The terrorist organisations in the north of Africa

Yesterday we had al-Qaeda, today we have Mujao, Ansar Dine, Aqmi, Mujwa, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram. It is as if when the head of the monster of Islamic terrorism is cut off, more tentacles grow in its place.

The newspapers are full of groups with names like these, especially in the last few days since the Algerian operation. But knowing the name does not solve the problem. «It’s not as simple as that – says Stefano Allievi, lecturer in sociology at the university of Padua, Italy and expert on Islam -, because these groups are continually mingling and the combatants have no difficulty in moving from one to the other. These are not movements brought together by reading the same revolutionary texts. They are splinter groups which live and survive on the non-existence of the state as a structure, on the absence of civil society and the lack of economic development. They operate in a power framework which enables them to make money: they are involved in drug dealing, cigarette smuggling, kidnapping and even – in Afghanistan, for example – in the trade in goods sold to Western troops. They are intermediate terrorist organisations, certainly not as effective as al-Qaeda and less well funded, but with deep roots in the territory, in an area ridden with conflict because of the presence of oil resources, mineral wealth, trafficking in people and diamonds, and tribal disputes. Ideological backup comes from the Muslim intellectuals returning from Saudi Arabian universities. They have veiled wives (a tradition foreign to Africa) and preach moral rigour (which puts together, in an explosive mix, homosexuality, alcohol consumption and pornography), and the political struggle against the West. We always thought Mali, for example, was the last place that could be influenced by Islamist ideology. It had a Sufi version of Islam, open, tolerant, willing to engage in dialogue. But when tribal unrest mixes with ideology, the result is radicalisation. Grafted onto all this are conflicts that have never been resolved, such as the Palestinian dispute, or injustices which were never healed, following the war in Iraq».

So we can think of the death of Bin Laden as a sort of watershed.

«Certainly a symbol has gone. But it needs to be said, even al-Qaeda was not a homogeneous, or hierarchical, or top-down organisation. Bin Laden was not at the head of a chain of command. There were autonomous organisations which shared some ideological references, based on the Qur’an, but were mainly recognisable by a single, destructive, objective, to strike the West. Various attempts claimed by al-Qaeda were adopted as an afterthought, and the decision had not come from the top. All of this worked, and worked well, as long as the paradigm used for interpretation was the clash of civilisations: Islam as the great Satan, the world of good against the world of evil, Bush’s anti-Islamic crusade, and so on. And it was symmetrical. A part of the world lived for quite a while within this paradigm, which now has lost its appeal. Besides, the effectiveness of radical messages lies in having a powerful enemy. As long as the enemy is there, it’s easy. When it disappears, the paradigm inevitably breaks down. The ideology, too, is subject to different interpretations, and divisions within Islam go back as far as the succession to Muhammad».

What are the reasons for the change?

«The western operations, from the war in Iraq to the war in Afghanistan, have been shown to have been a complete failure. But there have also been disasters on the Islamic side: we have talked about the killing of Bin Laden, but we could also mention Pakistan, which is no longer a sanctuary for terrorists. When the initial enthusiasm due to the Twin Towers ran out, the reflections began even, within radical Islam, about the effectiveness and also the morality of these methods. Al-Qaedism did not succeed in taking the whole Arab world with it. And Obama has brought to power a different approach: a hand outstretched towards Islam and a mailed fist against terrorism. Once we realised that there are also good Muslims, a new cycle inevitably began. The Arab spring showed us that the Islamic world is different from what we thought. Those populations rebelled in the name of liberty and justice, against corruption, not in the name of Sharia or fanaticism. We had it thrown in our face, after we had supported their dictators until the last minute».

How much does the religious factor count?

«Religion comes into it because churches really are being burnt, but it is not the origin of the problem and is not relevant to its analysis. It is a good way of mobilising people. The Christians are considered implicit allies of the West. Religion, therefore, is being used as a justification for the conflict. It is the logic of the scapegoat, which produces nothing good but makes headlines. Later, hopefully, it is discovered that in the same village there are forms of collaboration between the priest and the imam, that there are mixed-faith couples and that Christians and Muslims both go to the school, but these things make less news. When the monks of Tibhirine were murdered, the grief of the Muslims was enormous».

The future?

«The future needs thinking about. If, instead of this global insanity of military operations which we are financing, we tried promoting economic development, helping civil societies to grow, a different type of élite would be produced. Instead, the responses, including the European responses, to the Arab spring were first to defend the indefensible to the very last, and then to abandon the Arabs. But twin a couple of universities, build a couple of hospitals, and you are helping them rebuild the nation. However, from the Berlin conference to Africa we have continued to create problems by drawing state boundaries with pencil and ruler. Foreign policy is not improvisation – there’s a problem in Somalia, let’s go in there and do something – it requires study, reflection and analysis. We imagine the future to the extent that we make the effort to imagine it, with commercial and educational agreements, investments and plans. If not, today it is Mali, tomorrow it will be another country, and we will continue to learn nothing».

© 2013 – Romina Gobbo

Published on La Voce dei Berici – 27 January 2013

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