The Sahel region, an area made up of largely semi-arid countries below the Sahara, continues to come under attack from jihadist insurgents of various affiliations.
“Jihadist insurgents,” broadly defined, rely on religious rhetoric to mobilize politically and use violence to achieve their goals.
Groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State's West Africa Province have proven their resilience in Nigeria and parts of Niger. Other groups, such as Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, continue to mobilize in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
These groups are attracting the attention of the international community because of their violence. Around 500 civilians have been killed by suspected jihadists in the Sahel in 2021. Recent examples include the massacres in Niger and Burkina Faso.
But this violence conceals another aspect of these groups: they design other forms of local governance in rural areas. And how they govern varies, from group to group and within groups, even if they adhere to a widespread Salafi-jihadi ideology.
There is only scattered academic research on the subject. Therefore, as part of a larger study covering Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria, we reviewed existing research to examine how jihadists govern in the region and reasons why their governance differs.
We found that they do not follow strict ideological models to impose their domination. Nor do they rely solely on the use of spectacular violence. They are constantly adapting their way of governing according to the internal dynamics of the factions and the pressure of state and non-state actors while being responsive to local politics.
How Jihadists Rule
Jihadist insurgents, like other insurgents, rule by force. But this violence can vary according to the proportion with which they decide to strike their targets selectively or indiscriminately. Subgroups of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin have generally targeted non-collaborators, government authorities and international forces, primarily in Mali. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, on the other hand, attacked civilians indiscriminately.
Jihadist groups sometimes impose their interpretation of sharia (religious law) at the local level through harsh punishments. These same groups may exercise restraint elsewhere to avoid alienating local communities. Their transnational ideological commitments may be incompatible with local norms and the interests of those in power.
Local elites, namely religious leaders and village chiefs, can play an important role in how jihadist groups exercise their authority. For example, the Ansar Dine group in Mali's Kidal region retained local sharia judges (qadis), who limited the group's strict application of sharia. Researchers have pointed to how rebel governors sometimes set up elaborate administrations, but jihadist insurgents in the Sahel appear to have developed more fluid, less formal, local institutions to maintain social control over local populations.
Groups like the Katiba Macina and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara set up mobile courts to deliver justice at the local level, where they could not be permanently present. Some groups collected zakat (Islamic tax) from local people. However, based on the scant research that exists, the public services provided by jihadists in return seem quite limited.
While these groups may support regional or global goals, they tend to position their governance projects according to ongoing conflicts and divides. Jihadists seek to gain a grip on local communities by allying themselves with certain groups in existing conflicts. Some have attempted, for example, to recruit Fulani herders by promising them access to resources such as pasture. They have also intervened to resolve conflicts, in order to offer a type of justice more effective than that of the State.
The explanation of the different styles
The role played by state and non-state actors, such as militias, vigilante groups and rival groups, is one of the factors that help to explain the differences in governance style between jihadist groups. Counter-insurgency operations can, among other things, prevent jihadists from building institutions, confining them to a more opaque style of governance. In addition, rival jihadist groups may adapt their style of governance by engaging in one-upmanship to continue to enjoy community support.
Another explanation lies in the organizational structure. Jihadist groups differ in terms of their cohesion and degree of centralization. Dynamics in factions can lead to differences in governance. Leaders may not always be able to discipline sub-commanders to ensure their vision is carried out locally.
Divergences in their ideological commitment may provide clues as to what can be expected from jihadist governance. However, there are no ready-made models for “real” Islamic governance. Group commanders and members interpret ideology while themselves being influenced by local traditions and requirements.
Finally, local politics and conflict significantly influence jihadist governance. Exploiting social divisions and grievances can allow a group to impose new systems without resorting solely to violence. The group's social relationships with the local population, including ethnic affinities and clan or tribal ties, influence their eventual actions. Local actors can also organize collective resistance that challenges jihadist governance projects.
Global labels, localized governance
These preliminary conclusions are rich in lessons for policy makers. Sticking a label of Salafist jihadism does not tell you how to govern a group. Rather, these diverse groups need to be studied as complex political organizations emanating from local socio-political and economic contexts. The support given to the jihadists often comes from strata that feel aggrieved and see it as a way to improve their social conditions. Their rise at the local level is not limited to a question of religious appeal.
The resolution of jihadist conflicts in the Sahel will require the adoption of an approach tending to treat them not only as terrorists or criminals, but also as political actors who seek to propose another form of governance.
Natasja Rupesinghe receives funding from the Norwegian Research Council
Mikael Hiberg Naghizadeh does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
By Natasja Rupesinghe, Research Fellow and PhD Candidate at University of Oxford, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs And
Mikael Hiberg Naghizadeh, DPhil-Candidate in International Relations, University of Oxford