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Posted on Friday, 19 February 2016 17:06

Islamic State in Africa and the grim utopia

By Nicholas Norbrook

Photo©AL HAYAT/AFPIslamic State fighters are setting up a base of operations in Libya, as the regional fight against the Nigeria-based Boko Haram takes a new turn. But do African governments have the tools to respond to radicalisation and terrorist attacks?

Cars burn a dull orange, billowing smoke outside the Hotel Splendid in the centre of Ouagadougou on 15 January. Special forces creep across balconies before the final assault. Inside is the carnage with which the world has become so familiar: bodies strewn, talk of survivors playing dead. After November 2015's attacks on the Radisson Hotel in Mali came blasts in northern Nigerian cities of Yola and Kano, and bombings by Lake Chad, offering no respite for the Sahel.

There is no let-up in Libya either. As Western and Russian air forces pound Islamic State (IS) positions in Syria and northern Iraq, the country is becoming a rear base. Around 3,000 IS fighters were in the coastal city of Sirte in December, according to the United Nations. Ever more are arriving by boat.

They are now pushing east, waging war on Libya's oil infrastructure. On 4 January, IS militants attempted to break into the oil port of Sidra. A week later, three ships tried to reach another oil port of Zueitina, before being repelled by air strikes.

For John Hamilton of consultancy African Energy, the strategy is not to make money directly from Libya's crude oil. This would have to be trucked to Chad or elsewhere for refining, which is "logistically difficult and very easy to prevent." Instead Hamilton suggests IS is looking for control. "Ajdabiya [a city east of Sirte] is the junction where the man-made river pipe reaches the coast. If they take Ajdabiya, they would control the water and gas supplies to Misrata and Benghazi – a major strategic lever."


An oft-misunderstood word claimed by many, jihad in its simplest sense means 'struggling' or 'striving'. It is better understood as the battle to overcome one's own personal failings rather than a battle to kill unbelievers or defend holy lands, though military meanings are also recognised.

Someone who backs political action to make government and society run in accordance to Islamic law. Not to be confused with an extremist or violent position, which may or may not be Islamist.

Literally 'the way', sharia is a set of Islamic principles that govern specific realms such as society, crime, marriage and the economy, though there is much debate within Islam as to what it encompasses.

Literally meaning 'the predecessors', Salafis or Salafists venerate early strict interpretations of the Koran. But they come in different varieties, especially with regard to wider political action. Some, known as quietists, prefer not to engage with what they see as corrupt elite power games. At the other extreme, some believe that it is their duty to impose God's vision of the just society in all lands, by violent means if necessary.

A Sunni Salafist group whose origins go back to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, born in 1703 in what was to become Saudi Arabia. His strict interpretation of Islam opposed local customs such as the veneration of saints and tombs, foreshadowing major clashes between Shia and Sunni Islam. These are analogous to 16th-century clashes in Christianity between Protestant fundamentalists, who accused Catholics of corrupting the faith with rituals and reliquaries. Al-Wahhab's followers made common cause with the House of Saud in 1744, an uneasy if durable alliance that still rules the state of Saudi Arabia today.

Could the IS project be to knit together a network that stretches from Aleppo to Abuja, with Libya's borders the perfect launchpad for regional attacks? The recent arrival of several top-level commanders of IS to Sirte suggests they want to bring their grim utopia to the continent.

Toolbox of solutions

Africa is home to myriad radical Islamist groups, from those supporting the idea of the wider IS caliphate, to the anti- imperialists in Somalia's Al-Shabaab, and Salafist groups in Mali who are more focused on individuals' beliefs. They all vary in their capacities, strategies, sources of finance and their political aims. Government responses so far have been shaped by the groups' degree of popular support and the sort of threat that they pose to central government authority. So far, there have been few open negotiations about compromise solutions between state officials and the supporters of radical Islamist groups.

Islamist movements are increasingly dragging Africa into the nationalist-versus-Islamist clashes of the Middle East. Libya's General Khalifa Haftar told a reporter that there were just three places for political Islamists, "in the ground, in prison or out of the country", echoing the repressive stance of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the earlier rhetoric that ousted a generation of leaders including Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Africa is already a battleground for the global fight between Islamism and Western interests, hence the attacks on Western hotels in Bamako and Ouagadougou. In addition, Africa is where older jihadi movements like Al Qaeda play out rivalries with newer, thrusting movements like IS. An Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) splinter called Al-Mourabitoun, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the hotel attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso and led the attacks on the In Amenas gas installation in Algeria in 2013.

Until recently, the idea of a conveyor belt from conflicts in Syria and Iraq down through the Maghreb and the Sahel into West Africa was deemed fanciful. African leaders now take the threat seriously. Worryingly, fighters from Boko Haram have been spotted in Sirte, having perhaps been pushed out of northern Nigeria by better military coordination under President Muhammadu Buhari.

Likewise, several Somalis from Al-Shabaab have also been sighted in Libya, as well as Malians and Mauritanians. That could signal the beginnings of a grim 'Internationale' of African fighters of all stripes uniting under the IS banner.

If they are successful, it will be because the population must constantly choose between an indifferent or collapsed central state and Islamist groups who bring a certain level of order, along with their undoubted repression. When Islamist groups Mouvement pour l'Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l'Ouest and Ansar Dine exploited the chaos of a coup in Mali to seize territory in the north of the country in late 2011, the media jumped on images of life under sharia law.

But according to Roland Marchal of French university Sciences Po, "the perception in Mali was a little different [...]. People said, yes, it's bad, but [the rebels] are much less corrupt than the governor. The army is not harassing us because they need lunch, and our daughters can cross the city without anyone bothering them."

Lemine Ould Salem, who shot his documentary Salafistes in Timbuktu and Gao during the occupation, agrees and points to what is happening today. Criminality and violence have exploded in northern Mali, and this is exploited by the jihadists when recruiting. He adds: "When they come to see villagers or nomad encampments, they tell them, 'You see, when we were here, people were safe. And now that the infidel French have come, anyone can come to attack you.'"

African governments have neither the military nor the political and social response to the threat that Islamist rebels pose. The race is on to neutralise the phenomenon before it spreads. To "undo these groups", says Marchal, we need to understand them first.

Saudi cash plants bitter seed

The transmission belt of the crisis is Saudi cash and state collapse. Since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has been pumping money into global jihadi groups. There are also preachers from Pakistan who push salafism – a 'purer' form of Islam that harkens back to more traditional times.

As some states in Africa stumbled after the 1970s oil shocks and 1980s debt crises, social welfare spending from the Gulf began to rise. Hardline Islamists used that leverage to seize critical institutions like, for example, the Haut Conseil Islamique du Mali (HCIM), now majority Wahhabi and crypto-supportive of jihadi attacks. Following the attack on the Radisson in Mali, HCIM head Mahmoud Dicko said the victims had brought it on themselves with their 'lifestyle': "Each time the world falls into excess, God organises the response to show them they are nothing."

But if cash prepared the crisis, the spark has been a huge period of upheaval in the Arab world – a fast jump in literacy and an explosion in communication technology, followed by a wave of political crisis that began in Tunisia in 2011 and swept across North Africa and the Middle East. For Anouar Boukhars, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "understanding this deadly interplay of political grievances, social exclusion and hinterland neglect is necessary for tackling the underlying causes of militancy in the Sahel/Saharan border regions."

This has been compounded by Western missteps and hypocrisy – other useful recruiting sergeants for Islamist groups. Examples include: French torture in colonised Algeria; United States funding of anti-Soviet fighters in the 1970s; Washington's funding of early iterations of IS to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria; and repeated military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Not a single Western intervention in the Arab world has followed the model of the successful post-Second World War occupation that resulted in the re-building of Japan and West Germany. Instead, companies like US oil services firm Halliburton – linked to the then sitting US vice-president Dick Cheney, himself an architect of the Iraq invasion of 2003 – won multibillion-dollar oil contracts, while corrupt officials were elevated to leadership positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Western security budgets and deployments in Africa are tiny compared to Western spending in the Middle East, with diplomatic efforts weaker and more fragmented.

Fixing the state, and correcting political failures, remain key to beating IS

So how should Africa fight back? Jon Marks, chairman of the Cross-border Information consultancy, says: "IS has to be defeated militarily first." That would require Algeria and Egypt's help in countering IS in the Sahel. "But the mailed fist must be accompanied by the helping hand," Marks concludes.

A principal priority for governments should be rebuilding the state, as these Islamist movements have thrived in areas where security, health, education and housing have been weak or absent. Security institutions like the police and army are at the heart of the problem.

There are strong parallels between stealing in the Iraqi army – estimated by Patrick Cock- burn in his book The Rise of Islamic State to be in the order of tens of billions of dollars – and the corruption that hampers Nigeria's response to Boko Haram.

Look to the people

This matters, because, as filmmaker Ould Salem says: "If IS wasn't supported by the population, it couldn't exist". For Sciences Po's Marchal, "We need to look at the counter-insurgency approach in the 1970s that treated the population as an ally," rather than the 'war on terror' approach employed by US President George W. Bush and continued by France's President François Hollande.

Mohamed Nur, a former mayor of Somali capital Mogadishu, says: "When I came in, I started to organise the community and tell the people, 'Look, our problem is Al-Shabaab. Our problem is insecurity and that insecurity is caused by Al-Shabaab. So don't let them live within the community.' [...] Thelighting of the city, the expectation of the people that comes back [when the government fixes things], the hope, all these contributed to the withdrawal of Al-Shabaab."

This feeds into the battle of ideas: on the streets, in schools and universities and in the press, in mosques and in political parties. As one moderate preacher in Bamako tells The Africa Report, "Imagine if we had been preaching in Bambara 20 years ago. We might not have lost a generation."

Like in Europe, one of the biggest dangers is the rise of the authoritarian right in response to jihadi attacks, thereby reinforcing the Islamist playbook. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump, by berating Muslims, has popped up in Al-Shabaab recruiting videos.

A parallel in Africa is Kenya. There, the media often link Somalis to Al-Shabaab, which has worsened social divisions and undermined intelligence-gathering operations. Despite initial soothing noises from President Uhuru Kenyatta after the Westgate Mall massacre in 2013, things quickly became difficult for Kenyan Somalis.

That is a mistake, explains Marchal, not because of some overly liberal squeamishness about supporting authoritarian regimes but because it often misses the underlying political dynamics. For example, the African Union Mission in Somalia had assumed that Al-Shabaab would be targeting Kenyan Somalis for recruitment. "But the main pool for recruitment was actually the Coast," he explains, as that region of Kenya has its own historical territorial grievances.

These political mistakes, so similar to the West's 'war on terror' response, have been repeated endlessly. In Chad, President Idriss Déby has victimised the Kanuri community of traders from northern Nigeria, with the police shaking them down regularly. Déby has also cracked down on the Buduma, a small ethnic group living round Lake Chad – a part of the country that has received almost no state development – who are recruited heavily by Boko Haram.

The radicalisation of Boko Haram itself was in part a result of repeated heavy-handed raids by Nigerian police, who killed an early leader of the student movement. Marchal adds: "At one point Al-Shabaab didn't even have 100 members. [...] Thanks to the wonderful Western policy and Ethiopian invasion at the time of Ramadan in 2009/2010 they increased to 15,000."

Notwithstanding these kinds of mistakes, is there an argument to be made for supporting what Jon Marks calls "the bastards" – the leaders of police states like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya – who knew how to keep a lid on the Islamists while putting thousands in jail? Marks is sceptical but acknowledges that if Algeria and Morocco appear less troubled by militant Islam today it is because "they know how to have the snitches out in the mosques."

Radicalisation redux

Anthropologist Madawi Al-Rasheed argues that the securocrats are the problem, not the cure. "After 40-50 years of dictatorship, they've killed every other alternative" – be it civil society, political opposition or trade unions. That is why the Islamists were the most organised groups and the first out of the gate during the Arab Spring. And Marks warns that Egypt's government may be repeat- ing the cycle of authoritarian, corrupt governments giving rise to a new generation of grievances that spur a new generation of radical Islamists.

Generally, there is more respect for religious belief in Africa than in Europe, thus far less Islamophobia in Africa. But as there is now a growing risk of polarisation between Salafists and Christian fundamentalists, the socio-cultural dimension is absolutely key. In Nigeria, for example, the mixed Christian-Muslim marriages in the Middle Belt and south-west provide a great bulwark against intolerance and fragmentation. This is now stretched to its limits in places like Jos in Plateau State.

Islam's internal debates

Al-Rasheed adds: "There is quite a lot of disenchantment with political Islam amongst some groups," pointing to the emerging moderate Islamist position in places like Saudi Arabia. "They are not willing to abandon Islam altogether, but they want to see a sort of democratic government drawing on the original texts of Islam. So they try to reinterpret these texts in ways that allow, for example, elected government, human rights and the application of sharia in particular ways that do not create conflict with international human rights."

Oud Salem argues that "the debate is very active on social media, in mosques, across the Muslim world. Just to give one example, in Mauritania there is Abdallah Bin Bayyah, a former minister, who is very active. Then there is the former mufti of Osama bin Laden, who was against the 9/11 attacks and has been critical of IS."

Meanwhile, in the chic Rabat neighbourhood of Hay Ryad, Morocco's own religious diplomacy is in full swing. An 'imam academy' is training 105 Malian imams in moderate Islam, with an additional 400 to be trained in the next few years. Other African countries are sending imams too, from Tunisia to Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea. King Mohammed VI is considered a spiritual leader in West Africa, head of the Malikite Rite, one of the four legal schools of Islam. A good start in the necessary 'soft power' approach say some; a drop in the ocean say others because the urgency is palpable, the hurdles legion. Africa's demographic growth and its failure to capitalise on the recent commodity boom have resulted in an explosion of young people into a flagging job market.

Nigeria may have a much better chance with Buhari in charge to counter Boko Haram, but talking about change and embodying it in a concrete programme of action that stays the course are two different things. But the peace deal in northern Mali, a key part of the puzzle in ensuring IS does not make further inroads into the Sahel, remains unenforced. And the international context makes the fightback tough too, as France is repeating the mistakes of the United States after 11 September 2001, with threats of revoking the citizenship of homegrown Islamists. Back in the day, bemoans Marchal, "We [the French] were so sarcastic about the Americans."

Meanwhile, the fragility of several countries to Islamist attacks remains high – with Algeria the first on the list. "[Algeria] explodes when the ruling elite starts to behave really badly amongst themselves and lose track of the central issue, which is keeping themselves in power," concludes Marks. While in 2011 the Algerians – like the Saudis – threw a lot of money at the youth to buy off revolt, today the squabbles about the succession of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and rock-bottom oil prices make that less likely. ●

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