Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel

Local Politics and Rebel Groups

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Alexander Thurston
  • Cambridge: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , October
     292 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


After the extrajudicial killing of Muamar Gaddafi in 2011 and the destabilization of Libya, North Africa and the Sahel descended into chaos, especially in Mali where Arab and Tuareg jihadists—many who had trained in Gaddafi’s militias—took over the northern half of the country and declared the independent state of Azawad. Several books have appeared since France intervened in Mali in 2013, driving Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists out of the north, but none as informative as Alexander Thurston’s Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel. Readers unfamiliar with the region will no doubt struggle with this text, not because it isn’t clearly written but due to the region’s complexities. Thurston does a good job sorting out these complexities. He examines the major crises in the region, offering many helpful suggestions in response to what has happened since the 1980s.

Chapters include discussion of Algeria since its civil war, the Tuareg Rebellions in northern Mali and Azawad, central Mali and the rise of Peul jihadism, the crisis in Burkina Faso since the fall of Blaise Compaoré, Libya after Gaddafi, and “post-jihadism” in Mauritania. Thurston makes the compelling case that current Western strategies for addressing jihadism—a term to distinguish recent jihadi activity from mainstream Sunni views of jihad—have failed to grasp the political and even “banal” nature of jihadism. Instead, the West tends to treat jihadists as pathological lunatics, not cunning politicians. “Western security paradigms are deeply resistant to thinking of jihadism as a form of legible politics,” Thurston writes, since they are “based on the flawed assumption that taking jihadist politics seriously gives jihadists moral legitimacy” (4).

Throughout his lengthy study, Thurston reveals many of the flawed assumptions of the War on Terror and its “one-size-fits-all” explanation for jihadi activity (such as treating the region as if it was the same as Afghanistan). He argues instead that most jihadi activity is driven by local, national, and regional concerns, and that jihadists are political players in particular contexts who constantly improvise according to their settings. Thurston opts for what he calls a “meso-level analysis” (5). By this, he means a detailed examination clarifying how jihadists interact with political networks in their respective environments. One of the most compelling aspects of Thurston’s study is his use of primary sources, including actual statements of jihadists, as he closely reads such texts for the insights and contradictions they reveal. His analysis is informed by his extensive field work in the region, including interviews with jihadists who are currently active.

Thurston’s chapters on Mali, which include discussions of the Tuareg jihadist Iyad Ag Ghali and the Peul jihadist Ahmadu Kuffa, are particularly illuminating, but each of his case studies has much to recommend it. Perhaps his most thought-provoking case study is the examination of “post-jihadism” in Mauritania. I draw attention to this chapter because, after he surveys the deteriorating situation elsewhere in the region, Mauritania seems to offer an alternative path forward. Unlike Mali, for instance, Mauritania has found a way to contain jihadi activity by accommodating jihadists at the level of rhetoric. The Mauritanian government allows jihadists to “air views that are not quite jihadist, but very close to jihadist thought” (296). By allowing jihadist preachers to freely air their views, so long as they do not transgress state-established boundaries, Mauritania has succeeded in creating a “new social contract” allowing oppositional views to be articulated without recourse to violence. 

Furthermore, Mauritania has given jihadists “viable offramps” so they might be reintegrated in society, rather than hunted down like beasts.  “The default perspective of Mauritanian authorities is to avoid confrontation with jihadists and hardliners, rather than to court it,” Thurston states. “The particular case of Mauritania hints . . . that allowing strident preaching may blunt recruitment and deny jihadists the ability to build formidable coalitions” (308–309). As a case in point, he cites the jihadist Abu Hafs al-Muritani, an associate of Osama bin Laden but now a Mauritanian citizen and critic of the state. What figures like al-Muritani seem to want, Thurston observes, isn’t the right to defend Islam in any militant sense but the right to speak freely about problems in their society and government. Thurston notes approvingly that Mauritania’s ruling regime has allowed them to do so.   Beyond adopting these strategies, Thurston acknowledges that the achievement of a viable post-jihadist society in the region will only occur when jihadi actors have exhausted all other possibilities and have succumbed to their internal contradictions. Thurston’s political realism is not Machiavellian but offered in hopes of finding creative solutions. He acknowledges that the case of Mauritania is probably not applicable throughout the region. In each and every case, regional states must find their own solutions to the unique problems they face. They must do so in such a way that violence is obviated without fostering further resentment and cause for militant revolt.

Thurston is aware that Western policy makers are not likely to be thrilled with his conclusions—that the world will have to learn to live with residual forms of jihadism; but, those who shape foreign policy will need to confront the realities that they now face, rather than promote alarmist strategies that are misguided, costly, and punitive—and that have clearly failed. This includes accepting that regional politicians and states already accommodate and collude with jihadists, who are not merely fundamentalists and extremists but political actors who continually adapt to the changing realities they face. Similarly, the West must accept that the presence of their troops will only fuel jihadi insurgencies rather than end them. “When insurgencies feed off the foreign presence,” Thurston states, “it is time to begin winding that presence down” (315). The future of the region is grim, he warns us. The Sahel especially is one of the most homicidal environments in the world, and it is menaced with climate change. “Absent radical changes in local Sahelian government and priorities,” Thurston states, “no humanitarian crisis in Africa’s recent history will compare to the hell to come” (318).

But he observes that the worst outcome is not inevitable. Western governments now face a choice: Will they adopt more realistic attitudes about the region’s long-standing problems or will they continue to exacerbate them. A different future for the region is possible, but only if better strategies for dealing with it are imagined. “If northwest Africa’s jihadists have had some success in building coalitions,” he states, “that does not mean that states or communities are helpless in the face of jihadism’s spread” (26). By seeking creative solutions to the problems besetting the region, the conditions that favor jihadism can be altered. This is good news, so long as it does not go unheeded.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Wise is a professor in the Department of English at Western Washington University.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander Thurston is assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. He was an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations between 2013–2014, and has also held fellowships with the Wilson Center and the American Council of Learned Societies. He is the author of Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching and Politics (2016) and Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement (2018) which was named by Foreign Affairs as one of the "Best of Books 2018" and was a finalist for the African Studies Association's Book Prize in 2019.



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