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New Book Review: Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups

- By Yeshe Carta, Istituto Affari Internazionali

- Book: Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel : local politics and rebel groups / Alexander Thurston. - Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2020. - x, 349 p. : ill. - ISBN 978-1-108-48866-2 ; 978-1-108-72686-3 (pbk). Price: £ 22.99.


Alexander Thurston, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati, is a scholar of religion with a particular interest in Islam and politics in Africa. After publishing two books on the Nigerian context and the jihadist group Boko Haram, his third work explores the politics of jihadist groups in North Africa and the Sahel.

Whilst a majority of scholars and policymakers desist from thinking of jihadist groups as political actors, as, supposedly, this would provide them with legitimacy, Thurston challenges this assumption. By adopting a meso-level analysis, he sheds light on the internal dynamics of coalition building among a number of Jihadi groups operating across six different countries within the Sahel-Sahara region, alongside the ways they interact with the external environment within which they operate.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first, on the background of the 1990s Algerian civil war, analyses the evolution of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which, from its formation till its demise, provide a case to study of a number of recurring trends within jihadist politics, including, inter alia, incorporation, tyranny and schism. The second chapter explores the coalition dynamics featuring the jihadist group Salafi Group For Preaching and Combat (GSPC), later on rebranded as al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); it does so particularly highlighting the bureaucratised, yet decentralised, character of the group, as well as its accommodationist nature, developed against the backdrop of the GIA trajectory. The following chapter delves into the dialectic nature of AQIM’s implantation in Northern Mali, amid patterns of accommodation, collusion and alliance. By pointing at the role and agency of local political actors whose strategic considerations differ in an ever-evolving context, the third chapter focuses on top-down coalition-building processes. In the fourth chapter, the attention shifts towards central Mali and the case of the group Katiba Macina, which represents an instance of bottom-up strategy of incorporation. Chapter five considers the rise of Ansaroul Islam and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) within the so-called tri-border area, encompassing the peripheries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger; here, Thurston examines the conditions allowing jihadists to cross borders, beyond the widespread paradigm explanation of “fragile states”. In chapter six, the analysis goes on to consider the fratricidal dynamics featuring jihadist interaction in the Libyan city of Derna, which expose, once again, the limits of jihadist coalition-building and, more broadly, those of the jihadist project itself. Finally, chapter seven considers the Mauritanian case of “post-jihadism”, thereby exploring the specific factors allowing, over the last decade, for the halting of jihadist violence in the country.

Against a backdrop wherein oversimplified and reductionist analyses of jihadism prevail, the author provides the reader with a broad, yet detailed, comparative analysis of the politics of a number of jihadist groups operating across a region which is increasingly in the international spotlight. In light of this, Thurston’s contribution is a must-read for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of the functioning of these jihadist organisations, as, in addition, throughout the book, the author critically reflects on the responses put forward by Sahelian governments to counter the jihadist threat. Amongst other things, he problematises authorities’ reliance on counter-productive strategies, specifically pointing at the increasing “militia-fication” (p. 226) of the conflicts alongside a surge in security forces’ use of collective punishment in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso. Drawing from the Mauritanian experience, Thurston highlights how it is indeed crucial not to default to simplistic repressive responses, also interestingly noticing that those which might be regarded as instances of successful resolution of the jihadist challenge within the region (the Mauritanian and Algerian cases), have been achieved through locally-crafted political settlements, featuring a limited involvement of foreign forces – as indeed, “a foreign presence can often have the opposite of the intended effect” (p. 315).

Whilst the book also benefits from the inclusion and critical contextualization of jihadists’ statements and interviews, it would have been certainly interesting and further enriching to provide the reader with a more gendered analysis, accounting, when possible, for the role and agency of women within these organisations – aspects which, for instance, are touched upon by the author in the fourth chapter, yet very briefly. To conclude, the analysis stands out for its clarity and accessibility thereby constituting an important reading also for non-specialised audiences and students, interested to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the jihadist phenomenon.

- Yeshe Carta, Istituto Affari Internazionali


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