January 15, 2020

The Challenge of North African Salafism

Originally published in Defense Dossier

Salafis have become more active in the regional public sphere in North Africa over the past several years. Their rise to prominence is just one result of the revolutionary wave that toppled dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya as part of the “Arab Spring” which swept over the region beginning in late 2010. Nearly a decade on, North African governance is still in profound flux amid regional turmoil (encompassing both the ongoing Libyan civil war and Algerian political transition).

This instability has yielded a series of policy challenges that now confront both the U.S. and Europe. Chief among them has been the spread of Salafi-jihadi militancy—exemplified most notably through the formation of the Islamic State terrorist group—and the increase of irregular mass migration to Europe. In recent years, counterterrorism efforts have weakened Salafi-jihadi groups in North Africa and mass migration to Europe has waned. These gains are likely temporary, however, as political instability continues, both in North Africa and among the neighboring sub-Saharan states from which the majority of migrants originate.

Related to, but distinct, from the rise of Salafi-jihadi militancy is the rise of Salafism, an ultra-conservative form of Islam that has gained influence across North Africa in the past decade. Salafism's growth as a social and political force brings its own challenges, ranging from the Salafi persecution of other religious groups to the participation of the ideology’s adherents in the region’s civil wars and unrest.

Salafism is a “literalist, revivalist”[1] form of Islam whose adherents seek authentic faith by following the “lived example”[2] of the earliest Muslims from the time of the Prophet Mohammed (the Salaf). Salafis are ultra-conservative on social and cultural issues, and strongly condemn groups—including Sufis, Shia, Christians, and more liberal Muslims—that do not share their views.[3] They emphasize the practices of the Salaf and are distinctive in appearance and dress. Salafis generally denounce the use of violence. They typically avoid participating in democracy, which they reject as man-made rather than divinely-directed, and preach loyalty to the sitting political authority, for which they are (sometimes accurately) seen as agents of the state.

The proliferation of Salafism is closely tied to the Saudi-funded spread of Wahhabism. The Salafi trend in North Africa predates Gulf influence and retains local variants,[4] but many Salafi groups in North Africa nonetheless remain a vector for Saudi influence.

Salafis are rivals of mainstream political Islam, such as that typified by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis alike are averse to violence, but the Brotherhood is more willing than most Salafis to work within democratic systems to establish Islamic law or values as the basis for public life.[5] Put differently, the Muslim Brotherhood has a top-down, politics-and-policy-based approach to reforming society, while Salafis take a bottom-up approach focused on preaching and grassroots social transformation. Political Islamists also allow more varied interpretations of Islamic doctrine than do Salafis.

However, Salafis are distinct from Salafi-jihadis, who are exemplified by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Salafi-jihadis believe that it is the duty of individual Muslims to take up arms to establish a true Muslim polity.[6] Salafi beliefs do not, per se, lead directly to Salafi-jihadi radicalization and should not be blamed for the formation of such groups.[7] Nevertheless, it is correct to say that Salafi education can lay the groundwork for an individual’s radicalization.

Since 2011, political turmoil in North Africa has complicated these definitions as Salafis have adapted to local political circumstances. “Quietist” Salafis, who long eschewed political activity, have entered the political sphere to defend and advance their interests in several North African states. Quietist Salafis have also taken up arms in Libya, where they are fighting a civil war in the name of a recognized political authority, adopting moral policing and counterterrorism duties, and sometimes attacking other religious groups.

At the same time, the perceived failure of the Arab Spring in some countries—particularly the collapse of Libya and the counter-revolution in Egypt—has helped to increase Salafism’s appeal.[8] (This turmoil and disillusionment have similarly benefitted Salafi-jihadis.) Gulf patronage, particularly from Saudi Arabia, has also enabled Salafism’s spread. States have continued to leverage Salafis to counterbalance domestic threats, but Salafis have also grown increasingly active in politics, governance, and war throughout the region:

Egypt. Over the past decade, Egyptian Salafis have entered national politics in order to defend their interests. Before the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the dominant Egyptian Salafi organization (al Da’wa al Salafiyya) was apolitical and activist.[9] After Mubarak’s ouster, however, Da’wa members changed their strategy and formed the al Nour party.[10] The party’s subsequent political concessions—including aligning with the rival Muslim Brotherhood, and later with the Egyptian army[11] —are best understood as pragmatic actions to protect the interests of Da’wa, rather than real changes in its principles.

Nour has managed to survive since in an increasingly repressive environment under current President Abdel Fatah al Sisi. However, it has suffered major electoral losses and made large concessions, including admitting Christian candidates under a 2015 electoral law.[12] Should Egypt’s political situation shift again—as the anti-Sisi protests that erupted in September 2019 suggest is possible [13] —Egypt’s Salafis will need to adapt once more.

Libya. A quietist Salafi current has emerged as a powerful force in Libya since the fall of Muammar al Qaddafi in 2011 and the country’s subsequent descent into civil war. The rise of Libyan Salafis as fighting and policing forces reflects the fragmentation of society, a search for identity and stability amid chaos,[14] and the intrusion of foreign interests into the Libya conflict. Qaddafi supported the spread of Salafism in Libya as an outlet for religious conservativism that would strengthen his regime through its doctrine of “political obedience.”[15] The primary strain of quietism in Libya is the Madkhali current, which follows the teachings of a Saudi sheikh and reflects a degree of Saudi influence.

Since 2014, Salafi militias have become major players on the Libyan security scene. Salafis fought alongside U.S.-backed forces against the Islamic State in 2016 and, since April 2019, are fighting on both sides of the battle for Tripoli, raising the possibility that Tripoli-based Salafis could become a fifth column for aspiring strongman Khalifa Haftar in his attempt to seize the capital.[16] Salafis have played a useful counterterrorism and policing role in some contexts, but also inspire fear, particularly for their anti-democratic agenda and record of violence and threats against religious minorities, liberal activists, and political Islamists.[17]

Tunisia. Salafi political parties are marginal in Tunisia, where an Islamist party has taken and held power by distancing itself from more conservative positions. The Ben Ali regime’s repression of Salafi currents empowered Salafi-jihadi recruitment networks throughout the early 2000s.[18] Ben Ali’s fall in 2011 enabled clandestine Salafis to emerge in the first days of Tunisia’s democratic transition. Salafi-jihadi recruitment was supercharged, with Tunisia supplying among the highest per capita rates of foreign fighters to Syria. Non-jihadi Salafis mobilized also, with some forming political parties to compete with and attempt to influence the more powerful Islamist Ennahda party.

The 2011 formation of Ansar al Sharia reflected a merger of Salafi and Salafi-jihadi positions.[19] The group acknowledged a role for democracy while also pursuing violence, and its enmeshment with global Salafi-jihadi organizations ultimately contributed to its dismantlement. Today, the Salafi Reform Front party and other smaller Salafi parties have embraced pluralistic democracy while still espousing the Salafist goal of a Muslim polity.[20]

Algeria. Today, quietist Salafism is growing in Algeria. Salafis have increased their influence by supporting the state since the civil war of the 1990s and throughout the 2011 Arab Spring protests, thereby providing an alternative to more threatening Islamist and Salafi-jihadi currents.[21] Algerian Salafism is split between an apolitical majority and a “firebrand” reformist minority, which is causing increasing discontent within Algerian society, along with the perception that the state is stoking a Salafi “bogeyman.”[22] The failure of both mainstream political Islam and Salafi-jihadism in Algeria has allowed a grassroots Salafi movement to gain support.[23] Salafi leaders may have an opportunity to expand their influence amid ongoing anti-government unrest, which ousted longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019. Major Salafi leaders have remained silent regarding the protests amid an uncertain political situation.[24]

Morocco. Morocco’s Salafis are divided by their response to state pressure, as well as by the lessons they have learned from disruptive events in the past two decades. The Moroccan state permitted Salafism’s growth in the 1970s to counter other opposition groups.[25] The 2003 Casablanca bombings ruptured the state’s relationship with Salafis, leading to a crackdown. Mass protests in 2011 challenged Salafis’ perception of activism and pushed them toward political action to defend their interests.[26] They did not form a political party, as in Egypt, but struck a limited alliance with Morocco’s leading Islamist party. A renewed state crackdown caused Salafis to split, with many moving closer to the regime for protection and a younger cadre taking a more political and reformist position.[27] The state has shifted its response over time from marginalizing Salafis to integrating them in an attempt to keep its opposition divided and defang its critics.[28]

The U.S. policy objective in North Africa should be to support the establishment of legitimate and responsive governance. Legitimate governance requires inclusivity and the protection of minority rights. Salafis must therefore be viewed as competitors whose right to religious freedom should be protected, but whose values and actions nonetheless run counter to liberal democracy and human rights. Peaceful Salafis should not be viewed through a counterterrorism lens, because cracking down on them in turn helps to strengthen the appeal of Salafi-jihadis.

Salafis are part of an illiberal trend—both religious and political—in North Africa that threatens long-term American interests. A number of North African leaders and Middle Eastern powers seek to utilize Salafism to strengthen their own regimes and close political space to political Islamists and liberal democrats alike. Growing Russian and Chinese influence in Africa is similarly bolstering autocracies.

The U.S. should increase its diplomatic engagement in North Africa to counter these trends and advance American objectives, which should include limiting Gulf meddling in the region and achieving diplomatic solutions to regional crises, particularly the Libyan civil war. An American policy for North Africa should have a near-term focus as well as a long-term one. Most immediately, Washington should focus on preventing near-term crises with acute implications for terrorism and migration. Beyond that, support for the gradual improvement of governance over time serves U.S. objectives by elevating its core principles and diminishing those of others, like the region’s Salafis.

Emily Estelle is the research manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. She studies the Salafi-jihadi movement In Africa, including al-Qaeda, ISIS and associated groups, and specializes in the Libya conflict and the Sahel.

[1] Frederic Wehrey and Anouar Boukhars, Salafism in the Maghreb: Politics, Piety, and Militancy (Oxford University Press, 2019).

[2] Shadi Hamid and Rashid Dar, “Islamism, Salafism, and jihadism: A primer,” Brookings Institution blog, July 15, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2016/07/15/islamism-salafism-and-jihadism-a-primer/

[3] Stéphane Lacroix, “Egypt’s Pragmatic Salafis: The Politics of Hizb al-Nour,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 1, 2016, https://carnegieendowment.org/2016/11/01/egypt-s-pragmatic-salafis-politics-of-hizb-al-nour-pub-64902

[4] Wehrey and Boukhars, Salafism in the Maghreb.

[5]Hamid and Dar, “Islamism, Salafism, and jihadism.”

[6] Ibid; Katherine Zimmerman, “America’s Real Enemy: The Salafi-Jihadi Movement,” American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, July 18, 2017, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/americas-real-enemy-the-salafi-jihadi-movement

[7]The spread of Salafi-jihadism depends instead on social, political, and security conditions that allow its adherents and associated groups forge ties with vulnerable Sunni Muslim populations, and a variety of factors influence individuals’ radicalization. See Zimmerman, “America’s Real Enemy.”

[8] Frederic Wehrey and Anouar Boukhars, “As Their Influence Grows, the Maghreb’s ‘Quietist’ Salafists Are Anything but Quiet,” World Politics Review, December 11, 2018, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/insights/26962/as-their-influence-grows-the-maghreb-s-quietist-salafists-are-anything-but-quiet

[9] Lacroix, “Egypt’s Pragmatic Salafis”; Emmanuel Karagiannis, “The rise of electoral Salafism in Egypt and Tunisia: the use of democracy as a master frame,” The Journal of North African Studies 24, no. 2, 2019, 207-225, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13629387.2017.1417124?scroll=top&needAccess=true

[10] Lacroix, “Egypt’s Pragmatic Salafis.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibidem.

[13] Alessia Melcangi and Giuseppe Dentice, “Egypt’s latest protests are an alarm bell for Sisi,” Atlantic Council blog, October 21, 2019,https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/egypts-latest-protests-are-an-alarm-bell-for-sisi/

[14] Wehrey and Boukhars, “Salafism in the Maghreb.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] “The battle for Tripoli could be decided by the Madkhalis,” The Economist, November 14, 2019, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/11/14/the-battle-for-tripoli-could-be-decided-by-the-madkhalis

[17] Wehrey and Boukhars, “As Their Influence Grows, the Maghreb’s ‘Quietist’ Salafists Are Anything but Quiet”; “Addressing the Rise of Libya’s Madkhali-Salafis,” International Crisis Group, April 25, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/libya/addressing-rise-libyas-madkhali-salafis

[18] Anouar Boukhars, “The Politics of North African Salafism,” Orient, April 1, 2016, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Article_Boukhars.pdf

[19] Karagiannis, “The rise of electoral Salafism.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Wehrey and Boukhars, “As Their Influence Grows, the Maghreb’s ‘Quietist’ Salafists Are Anything but Quiet.”

[22] Anouar Boukhars, “‘Quietist’ and ‘Firebrand’ Salafism in Algeria,” Fride, November 24, 2015, https://carnegieendowment.org/2015/11/24/quietist-and-firebrand-salafism-in-algeria-pub-62075; Wehrey and Boukhars, “Salafism in the Maghreb.”

[23] Dalia Ghanem, “The Shifting Foundations of Political Islam in Algeria,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 3, 2019, https://carnegie-mec.org/2019/05/03/shifting-foundations-of-political-islam-in-algeria-pub-79047

[24] Ghanem, “The Shifting Foundations of Political Islam in Algeria.”

[25] Wehrey and Boukhars, “As Their Influence Grows, the Maghreb’s ‘Quietist’ Salafists Are Anything but Quiet.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibidem; Jules Cretois, “Moroccan Salafists seek a voice in the political landscape,” Middle East Eye, January 29, 2019, https://www.middleeasteye.net/features/moroccan-salafists-seek-voice-political-landscape

[28] Boukhars, “‘Quietist’ and ‘Firebrand’ Salafism in Algeria”; Salim Hmimnat, “Recalibrating Morocco’s Approach to Salafism,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 14, 2016, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/62463