In This Review

Horn, Sahel, and Rift: Fault-Lines of the African Jihad
Horn, Sahel, and Rift: Fault-Lines of the African Jihad
By Stig Jarle Hansen
Hurst, 2019, 320 pp
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Everything You Have Told Me Is True: The Many Faces of Al Shabaab
Everything You Have Told Me Is True: The Many Faces of Al Shabaab
By Mary Harper
Hurst, 2019, 208 pp
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Two great books thoughtfully document the persistence of radical Islamist militancy in Africa. Hansen’s is a more conventional political history of the main groups operating in Africa, with chapters devoted to Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in Mali and West Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al Shabab in Somalia. Much has already been written about these groups, but Hansen’s account has the significant virtue of demonstrating the many individual, organizational, and ideological links among them, which were facilitated by al Qaeda when it was headquartered in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in the early 1990s. Hansen also emphasizes the great adaptability and resilience of these movements, which have endured in different forms despite concerted attempts to defeat them. One reason for their dogged survival, he suggests, is the groups’ “glocal” nature, their ability to embed themselves in local societies and also follow global trends and dynamics. Groups such as al Shabab or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have at times controlled significant stretches of land, but Hansen argues convincingly that they are more effective when they dominate a region politically and levy taxes without maintaining full territorial control.

Harper has long reported on Somalia for the BBC, and her searing account of al Shabab relates with moving detail and nuance the stories of the many Somalis she has met over the years. Al Shabab’s press service often contacted her to spin the militant group’s horrendous acts of violence—and to remind her that the militants were following her every movement in Somalia. Harper’s sympathy clearly lies with the many victims of the group’s violence, but her book also helps explain al Shabab’s survival despite various setbacks. She describes al Shabab’s organizational strength and its effective use of intelligence networks. Too many observers fixate on al Shabab’s use of terror, but Harper shows that many Somalis reluctantly find some virtues in the group. For instance, many Somalis prefer the Islamic courts run by al Shabab to the government’s courts, which are more corrupt.