By Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos
Fear and ignorance have led to the propagation of countless misconceptions about the threat of terrorism around the world. Sub-Sahara Africa, where groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabab regularly launch large scale attacks, is hardly an exception with broad tropes being used to explain deeply local movements. Below, I outline 12 myths about terrorism in the region and propose ways to move beyond the misconceptions and towards lasting local solutions.
Myth #1: Jihadist terrorism poses the main threat to sub-Saharan Africa today.
The Response: We must focus all the resources of public authorities and of the international community on the War on Terror.
The Reality: Each year, malaria and car accidents kill many more people than all of the terrorist acts in Africa combined. Access to health care and road security are therefore much more important when it comes to saving lives. From a financial and political point of view, many developing states nevertheless continue to focus on the War on Terror.
Myth #2: Jihadist terrorism is unprecedented and exceptional in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Response: Counterinsurgency strategists must therefore use unconventional tools to deal with this new threat.
The Reality: In the Sahel, the Jihadists of the 19th century had a territorial anchor, a social base, and a longevity that contemporary revolutionary Islamic movements never had. Revolts under the banner of the Koran are not new at all. Consequently, we must understand so-called ‘radical’ Islam as a form of contestation that directly calls into question the repressive nature of weak states and political regimes which prohibit the expression of any opposition through political parties, trade unions, or associations.
Myth #3: Jihadist terrorism on the African continent is the result of a clash of civilizations between the Arab and Muslim world in the North on one side, and the land of the ‘Blacks’ who were evangelized by Christian missionaries in the South on the other.
The Response: A wall must be erected to stop, or at least to slow down the spread of Islam to tropical, equatorial and southern Africa.
The Reality: Jihads are, above all, wars waged within Islam. To reduce them to their hostility to Christianity risks starting a real international war of civilizations and ghettoizing Muslims perceived as incapable of modernizing and living in democratic societies. Actually, such an essentialist understanding of cultural differences justifies resorting to force to combat populations who are supposedly condemned to backwardness.
Myth #4: Jihadists aim first and foremost to kill or convert Christians by force.
The Response: The main priority is therefore to protect Christians.
The Reality: The Salafists who advocate a military jihad are seeking essentially to ‘excommunicate’ (takfir) and combat ‘bad Muslims.’ In Africa, al-Qaida is the only movement that encourages attacking Christians and the West in the first place; without success judging by the track record of jihads that occur in Islamic territories and mainly kill Muslims. To protect only Christians would follow the reasoning of terrorists and go against humanitarian principles that forbid faith-based discriminations when it comes to giving aid. Religious favoritism would again create the conditions for a war of civilizations pushing for a militarized response to terrorism.
Myth #5: Jihadist terrorism in Africa follows an arc of crisis all over the Sahel, from Mauritania to Somalia.
The Response: The threat is global and requires an international response.
The Reality: The narratives of a global threat serve to justify foreign military interventions in the Sahel and to support authoritarian regimes which have been rehabilitated thanks to their participation in the fight against terrorism. Such views obscure the local dynamics of insurgency and simplify to the extreme the social complexity of conflicts. They also perpetuate the false belief that all jihadist movements are coordinated under the central command of an ‘Islamic International’-style organization, like the Comintern during the Cold War. Actually, the perception of a globalized threat comes from autointoxication, if not ignorance, and encourages the expansion of military action in the response to terrorism.
Myth #6: The jihadists who fight in Africa come from abroad.
The Response: The problem needs to be resolved in the Arab countries.
The Reality: In line with the domino theory and the fear of an ‘arc of crisis,’ many commentators support the idea that African jihads are manipulated by invisible forces and point to the role of Arab countries or Iran. These ‘conspiracy’ theories often rely on scapegoating and help African governments to dismiss their responsibilities in problems that are allegedly ‘imported’ from abroad. They also allow western powers to justify the militarization of their response to terrorism by referring to Jihadism as a threat to ‘world peace’ per Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.
Myth #7: The jihadists who fight in Africa recruit members on the Internet.
The Response: We must control cyberspace and break down social media.
The Reality: Apart from a few exceptions with the Somali diaspora, African jihadists currently recruit through lineages and matrimonial alliances in clandestine contexts where trust is forged by geographic proximities, cultural affinities, and linguistic communities. The emphasis on new communication technologies should not be the priority of the fight against terrorism in regions where access to telephones and the Internet is still very limited.
Myth #8: The Muslim community is divided into schools that believe in fundamentalist Sharia and the merits of a worldwide jihad.
The Response: We must promote a more tolerant Islam.
The Reality: There’s a silent majority of Muslims who don’t identify with any sectarian trend. Sufi brotherhoods are often presented as carriers of an Islam that is ‘African’ and ‘tolerant.’ But they once supported the arguments of the jihad, before becoming allies of the colonizers. Today they are part of the Muslim establishment and they are very much criticized by the Salafists because of their syncretic arrangement of pre-Islamic African traditions. As a result of their involvement with secular and corrupt governments, they also lost some of their moral leadership. Therefore, they may not be in the best position to ‘de-radicalize’ young people tempted by the jihad, contrary to the conventional wisdom of many counterinsurgency experts in sub-Saharan Africa.
Myth #9: The jihadists who fight in Africa are all crazy fanatics.
The Response: Their minds must be de-radicalized with psychiatric treatment.
The Reality: The media coverage of jihadist violence often tends to focus excessively on the irrationality of the mysterious motivations of the perpetrators of suicide bombings, the seductive power of religious extremism, and the popularity of social justice through Sharia. However, some combatants join terrorist groups for other reasons: acts of revenge against rivals, intergenerational conflicts, personal vengeances against the abuses of security forces, and economic or ethnic grievances that are only able to find expression through the mosque. The theory of religious fanaticism actually obscures the political conditions of the emergence of Islamist revolts.
Myth #10: All negotiation is impossible.
The Response: The response can only be military.
The Reality: Although portrayed as suicidal, jihadist groups frequently negotiate the freedom of prisoners in exchange for their hostages. The real difficulty of mediations stems mostly from their fragmentation, which complicates the identification of reliable interlocutors, and to the disintegration of their chains of command, which doesn’t allow for lasting agreements to be guaranteed. Ultimately, negotiations stop when it comes to the issue of the religious or secular nature of the powers in place. But the absolute refusal to engage in dialogue with terrorists encourages the recourse to military solutions that often cause ‘collateral’ damage and frequently end up aggravating conflicts.
Myth #11: The jihadists who fight in Africa are mere criminals motivated by profit and greed.
The Response: The response should be primarily police-driven.
The Reality: The denial of the political foundations of African insurgency has been very fashionable since the end of the Cold War and the ‘ideological’ oppositions between the East and the West. The tendency to dehumanize and delegitimize the terrorist enemy has also contributed to reducing jihadists to common gangsters. Distorted by propaganda, such representations confuse the analysis of the political economy of insurgent groups that certainly include criminals, yet also resort to pillage and extortion to continue their struggle in the absence of financing from Arab countries.
Myth #12: Jihadist terrorism in Africa is the consequence of poverty.
The Response: It would be sufficient to increase development aid to buy peace.
The Reality: Contemporary jihadist movements haven’t systematically developed in the poorest zones of Africa, nor have they recruited exclusively from the most deprived segments of the population. In the Sahel, poverty generally constitutes the backdrop of terrorism. But it doesn’t determine or explain the political conditions in which Islamist revolts emerged. Additionally, the assimilation of the fight against poverty with the War on Terror leads to some errors. Actually, imagining that international aid is liable to buy peace rests on two unverified hypotheses. First, aid is effective and permits development. Secondly, aid prevents conflicts, whatever the role it also plays in supplying warring factions, prolonging conflicts and boosting competition for rare resources.
Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos is professor of political science at the French Institute of Geopolitics in the University of Paris 8. He is an associate fellow at the Africa Programme, Chatham House, and the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, and a senior researcher at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD).
Alexandra Rae Boggs translated this article from French.