, Muslim populations generally) as needing reform? The report’s recommendations (starting on p. 96) have mix of policies that I think are good ideas (most of which boil down to public sector employment programs for youth, especially rural youth) and policies that I think are questionable. On the latter side are some of the recommendations on p. 98, which envision enlisting religious leaders (“marabouts”) to teach youth about how to interpret the Qur’an and conceive of citizenship, tolerance, etc. This is perhaps innocuous, but I am concerned about the conceptual logics underpinning this proposal – the idea that youth come to jihadism through certain Qur’anic verses, rather than through, again, specific circumstances. In short, promoting public sector employment is good, but social engineering (especially at this crude level of generalization) is problematic. Moreover, I find this type of thinking (“let’s get the marabouts to teach the youth how to understand the Qur’an!”) reflects larger, and equally problematic assumptions about how conflict-torn societies work – namely, the assumption that there are untapped religious leaders, “customary authorities,” and “tribal leaders” waiting in the wings to solve all of the problems, if only someone would listen to them.