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).

Snapshots of Ramadan in the Sahel

Beginnings

Nigeria:

The Nigerian Supreme Council For Islamic Affairs has directed Nigerian Muslims to commence their Ramadan fast on Thursday, June 18. The Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, who is the President-General of the Council, on Wednesday gave the directive while announcing the sighting of the new moon heralding the month of Ramadan 1436AH…Mr. Abubakar also called on Muslim faithful to use the Holy month of Ramadan to re-dedicate themselves to the teachings of Islam and continue to live peacefully with one another irrespective of religious and tribal differences.

Senegal:

The National Commission for the Observation of the Lunar Crescent (CONACOCC) has the task of determining the beginning of each lunar month and this week declared that Ramadan would start on Friday [June 19]. But many Senegalese Muslims began fasting on Thursday, emulating neighbouring Mauritania, Mali and the Gambia, as well as Saudi Arabia, home to the sacred pilgrimage sites of Medina and Mecca.

More here (French).

Material Conditions

Mauritania (French):

At the main food market in Nouakchott, the merchants give themselves over, apparently with complete impunity, to all sortes of speculations. The sudden rise in prices particularly affects the products that go into making the dishes most prized during the month of Ramadan; notably, vegetables and meats.

More from Mauritania: a newspaper editor on economic conditions in Nouadhibou (Arabic), including the difficult wait for a fishing agreement with the European Union.

Mali (French):

Month of pardon, pity, support, and help, [Ramadan] is also the month of high prices in Bamako…Onions have passed from 225 to 400 FCFA/kilo. Likewise, potatoes have climbed from 300 to 500 FCFA/kilo; garlic, from 1000 to 1200 FCFA.

 

Burkina Faso (French):

In Burkina Faso, Muslims are getting ready for the month of Ramadan in a very particular context. Since the popular insurrection and the fall of Blaise Compaoré, people’s purchasing power seems to degrade more and more. For merchants, business is turning into slow motion and people are already denouncing the prices of certain food products useful for the month of Ramadan. A month that could be difficult for many families.

From Senegal (French), a video about electricity and water cuts.

Messages

Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs:

[T]he holy month this year coincides with a period Muslims and indeed all Nigerians,have every reason to thank Allah for His abundant blessings. The peaceful elections and the dramatic transition of power from one government to the other are a testimony to the fact that Allah answers prayers. All right-thinking Nigerians appreciate that what Nigeria witnessed this year, despite the frightening predictions and scary projections before the 2015 elections, was simply the grace of divine intervention.

The month of Ramadan as a period of forgiveness offers Nigerians an opportunity to forgive the unprecedented abuse unleashed on their collective humanity in the recent past and to forge ahead as one nation united by one destiny. It is an ample opportunity to foster the ideals of brotherhood and togetherness after some years of crude and institutionalised divide-and-rule tactics which resulted in unprecedented divisiveness, losses, of lives, property and reputation….[F[or those who Allah Has entrusted with leadership, we urge them to remember the favours of Allah on them when He answered the prayers of the oppressed, the maligned and the persecuted by granting them success. They should complement the prayers by being good and justify the expectations of Nigerians by being fair and just to all. They should be compassionate, disciplined and exemplary. They need to demonstrate competence and sense of mission.The campaign period of sloganeering has expired and only exemplary performance can retain and sustain the massive goodwill and support of the abused masses.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari:

As we make collective efforts to bring to a permanent end the menace of the Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin countries, let me use this auspicious occasion to appeal to our misguided brothers to drop their arms, embrace peace and seek a better understanding of Islam during this Holy period and beyond.

Others:

  • Senegalese President Macky Sall (French).
  • Shaykh Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, Commander-General of the Hisbah Board in Kano, Nigeria: “Ten Things That Break the Fast” (Hausa).
  • Ramadan information page at Mauritania’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs (French).

 

Hunger in Mauritania

IRIN, May 26:

Hundreds of thousands of Mauritanians are struggling to feed themselves as they fall victim to the effects of climate change.

A chronically hungry country, Mauritania could see the availability of food drop to its lowest level in years if drought continues to ravage crops, livestock and livelihoods.

An estimated 1.3 million people will face food insecurity this year, according to the latest assessment by the UN-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).  Among them, nearly half a million people are expected to fall into severe food insecurity by June and be “unable to meet their food needs without external assistance.” Around 21,000 will suffer extreme food insecurity, or a near complete depletion of their livelihoods.

FEWS Net, May 4:

In areas of Mauritania and Senegal that experienced poor rainfall last year, 2014/15 crop production was between 30 and 80 percent below average, causing household food stocks to deplete earlier than normal and prolonging the period of time that households depend on market purchases to meet their food needs. Below-average incomes from crop sales and reduced milk availability are also limiting food access. To cope, households are selling additional livestock, increasing debt levels, engaging in increased levels of wage labor, migration, fishing, and forestry product sales (charcoal, wood, etc.), and reducing the quantity and quality of their meals. Even if the coming June to September rainy season is relatively normal, affected areas will face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) or Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food insecurity between now and the start of new pasture growth in July in pastoral areas or early crop harvests in September in agropastoral areas. A small number of very poor households will also face Emergency (IPC Phase 4) food insecurity, particularly in Mauritania.

WFP, May 25:

Mauritania hosts the largest number of Malian refugees. As of 31 March 2015, over 52,000 refugees are living in Mbera refugee camp. Since the beginning of the political turmoil in Mali, WFP has been providing life-saving food assistance to refugees who continue to depend largely on external support to meet their most basic survival needs.

IFRC, May 29:

IFRC has launched three emergency appeals in The Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegal. Totalling 5.1 million Swiss francs, the appeals aim to support the National Societies in the three affected countries through activities focusing on food security, nutrition promotion, building resilience, and disaster risk reduction.

[…]

Immediate interventions include distributing enriched flour for children under two years and for pregnant or lactating women who are at risk of malnutrition, to prevent a deterioration of their nutritional status, and to support the adoption of better nutritional practices which are essential to reducing malnutrition. Cash transfers will allow families to purchase what best suits their immediate needs, while longer term support will see families receive agricultural and livestock inputs to strengthen and protect their livelihoods.

 

Senegal: A Marabout-Politician in Macky Sall’s Government?

President Macky Sall of Senegal

President Macky Sall

Since at least the 1990s, there’s been a major question about the leaders of Senegal’s Sufi orders and their relationship with formal politics: given that succession to the high leadership positions is hereditary and complex, how will the increasing number of younger leaders (often called marabouts) react? Will younger members of major families attempt to create their own constituencies? Will charismatic marabouts from outside the major families attempt to do the same? What effect will their moves have on Senegalese politics?

One of the “politicized marabouts” scholars have long watched is Modou Kara Mbacke (b. ca 1954), a grand-nephew of the founder of the Mouridiyya Sufi order. In 2004, after long activism as a religious leader for youth, he created a political party, the Party for Truth and Development (PVD in French). Yet he has tended to support incumbent presidents – in 2000, he backed Abdou Diouf (who lost to Abdoulaye Wade that year), and in 2007 he backed then-incumbent President Wade. The PVD did not run its own candidate in the 2012 presidential elections (nor in 2007), but in the 2012 legislative elections, the PVD won two seats. The Senegalese press has reported that Kara will be a candidate for president in 2017, a race that is already in its nascent stages.

Now, however, there is speculation that Kara might enter Macky Sall’s government. The two men recently met, and afterwards Kara told journalists that he wants to “accompany President Macky Sall” – a phrase open to multiple interpretations. He also called for the appointment of “people who don’t do politics.” Perhaps Sall just met him to be polite. But it is interesting that Kara has access to the president.

For more on Kara (and the Tijani Sufi Shaykh Mustapha Sy, to whom he is often compared), two references:

  • Fabienne Samson, “Islam, Protest, and Citizen Mobilization: New Sufi Movements” in New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal
  • Linda Beck, Brokering Democracy in Africa, especially the chapter “Influential Brokers”

Recent and Upcoming Workers’ Strikes in the Sahel

Sahelian countries are typically in the international news for elections or insecurity, but it’s interesting to follow labor issues there as well. Public employees’ syndicates in particular can be strong enough to mount newsworthy strikes. Here are a few recent and upcoming workers’ strikes:

  • Senegal, May 19-20: The Sole Syndicate of Health and Social Action Workers plans to strike. Points of contention include alleged government plans to remove certain allowances that health workers receive – see some background here (French).
  • Mali, April 21-23: Transport workers in Gao, who work on the Gao-Bamako route, struck over safety conditions.
  • Niger, April 8-10: Mine workers at two Areva uranium mines struck over non-payment of part of their bonuses.
  • Burkina Faso, April 8: The Coalition against the High Cost of Living called for a general strike, but it was only partly followed in the capital and elsewhere. The Coalition has a complex set of demands for the government, including demands for investigations into the deaths of former military ruler Thomas Sankara and murdered journalist Norbert Zongo.
  • Chad, early April: Schoolteachers struck over the government’s delayed payments of salaries.
  • Burkina Faso, March 31-April 1: The National Union of Truck Drivers of Burkina struck to demand the implementation of a 2011 convention containing provisions on salaries, allowances, and other matters.

Senegal, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen

In early April, Senegalese President Macky Sall returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia and indicated that he would support the Kingdom’s military campaign in Yemen (find some basic context on the war here). Yesterday, Senegalese media reported that Sall will soon deploy 2,100 soldiers to Saudi Arabia. Senegalese Chief of Defense Mamadou Sow has already left for Saudi Arabia at the head of a delegation of senior officers, in order to make preparations and begin working with Saudi counterparts. Senegalese troops have served in Saudi Arabia before, namely during the Gulf War. Sall’s administration framed the upcoming deployment as a contribution to protecting Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity and defending Islam’s two holiest sites – indeed, it was interesting how strongly language of Muslim solidarity featured in the administration’s language, which also referenced Senegal’s membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and in the global Muslim community or umma. Sall’s message to the National Assembly, delivered yesterday by Foreign Affairs Minister Mankeur Ndiaye, can be read here in French.

The decision has occasioned some domestic criticism. A former chief of defense, retired General Mansour Seck, told a Senegalese newspaper that the deployment “could give us problems with our potential enemies, that is to say, terrorists.” Seck also said that the deployment will strain the country’s limited military budget and put some of the country’s best soldiers overseas at a delicate time. Opposition politician Mamadou Diop Decroix also criticized the decision, saying that Saudi Arabia “is not the victim of external aggression” and asserting that the National Assembly was not properly consulted. Even one member of the National Assembly who belongs to the president’s coalition said that “we must not exchange the lives of our soldiers for petrodollars,” alluding to the assumption that Senegal’s support in this military venture will ensure further Saudi investment in the country. So far, though, it looks like the deployment will proceed without major political obstacles.

Senegal: On the Trials of Karim Wade and Hissène Habré

I have a post at the Global Observatory discussing two ongoing trials in Senegal. An excerpt:

The trials of [former Chadian ruler Hissène] Habré and [former President Abdoulaye Wade’s son Karim] Wade will have implications for elites across Africa. The former’s trial may mark a new, albeit halting, effort to use African judicial systems to hold former heads of state accountable for human rights abuses. The latter’s trial may signal a new effort to crack down on corruption. At the same time, however, the trials may have little impact on ordinary Senegalese and their day-to-day struggles.

If you read the piece, please stop back by here and let me know your thoughts in the comments.