On New Year’s Day 2016, al-Shabaab, a jihadi group active in East Africa, released a propaganda video featuring then-Republican Party presidential frontrunner Donald Trump calling for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”1 Citing these comments as evidence, the narrator claims that America is gripped by a "malignant hatred" of Islam. Then, Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American member al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed in September 2011 by an American drone attack in Yemen, warned American Muslims that "there are ominous clouds gathering in your horizon." Jabbing his finger towards the camera, al-Awlaki concluded “the West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens. You either leave or you fight."
This was not a one-off message from al-Shabaab, nor is al-Shabaab the only extremist group in Africa that exploits current or past events in the West for ideological and operational ends. This paper examines representations of the West in the propaganda material of three prominent African jihadi groups: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Jama’tu Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Musulmin (JNIM).2 For all of these groups, the West is a prominent messaging tool; they consistently depict the West as antagonistic toward Muslims and themselves as fighting the West and its influence. While the West, which is conflated in violent extremists’ literature with Christians and Jews, is painted with a broad brush, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France are especially singled out by al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and JNIM, respectively. This is not a mere coincidence – it is a result of the past or present role these countries have played in the groups’ respective domains.
However, these groups deploy representations of the West for different purposes: recruitment and radicalization of not only Western citizens, but also of local fighters; and justifying violent attacks on Western and, more often, local targets. How, when, and why these jihadi groups use the West in their propaganda depends on their differing local contexts and dynamics as well as their strategy and target audience. Understanding this is important to our overall understanding of jihadis’ recruitment and mobilization strategy, but also vital to ensuring that Western intervention in Africa is done in a way that avoids strengthening extremists’ narratives.
Setting the Scene: African Jihadi Groups
There are over a dozen jihadi groups active across Africa today: al-Shabaab and Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) active in East Africa; Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Liddawati wal Jihad (JAS), the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Ansaru al Musulmina fi Bidad al-Sudan (Ansaru) active in the Lake Chad region and other parts of northern Nigeria; Jama’tu Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Musulmin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) active in the western Sahel; the Islamic State in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Islamic State in Mozambique active in their respective countries under the banner of Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP); the Islamic State in Libya and al-Qaeda in Libya; the Islamic State in Sinai and al-Qaeda in Sinai active in Egypt; Islamic State in Tunisia and al-Qaeda in Tunisia both with just several dozen fighters; and the Islamic State in Algeria and al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) active in Algeria and, in the case of AQIM, parts of the Sahel. Al-Shabaab and ISS were originally one group, as were JAS, ISWAP, and Ansaru (referred to jointly as Boko Haram in this paper). Conversely, JNIM is a merger of four different organizations active in North Africa and the Sahel, including al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
This essay will examine the propaganda of al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and JNIM, not only because they are the oldest groups (with copious amounts of primary literature), but also because their views of the West are sufficiently representative of their splinter groups which broke away after much of the materials analyzed here had been produced. Despite ideological frictions and inter-factional violence between these groups and their splinters, their portrayal of the West remains same. Similarly, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and JINIM have different trajectories and modi operandi as well as being engaged in intra-group warfare with some of their former allies. But if there is one thing they are agreed on, aside from their claim to be fighting for Islam, it is their passionate hatred for Europe and America. All three groups consistently exploit past and current events and policies to portray the West as engaged in a cosmic war against Islam and Muslims, while claiming they are fighting to destroy colonial surrogate regimes, ungodly systems and institutions that originated from the West, and rid their domain of exploitative Western influence.
Al-Shabaab (the Youth), whose formal name is Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Young Jihadis), started off as the enforcement wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). A group of Sharia courts that began emerging in the early 1990s and united themselves in 1999 amidst a power vacuum and turmoil from years of civil war, the ICU formed a rival administration to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia. Until 2006, the ICU controlled most of the territory and population of southern Somalia, including the capital and most populous city, Mogadishu. Between late 2006 and early 2007, the ICU suffered major defeats at the hands of Ethiopian troops, who intervened at the request of the TFG, and lost most of the territory it controlled. Consequently, less-militant members of the Union went into exile in Eritrea and Djibouti. There they formed the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, a political group that reconciled and struck a power-sharing deal with the TFG.3
Meanwhile, hard-liners from the ICU repositioned al-Shabaab as a militant Islamist group and declared a jihad against “enemies of Islam,” which meant Ethiopia, a Christian-majority nation, and the TFG, including the former ICU members who joined it. From mid-2006, al-Shabaab began to launch deadly attacks on civilian and military targets and recruited jihadists from neighboring countries, as well as foreign fighters including from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. The group made rapid territorial gains capturing areas initially lost by the ICU, including Mogadishu and the southern port city of Kismayo. Amid escalating violence, the African Union created the Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in February 2007, with the backing of the United Nations Security Council, to support the government of Somalia and help in stabilizing the country.4 Al-Shabaab and its leaders were designated as foreign terrorists by the United States and put on the sanctions list by the United Nations (UN) in 2008, and proscribed by the United Kingdom in 2010. In 2012, it declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, a move that formalized long-rumored ties between the two groups.5
Since 2011, al-Shabaab has lost control of major urban centers, due to a 20,000-strong AMISON force and U.S. airstrikes, but the group has maintained its hold on large rural areas throughout Somalia, which it uses as safe havens from which to commit deadly attacks in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Djibouti. Al-Shabaab’s deadliest attack came in October 2017, when two trucks packed with explosives went off on crowded streets, killing over 500 people in one of the worst terrorist attacks on record.6 Since 2008, the group has been involved in more than 8,400 violence events and has been linked to more than 22,000 fatalities,7 including about 1,800 AMISOM personnel.8 It is estimated to have between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters as well an extensive network of sympathizers, informants, and other collaborators throughout Somalia.9
In 2016, as the Islamic State proclaimed a Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, some al-Shabaab members began urging the group’s leadership to honor their religious duty by pledging allegiance (bay’a) to the new Caliph, namely the Islamic State’s leader, Abubakar al-Baghdadi. After it became clear that these pleas had fallen on deaf ears, several al-Shabaab cells consisting of several hundred fighters splintered and gave bay’a to al-Baghdadi themselves. This was followed by internal rivalry and violence in which the main group targeted and killed pro-Islamic State members. Although inter-factional clashes continue into 2020, both factions have continued to kill civilians and strike government and Western targets, including American troops.10
Boko Haram has been unleashing violence in the Lake Chad region for over a decade now. The group formed in the north-eastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri in 2003 around one Muslim cleric, Muhammad Yusuf, as a movement for reform towards puritanical Islam. Years of fierce criticism of the government, rejection of government regulations such as traffic laws, and disputes with rival clerics by Yusuf and his lieutenants culminated in a deadly clash with Nigerian security forces in July 2009. Hundreds of Boko Haram members, including Yusuf, were killed, hundreds more arrested, and the group’s headquarters was razed.
After Yusuf’s death, his deputy, Abubakar Shekau, took over the group, whose members fled to the Mandara mountains and then to the Sambisa forest, both in north-eastern Nigeria. Under Shekau’s watch, Boko Haram grew more ruthless and sophisticated. Its permissible targets expanded from security forces and government employees to include anyone who does not subscribe to its version of Islam, including women and children. Its attacks spread from its north-eastern Nigerian base to other parts of the country and into neighboring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.11 The group (and its later offshoot, Ansaru) and its leaders were proscribed by the United Kingdom in July 2013, designated by the United States in November of the same year, and listed by UN in May 2014.
Boko Haram reached its peak in 2015, a year after its infamous kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls, mostly Christians, from their school dormitory in north-eastern Nigeria – an incident that garnered it international attention. That same year the group became the world’s deadliest terror organization and pledged bay’a to ISIS.12 In 2014, it declared an Islamist ‘caliphate’ in the territory it controlled inside Nigeria, which was equivalent to the size of Belgium. By building its ability to impose its ruthless interpretation of Islam, it sought to consolidate its shift from insurgency to territorial governance. In pursuit of this vision, Boko Haram has killed an estimated 38,000 people and displaced over two and a half million, triggering a complex humanitarian crisis.13 By 2016, however, it splintered, due to ideological and operational disagreements in the group.14 This led to intra-group warfare for ideological reasons but also operational ones, such as control over territory, land, and water resources as well as key supply routes.
More recently, the individual and collective efforts of the national governments of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, backed by their Western partners, have disrupted Boko Haram’s progress, shrunk its territory, and forced it back into guerrilla-style warfare.15 Yet, despite intra-group fragmentation and infighting, Boko Haram has continued to commit assaults and raids including on military formations in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Its recent spectacular assaults include a December 2019 raid on a Nigerien military base that left over 70 local soldiers dead, an attack on Chadian soldiers that killed nearly 100 on 23 March 2020, and another that killed 47 Nigerian soldiers on the same day.16
Jama’tu Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Musulmin (Group to Aid Islam and Muslims, abbreviated as JNIM) is an amalgam of four different violent groups active in the Sahel and loyal to al-Qaeda. The first member of the group is Ansar Dine (Helpers of the Faith) formed in 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali, a former Malian diplomat, hostage negotiator, and prominent Tuareg rebel, with the aim of establishing its version of Sharia law across Mali. It drew members mainly from the Ifora tribe of northern Mali. It came to prominence for exploiting Mali’s 2012 coup, seizing territory in the north, and imposing its interpretation of Sharia law.17 JNIM’s second member group is the Macina Liberation Front, which operated in central Mali starting in 2015 under the leadership of Amadou Kouffa. It rose to notoriety for destroying a mausoleum that had been proposed as a UN World Heritage site.18
The third member is al-Mourabitoun (the Sentinels), which was a product of a union in 2013 of two other jihadi groups. Its one-eyed leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan, was an al-Qaeda commander who had been involved in jihadi violence for about three decades.19 Finally, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had its roots in the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. The group later became an al-Qaeda affiliate with the object of establishing Islamic government and law in place of secular authority and ridding North Africa of Western, particularly French, influence. Its mission later expanded to West Africa, and a Saharan branch was formed.
These four groups’ representatives appeared in a video in March 2017 announcing the formation of JNIM and declaring bay’a to the head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. They also eulogized previous al-Qaeda leaders Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Seven days later, al-Qaeda central issued a statement approving the new group and accepting their bay’a. Its first attack came three days after its creation, when it attacked a military base in central Mali, killing 11 Malian soldiers, burning vehicles, and stealing arms.20
JNIM, which was listed as global terrorist organization by the United States and UN in October 2018 and the United Kingdom in 2019,21 has become a common platform for al-Qaeda-allied fighters across the Sahel. It was responsible for around sixty-five percent of the more than 700 incidents and 2,000 fatalities recorded in the Sahel in 2019.22 The group’s estimated 1,000 – 2,000 fighters under several cells are active predominantly active in Mali, but also carry out operations in Niger and Burkina Faso.23
Exploitation of the West
All three of these groups are rooted in local circumstances, with mainly local grievances and agendas. However, they draw on global events and causes to promote their ideological and operational goals. The West serves as a useful, handy non-local character in their recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization strategy. Citing Islamic scriptural and doctrinal concepts (often selectively and out of context) and political grievances (genuine or imagined), African militant groups paint a picture of a West locked in a cosmic, existential war with Islam and Muslims. The West is a big part of their binary worldview: you must either be part of the ummah (global Muslim nation) or against it; you must either do hijra (migrate) from Dar al-Kufr (the abode of disbelief – the West in this case) to Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam – their self-declared caliphates).
Piggybacking on historical events such as the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, as well as current ones like racial inequities in the West, the Iraq war, and American foreign policy in the Middle East, African jihadi groups contend that the West is out to destroy Islam and Muslims, both physically and morally. Physically, the West is destroying Islam through military interventions, illegitimate exploitation of natural resources as well other more sinister schemes such as contaminating vaccines with sterilizing agents, HIV, and cancerous agents to truncate a growing Muslim population. Morally, the West corrupts Muslim children through schools, movies, music, football, and pornography. Thus, all Muslims have a duty not only to pick a side, but also to work actively to destroy the West and its local allies before they destroy Islam.
This depiction of the West is created for several reasons. Firstly, it is used to recruit and mobilize Muslims living in the West by creating an unbearable, irreconcilable tension in their “mutually exclusive” identities (being a Muslim and Westerner), forcing them to choose one against the other. Secondly, it is exploited to recruit and radicalize locals by making them feel under an existential threat from an external force, creating a sense of fear and victimhood. Thirdly, it is used to justify attacking Western targets, but also and most importantly, local governments and officials, most of whom are themselves Muslims, by portraying them as surrogates of a hostile West. While all Western countries, regardless of their historic or current policy, are painted with a broad brush, the United States, United Kingdom, and France are particularly singled out by al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and JNIM, respectively. Al-Shabaab uses this portrayal of the West mostly to recruit Western Muslims, Boko Haram exploits it mainly to radicalize local recruits, while JNIM deploys it to justify horrendous acts. These differences are a function of differing contexts and dynamics, though also perhaps a question of capacity. In what follows, we shall explore each of these headings in some detail.
Recruiting Western Citizens: Al-Shabaab
Trump was not the only American image in Al-Shabaab’s 2016 documentary. It also used historic footage of the civil rights-era firebrand Malcolm X, footage of police shootings and violence against African Americans, protests by African Americans, and examples of African American men in prison. It eulogized three Somali-American “martyrs,” who migrated from the United States to Mogadishu in 2008 and died on the battlefield, as worthy models for American youth. These images were invoked to demonstrate the United States’ “racism and historic injustices” against African Americans with the intent to recruit not only American Muslims, but also African Americans, to the “jihad” in East Africa. It urged African Americans to convert to Islam and wage jihad, at home or abroad, to establish a system that “guarantees their rights” and makes them equal to white people.
That video, however, was not al-Shabaab’s first propaganda material to target Western citizens or to decry American antagonism toward Muslims and other minorities. Omar Hammami (also known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki, “The American”), an American recruit who became a military commander in al-Shabaab, emerged as one of the group’s most effective propagandists in the West. With his flat American accent, Hammami appeared in several videos from 2008 to 2013 urging Muslims living in the West to join the jihad in Somalia and around the world. His first major speech was a response to President Obama’s 2009 Cairo address entitled “A New Beginning,” in which the president called for improved mutual understanding and relations between the West and the Muslim world as well as unity in confronting violent extremism.24 Citing Islamic texts and concepts, Hammami attempted to refute the various points Obama made and called on Muslims to leave the United States and commit themselves to jihad:
The animosity that America holds for Islam and Muslims, and the establishment of an Islamic state has become as clear as day. And it is a fact that cannot be denied by any intelligent person… The whole ummah feels the enmity, oppression and evil of America. And your Muslim brothers and sisters are surprised at how you are staying in America.25
Selectively invoking Islamic doctrines like hijra (migration), ummah (the community of Muslims), and jihad, Hammami sought to convince his Western audience to join a conflict halfway across the world by emphasizing that Muslims worldwide must unite under the leadership of one Caliph to pursue the civilizational war that is underway.
This is a war of civilizations, it’s not a war of individuals. It might very well be the case that Joe was just an ‘average Joe’. He could have, maybe he never meant any harm for Islam. But at the end of the day that doesn’t change the fact that he was still part of the civilization that is at war with Islam. So what it comes down is that, we have to first choose a side.26
Hammami is not alone in the bid to attract Western citizens to al-Shabaab. Ahmed Hussein Ahmed, who, in 2007, attacked an Ethiopian army checkpoint killing 20 soldiers, was a British Somali. Ahmed dropped out of a business studies degree at Oxford Brookes University to volunteer for al-Shabaab. He left a video extolling martyrdom and imploring other British Muslims to follow his lead. “I advise you to migrate to Somalia and wage war against your enemies,” he said in front of al-Shabaab’s black-and-white banner. “Death in honour is better than life in humiliation.”27 Other al-Shabaab videos include other American recruits from Minneapolis, Minnesota, threatening the West and inciting their intended audience.28
Using propaganda materials shared online, including through social media, al-Shabaab condemned the Islam practiced by Muslims living in the West as “fake, phony and benign” and claimed that trying to practice Islam in the West is “nothing more than a dreamworld.”29 They positioned Somalia as a “key battleground in the struggle between Islam and the West.”30 Al-Shabaab videos and other online materials were effective in the West partly because they were filled with culturally relevant materials that resonated with some members of the Somalia diaspora community on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States is particularly targeted by al-Shabaab because of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia, but also because of the sizeable number of Somali-Americans that the group seeks to influence. The group’s sophisticated and diverse communication strategy also contributed to its success.31
With its online propaganda materials circulating freely in the United States and Europe, at least until the group was banned, as well as with on-the ground-recruiters, al-Shabaab successfully recruited dozens of fighters as well as financiers and sympathizers from the West.32 Jonathan Evans, then-Director General of the British Security Service, said in September 2010 that a “significant number” of U.K. residents were training in al-Shabaab camps. He warned that “it's only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab," saying the Somalia showed many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a hotbed for terrorism.33 Evans’ warning was not unfounded: there were at least ten Britons who joined al-Shabaab. In the United States, an investigation by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security found that:
More than 40 Americans from Muslim-American communities across the U.S. have joined Shabaab since 2007, including two-dozen recruits from Minneapolis… Three who returned home have been charged in U.S. courts, one awaits extradition from The Netherlands, and 15 are believed dead, leaving as many as 21 American Shabaab fighters still at large or unaccounted for. At least 20 Canadians of Somali descent, many from Toronto, also have disappeared and are believed to have joined Shabaab...34
While Hussein Ahmed was al-Shabaab’s first British suicide bomber, Shirwa Ahmed was the first American to blow himself up, killing 30 others, in the Puntland region of north-eastern Somalia. Other al-Shabaab recruits from Europe include a Danish Muslim of Somali ethnic origin who attacked targets in Mogadishu, claiming 23 lives.35 In fact, the 28-year old Somali man who tried to kill cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad with a turban shaped as a bomb, was allegedly linked to al-Shabaab.36 If that attack had been successful, it would have been the first attack on European soil by an individual linked to a jihadi group based in sub-Saharan African.
By 2011, over 40 individuals living in United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and Sweden had either died fighting for al-Shabaab, were convicted of involvement with the group, were featured in its videos, or were confirmed to be members.37 Since then, al-Shabaab’s propaganda has become less effective in the West, possibly because of efforts made to stop its circulation and other security and counter-messaging efforts initiated by Western governments and organizations.
Exploiting the West to Radicalize Local Recruits: Boko Haram
Unlike al-Shabaab, other African groups do not appear to target Western audiences for recruitment. This is most likely because there is a very tiny, if any, diaspora in the West from the groups’ domains. Other factors possibly affecting this distinction are a difference in strategy and prioritization of whom to target for recruitment as well as lack of capacity. For example, there is no diaspora community in the West from the Lake Chad region or the Sahel, the epicenters of several groups. These groups still exploit historic events and current Western foreign policies, however, but they use them instead to radicalize local recruits and justify their violence. One such group is Boko Haram, whose project is almost entirely predicated on anti-West narratives. This is aptly summarized by the group’s moniker “Boko Haram,” which literally translates as “Western-style education is forbidden,” but essentially means Western lifestyle is a sin. This name was given to the group by locals who observed its heavy anti-West propaganda.
Boko Haram believes that the West has formed an unholy alliance with governments across the Lake Chad region to extinguish “the light of Islam.” The group particularly targets the United Kingdom because of British colonial history that it selectively invokes to depict a prosperous Bilad as-Sudan (“the lands of the blacks,” used historically by Arabs to describe the geographic region to the south of the Sahara stretching from West to East Africa) ruled by Muslim empires, such as the Sokoto caliphate, Kanem Borno empire, and the Songhai empire, that was conquered and destroyed, economically and morally, by European colonialists and Christian missionaries. It preaches that European colonialists deliberately dismembered Muslims lands, such as northern Nigeria from Niger and Chad, and merged them with Christian populations to permanently kill Muslims’ dreams of living under a strict Sharia state. In his “History of the Muslims”, the founder of Boko Haram states,
As such, since they have eliminated the flag of "there is no god but Allah," they introduced the flag of nationalism. They eliminated the laws of the Qur'an and the Sunna, and they brought the laws of ignorance in their place. They also brought the love of Western Europe, Western education and those different political systems.38
Boko Haram’s hatred for the West also features in the specific institutions it targets. Its key reasons for forbidding schools and consistently attacking them, killing students and teachers, is that the schools originated from the West and are modelled after Western educational institutions. Boko Haram alleges that the use of the English language and regalia in educational institutions, and recognition of Saturday and Sunday as the weekend, are all signs of the Euro-American, Judeo-Christian influence on the schools. Furthermore, it preaches that schools are a Western scheme to corrupt Muslim morals through movies, football, and music. In its manifesto, a 169-page Arabic treatise published in 2009, the group declares that schools are the “deadliest poison” that Europeans planted in the Muslims ummah, saying,
The enemies of Islam are waging their war from all angles, but they did not succeed against Muslims except through their destructive civilisation and distraction of Muslim children from studying their religion… they built schools to teach the destructive western civilisation…39
The group also refers to events in the Middle East to show its recruits how passionately the West hates Islam. When it launched its insurgency in 2009, it consistently referenced such global events as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Kashmir crisis to justify its attacks and place itself within the context of the global jihadi movement. It evokes such events as the protests and controversies that trailed Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed to show how the West harbors enemies of Islam. It cites the Iraq and Afghan wars to show that the Muslim ummah is under an imminent danger of destruction from the West. In his exegesis of the Qur’an during Ramadan in the spring of 2008, Boko Haram’s founder and first leader states,
Look at what they are doing to Muslims in Guantanamo. Look at the Abu Ghraib prison inside Iraq. The prison was built with the money of the Iraqi people in their own land and property, yet they are the same people that are being incarcerated in the prison. They would put people as prisoners, and a dog to assault the prisoners, while they were completely naked. They would also force a dog to sleep with the female prisoners...40
Similarly, Boko Haram’s rejection of democracy, constitutions, and secularism is partly predicated on the fact that they originated from the West and are advocated by the United States. It seeks to delegitimize governments, opposing imams, and Muslim groups by portraying them as puppets of the West. It has released numerous messages in which it warns and ridicules Western leaders such as Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, François Hollande, and Emmanuel Macron.
During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, Boko Haram spread misinformation that the West and it local allies were using the virus to wage a war on Islam. It maintained that prescribed health measures were intended to stop Muslims from congregational prayers and travelling on pilgrimage to Meccah. It alleged that health experts’ advice that patients should frequently hydrate was intended to stop Muslims from fasting in the month of Ramadan (which was observed at the peak of the outbreak).41
Boko Haram weaved its narratives about the West into local grievances and its exclusivist interpretation of Islam to recruit thousands of members from 2003 to 2009, before launching its insurgency in the Lake Chad region. The group’s narratives about the West successfully contributed to its radicalization strategy because of a widely held, pre-existing historic sense of grievances against British colonial masters and European missionaries as well as current conspiracy theories about the West in the areas in which it operated. Boko Haram’s core messages remained the same after launching its insurgency in 2009, but its communication strategy evolved, with video and audio messages with markedly improved iconography and resolution, subtitles in different languages including English and French, and use of multiple fighters speaking in different languages, such as Kanuri, Hausa, Fulfulde, French, and English. From their content, however, the group’s propaganda materials are targeted at local audiences and parts of messages made or subtitled in English or French are mostly directed at local governments or Western leaders and organizations.
Using the West to Justify Violence: JNIM
As extremist violence in Mali and across the Sahel increased exponentially, in February 2020 the president of Mali renewed his country’s offer to discuss a cessation of hostilities with the main jihadi leaders in the area.42 JNIM issued a communiqué a month later accepting the offer but insisted that a precondition it has always stipulated must be first be met: “Ending the racist, arrogant French Crusader occupation.”43 This reveals who JNIM considers to be its worst enemy. The group has always maintained that it is fighting to resist Western hegemony, French plundering of natural resources, and its refusal to let go of its former colonies. France is singled out by groups in the Sahel both because of its colonial past and its current active role with thousands of troops on ground in the region.
In its play for the hearts and minds of locals, JNIM has a policy of not targeting Muslim civilians and says it kills local troops and officials only because they conspire with French forces to perpetuate un-Islamic Western systems and institutions. It brands national governments as “colonially-installed” or “surrogate” regimes and accuses presidents and prime ministers across the Sahel of granting their Western patrons unfettered access to local resources and of serving the interests of foreign powers to the detriment of their own citizens.44 Thus, JNIM frames its war as a “defensive jihad” against “crusaders and occupiers” and urges all Muslims to join it in stopping killings by the “crusader army” and shaking off the persecution by French forces.
Abdelmalek Droukdel was, until his death in a French operation in June 2020, the head of AQIM, one of the constituent groups of JNIM, and overseer of all al-Qaeda affiliates in North and West Africa.45 He was also a key ideologist and propagandist. In a discourse posted to jihadi forums in December 2012, he condemned the “devastating economic policy of Western countries not only in Maghreb or in Sahel, but also in southwestern African states like Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Cameroon.”46 He argued that the real reason for Western presence on Muslim lands was exploitation of natural resources such as gas, oil, and uranium. He painted a picture of poor African children collecting cacao-trees for multinational companies producing chocolate, accused Paris of supporting the “apostate” regimes of Africa, and threatened Spain, pledging to “purify” Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves in North Africa, as a first step towards reconquering Andalusia.47 In his last video released in March 2020, entitled “France and the Spider’s Home,” Droukdel urged Sahelian governments to end the French military presence, calling the French troops “armies of occupation.”48
Droukdel is echoed by jihadi ideologues like radical Gulf theologian Abd ar-Rahman as-Sa’di. In a 2013 fatwa as-Sa’di proclaimed that, “the things done by France in Mali are just a crusade against Muslims in Mali. Damages of this war can’t be hidden. The biggest destructions regard killing of children, women and old people.”49 The text opened by stating that, “the reason for their interference in Mali is - as it is no secret - that they [Malians] are Muslims. And because they declared their will to implement God's law.” It goes on to condemn France, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations for bombing Muslim women, children, and the elderly, killing thousands, displacing tens of thousands, and causing famine. In an attempt to demonstrate the anti-Muslim policy of the West, he cited the then-crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR), which saw President François Bozizé toppled, to contend that the French did not intervene in CAR because it is not a Muslim country and does not have valuable natural resources to be stolen. He referenced verses of the Qur’an and Muslim scholars to condemn Muslim countries who supported the intervention and urged Muslim youths to join the jihad for the liberation of Muslims.50
Even more than Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, JNIM also seeks to strategically internationalize its jihad, partly because of Drounkdel and AQIM’s direct ties to al-Qaeda. That was Droukdel’s goal in his last message, as it was throughout his lifetime, where he framed JNIM’s violence as a struggle to liberate Palestinians. “To our brothers in Palestine, we say, indeed the blood of your children is the blood of our children and your blood is our blood… We take Allah as our witness that we would not abandon you until we achieve victory or attain martyrdom.” He urged fighters to focus attacks on occupation Christian armies and never target Muslims.51
When the Far Enemy Gets Near: Attacks Against the West
No African group has ever carried out a successful attack on Western soil. However, it is clear from their discourses, as discussed above, that this outcome is purely a matter of capacity, not willingness or strategy. These groups have a specific, publicly declared policy of targeting Western citizens and interests in their areas of operation. Indeed, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and JNIM have carried out numerous attacks on the “Far Enemy,” just when that enemy gets closer to the groups’ territories. Western citizens and interests are targeted for ideological reasons, but also for opportunistic ends, such as getting media attention, collecting ransom, and pressuring national governments to acquiesce to prisoner swaps or other demands.
In January 2020, about a dozen al-Shabaab fighters attacked Manda Bay base, which serves as a forward reconnaissance base for the U.S. Army and is used for U.S. drone warfare against the group, killing three Americans including a U.S. serviceman, destroying two U.S. helicopters, and multiple U.S. military vehicles during their assault. The group said the attack was a direct response to the Trump administration’s designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.52
In August 2011, a Boko Haram attacker killed 23 people and injured 80 others in a suicide attack on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja. In a video filmed before the operation, the attacker pleaded with his wife and little son to understand his action of attacking the “forum of all the global evil” and sent a vague warning to “Obama and other infidels.”53 Even locals working for Western organizations are not spared by Boko Haram. In December 2019, a faction of Boko Haram abducted six local workers for the Paris-based aid agency Action Against Hunger, four of whom it later executed.54 In 2018, it executed two of three female nurses it captured while they volunteering for the International Committee of the Red Cross in north-eastern Nigeria.55 Several others remain in the group’s brutal custody where they are exploited as sexual and domestic slaves. Their “crimes” were working for Westerners – enemies of Islam – and “spying” on mujahidin.
In the Sahel, JNIM’s component groups have carried out several attacks on hotels patronized by Western citizens in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast since 2015, claiming that the locations are used for espionage and conspiracies against Muslims. AQIM targeted U.S. and Russian contractors in Algeria shortly after its formation in 2007, and in December of the same year, it bombed the UN headquarters in Algiers.56 They are also notorious for kidnapping Western citizens for ransom, earning millions of dollars. In January 2016, AQIM abducted Beatrice Stockly, a Swiss female missionary in Mali. Shortly after, it posted an 8-minute video online demanding the release of its fighters held in Malian prisons, as well as Ahmad al-Faki al-Mahdi (known Abu Ahmad Tourab), a jihadi leader who was at the time standing trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for allegations of ordering the destruction of historical monuments in Timbuktu in 2012. Days prior to Stockly’s abduction, two Australian couples were abducted, presumably by AQIM, and the group continues to hold a British–South African and a Swedish hostage, who were kidnapped from a restaurant in Mali in November 2011.57
Public Sentiment Swings Against the West
While Jihadi groups in Africa enjoy very limited, if any, wider community support, their narratives about the West feed a widely held sense of grievance, and fuel misconceptions and conspiracy theories about the West. Unfortunately, Western actions, particularly those designed to help African countries suffering from terrorism, have at times only reinforced the accusations made by jihadi groups. Although there is not yet sufficient evidence that Western missteps are strengthening the hand of the extremists, if countries like the United States and France continue to be seen as arrogant, lacking transparency, or indifferent to local lives, this could fuel further radicalization.
Following an attack on a Nigerien army base that killed over 70 local soldiers in December 2019, the Hausa service of the British Broadcasting Cooperation interviewed several Nigeriens. All the respondents blamed France, rather than the jihadis, for killing their soldiers and called on French soldiers to withdraw.58 From Chad to Niger, and from Mauritania to Burkina Faso, public opposition to the French presence has been growing across francophone West and Central Africa. As a result, President Macron was forced to ask heads of Sahelian governments to address this anti-French sentiment and be clear if they need France’s help.59 Speaking after a NATO summit in London in December 2019, he sounded rather desperate, “do they want us to be there? Do they need us? I want clear answers to these questions.” “I can't have French troops on the ground in the Sahel when there is ambiguity [by authorities] towards anti-French movements and sometimes comments carried by politicians,” he concluded.60
Ahead of a summit of governments of Sahelian countries to answer these questions in January 2020, further protests were held in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Thousands of protesters demanded the withdrawal of French troops, burning the French flag.61 Footage of these protests was later used in a JNIM recruitment video to claim that their insistence on the withdrawal of “armies of occupation” is a popular demand. During the January summit in Pau, France, the president of Burkina Faso, Roch Marc Kaboré, appeared on Burkinabe national television criticizing the tone of this “summons.” That all the Sahelian leaders should be summoned to French territory for this summit, as opposed to it happening somewhere neutral, he seemed to be suggesting, was a product of French arrogance, of France’s tendency to treat francophone governments like colonial outposts. Nevertheless, he later joined the presidents of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Chad in releasing a joint statement confirming that they want French troops to stay.62
In Somalia, deaths of civilians in U.S. airstrikes have long led to pockets of protests with demonstrators chanting anti-American slogans, but this has not escalated into a national issue.63 A rapid increase in the number of strikes under the Trump administration has led to mounting civilian fatalities, some of which U.S. Africa Command has recently admitted to, though only after public criticisms and pressure.64 Accusations of lack of transparent investigation and justice or reparations for victims could exacerbate anti-American sentiments, which may feed al-Shabaab’s recruitment and radicalization efforts.65
The West is a prominent tool in African jihadi groups’ toolbox. Historical grievances and current events and policies are weaponized to paint a picture of a West that is out to destroy Islam physically, intellectually, economically, and morally. The sensation of fear, tension, and victimhood that this message creates is used to recruit Muslims living in the West, radicalize local recruits, and justify horrific acts of violence. Understanding that this depiction of the West is an important part of African jihadi groups’ radicalization process is important for instituting projects to counter them.
Most African jihadi narratives about the West may be false or exaggerated. However, given these militias’ pure opportunism and adeptness at manipulating situations, it will be impossible to stop their attempts to exploit historic or current events. Furthermore, it is unrealistic, and perhaps counter-productive, to expect France, the United Kingdom, or the United States to cease from their African counter-terrorism operations. Nevertheless, Western countries’ long-term success requires a strategy that is more sensitive to local opinion.
Western efforts to fight violent extremism should be undertaken in a way that does not feed extremist narratives by causing damage to local populations. Thus, the United States should consider rolling back its airstrikes in Somalia and shelving its reported plan of using unmanned drones in the Sahel – where it completed a $100 million-dollar specialized drone base in 2019. Continued civilian casualties and damage to property, as unintended as they may be, risk alienating local populations and strengthening the hands of violent extremists. Allegations of civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes and human rights abuses by UN peacekeeping troops should be transparently investigated and sanctioned. This will make it harder for jihadi groups to exploit isolated incidents and serve as an example for local governments. Rather than maintaining large troops on the ground, France should focus on building the capacity of local security forces to confront the jihadi challenge in the Sahel through technical and logistical support. Similarly, Western governments should consider bolstering programmatic efforts aimed at strengthening trust with local communities. Finally, counter messaging efforts should include pro-Western messages such as documentaries showing the religious and other freedoms Muslims living in the West enjoy. This will make it harder for extremists to peddle disinformation about the West.