Bakary Sambe, Researcher on the threat of Islamic radicalisation in Senegal

Over the last few months, several West African countries were hit by Islamic terrorist attacks. In this interview, Bakary Sambe, researcher at the Religious Studies Centre of Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, discusses the case of Senegal to explain how this region has become a hotbed of Islamic jihadism.
Stability in West Africa has been threatened in the midst of two conflicts generated by self-titled Islamic groups. First, there is the case of Mali, where several terrorist movements loosely affiliated to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb invaded the north of the country in 2012. While the January 2013 French military operation managed to root them out, a few very active terrorist cells still subside and are now spreading to the centre and even to the south of the country. It is from those regions that the latest terrorist attacks that hit Mali, as well as Burkina Faso (January 2016) and Côte d’Ivoire (March 2016) were launched. The second hotbed of Islamic terrorism in this region is the north of Nigeria. Since 2000, the Boko Haram group has been spreading terror and is now developing an expansion strategy which threatens the stability of neighbouring states such as Cameroon, Niger and Chad. There has been evidence of links between this organisation and other terrorist groups in Mali.
Like northern Nigeria and Mali, with whom it shares a long border, Senegal has a population that is essentially made up of Muslims. The most widespread form is the Sufi variant, which is organised in brotherhoods. But over the past few years, more radical movements have emerged, thus offering a fertile ideological ground in support of terrorist groups active in the region. In this interview, Bakary Sambe recounts the genesis and reasons for the Islamic radicalisation process in Senegal as well as the challenges it raises.

Odile Jolys: What are the reasons for Islamic radicalisation in Senegal?
It is first of all about challenging traditional Islam. Influenced by Salafi and Wahhabi ideologies, some are convinced that brotherhood Islam as it is practiced in this country is an impure form and that we need to go back to an Islam that is more akin to what practiced by the sincere followers of the 7th century. These were known as “Salaf”, hence the expression of “Salafism”.  On the other hand, beyond the strictly ideological factor, lies the socioeconomic dimension, the frustration of the youth. To explain the relationship between these two factors, let me tell you what Cheikh Ibrahim Saleh Al Husseini, who lives in northern Nigeria, told me. He knows extremism very well, as this region has been a fertile ground for the Boko Haram terrorist group. According to him, “radicalisation is the natural offspring borne out of the dangerous liaisons between the arrogance of the unjust and the ignorance of those who feel victimised.” The unjust are our States and their poor governance, social injustice, unemployment and hopelessness, and then we have international injustice: the Palestinian question, the situation in Afghanistan, the Kurdish issue… These all feed into the Salafi discourse. The victims are our idle youth who manipulate Islam and its religious symbols for political gains. In fact, Africa has not escaped the global movement started since the disappearance of leftist ideologies and the fall of the Berlin wall. Islamic radicalism thrives all throughout the world: Islam has become the unifying defender of the new wretched of the earth. Previously, one could stand against the ultraliberal policies imposed by capitalism, denounce American imperialism by joining protest political ideologies, etc. Islam has now become a means of protest against globalisation and its perverse effects, against the stronghold of major powers, and this occurs from within Western societies themselves, which have paradoxically become exporters of jihadists towards Syria.

Is the radicalisation phenomenon recent?
No, this is not a new phenomenon, but it is only now receiving attention because of the security threat. The networks that the international community is attempting to eradicate are not new. One could argue that the international community is lagging forty years behind. Indeed, countries of the Sahel experienced major droughts in the 1970s. They asked for help. But the only countries ready to send them money were the countries of the Gulf, as Western countries had to face the oil crisis. Thus it was that the oil monarchies came to bore wells, help people, build mosques, etc. The Wahhabi ideology followed the same path as that of the oil dollars. Western countries then made a second mistake. In the 80s, countries of the Sahel, just like others in Africa, were forced to introduce structural adjustment policies by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which destroyed basic social services. Public investment into health and education was drastically cut. Islamic organisations therefore came back to our countries through Islamic NGOs to build schools and engage in charity work… They are now so deeply entrenched into our societies that people have accepted them. It is now a bit late for Western countries to act. If you tell the Senegalese “Be careful about the Qatari and the Saudi, they will brainwash you!” They will shake their heads in disagreement: “But they build us schools, feed us, clothe us and provide iftar during Ramadan.”

What are the radical movements present in Senegal?
The refusal of traditional and non-violent Sufi Islam gave rise to two movements. The first was born in 1978. It is the movement known as the Ibadu Rahman, which has an ideological leaning towards the Muslim Brothers. It actively coordinates social activities for the youth. This begins in high school, then at university with the Senegalese Muslim Student Society. Today, we have a core group of Muslim Brothers in Senegal. It is known as the Senegalese Islamic Gathering (RIS) and its political ambition is to take over power one day and possibly establish sharia law. The second movement, Al-Falah, stems from Wahhabi Salafism. It therefore originates and is under strong influence from Saudi Arabia. Initially, this movement did not get involved in politics. It was akin to pietism, in that it wanted to purify Islam and go back to the Golden age of Islam, to the texts and to tradition.

Are these movements a threat for Senegal?
A similar type of discourse begot Ben Laden and Daesh. There is a popular Salafi saying attributed to the Prophet of Islam which argues that “when faced with an evil, you must fight it using force; if you cannot, you must fight it with your words or lament it deeply.” Salafi movements first used speech against our Islam, which has always warranted stability in Senegal. They do not yet have the power to fight it, as the majority of followers belong to the Sufi brotherhoods. But in their daily teaching, they tell children: “The Islam practiced by your parents is an impure form, tantamount to shirk, the unforgivable sin of association.” It is indeed our Sufi African Islam that is targeted. During the 2012 Timbuktu occupation by Salafi terrorists, these targeted everything which embodied traditional Islam, the contribution of Africans to Islamic civilisation. They destroyed holy shrines, like those we have in Senegal, in Touba and Tivaouane namely. I think that we need to take the “Taqiyya” concept seriously. It is a principle stemming from Shiism, but which Islamic political movements have internalised deeply. This essentially consists in concealing one’s true objectives, until such a time when power relations turn in one’s favour. The Senegalese Constitution does not allow for the creation of Islamic parties. So Imam Mbaye Niang, close to the so-called Islamic reformist current, created a party called “the Reformist Movement for Social Development” and he became a Member of Parliament. As far as I am concerned, we are dealing with a hidden agenda scheme, even at the cost of political compromise. On several occasions, I interviewed Ahmad Lô, Wahhabi Salafi leader in Senegal; at public conferences, he strongly condemns violence, but in one of his famous works, he argues that Sufism should be fought, as it is an obstacle to jihad. After the Bamako attacks of November 2015, he convened a colloquium at his university on the theme of jihad. He argued that we should not engage in jihad, not because he is against the idea, but because the necessary religious conditions are not yet met… I think that as long as the Salafi ideology which led to the destruction of the Timbuktu shrines prevails, then it is only a matter of time before the same is implemented here, and it is difficult to predict when these circumstances will be met. In Senegal, we believe that the Senegalese are non-violent by nature. But this myth was completely shattered over the last years of President Wade’s term, when the youth would regularly protest in front of the presidential palace gates. Some even set themselves on fire. A youth who can go to such extremes could also wear an explosive belt. These are situations of despair which often lead to the most irrational and often unexpected actions.

Is there a specific mapping of Islamic extremism in Senegal?
During the war in Mali, a survey revealed that 35 % of the young Senegalese interviewed supported the jihadists (public opinion poll conducted by the author in February and March 2013, NDRL). This figure may be an exaggeration. But several radicalisation pockets exist: the town of Thiès first of all, then the Dakar suburbs and the town of Louga. Another interesting factor is the growing presence of religious fundamentalists in peripheral regions. This shows in the origins of Senegalese groups who have left to fight for Dahesh (Islamic State), particularly in Sirte in Libya. For the most part, they are from Eastern Senegal, from Casamance in the south and a few from the Fouta in the north. Casamance is a good case in point. As of the years 2000, rival radical groups settled there. There was a small group of Senegalese Shiite that built environmentally-friendly villages with support from the Mozdahir International NGO. Then, organisations having ties with Saudi Arabia gave money to Dakar suburb groups so they can build mosques there. It is also a perfect example of the rivalry between Middle-Eastern powers in a context of competing religious models.

Why Casamance?
This is an area of political turmoil (a separatist movement has been engaging in active guerrilla there since the 80s, attracting a brutal response from the Senegalese military). And it is an area of instability, namely due to the proximity of the Gambian and Bissau Guinean borders. Drugs and arms trafficking are lucrative there. Since September 11th, 2001 and the American operation in Afghanistan, Al-Qaida’s strategy has changed. Attention was turned away from major international targets and global strategies, as these proved increasingly difficult to achieve. What are terrorists doing now? They come into a local conflict area, take over the conflict and give it an Islamic guise. Once this is done, they manage to attract the West into the interventionist trap. The West comes in, there are blunders and failures, this increases frustration and therefore radicalisation and it goes on and on. This is what they did in Mali.

We often hear in Senegal that the Islamic brotherhoods constitute a barrier against Islamic radicalisation. Is this true?
This is a very widespread idea. And indeed, the brotherhoods constitute ideological barriers. But if they want to remain so, they should first of all avoid the risk of losing credibility because of their acquaintances with various successive political regimes. In our Sahelian societies, the most popular theme amongst the youth is challenging political authority. Secondly, brotherhoods should develop new teaching tools and methods for Sufism. The youth no longer relate to it, while they still are in need of spirituality and thirsty for models and ideals. The traditional discourse of the brotherhoods is sometimes archaic in its methodology and completely at odds with the expectations of many youth. They speak of miracles, and then there are these new types of religious figures who ask for money to build sumptuous villas and encourage worship by their disciples, which is at odds with the teachings of great scholars like Cheikh El Hadji Malick or Serigne Touba. The Salafi discourse seems much more rational to the youth and uses appealing online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. The mosque at UCAD, the main university in Dakar, is controlled and led by Salafi movements. Imams speak in French. They give very logical arguments on international current affairs… Their strategy is effective and fascinates the youth. They use modern technology – imams use Ipads and publish their sermons on You Tube – in order to better fight social modernity. I precisely created the Timbuktu Institute in order to promote an Islam of peace and mutual understanding. This town symbolises the African traditional heritage, which is made of sharing, dialogue and civilisational interaction. Sufi preachers and peace supporters should increase their presence on the Web in order to turn the youth away from the Salafi discourse, because the rise of radicalism represents a rejection of traditional Islam, not so much because of its content, but because of its method and the lack of a suitable approach to address the spiritual and existential concerns of the youth. We need an effective policy for prevention and education on peace and inclusive citizenship. Militarised solutions alone have reached their limits. Education and socio-economic insertion for the hopeful youth seem more suitable to me.

By Odile Jolys of

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