Peter Bergen is one of the world’s foremost experts on global jihadist movements like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. He is a journalist who has covered this beat for decades, including the first television interview with Osama Bin Laden in 1997. In our conversation, Peter Bergen discusses where Qaeda and the Islamic State stand today, including how the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has impacted these global Jihadist movements.
We also discuss why the Western Sahel region of Africa has become the geographical base of so many al Qaeda and Islamic State splinter groups.
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Why Have Global Jihadist Groups Been Successful in The Sahel Region of Western Africa?
Mark Leon Goldberg: While the geographical caliphate of the Islamic State was destroyed, it does seem in recent years that the locus of global jihadi movements seem to have shifted towards Africa in general — and the western Sahel in particular: Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. How would you explain the seeming emergence of these groups in that region, whereas these movements in other parts of the world, in the Middle East, seem to be losing strength.
Peter Bergen: Well, I mean, it’s a very good question. I would like to zoom out a little bit and say whatever the flavor of these jihadist groups, Al Qaida, ISIS, al-Shabab or whatever the group is named in a particular country, these groups are not necessarily strong themselves. They prey on weak states. And so the weaker the state in a Muslim majority country, the more likely these groups are to exist. And I think when you have a relatively strong Muslim state like Saudi Arabia, which had a major problem with al Qaeda in 2004, 2005, the Saudis fought a pretty successful, almost like a counterinsurgency campaign against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is really a nonissue now in Saudi Arabia. And much of those remnants of that moved into neighboring Yemen. So I think that the overall point, when you’ve got a weak state like Somalia, al-Shabab is going to do okay. And in fact, al-Shabab has waxed and waned quite a lot over the years in Somalia. And it’s interesting, the one area where the Biden Administration is launching a relatively robust counterterrorism campaign is in Somalia, outside of the counter ISIS campaign.
If you look at what used to be the drone war in Pakistan, which was really amped up by President Obama, it has basically ceased under President Trump and is continue to cease under President Biden. There have been, as far as we can tell at New America where I also work and we track these things pretty carefully, no drone strikes in Pakistan since 2018. That is not the case in Somalia, where there have been plenty of drone strikes and also ground force operations against al-Shabab.
But the broader point is, is that weak states are hospitable to these groups. I think sometimes, you know, these groups put you on a payroll and in countries with very limited job opportunities, this is a job that gives you kind of power and maybe some money. And I think in the specific cases of Niger, the coup there sort of doesn’t hurt these groups and may help them. In Mali, the French pulled out. That doesn’t hurt these groups either. If there is a power vacuum that helps these kinds of groups.
Of course, al Qaeda has had an affiliate in Africa for many years that’s been involved in, you kidnaping Westerners often for really pretty nice sums of money, which has kind of kept them afloat. The U.S. and Britain don’t pay ransoms. That’s not the case for the French and the Italians and other European countries. So there has been a jihadist presence in West Africa for a long time. But it seems as to, as you point out, it seems to be growing and it seems to be the area of the world where we’re actually doing the best. You know, I don’t have the full answer about why that’s the case. I think it’s definitely worth exploring, you know, trying to dig deeper into it.
Mark Leon Goldberg: If you speak with Sahel security experts they’ll often point to the ability of these groups to exploit local grievances, sometimes ethnic grievances — and the areas in which they’re able to recruit the best are farthest from the centers of power in the countries. They kind of do well on the peripheries in these countries, which tend to be neglected by the state the most. And so you wonder if the remedy then is to undertake development activities — not necessarily like drone strikes or tip of the spear operations, but rather economic development, social development, those kinds of efforts to reduce the attractiveness of these organizations. Do you put like credence in that?
Peter Bergen: Well, my guess is that these countries need a lot of development writ large, and that’s a very expensive proposition. But part of it is also just a rule of law aspect, because I think I’m sure you’re right about where the writ of the government is very low. These groups are going to function pretty well. So it’s about extending the writ of the government. I mean, you can’t do development if you don’t have security. So the security has to precede the development. And I think that the states like, do they have the capacity to manage remote parts of the country and keep law and order? The answer is probably not. So if that’s really the case, then I would point to advise and assist missions by U.S. Special operations, Special Forces, which are, you know, very small footprint. It doesn’t have to be a large number of people. I mean, a case that I’m very interested in, Abu Sayyaf, which you may recall was a relatively successful al Qaeda affiliate in the Philippines. It’s really taken a big hit and it’s taken a big hit because the Philippine military, with assistance from U.S. Special forces, had quite a success against Abu Sayyaf, which was routinely kidnaping Americans, amongst other things. There’s no political appetite, obviously, in the United States for a large scale military interventions anywhere. And they’re not really that necessary often. And I think a relatively small special Forces mission, if the country is willing to accept U.S. Special forces, can be quite successful.