What Would McNulty Do? Violence, Crime, and Extremism in Africa

Thin line ‘tween heaven and here’ –Bubbles

The proliferation of violent extremist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa has provoked a renewed focus on the region in the post-9/11 global security context. From a Western perspective, particularly that of the Europeans, the notion of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram (BH) and al-Shabaab each forming a terrorist arch across the continent certainly presents a real security threat. However, our preoccupation with the ideological nature of these groups often serves to obscure the fundamental structural nature of this phenomenon.  These organisations possess a number of similar characteristics; they operate by exploiting territories within a country with a weak State, recruiting from populations with genuine political grievances, all the while receiving most of their financial support from illicit transnational networks.

BH, for example, is headquartered in northern Nigeria, an area of the country that has suffered from institutionalised socio-economic exclusion since the years of colonisation. Africa’s rapidly growing population has exasperated employment problems across the continent and northern Nigeria, where 60 to 70 per cent of the population is already impoverished; unemployment has risen to 35 per cent.[1] Another factor to consider is the large number of Soviet era weapons that continue to circulate throughout the area, which are now available to new insurgent groups. Without intending to over-simplify the dynamics at play, the equation seems clear: there are a ton of guns, weak state institutions, and many unemployed, un-educated and frustrated young men.

Image courtesy of UN Photo, ©2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of UN Photo, ©2012, some rights reserved.

Not only is this population exceptionally vulnerable to the warped ideological narrative that promises redemption and glory espoused by groups like BH; there is also a potential for economic opportunity as the organisations have become increasingly involved in organised criminal networks. Latin American drug cartels involved in smuggling cocaine through Africa and into Europe now contribute to a panoptic array of illicit transnational activities that finance these terrorist organisations. As such, it becomes unclear to what extent Islamic extremism serves as a guise for what are essentially criminal organisations.

As important as it is to acknowledge the structural problems that produce these problems, it is equally important to recognise that they are not exclusive to Nigeria, Africa, or the developing world. To this point, my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland serves as an interesting parallel. Only 45 minutes east of the national capital, Baltimore City has become notorious for its endemic violent drug crime, which was dramatized on HBO’s The Wire. A study from the Brookings Institute ranked Baltimore the tenth most unequal city in America,[2] which, to put this number in perspective, means a full twenty years separates the median life expectancy of two neighbourhoods that stand a few miles apart.[3]

Criminal gang activities are physically relegated to certain sections of the city, but produce enough violence to make it one of the most dangerous cities in the country and to warrant the city’s unfortunate nickname, ‘Bodymore, Murderland’. It is not surprising that neighbourhoods like Sandtown or Harlem Park, where over 20 per cent of inhabitants are unemployed; turn to violent and illicit sources of income and security to fill the void left by the inability of the state to react. While these organisations are not politically motivated like those in Nigeria may be, they are both a reaction to the same essential socio-economic factors—a dynamic that their respective security responses both seem to overlook.

Counter drug trafficking approaches are generally split by two opposing assumptions about the structure of organised crime, the ‘concentrated industry’ hypothesis and the ‘cottage industry’ hypothesis. The ‘concentrate industry’ hypothesis is largely accepted by Federal drug enforcement agencies and asserts that drug smuggling is largely controlled by a few, very secret and well-resourced organisations, which operate separately from every-day retail activity. Effective counter drug trafficking tactics involve dismantling these major organisations, which, apparently, cannot be rapidly replaced.

In contrast, the ‘cottage industry model’ is more accepted by local security agencies and assumes that the drug industry is dominated by a host of small, non-specialised groups, whose weak structures are in constant flux.[4] Thus, the removal of any one of these groups will not have a substantial effect on the drug trade—Barksdale will be quickly replaced by Marlo. While the latter theory disrupts federal notions of the drug industry, it relates a more nuanced construction of criminal activity as micro-responses to macro-processes.

To extend the comparison, BH is not a monolithic group; it has no clearly articulated mission, nor an established leadership. If security forces were somehow able to dismantle and demobilise BH entirely, there is no reason to believe that a new group will not immediately replace it. In addition, fans of The Wire will know that bureaucratic corruption and direct government complicity in organised crime—the ‘Clay Davis’s of the world—creates another dimension to the structural obstacles to consider.

The analogy between gangs in Baltimore and terrorist groups in the Sahel is obviously imperfect, but portraying them as entirely distinct is also inadequate. Undoubtedly, approaches to counter drug trafficking and counter terrorism could both benefit from a re-evaluation of what exactly constitutes the phenomenon they are responding to. Ideally, the way to deal with violent disenfranchised youth would not involve military or police force at all, but instead, focus on building livelihood opportunities, poverty alleviation and inclusive institutional development. However, given that neither inner city Baltimore nor northern Nigeria is likely to experience major socio-economic transformation in the near future, a concerted change within security agencies is needed.

In Nigeria, and across the Sahel, it is important that security responses do not play into the narratives propagated by extremist groups—for instance heavy-handed Western military involvement. Investments in policing over the military sector would be a helpful start, but not to replace the more fundamental need for institutional reform. Furthermore, if Islam is not really the problem, then it may offer ‘the solution’—an approach Morocco has taken more recently. This means strengthening indigenous religious institutions, whose inherent legitimacy is key to offering a compelling counter-narrative for the local youth and avoid further radicalisation.

The threat of terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel is very real and it presents a significant humanitarian and security challenge to domestic, regional and international actors. However, terrorism and crime have long been tools of last resort, for those with no other political voice or economic opportunity. The post-9/11 fear of Islamists should not blind us to the true source of conflict, nor should we allow these perceptions to magnify the reality of the threat.


[1] http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/07/15/the_boko_haram_economy

[2] http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/02/cities-unequal-berube

[3] http://health.baltimorecity.gov/neighborhood-health-profile-reports

[4] http://www.popcenter.org/library/crimeprevention/volume_11/11-eckGersh.pdf