Saudi Wahhabis and jihadi terrorism in Africa: Between fairy tales and conspiracy theories

Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos


Like Europe, where speculations about a fifth-column of Wahhabi terrorists seem to have replaced the ancient fears of the Turks or the Saracens, there are a lot of rumours about the role played by Saudi Arabia in framing and supportingjihadism in Africa. These assumptions tend to obscure the local dynamics of conflicts and point to foreign scapegoats to explain insurgencies that result from bad governance, corruption, social injustice, and the brutality of security forces. They also tocus on the role of religion and the relevance of de-radicalisation to counter violent extremism. Hence this chapter puts into perspective the Wahhabi influence in Africa and deconstructs the links made between Saudi Arabia and Jihadi Terrorism. First, it argues that Saudi Arabia is a very conservative monarchy and a target of jihadi groups; it is quite different from the Libyan or Syrian type of rogue states that used to support terrorist networks all over the world. Secondly, the analysis shows that so-called radical Islamic ideas do not circulate one way: African Muslim clerics produced their own “theology of liberation” and manipulated foreign doctrines to justify their rebellion. Moreover, it is crucial to clarify contusions related to the misuse of the word “Wahhabi.” Finally, many historical and linguistic factors explain why Arabic Salafis failed to re-Islamise the continent South of the Sahara.

The issue is quite controversial.1 Contrasting theories are used to explain that today’s ji- hadism either results from the irrationality of religious fanaticism or, on the contrary, from the extreme rationality of a vast conspiracy originating from the Arab world to convert Africans to a so-called “radical” Islam. Yet all these hypotheses point to the inherent violence of Saudi puritanism. According to its detractors, the Wahhabi form of Salafism is associated with religious extremism and has become dominant in the Muslim world. It promotes obedience at home and rebellion abroad (Redissi, 2007; Rasheed, 2008). Following this logic, the roots of jihadi terrorism are allegedly in Saudi Arabia, not in sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, the priority would be to “de-radicalise” the minds and develop counter-narratives against Wahhabi indoctrination to properly deal with insurgent groups such as AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in Mali, MUJWA (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) in Mauritania, or Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin.

Such reasoning, however, is based on unfounded hypotheses that are analysed in this chapter. The first hypothesis is to suppose that African Muslims are incapable of producing their own “theology of liberation.” If we follow this line of thought, jihadists in the Sahel passively waited for permissive ideas from the Middle East to challenge the power of corrupt governments and Sufi brotherhoods in the region. But this vision of Islam as a mere import from Arabia hardly corresponds to the historical record. In the 19th century, the Sufis led jihads in the Sahel and did not wait for the financial support of oil-producing countries in the Gulf to establish Islamic proto-states.

Additionally, we should call into question the indoctrinating potential of the Wahhabi school of thought. Its power of attraction is allegedly so immense that it alone would be enough to convince and mobilise Africans who are supposedly easy to influence and to manipulate because they are gullible, impoverished, idle, and willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder to commit suicide bombings and fight government forces. In practice, the Salafist preaching (Da’wa) in Africa is confronted with numerous obstacles related to language issues, the Arabs’ racism, conflicts between fundamentalist groups, and the limits of Saudi Arabia’s international cooperation — a country that is deeply conservative and legalistic, which is also the target of terrorist attacks. In this respect, we should avoid crediting Wahhabism with an influence which it certainly does not have.

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