In recent years, following the defeat of Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria, the group appears to have chosen the African continent for various terrorist activities. Issues such as poverty, weakness, corruption, local governments and cultural problems have given rise to religious extremism in the region.
In an interview with IQNA, Jacob Mundy talks about roots of extremism in Africa and its future.
Mundy is the Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies in Colgate University and the Director of Peace and Conflict Studies Program.
IQNA: In recent years, after the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we have witnessed the widespread presence of this group in various countries of the African continent, especially the Sahel region. What is the reason for this change in ISIS tactics?
Mundy: I think it’s more about opportunity than a strategy. The Sahel region is home to some of the poorest countries in the world and some of the weakest states. You only have to look at the thousands of dead Africans in the Mediterranean to know that opportunities for a better life are few and far between in the Sahel and large parts of West Africa.
For the armed groups that claim to be a part of ISIS, they use the ISIS “brand” as a way to recruit and to compete with other armed groups, and to gain market share in whatever economic activities they use to fund their operations. Whatever is left of ISIS in Southwest Asia and North Africa, they benefit from the perception that ISIS is still a major threat to North Atlantic interests somewhere in the word, whether the Sahel or Afghanistan.
IQNA: What do you think is the factor that attracts people to extremist groups like ISIS in Africa?
Mundy: As I mentioned, I think the fundamental factor is extreme levels of poverty. Even if governments in the region were responsive to people’s needs, state capacity is negligible to non-existent in many areas. Joining a revolutionary movement can give meaning to the lives of young men who have no future, and it can also help them to escape local traditions, particularly those traditions that make social and economic advancement difficult (e.g., bridewealth).
The region — which has been confronting desertification for decades — is also being environmentally disrupted by capitalism-driven global warming, and so longstanding modes of precarious but predictable survival are being interrupted by intensifying changes to water cycles, land arability, etc.
IQNA: Some believe that an international campaign similar to what happened in Iraq is effective in combating extremism in Africa. Do you think the African Union can succeed against ISIS and similar groups in Africa?
Mundy: Foreign counter-terrorism interventions in the Sahel region have been a total disaster since they were first launched in 2002, when there was no terrorism threat to speak of. The US Pan-Sahel Initiative in fact helped to create the terrorism problem we see today by pre-emptively declaring the Sahara-Sahel a “terrorism zone” linked to the Middle East and Afghanistan through the concept of the “terrorist safe haven”.
An important consequence of this was to make the small number of Maghribi insurgents in the region seem more important than they actually were. Apart from kidnapping foreigners, they were not able to conduct major operations against any of the North African regimes. American intervention in the Sahara also had the effect of killing the tourism industry, which was hugely important to people across the Sahara and parts of the Sahel. Two decades later, we are living with the consequences, and now even France has admitted that its intervention in Mali has done little to shore up security in the area.
IQNA: Which countries in Africa do you think are most at risk of overthrowing the government by extremists?
Mundy: All of the governments in the region are weak and corrupt, but the societies are not necessarily supportive of the ideology of ISIS, even if it is adapted to local forms of Islamic culture. And of course, there is more religious plurality the further south you go.
These groups are able to exist in the interstices of states in the region (e.g., northern Mali, the Mali-Niger-Burkina triangle, northeastern Nigeria) but seizing power will be difficult for them, and would take them out of the relative safety of hinterlands into more dense urban environments.
IQNA: How do you assess the role of internal affairs in the rise to power of ISIS and terrorist groups like it?
Mundy: These issues are intensely international. As I mentioned above, the rise of terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel is a story of Western intervention and Western-supported regimes. The global economy is still engineered to drain wealth from Africa and to send it to the North Atlantic and increasingly East Asia.
The collapse of the state in Northern Mali in 2012 is a direct consequence of NATO’s 2011 intervention to topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Local and regional dynamics are important, but they do not tell the whole story.
IQNA: How do you assess the future of Africa given the current situation and the threat of terrorism?
Mundy: It is a dark future with a long history. When the European powers realized that they would not be able to colonize Africa in the same way as the Americas, Africa’s function in global politics became that of a “sacrifice zone” where wealth could be extracted (cheap land, disposable labor, and plentiful natural resources), but little meaningful “development” would take place.
The Cold War made sure that Africa remained dependent on greater powers while the North Atlantic world sought to undermine Third Worldism and the New International Economic Order championed by non-Aligned countries like Algeria and post-revolutionary Iran. Neoliberal globalization set these relations in stone, though now China is attempting to build an alternative to North Atlantic dominance via Africa and elsewhere.
But as global warming intensifies while populations decline worldwide, the rich countries face a significant question about moving populations from uninhabitable tropics to more temperate zones in the north and south in order to maintain viable population distributions.
Preventing this is the growing power of racism and nationalism in the world today, which will make such grand movements of peoples from the global south to the global north unthinkable, just as reparations for colonialism, imperialism and slavery seemed unimaginable in the previous century.
Interview by Mohammad Hassan Goodarzi