Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
Soon after 9/11, US President George W. Bush declared: “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror”. At the time, scholars were critical of the president’s willingness to link economic deprivation to terrorism, claiming that there was little empirical evidence to support such a view. What little evidence available was weak, reductionist, and ignored political considerations and push and pull factors that drive young men to join al-Qaeda. However, the growth of Salafist-jihadist groups across the African continent in the last few years suggests it might be useful to revisit the poverty-terrorism nexus, particularly as there is now a lot more evidence indicating that poverty is a stronger recruitment tool than ideology or religion.
One reason why al-Qaeda, and later the Islamic State (ISIS), had limited appeal in Africa was that Salafism had been largely absent for much of the continent’s history. The shift in religious practices and observance began in the 1960s and 1970s. It was then that Gulf and South Asian-based reformist or revivalist movements such as Tablighi Jamaat (the Society for Spreading Faith) penetrated the continent, bringing with it new ideas and resources. Officially, the intention was to educate, provide social services, and challenge injustices. However, their presence effectively changed the way Islam was practiced in Africa which was previously more Sufi-orientated.
Jihadists Adopt Glocalist Agenda
Reformist movements also emboldened people to challenge local leadership, giving rise to a pan-African Islamist agenda. Groups such as al-Shabaab (Somalia), Boko Haram (Nigeria, Niger, Chad), Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen or JNIM (Mali), Ahlu Sunnah wal-Jama’ah (Mozambique), the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), and the Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS) built on the work undertaken by the reformist movements and exposed the failure of governments to address long-term economic, social, and political grievances. Because adaption and ideological innovations are key features of terrorist franchisees, at the present time many of the Salafist/jihadist groups operating across the continent adopted glocalist agendas that resonated with disaffected youth.
More specifically, these groups began to get traction once they adapted al-Qaeda and Islamic State messages. Recognizing the change in the Salafist and jihadist landscape, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri adapted his approach towards local groups. He was no longer looking to dictate al-Qaeda’s agenda or ideology, opting instead to form partnerships and relationships whereby local groups adopt al-Qaedaism and, in return, they could use the al-Qaeda brand. Local Salafist and jihadist groups have taken al-Qaeda and Islamic State ideology, (trans)nationalist messages, and claims that Muslims have a duty to the ummah (worldwide Muslim community), and incorporated local economic and socio-political grievances into their platform. They exploit poverty, corruption, and underinvestment to recruit followers. These groups either incentivize people by offering money or raid villages, kidnap and forcibly conscript and indoctrinate children. They emphasize that, through membership, recruits can assist in bringing forth a better society — one shaped by Islam and free of corruption and abuse.
Two other factors have helped these groups grow. First, they exploit areas where state control is limited, and the government has had to forcefully step in to impose its will on the people. This happened in Nigeria where Boko Haram was able to exploit poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and weak family structures to successfully recruit followers. Secondly, as Salafist and jihadist groups incite the people against the government, it is more likely that the government will respond with hard military power. The result is a binary situation whereby locals must choose to side with either the security forces or the terrorists for protection.
The glocalist approach was adopted in Somalia in the mid-2000s with the rise of the Islamic Court Union (ICU). The ICU promised it would impose law and order and end judicial corruption by imposing Islamic law. This appealed to Mogadishu’s business community who was looking for someone to stop the inter-clan rivalry so that businesses could function. The community did not care that the ICU was more religious than them, they just wanted to create an environment where businesses could survive.
Mali also serves as a good example of how Salafism and jihadism is expanding in Africa. The 2012 rebellion arose out of a confluence of factors such as the presence of a national liberation movement of the Tuareg (The National Movement for the Liberation of the Awazad), who had been neglected and oppressed by successive Malian governments and the injection of Gulf aid often tied to Islamic revivalism. Additionally, the Islamization of the conflict in Northern Mali occurred due to the ambition of local leaders such as Ag Ghali who saw the value of getting support from a group such as al-Qaeda, at a time when al-Qaeda was looking to expand and grow. Even though the Salafist/jihadist-led rebellion was ultimately defeated, its embers remain. With neither the Malian government nor the international community addressing deteriorating socio-economic conditions, instability is prevailing across the region.
Mozambique offers another example of how official malfeasance and lack of economic opportunities feed an Islamist insurgence. In Mozambique, a group that was largely inconsequential a few years ago has managed to kill thousands of people, displace over 400,000 people, and capture a territory (which it later lost). Although Mozambique experienced a prolonged period of economic growth after its civil war, the benefits did not trickle down and almost half of all Mozambicans continued to live in absolute poverty. The rise of the insurgency in the North was, therefore, rather predictable because it was led by the youth, many of whom were angry at rampant corruption and lack of opportunities. They also believed that the central government was exploiting the north’s natural gas resources at the expense of the local population who had to contend with evictions and relocations during the LNG project.
Islamists and Salafist-jihadists have become more capable of exploiting socio-economic conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly because they see that the West’s interest in the region, apart from arming authoritarian governments, is waning. This policy only breeds more alienation and anger in disaffected segments of society which makes the Salafist-jihadist promise of a better life more appealing. Therefore, we must address underlining socio-economic conditions before we can properly combat such terrorist movements emerging across Africa.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.