Daniele Garofalo, a researcher focused on Islamism at Analytica for Intelligence and Security Studies, and the author of the book, “Medio Oriente Insanguinato”
Alexander Thurston is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and one of the world’s leading experts on jihadism in Africa. In his book, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel, he tries to illustrate the evolution, the peculiarities, the actualities and the operations of jihadist terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel. The author gives an overview of the various groups and their antecedents, providing original insight through first-hand interviews with politicians, on-site investigations, as well as a variety of reliable references from NGO operators, civil society leaders, local analysts and former jihadists. With this insight, Thurston is able to explain to the reader, the innerworkings of these jihadist groups and an overview of their activities and internal struggles over the past three decades.
The Commander Mindset
Thurston particularly focuses on the role of jihadist commanders in his book. He believes that to understand how jihadist policy works, one must first understand how commanders think and operate. He answers several important questions such as: “What constraints does a commander face?”, “What options does he have?”, and “When does he obey or disobey his superiors?” Ultimately, Thurston’s view is that commanders improvise, seek political and religious compromises and often adapt to conflict and events. Jihadist groups often struggle to prioritize their goals, the author points out, whether it be to carry out large-scale attacks, conduct experiments or build a Caliphate.
In the book, Thurston focuses particularly on six countries in Northwest and Sahelian Africa, such as Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya, and Mauritania, highlighting the shared and recurring themes of jihadist groups, such as dilemmas about operations, choices, and compromises, but also how state policies, or lack thereof, shape their operations. After a powerful introduction, the book unpacks the information into seven organized chapters and the author seamlessly summarizes the overall theme in his conclusion.
The first chapter deals with Algeria and the GIA — what Thurston describes as one of the most complex jihadist coalitions ever formed. Thurston identifies distinctive blocs within the coalition made up of Afghan veterans, local extremists, Djazarists (the nationalist current of the Algerian Islamist movement), and former FIS members. The GIA’s most intransigent leaders (Zitouni and Zouabri) attempted to discipline and homogenize the coalition through tyrannical and violent internal management — singling out dissidents and rivals as unbelievers who deserved death. This draconian management style caused a schism within the group, prompting some groups to splinter off, including the GSPC.
GSPC and AQIM
The second chapter discusses the GSPC and its evolution into AQIM. Thurston explains how the GSPC was much smaller than the GIA but much more cohesive. The GSPC was a very decentralized group and its commanders operated remarkably independently. The group later evolved into a coalition of political-military units that renewed its oath to al-Qa’ida (AQ) in 2006 and became al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007. Thurston makes it clear that GSPC/AQIM had maintained a presence in Algeria, but the group’s real focus and opportunities were in the Sahara. AQIM’s greatest successes and opportunities, which placed it center stage, occurred between 2012 and 2013 with the rebellions in northern Mali. AQIM initially offered support to rebel groups but later positioned itself as the manager of the jihadist emirate. Nevertheless, the group also experienced moments of tension, disagreements and poor internal cohesion (particularly between leader Droukdel and key field commanders Belmokhtar and Abu Zayd). Some wrong choices by Droukdel and some internal disagreements led to the failure of the jihadist emirate. Thurston illustrates how GSPC/AQIM’s more conciliatory and tolerant attitude and approach and their strategy of limiting and accepting disagreements and allowing autonomy within the group allowed them to overcome difficulties and political struggles, keeping the group cohesive and operational.
Jihadism in Mali
Then, in chapter three, Thurston moves on to analyze the context of northern Mali, explaining how the politics of northern Mali since 2003 reveal much about how jihadist coalitions and alliances work. The GSPC/AQIM managed to cultivate a wide range of local allies and weave strategic relationships with local politicians. The most glaring example is Ansar al-Din, which allowed local politicians to occupy an important place in the rebellion and play a prominent role in post-rebellion negotiations. Thurston shows how the experiences of jihadism are involved in broad local political struggles and how local politics determine the operational changes of jihadist formations and that crises push some actors to renounce their formal alliances with jihadists and, vice versa, pushes other actors to ally with them.
The fourth chapter addresses the dynamic situation in central Mali. In particular, Thurston shows how although the Qaedist JNIM (Islamic and Muslim Support Group, established in 2017) operated and had its leadership in northern Mali, most of its attacks were concentrated in central Mali. Thurston argues that the different patterns of violence in northern and central Mali reflect the different structures of jihadist coalitions in those areas. The north is dominated by the leadership and operations of JNIM’s leader, Ag Ghali (Ansar al-Din), whose strategy has focused on targeting foreign forces and forging agreements with key figures such as militia commanders, politicians and clerics. In central Mali, on the other hand, Amadou Kouffa (Katibah Macina), acted as JNIM’s field commander but also as the architect of a different kind of strategy that drew support from ethnic minorities, creating what Thurston calls a “jihadism from below” that led to an ethnicization of the conflict, in contrast to Ghali’s more destabilized but no less violent “jihadism from above”. In Mali, Niger and eastern Burkina Faso, al-Sahrawi (ISGS), and in Burkina Faso, the Ansar Al Islam group, have also conducted a strategy of ethnicization of jihadism.
The fifth chapter addresses and analyzes the growth of jihadism in the border areas between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, examining two groups operating in these areas: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Ansar Al Islam — both with past connections to AQIM. Thurston explains how jihadist mobilization is more difficult to achieve and sustain in urban areas, thus explaining why jihadist groups typically take root in areas far away from urban areas and capital cities. In these peripheral regions, they can evade national and international security deployments, establish ties to local groups and protect communities from violent militias and gangs, thus gaining their support and trust.
Lessons from Derna
In the sixth chapter, Thurston focuses on Libya, where the jihadist presence in the country has always been large but fragmented. The chapter, however, focuses mainly on the city of Derna which, according to Thurston, offers important lessons on jihadism. The sphere of jihadist political action in Derna sees the confrontation between veterans in the orbit of al Qaeda and young hardliners, many of whom would later join IS. Thurston explains how the veteran jihadist linked to AQ was also a militant with local identities and interests. The chapter also includes the author’s assessments of the Arab Spring and the real opportunities and operations of the jihadists in the context of the uprisings.
Why Mauritania is Different
The seventh chapter deals with the interesting post-jihadist situation in Mauritania. Thurston shows how in Mauritania, GSPC/AQIM operated from 2005 to 2011, but that since 2010, jihadism started to leave the country towards new opportunities, particularly in neighboring Mali and the Sahel. Thurston states that: “Mauritania contrasts with all the countries previously analyzed, all of which were involved in the creation of relatively successful jihadist coalitions. Mauritania is a negative case of jihadist coalition building”. The author explains that Mauritania has succeeded in reducing tensions within the country, improved the treatment of Muslim scholars, allowed preaching and avoided confrontation and contact between jihadists and extremists. However, Thurston argues that Mauritania’s success is unlikely to last forever and that, as early as 2018, crack began to emerge. He mentions concerns about youth radicalization and discontent in the suburbs, encouraging a return of AQIM.
Finally, in the conclusion, the author assesses the war on terror in Northwest Africa and suggests policy recommendations for countering jihadism. He also issues a warning against the “War on Terror”, which he says is bound to produce problems and fuel conflict. However, Thurston concludes his extraordinary book by stating that: “I would be foolish or/and arrogant to pretend to know how to solve the crises of the Sahel”.
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