It began with a random friend request on Facebook that Ali accepted. He had recently started flooding his friends’ feeds with posts on the positive aspects of Islam, his religion. But the new “friend” had darker ideas. Soon, the stranger started sending Ali videos of fully veiled women and voice messages explaining verses of the Quran that Ali had supposedly misunderstood. Ali should advocate for jihad, the sometimes violent struggle against nonbelievers, the “friend” said.
“I told him, ‘You’re a terrorist!’” recalls Ali, in his 20s, sitting on a restaurant terrace in Bissau, the capital of the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau.
The attempt at online recruitment and Ali’s indignation highlight a sharpening tussle over the future of Islam and radicalism in parts of West Africa that have so far largely escaped the specter of terrorism. Across Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Guinea, the Gambia and Mauritania, the spiritual practice of Sufism and Malakite Islam — a Sunni strain influenced by Sufism — have dominated for centuries, shielding these countries from the Salafist influences of Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf.
But more conservative approaches are now increasingly threatening these tolerant traditions in these countries, aided by rising investments from Arab states funding mosques, Quranic schools and more, according to imams and experts.The world’s attention is focused on the retreat of ISIS in Iraq and on the war in the Sahel against a growing web of jihadi groups. But just south, in coastal West Africa, hundreds of mosques have sprouted up in recent years with obscure funding and minimal oversight by states, leading to fears that they are used by extremist groups to recruit followers from newer territories.
They would use education as an opportunity for brainwashing and grooming of fundamentalist beliefs.
Antero Lopes, UNIOGBIS
Several imams across Guinea-Bissau recall recent anecdotes hinting at increased sectarianism: tense relations between Shia and Sunni groups, Catholic schools driven away by hostile neighbors, heated religious debates on local radios. One group, the Islamic Preaching Association for Youth, boasts more than 100 mosques built in Senegal alone, funded by donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and Kuwait. And mosques on the campuses of some of Senegal’s biggest universities in Dakar and Saint-Louis are now in the hands of Salafists, according to Bakary Sambe, an expert on radicalization in Africa and director of the Dakar-based Timbuktu Institute.
“These groups would be occupying the space of the state in the provision of basic services,” says Antero Lopes, who heads the rule of law section at UNIOGBIS, the United Nations peace-building mission in Guinea-Bissau. “They would use education as an opportunity for brainwashing and grooming of fundamentalist beliefs.”
To be sure, religious radicalization in itself doesn’t turn people violent. But while most Salafists are nonviolent, the ideology underpins many of the bloodiest jihadi groups in the world, from the Islamic State to Boko Haram.
The networks between these new conservative strains emerging in these countries stretch across borders. Senegal’s most notorious Salafist, Alioune Ndao, is on trial with 28 others for inciting and financing terrorism, with help from regional terror groups, according to court documents. Ndao was a radical preacher in the town of Kaolack, more than 100 miles southeast of Dakar. Investigators found money, computers and literature related to the Islamic State and Boko Haram as well as a gun and ammunition at Ndao’s house.
Yusuf Galissa, Guinea-Bissau’s most high-profile jihadi, is serving a life sentence in Mauritania after he was arrested in 2011 for helping plot an assassination attempt on the Mauritanian president. He had studied earlier in the Gambia. Since his arrest, dozens of suspected jihadis have been caught in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Senegal and the Gambia.
Often, to those closest to such extremists, all that’s visible for many years is a passion for Islamic education. “All his life was reading the Quran,” Galissa’s sister Aua tells me surrounded by three generations of women sitting in the shade on the family’s front yard in Gabu, in the east of the country.
It’s that seemingly innocent beginning that the stranger who contacted Ali on Facebook was counting on too. He told Ali to join a Salafist Quranic school in the poor district of Bra 2 in Bissau if he wanted to learn more. At the school, the director Umar Seide makes no bones about wanting to change the character of Islam in Guinea-Bissau — or that his message is gaining traction.
Seide says the number of pupils he teaches is on the rise. “Islam here needs to change,” he says, arguing that the cross-cultural influences in the region between different religious groups have robbed the Quran of its pure interpretation. He can’t attack older people for their beliefs, he says, so he focuses on teaching children.
The extent to which foreign-imported Salafist thought has spread in these countries is hard to determine, say experts. Hundreds of new mosques have mushroomed in Guinea-Bissau, not declared to national authorities and with their imams not vetted, says Lopes. Vincent Foucher, a research fellow at France’s National Center for Scientific Research whose work is focused on the Sahel, says it’s also hard to be sure that jihadi groups control organized networks in Senegal and the Gambia. “More likely, we’re talking about a network of members and former members, followers which jihadi groups can call upon,” he says.
But the shifting nature of Islam in the region is clear — as is the external influence. In a 2016 survey by the Timbuktu Institute, 8 percent of youth interviewed in Dakar’s suburbs said they would be open to joining a violent movement to defend Islam. The Middle East Institute, in a 2017 report, concluded that Saudi Arabia and Iran, locked in a proxy war, are both funding rival groups in West Africa’s Muslim communities to gain a foothold there.
What’s helping external players is “bad governance,” argues Corinne Dufka, a researcher on West Africa for Human Rights Watch. In the 2016 Timbuktu Institute study in Senegal, nearly half of the 400 respondents said poverty and unemployment were the biggest factors in their peers joining terrorist groups. Extremist groups, says Dufka, are “cleverly exploiting the day-to-day frustrations of local villagers” over “corruption by civil servants, banditry and the lack of justice.”
Ali’s resistance to these influences held up. But the region is cracking.