Islamic radicalisation in North and West Africa: drivers and approaches to tackle radicalisation

This paper synthesises literature on Islamic radicalisation in North and West Africa, with a particular focus on the drivers of radicalisation and evidence on approaches that have attempted to tackle radicalisation. There is significant debate in the academic literature concerning the definition of ‘radicalisation’. For the purposes of this report, the definition of Islamic radicalisation adopted is ‘a political rupture with the nation state in order to establish the early Islamic califat by violence’.

The two main ideological perspectives relevant in the region are Jihadism, which advocates political violence; and Wahhabism, or Salafism Wahhabism, which advocate fundamentalism and non-violence.

There is a broad and growing body of literature which explores the drivers and processes of radicalisation in a variety of country contexts. While much of this concentrates on ‘home grown’ radicalisation – i.e. that which occurs among Europeans in Europe – there is growing attention being paid to radicalisation in other contexts, particularly in North and West Africa. Though the socio-political and historical realities of states here vary significantly, it is possible to discern some similarities in, and characteristics of, drivers of Islamic radicalisation in the region. Evidence indicates that socio-economic factors – while in themselves not key determinants of radicalisation – add fuel to the process. The experience of many countries in North and West Africa demonstrates that a combination of poverty, political and cultural marginalisation, low educational attainment, a lack of opportunities (particularly for young people), and the collapse of traditional Islamic organisations is a potent combination. Other important regional drivers include the history of authoritarianism, the post-revolution political climate, increased funding for Salafist Wahhabi groups from outside sources, and the resonance of international issues that relate to the Islamic world (such as the Iraq War).

Given that there is no single driver of radicalisation, the issue of how to address this phenomenon in North and West Africa, and elsewhere, is complex. There are a range of approaches that have been used in various countries, most of which tend to be led by national government.

Examples of programmes include:

  • Religious rehabilitation: This is an important component of de-radicalisation efforts as it helps to delegitimise the actions of radical groups and refutes theoretical and ideological justifications. Programmes that focus on religious rehabilitation have had variable success in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Yemen and Jordan.
  • De-radicalisation in prisons: Prisoners can play a crucial role in de-radicalisation efforts. Programming in a prison environment can range from religious dialogue with credible interlocutors, to providing inducements and support mechanisms for socio-economic reintegration.
  • Internet-based de-radicalisation: The internet is a key component of modern processes of radicalisation, however, as yet, few strategies have targeted online radicalisation. An example of an approach that does is the Al-Sakina programme based in Saudi Arabia.

Drawing from the available literature, recommendations presented for de-radicalisation or counter-radicalisation programmes include:

  • Provide support to strengthen the capacity of the domestic state in order to create an economic and social climate beneficial to the people.
  • Pay attention to context and tailor de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation approaches to the specific local cultural, historical and political circumstances.
  • Interlocutors, particularly moderate Islamic preachers, have a crucial role to play in deradicalisation efforts. They should be highly knowledgeable and well respected among the community within which they work.
  • Evidence indicates that some of the more effective de-radicalisation strategies incorporate an aftercare element in their programming. This can range from scheduled counselling sessions to daily text message reminders. Families have an important role in monitoring against recidivism and so should also be incorporated in de-radicalisation efforts.
  • Support classical Islamic culture: Experts recommend supporting the integration of classical Islamic culture within civil society to counter radicalisation

Suggested citation

Hinds, R. (2013). Islamic Radicalisation in North and West Africa: Drivers and approaches to tackle radicalisation (Rapid Literature Review). UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.