Friday, June 28, 2013

Senegal: The potential danger of religious radicalism in Senegal

Source: ISS

The potential danger of religious radicalism in Senegal

The French military action in Mali and the deployment of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) have exposed countries in West Africa, especially troop-contributing countries, to a whole set of potential threats. Many are wondering whether the region’s security services are equipped to deal with challenges such as the threat of terrorism and possible connections between the international jihadist movement and radical groups active in the region.

Senegal, a contributor to AFISMA, is one of the countries that might be directly affected by the situation in Mali. The two countries have a lot in common: both are in the Sahel-Saharan region, they have a shared history and a similar cultural and sociological setting. Importantly, Senegal is highly Islamised and, though dominated by Sufi brotherhoods, is traversed by numerous movements, including jihadist and Wahhabite extremists.

One of the factors that point to Senegal as a potentially fertile ground for Islamic radicalism is the development of a dual educational system, with both official Francophone schools and numerous Arabic or Koranic schools. The many unemployed youths, who form a large sector of the population, are frustrated and susceptible to the attractions of radical groups, compounding the problem.

Senegal is generally considered to be pro-French and a traditional ally of the West, hence its many similarities to other Muslim countries targeted by al-Qaeda and its various branches, which consider them ‘agents’ of the West. Those opposed to Senegal’s involvement in Mali believe the French forces are fighting against ‘jihadists who protect the interests of Islam’ and that the Senegalese government is therefore led by ‘infidels’ loyal to France.

Various incidents since 2007 suggest the presence of radical Islamic groups and individuals in Senegal well before the French intervention. In July 2012, for example, ten suspected members of a terrorist network were arrested in Dagana, northern Senegal and on 14 January 2013 the Senegalese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mankeur Ndiaye, officially acknowledged the existence of dormant terrorist cells in the country.

But what are the real chances of religious radicalism leading to the formation of terror groups that connect with international Islamists and pose a threat to national security in Senegal?

In a preliminary study based on a public opinion survey with 400 respondents conducted in February and March 2013 in Dakar, Saint-Louis, Thiès and Mbour, many respondents said they believed Senegal was sufficiently ‘immunised’ by factors such as the professionalism of its army, its relative ethnic homogeneity or the fact that ‘Senegal has no mineral resources’. They believed that Senegal did not share the same characteristics as Mali and that its tradition as ‘the land of Téranga’, referring to its legendary hospitality, as well as the peaceful nature of its people, protected it from that kind of situation. This is, incidentally, exactly what people used to say in Mali before the crisis.

One of the main reasons why people believe Senegal won’t fall prey to Islamic extremism is the prevalence of Sufi brotherhoods such as the Tijaniyya, Mouride, Layenes and Qâdiriyya, which are seen as a shield against foreign extremist influences. A large majority of Senegalese belong to these brotherhoods, the most important being the Mourides. But is this ‘immunity from radicalism’ still valid within the current context?

The preliminary survey revealed that neither the authorities nor the Senegalese themselves realised the complexity and mixed nature of the country’s Islamic landscape. The government broadly shares the perception of the Sufi brotherhoods being a protective wall against the jihadist danger. The support of brotherhood leaders has often constituted an important political tool, especially during elections, and the brotherhoods are generally considered to be moderate and supportive of a democratic political dispensation. However, this is not true in all cases. Some respondents believed the state was trying to discredit the brotherhoods by forging political links with other religious groups, thus indirectly encouraging the rise of Islamic radicalism.

At the same time, those dissatisfied with the brotherhood movement and its links to the government tend to move away from Sufism to a ‘rationalised’ Islam – one that is sensitive to the demands of globalised Islamism. This group consists of a wide range of individuals, including members of the Francophone elite inspired by the historical link between Islam and the struggle against colonialism.

Generally though, those susceptible to violent radicalism are at the fringes of society. These militants, cut off from their families and a society they consider impious, are ideal targets for recruitment by international jihadist movements, especially in a context where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as part of its efforts to modernise its image, is increasingly present in the social media, including in West Africa. The ideological and financial onslaught of Wahhabite or jihadist Salafism is very powerful partially thanks to its use of petrodollars and the social services delivered by Islamic associations. The latter invest in educational and social services not provided by the state, even though it is not possible at this stage to measure the extent of this phenomenon.

Respondents to the survey living in the Dakar region expressed fears for Senegal because ‘the youth are capable of committing suicide for the sake of Islam for two reasons. The first is the brainwashing that takes place in the numerous Wahhabite schools where the state has no control over what is taught. The second is poverty, because the Islamists have the money and are willing to pay’.

The pro-jihadist discourse in Senegal rests on three pillars: pan-Islamic solidarity; hostility to the brotherhoods; and a deep anti-Western attitude, although several socioeconomic factors may also play an important role. This situation, together with the geopolitical realities in the sub-region, calls for the rethinking of security paradigms, particularly the mechanisms for fighting terrorism in an increasingly complex environment. The Senegalese government apparently does not fully grasp the challenges posed by this situation, nor does it seem to have included this religious dimension in its global security policy framework.

The transnational character of actors, the porosity of borders and the shrinking of distances by modern communication technologies seem to favour the spread of the jihadist phenomenon in West Africa. Senegal is not safe from this spread. The protection apparently provided by the marabouts and brotherhoods is no longer convincing given the contestation within their own ranks, the fragmentation of the authority of the Caliphs, and the existence of peripheral groups composed of virtually indoctrinated members under the influence of charismatic leaders. Senegal’s foreign policy choices, combined with the limitations of its intelligence services, especially in terms of regional cooperation, mean that it can only have limited control over these developments.

A comprehensive approach to the problem of religious radicalism will have to take into account not only the geopolitical aspects but also the ideological and sociological dimensions of a multifaceted phenomenon that often accompanies indicators such as rampant poverty, youth unemployment and blatant inequalities.

A reform of the dual education system in Senegal and dialogue with those responsible for Koranic schools will also be essential to avoid them increasingly being drawn to radical Islam. Senegal, a member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, could work with its Arab counterparts toward a better structured educational financing mechanism and harmonious cooperation that takes into account its concerns, especially in terms of medium- and long-term security.

Dr Bacary Sambe, researcher and lecturer, University of Gaston Berger, Saint Louis, Senegal and Col Djibril Ba, former Senegal National Gendarmerie Deputy High Commander. Edited by Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS consultant.

This ISS Today is drawn from the Ecowas Peace and Security Report Issue 3 May 2013. To view this paper in French and in English, click here.