Insurgents and Identity: Why Nuance is Necessary

By Edvin Arnby-Machata

In the wake of the assault on the gas extraction facility near In Amenas, Algeria this January, the Islamist movements in North Africa received a lot of airtime in the West—after all, they no longer only threatened the collapse of a large country (Mali) but were directly threatening the lives of westerners.

What the media coverage and statements by high officials suggest is that no one believes that there are any quick fixes to the security problem in the Sahara. This is positive, as it hints that the international community may finally have learned something from repeated failed interventions in Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, etc. Less positive is the fact that in spite of this recognition, the region’s security analysts and policy makers could still not come up with a better option than another military intervention that seems to have merely pushed the insurgents across the border (primarily to Niger), while failing to restore stability in Mali.

Unfortunately, many observers still seem to be fooled by strenuous links between West Africa’s different Islamist groups and al-Qaida, which obscures the local/regional and political economical dimensions of the problem. Instead, the narrative focuses on superficial ideological linkages while omitting Christian terrorists like the Lord’s Liberation Army and Akhwat Akwop—even though their violence is often motivated by similar grievances and political, economic contexts.

The root causes of these movements—like those of Hamas, the Naxalites, al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, the Lord’s Resistance Army, even degenerated narco-guerrillas like Shining Path and FARC—are primarily domestic and political. While the exact circumstances of each have their own unique trajectories, they can be narrowed down to one general theme: the failure of the modern, secular state to deliver inclusive socio-economical development and improved standards of living.

Without sufficient concern, Robert Fox at the Evening Standard name drops Somalia’s al-Shabab, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and Mali’s Ansar Dine as al-Qaida affiliates whose emergence is “a consequence of the Arab Spring”—sloppily ignoring the fact that Boko Haram was founded in 2001 and had its bloodiest year of activity in 2009, and that al-Shabab was taking control of southern Somalia already from 2006. In fact, the latter has been in retreat since August 2011.

This inaccuracy on part of Fox reflects a general lack of nuance in the western media, which considers all militant organisations with religious Islamic identities as part of a unified movement with a global agenda. The reality is however rather different.

While the Islamist advance in Mali was aided by weapons and fighters from the Libyan civil war, this overspill has little to do with the popular awakening and downfall of authoritarian systems that we normally think of when we hear the phrase “Arab Spring.” Indeed, the triggers or catalysts of these conflicts have very little to do with “International Islamism.”

Al-Shabab emerged following a military intervention led by the Army of Ethiopia that successfully destroyed the civil political order established by the Islamic Courts Union. While the ICU had managed to restore order in central Somalia and provided the best hope for stability and peace in almost 15 years, its obliteration led to the formation of the notoriously brutal al-Shabab.

Boko Haram originates from the peripheral, poor, and marginalized northeast of Nigeria: both as a reaction to the global centre through a rejection of western education and science in general (Boko Haram means ‘western education is forbidden’); and to local and national centers through open violence against the government in order to establish an Islamic state in this part of Nigeria.

Finally, the various militant Islamist movements in the Sahara are fuelled by centuries—if not millennia—of the ethnic marginalization of Tuaregs and Berbers. From being under the early Arab dynasties, through the Ottoman and European colonialists, to now under the majority ethnic group of the respective state, they have in some ways remained second-class citizens.

These African Islamist groups have more in common with the Nicaraguan Contras, Chile’s Pinochet, and the Southern Vietnamese—they all used the same external power for their own domestic ends. Like them, they knew more what they were against (Communism) than what they were for.

A key difference is that the Islamist organisations use the reputation of this external actor (al-Qaida) rather than its actual diplomatic and military support. While some, most notably General Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Army Africa Command, have claimed that militant Islamists in Africa are “coordinating” efforts, no credible evidence of this has emerged.

Part of the problem is that most western observers separate groups with different nationalities more easily when these nationalities correspond to internationally recognized nation-states. The resulting views are not unlike common perceptions during the Cold War, where a Nicaraguan socialist or a Vietnamese communist were defined by their ideology rather than nationality. Ideology was seen to define your allegiances above nationality.

In doing so, the way ideologies fit into national narratives and political histories was too often overlooked. Most tragically in the case of Vietnam, where the United States identified with and supported Vietnamese desires for independence from France. But they could not accept how closely entwined the independence movement was with Communism and the Viet Minh, and instead of pragmatically seeking to secure a communist ally they supported the despotic and illegitimate Saigon government with a determination that would become catastrophic.

What makes the current focus on Islamist terrorism worse is that this feeds into grievance narratives of “us and them” and promotes a clash of civilizations. In the era of the Internet, what Robert Fox writes in the Evening Standard is read by Muslims across the world. This will make them likelier to distance themselves from the West, likelier to sympathize with their nationals and ‘co-religionists’ as they are implicitly being told by many media outlets that there is a constant struggle between the West and the East, between Christianity and Islam, between modernization and tradition – when the only difference worth noting, the only difference worth the struggle is the one between violence and peace.

Some groups seek to redress the failures of the state to deliver socio-economic development as well as improved standards of living by appealing to religious ideas and norms, while others may seek to do so through alternative economic models—or some may simply try to make a better living out of plunder. The common denominator is that they both are perceived to offer a credible alternative to the established order by big enough groups as to allow sufficient logistical/financial support and recruitment. The choice of rebel identity/ideology is likely to depend on opportunities provided by local culture, but also upon the personality and charisma of those individual leaders who are best able to mobilize followers and supporters.

Not to say that identity is irrelevant to rebellion—the identity of a rebel movement provides practical tools to raise new recruits, elicit domestic and international support, and set a widely credible agenda. Most importantly, it shapes the “us and them” narratives which exacerbates violent conflicts. But we make a mistake if we think that identity is more important than material interests to explain and predict organizational behavior.

Focusing too heavily on the ideology of a terrorist/insurgent/rebel group is unhelpful when trying to understand their motives and the rationale of their organization. This is not only so because ideology is often an abstract concept with fluid and inconsistent implementation. More importantly, by taking a more materialist and political perspective to militant groups, we can better understand the national/regional dynamic within which it enlists recruits, secures funding, and acquires weapons. These insights can lay the ground for holistic counter-terrorism strategies rather than the militarized option of engaging in “holy war” on the militant’s own terms.



Edvin Arnby Machata is West Africa editor with Global South Development Magazine and manages the Royal Institute of Public Administration’s blog. Follow him on Twitter: @edvin_am.

[Photo Courtesy of Plasmastik]

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