The social roots of 'radicalisation' and 'violent extremism' in Africa

Is 'radicalisation' the cause or the effect of violent conflict in Africa? English translation of the presentation given at the Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Rome, on Friday 24 November 2017.

The task I have been given is to address the dynamics of radicalisation and violent extremism in Africa. We heard yesterday the President of the Italian Council talk about the 'future of Europe with Africa'. In this light it is important that we are demanding when it comes to an analysis of trends: fifteen years after 9/11 and the outset of the War-on-terror we are confronted with terrorism everywhere. The wars that ultimately produce radicalisation are far from ending, while Africa is definitely a field of contention among different definitions of the word radicalisation itself, a concept that has been adopted in relatively recent times. Within radicalisation, if we talk about Africa, we find a bit of everything: sectarian militias, liberation guerrillas, and urban-based cells with a jihadist vocation. Very often by amalgamating everything we create a kind of inflationary effect that does not help our analysis.

If we look at perception surveys, radicalisation in Africa is not a priority for the vast majority of people. So there is a wide hiatus between local perceptions and international priorities over a phenomenon that in Africa, I recall, with al-Shabab on the one hand (part of the al-Qaeda constellation), and Boko Haram (the Islamic State in the West African province) on the other, by 2015 reached unprecedented levels of lethality. Today, if I may sketch a picture, in a nutshell, the landscape is only to some extent framed by the rivalry and mutual containment of the two 'brothers in method' — that is, Daesh and al-Qaeda. We can actually observe over the past few years an expansion of their operational range, a certain capacity of tactical innovation both in conducting attacks and in protecting their own forces, and — as the case of al-Qaeda in Mali clearly illustrates — the elaboration of multi-level strategies. Often praised in the recent past by international donors, Mali then becomes a sort of 'black swan' through the implosion and the creation of an embryonic Sahara emirate in 2012. Well, the point is whether those dramatic events are to be considered as an exception or rather as a flag that must alert us about what may happen along the Sahel in the years to come. In that region, we know that the 'Group to Support Islam and Muslims', that emerged out of the al-Qaeda matrix, aligns a series of five armed groups and adopts a strong rhetoric against colonial occupation. In the month of October 2017 alone, it carried out approximately 15 attacks, hitting some 115 people since March, when it was created. The group has established a series of regional alliances, including northern Burkina Faso where Ansar-ul Islam is present. All of this obviously has to be understood as part of a long-term strategy that al-Qaeda pursues.

We know the Sahel G5 seeks to equip itself with the new counter-terrorism force, with regional conflict management capacity, showing some limits in its inception.

The priority seems to me to understand the nature of the phenomenon and to avoid a simplistic reduction of radicalisation, understanding it as a phenomenon that occurs along a one-dimensional axis: radicalness on the one end, moderation on the other. In reality, the controversy for the political legitimacy project behind the definition of Islam in Africa today is something that sees radicalisation far more as a product than as a cause of the dynamics of those conflict that we are witnessing.

If we interview the captured jihadists, we find some interesting data: about 70% of them tell us that the triggering element for their recruitment was state action. Very few have detailed knowledge of theology, while we often find that recruitment takes place within collective dynamics that involve a given area, a village, a social segment: it is not simply the individual's choice. All this makes us understand how the social roots of political mobilisation have to do with not-so-latent conflicts that underlie violent mobilisation and have to do with long-term dynamics. Among these dynamics, one may recall the erosion of Sufism in Africa, the strong presence of foreign interests in humanitarian action and development cooperation. I refer not only to Europe, I refer to the powers of the Gulf, I refer to local variations of Salafism that have a historical root in the Algerian civil war as well. But deeper still one finds a crisis of a clientelist system of political legitimacy and governance affecting many African states that have been hit by major factors. Not only climate change, but the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s which changed the entitlement of access to resources — land in primis — affecting the social dynamics that had to do with the relationship between fishermen, farmers and herders.

There is a rather important and medium-term dynamic that we observe in jihadist preaching in different countries. That is the presentation of the militant verb as a function of social emancipation with respect to local leaders who are systematically accused of corruption, to be agents of foreign powers, to stifle a whole younger generation. The young African generation that as we know is demographically bursting out, struggling to stay within the marginality it often finds itself confined to, and sees in the attack on the corruption of a rapacious elite, against the political stability that somehow condemns them to a marginal role, a possibility of social mobility.

The jihadist attacks in Africa often target state officials, particularly in the justice sector, which is often considered to be the weakest link in comparison to Shari'ah justice that is perceived as swift, not corrupt, and part of a moralising discourse. On the other hand, there is a giant problem with the education sector, where the Boko Haram case is so obvious, but far from unique: attacks on schools are something systematic, that we observe at different latitudes on the African continent.

In short, there are various dynamics associated with radicalisation that have local roots, they are not just a model imported from the Middle East. We have to learn to read these dynamics in the context of the crisis of the state in Africa in the last twenty years if we want to understand that a significant part of what we will see depends on how African states — involved in international cooperation as they are — understand religious discourses as catalysts for violent mobilization.

In summary and concluding, since I want to keep it really short, it is dangerous not to resist the often contingent interests that induce to define any form of political controversy in Africa as 'terrorist'.
The obvious danger is that it is an incriminating, non-selective and non-strategic action, which at some point — as it already happens in the battle against Boko Haram in the South, a battle that has shifted considerably around Lake Chad — bundles together humanitarian elements like a mass of refugees fleeing the jihadists on the one hand, while on the other hand the same refugees are accused of jihadism, all because of our inability to understand local dynamics. All this can only help radicalisation in the medium to long-term. So if al-Qaeda has a medium to long-term strategy — and I think it is difficult to deny it — it is necessary that the international community, in its most organised institutional fora, adopts a medium-long-term response by avoiding quick fixes, stitched-up solutions that may serve in the short breath of the politics of their member states, but struggle to strike in depth a phenomenon; they coin extremely wide categories, but fail to bring to light the core of the problem.

A huge humanitarian and geopolitical game is being played out around Lake Chad. The tectonic fault lines of what may be the problem of the day after tomorrow are shifting. The Sahara has operated for decades, perhaps centuries, as a geopolitical insulator. Today it is a connector. So sub-Saharan African affairs enter North African politics, they enter European politics and global politics. I think it is necessary to develop the criteria and the ability to read politics in Africa as part of a common problem. Thank you.

(the English translation of the original Italian transcript has been slightly edited for clarity while retaining its character of oral presentation)


For a more systematic treatment of these issues see:
Francesco Strazzari, 'Radicalisation: Religious Extremism as a Vector of Violent Mobilization', in African futures: horizon 2025, edited by Valérie Arnould and Francesco Strazzari, EUISS, September 2017.


Cover photo: Cour royale de Tiébélé, Burkina Faso, by Maarten van der Bent, (CC) 2013.