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Tribes and Global Jihadism

July 30, 2020 at 1:00 am

Tribes and Global Jihadism
  • Book Author(s): Virginie Collombier and Olivier Roy
  • Published Date: December, 2017
  • Publisher: Hurst Publishers
  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849048156

Tribes and Global Jihadism edited by Virginie Collombier and Olivier Roy is the collaborative work of scholars seeking to explore and explain the relationships between the tribal communities of the Middle East and North Africa and jihadist groups. The book features seven chapters with five case studies that shed light on Afghanistan, the borderland between Egypt and Libya, Egypt’s Sinai, Yemen, Chad and Libya’s Sirte. The authors start by outlining the map of distribution of local Islamic emirates pledging allegiance to either Al-Qaeda or Daesh and state that they are all situated in tribal areas. While tribal areas are often remote regions that can provide protection against the state or foreign counter-insurgency, the authors contend that geography alone does not suffice in explaining the association between jihadist groups and the tribes. They attempt to disassemble the complexity of this phenomenon, by taking into consideration factors such as state policies towards the tribes and their socio-economic impact on them, the crisis of tribal leadership and community cohesion, and the impact of civil warfare on the tribes.

Roy (P.5) recognises that the book is not the place for an extensive discussion on the concept of ‘tribe’ in the Middle East, since such debates can be found elsewhere in anthropological literature. However, the majority of the contributors of this edited volume attempt to provide a minimal definition that can be applied to their case studies. The general consensus among the authors is that the term ‘tribe’ can be used, broadly speaking, to refer to segmented solidarity groups based on lineage, and usually mediated by local notables called ‘sheikhs’. The authors are careful not to essentialise tribesmen by demonstrating the fluidity of their identities. For example, Thomas Hüsken in Chapter 3 exhibits how tribesmen of Awlad Ali, in the borderland between Egypt and Libya, can make individual religious and political choices like everybody else. Claude Mbowou in Chapter 6 illustrates how the fading tribal solidarity of the Kanuri tribe in Cameroon has been revived by the government’s collective reprisals for perceiving it as supporting Boko Haram. However, despite the fluidity of identities, the authors agree that there are tribes that remain a dominant form of socio-political organisation in the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, the book does not contribute to any sort of exceptionalism about tribal people and their relationship with jihadist groups. Collombier (P.181) argues that there is nothing specific about tribes that makes them more vulnerable to the influence of jihadism.

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As exemplified in this book, the tribes’ cooperation with the jihadists comes as a result of the different states’ policies towards them. Policies of marginalisation, impoverishment and neglect pushed some tribes towards jihadist groups, with the aim of increasing their power and bargaining capacity with the state. Hosham Dawod skilfully paints a picture of the shifting alliances of the tribes in Chapter 1, by showing how Nouri Al-Maliki’s regime policies, that favoured centralisation and refused to delegate power at the regional level, encouraged some tribes to align themselves with Daesh in order to strengthen their position vis-a-vis the central authority in Baghdad. In Egypt’s Sinai, members of the Sawarka tribe – a tribe that has been classified as a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government (Ismail Alexandrani, P.88) – have been pushed to join Daesh because of the Egyptian government’s security and corruption policies that turned their region into the most disenfranchised and oppressed zones of Sinai. In answering the question as to why tribes provide refuge for jihadists in Yemen, Marieke Brandt in Chapter 6 shows that sympathising with the ideology of Al-Qaeda among members of the tribes seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. By providing refuge for jihadists, the disregarded and marginalised tribes in Yemen seized the chance to gain benefits in cash and in-kind, such as state posts, as a result of gaining bargaining power with the state.

The authors establish that tribes are not static, and that structural changes in the tribal community because of the forces of modernity added a new dimension to the complexities of the tribal setting in its relationship with jihadist groups. Tribal leaders who once spoke for all members of the tribe started to face growing dissent within their tribes, particularly from the young generation who displayed their military force, and their will to use it, after joining the ranks of the jihadist groups. Within the Magharba tribe in Libya’s Sirte, for instance, Ibrahim Jadhran contests the authority of the tribal leadership represented by Sheikh Salah Al-Atyush (Chapter 6). The jihadist pro-revolutionary fighters entered into a competition for the community’s leadership with the traditional sheikhs. Weakening tribal bonds as a mobilising force has worked in the favour of jihadist groups. In Iraq, Egypt and Libya, tribesmen have joined jihadist groups as individuals, and not as members of collective actors. These were mainly young men who wanted to benefit from their alliance with the jihadists and challenge the structures of the leadership in place (P.184).

Twenty years ago, Lila Abu-Lughod argued against an alleged nexus of tribalism and terrorism. This is exactly what the contributors of this edited volume affirm in their discussion on the relationship between tribes and jihadists in the Middle East and North Africa. Weakening state power and civil wars in the alienated tribal regions has created fertile grounds for jihadist groups wanting to expand their global influence and control over territories. Benefitting from the retreat of community leadership and the gradual deterioration of tribal bonds, jihadists have been able to play on the contradictions of the tribal community to root themselves in different countries. Tribes and Global Jihadism adds colour and complexity to the usual binary ‘answers’ that have come to define the relationship between tribes and jihadist groups, whereby tribes are characterised as either victims of terrorism and the global war on terror, or as collaborators with the terrorists who benefit from smuggling and illegal oil trade.

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