Islamist mobilisation and state failure: an unholy alliance?

In his first foreign policy speech after announcing his candidacy for the 2007 Democratic primaries, Barack Obama highlighted the threat to US and international interests posed by state failure: claiming that al-Qaeda ‘operate freely in the disconnected corners of our interconnected world – the weak and ungoverned states that have become fertile breeding grounds for transnational threats’. Six years later, at the 2013 Davos World Economic Forum, David Cameron developed the point – affirming that ‘we need to address that poisonous narrative that the terrorists feed on. We need to close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive’. As part of the War on Terror, CIA Director George Tenet had identified in 2003 fifty such spaces around the world, ‘vast stretches of ungoverned areas… where extremist movements find shelter and win the breathing space to grow’. Almost all of these were to be found in the Muslim world – apart from the final section of the list intriguingly subtitled ‘other hotspots’ (as if threats to security could be neatly categorised as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Miscellaneous’). In the main, the response of the ‘international community’ to the problem of state failure has been, as per Cameron’s words, to try and ‘close down’ ungoverned spaces and rebuild the edifice of the state. Implicit in this coping strategy is a view of the West as saviour – hence, the 1992 Somali intervention’s egregious codename: ‘Operation Restore Hope’. Hence, also, the words of Barack Obama in that 2007 speech:

‘On a trip to the Middle East, I met Israelis and Palestinians who told me that peace remains a distant hope without the promise of American leadership. At a camp along the border of Darfur, refugees begged for America to step in and stop the genocide. And along the crowded streets of Kenya, I met throngs of children who asked if they’d ever get the chance to visit that magical place called America.’

According to conventional analyses, state collapse, failure, or fragility – as put by Dirk Vandewalle in 2015 – ‘provide a permissive environment for Islamists’. In the words of Jennifer Keister’s 2014 critique, ‘under-governed territories are thought to facilitate operations for terrorist groups that may launch attacks, interdict access to fossil fuels and transit lanes, or fuel criminal activity’. In this essay, I will unpack some of the assumptions about the opportunities offered to Islamists by state failure, including external forces’ reactions to such failure. In so doing, I hope to raise questions about the value of the conceptual failed state – and reveal that all which seems ‘ungoverned’ may in fact just be governed in a novel way. My concluding thesis is that a reconsideration of what qualifies as ‘government’ would constitute a major step towards a better understanding of how societies rebuild after governing structures’ disintegration.

It is apparent, first of all, that in conditions of state failure, Islamist groups often adopt the function of service providers at the level of civil society. It is well to begin with the case of Somalia – which, according to Ken Menkhaus in 2006, represents ‘the longest-running instance of complete state collapse in postcolonial history’. In conditions of anarchic warlordism in the mid-1990s, Islamist groups emerged as efficient coordinators of rudimental services. Menkhaus describes how Somali Islamists ‘emerged to do more than simply keep the peace via shari’a courts. They also provided basic services, operated piped water systems, regulated marketplaces, and collected modest levels of taxes’. Exemplary amongst Islamists’ early operations was the Luuq hospital, operated by al-Ittihad from 1991 until Ethiopian forces defeated the group in 1997. The Luuq hospital was a model of good governance – in contrast to other facilities, whose administrations were bedevilled by malfeasance. One 1994 African Medical and Research Foundation report cited Luuq hospital as benefiting from ‘good security, which is the result of strict administration by the Islamic Association’. The same genre of service provision can be noted of the Algerian Islamists during the disintegration of the Front de Libération Nationale’s government. From the 1960s onwards, the FLN was engaged in a programme of mass industrialisation, such that in 1988, 44% of Algeria’s population was urban, with the vast majority of the population living in inadequate, temporary accommodation. By the turn of the 1990s it was evident, in Robert Malley’s 1996 account, that the nationalists’ promises ‘had fallen depressingly short of satisfying basic human needs’. The collapse of the state in Algeria prompted Algerians to seek out alternative sources of social security – resulting in the rise of the Front Islamique du Salut. Algerian Islamists spread their roots in civil society, building a social base through the provision of education, healthcare, employment, waste collection, and aid after the 1989 earthquake. Thus, in 1997, François Burgat described how the Algerian Islamist movement gained access to ‘the heart of civil society… with methods of social and educational action that took advantage of the weaknesses of state policy’. The ultimate outcome of such initiatives was the consolidation of the FIS’ electoral constituency: as realised in Algeria’s first multi-party elections in 1991, when the FIS won 54% of the popular vote – including a strong showing in deprived urban areas (65% in Algiers, 70% in Oran, and 72% in Constantine).

The conclusion to be drawn from the Somali and Algerian cases, then, is that where the central state is weak (or non-existent) Islamists have responded by fulfilling basic social and security functions: thereby, in Roland Marchal’s 2009 analysis, ‘strengthening their connections with lay people and persuading the community to accept their views’.

Islamists’ ability to respond in this way has been expedited by their capacity to unite constituencies through the idiom of religious identity. Since the decline of the Siad Barre regime, Somalia has experienced significant clan rivalry – leading to the deaths of an estimated 250,000 as a result of famine. Frustrated by a lack of security and commercial predictability in the debilitating climate of clan violence, businesspeople and neighbourhood groups formed coalitions that bought militias out from under clan leaders from 1997 onwards. Religion provided the necessary element of mutual identification to form such coalitions. Marchal rightly cites that ‘Islamism in Somalia was a repudiation of clan appeal that obscured the situation and allowed oppressors to divide the oppressed. Islamism served to express commonalities and build alliances’. Thus, as reported by the International Crisis Group in 2014, Mogadishu ‘residents, and especially the resurgent business community, were willing to back the rapid growth of shari’a-based Islamic Courts, as an alternative to the warlords that had blighted the city for much of the 1990s’. In the process, Ceric Barnes reflected in 2007 that ‘the Courts achieved the unthinkable, uniting Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years, and re-establishing peace and security’. A similar logic could be applied to the growth of Amal and, after 1982, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. In conditions of state collapse, both of these movements organised the community through the lens of confessional community. In 2006, Simon Haddad described the proliferation of Hezbollah amongst impoverished Shi’is living in Lebanon’s ‘misery belt’. Haddad traced Hezbollah’s penetration of civil society to ‘the Lebanese government’s shy presence in Shi’i-concentrated areas. Hezbollah, in marked contrast to Lebanon’s government, established schools and hospitals and maintained social welfare facilities across half the country’. Such functions were envisioned as part of the construction of an under-represented Shi’i ‘imagined community’ – what Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr called in 2008 ‘the construction of a specific Lebanese Shi’i nationalism’.

The possibility of imagining a shared identity facilitates Islamist mobilisation in the context of social fragment.

At this point, it is worth presenting a caveat that might have been expressed at the outset. Despite the protests of those who critique the creation of what Mahmood Mamdani called in 2004 Good Muslim, Bad Muslim categories, there is a distinction to be made between varied Islamist groups operating in conditions of state failure. In such settings, there is no monolithic Islamist bloc – a point elaborated in a 2005 ICG report cautioning that ‘many Western observers have tended to lump all forms of Islamism together, and treat them as hostile. That approach is fundamentally misconceived. Islamism has a number of very different streams’. The opportunities for Islamist mobilisation described above are largely of the ‘Good Muslim’ variety. But within such networks there exist competing claimants, with more radical intentions. In the case of the Islamic Courts Union, the ‘hawks’ had a specific function tied to the provision of security. Cedric Barnes charted in 2007 how ‘al-Shabaab became an important component of the overall Islamic Courts coalition – especially militarily – a fact that is not readily admitted by apologists for the Islamic Courts’. By and large, al-Shabaab’s militancy was kept in check by the ICU leadership. Kept in check, that is, until the balance of forces within the Somali Islamist movement was upset by the actions of external agents. As the likelihood of international military action to support the broadly illegitimate Transitional Federal Government from its limited power-base in Baidoa grew, the ICU leadership remained committed to a diplomatic position. The adoption of United Nations resolution 1725 authorising the deployment of peacekeeping forces, however, dented the ICU leadership’s image and, for Barnes, ‘encouraged the ‘hawks’ to think there was an international conspiracy against them. The heightened tension worked against the collective Courts leadership, handing the initiative to vanguard elements’. Outside intervention in Somali affairs was, in fact, an exogenous advantage for al-Shabaab. From 2006 onwards, the presence of Ethiopian and American forces in Somalia became a major asset for al-Shabaab: as militant Islamism became increasingly conflated with national resistance. Marchal reflects that the international ‘operation was badly prepared and engineered. The US and Ethiopia misread the situation and got themselves into a battle that they could not win as the fight was no longer between jihadis and their opponents, but between Somalis and the forces of unwelcome foreign states’.

Underpinning the international community’s misguided strategy is the tendency to group all Islamists under the labels of the Global War on Terror. This tendency was expressed in Assistant Secretary of State of African Affairs Jendayi Frazer’s fervent belief that ‘al-Qaeda was controlling the leadership of the Courts’. Before 2006 there was no empirical evidence to suggest any systematic relationship between the ICU and al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, fear of such a link meant that by 2014 just under $100 million had been expended by the US in attempts to root out al-Qaeda in Somalia – entrenching al-Shabaab’s raison d’être in the process.

Misconceived external interventions, endemic to the period of the War on Terror, thus became an integral part of the empowerment of militant tendencies in conditions of state failure. That is, the very tendencies that Western policy-makers intend to foreclose. In the words of Keister, ‘integration efforts create the very instability they seek to avert by disturbing a status quo that manages a variety of risks’.

This brings us to a broader point: which is external powers’ blind pursuit of state building. For, in contexts like Somalia, central states are often understood as the problem and not the solution. Menkhaus reflected in 2006 that ‘the harsh repression of the government of Mohammed Siad Barre fuelled sharp resentment toward and fear of the state itself in the Somali public’. Equal wariness of official state institutions manifested itself in post-Qaddafi Libya. According to Vandewalle, ‘political disenfranchisement during the Qaddafi years left an especially heavy legacy of distrust of national institutions’. Understandably so, given the Libyan experience of the state. Libyan Islamists, who witnessed its brutality at first hand, share popular suspicions of the state and advocated forcefully in that regard after Qaddafi’s deposition in 2011. Over half of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s shura leadership were inmates of Abu Slim at the time of the 1996 massacre (during which 1,200 prisoners died). Mary Fitzgerald concluded in 2015 that the LIFG’s experiences under Qaddafi endowed it with a powerful aversion to central authority. Islamists’ incarceration in Abu Slim also played an important role in forming the network that emerged so powerfully during the revolution. Ali al-Sallabi, a major figure of the revolution, remembered that ‘there were former prisoners in every Libyan city, with relationships of great trust that created a strong network which grew quickly during the revolution’. In this sense, the breakdown of jealously authoritarian states provides opportunities for Islamist mobilisation insofar as those states’ oppressive measures have helped forge strong networks of opposition.

In the case of Hamas, the way in which activists expressed their distrust of failing state structures won them important support within the Palestinian public. Perry Anderson reflected scathingly of the Palestinian Authority in 2015 that it was ‘a parasite miniature of a rentier state, detached from a population whose needs it could ignore’. Within ten years of the 1993 Oslo accords, the PA’s pay-roll had risen to 150,000: of whom 42% comprised a bloated security infrastructure. The PA’s security complex, ‘in which [Anderson claims] torture is routine’, absorbed a third of its budget during the period 1995-2015 – considerably more than education and health expenditure combined. The peculiar circumstances of the Palestinian pseudo-state naturally engendered increasing frustrations within the body politic, eventually expressed in backing for the Islamists. Stephen Farrell notes that ‘Hamas’ supposed incorruptibility was a major factor for those sickened by the sight of Fatah officials building huge mansions on the hilltops of Ramallah’. One Gaza inhabitant noted her admiration for Hamas in this regard: ‘they sold their women’s gold for money, like the rest of the population has to do. That is good enough for us’. Again, in order to understand Islamists’ appeal in conditions of state fragility it is important to appreciate that the conventional state structures erected or supported by international observers are often a contributing factor.

Indeed, what many have failed to recognise is that those systems that develop in the face of state failure or fragility often approximate much more closely the model of stability that external authorities seek to re-establish. The British Foreign Office reported presciently in 2014 that ‘the term ‘ungoverned space’ takes a state-centric approach. It assumes that only states govern… So the term ‘ungoverned space’ creates an illusion of a vacuum in areas where state authority may be limited’. The notion of state failure may require interrogation, containing as it often does some normative assumptions about the inherent worth of state institutions. Local communities are in fact, in Menkhaus’ words, ‘not passive in in the face of state failure and insecurity, but instead adapt in a variety of ways to minimise risk in their dangerous environments’. In the instances described above, Islamists have played an important role in this respect.

It might well be outlandish to consider recent Somali history something of a success with regard to informal state building. But, as Menkhaus puts it, ‘Somalia is not merely a repository of lessons learned on how not to pursue state building’. Rather, ‘it is at the forefront of a poorly understood trend – the rise of informal systems of governance in response to the prolonged absence of a central government’. The shari’a courts that sprung up around Somalia in 1994 reflect an urge amongst local actors to re-establish order, if only informally. During the period of their pre-eminence, the Islamic Courts achieved numerous symbolic successes. Barnes lists how ‘road-blocks were removed and even the ubiquitous piles of rubbish that had blighted the city for a decade or more were cleared. The main Mogadishu airport and seaport were reopened and rehabilitated for the first time in a decade’. Meanwhile, Menkhaus found shortly before the Ethiopian invasion that ‘the egregious levels of violent crimes and level of impunity associated with the early 1990s are generally a thing of the past. The Islamic Courts have disarmed militiamen and policed the streets of Mogadishu, making the city safe for the first time since the late 1980s’. Moreover, much of the ICU’s authority derived from the very fact that they were not the arm of an official state along the lines of the ancien régime: under the ICU Somalia was, in Menkhaus’ memorable phrase, ‘without government but not without governance’.

In conclusion, then, state collapse, failure, or fragility provide opportunities for Islamist mobilisation insofar as they become an integral part of the rebuilding process. Untainted by the sins of a state which has, by definition, failed to fulfil its constituent functions, and armed with a religious identity that can unify sometimes warring factions, Islamists emerge as efficient service and security providers, to restore an element of predictability in otherwise precarious circumstances. Arguably, this constitutes a positive process – laying the groundwork for valuable local restitution. What is at stake in the failure to recognise this element are the long-term futures of stateless societies. Various analyses have shown that the longer a society goes without a state, the harder it becomes to establish meaningful political order. In their attempts to promote state creation, however, external agents have consistently disrupted the initial stages of informal governance, and empowered the very Islamist groups whose operations they fear most. This becomes another important aspect in allowing for a different king of Islamist mobilisation – perhaps, in terms of local rehabilitation, the wrong kind.


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