Researchers in Senegal say that despite the country's reputation for stability and religious tolerance, a small minority of Senegalese support last year's takeover of northern Mali by al-Qaida-linked jihadist groups. The researchers say the results of their study are further evidence of the risk that violent extremism poses to West Africa in the wake of the French-led military intervention that began in January.
Islam is practiced by more than 95 percent of Senegal's nearly 13 million people.
That practice is dominated by mystical Sufi brotherhoods whose chants of prayer and poetry often fill the night air in the capital, Dakar.
Senegal has long been celebrated as a sanctuary of political stability, peace and religious tolerance in West Africa. However, Senegalese researcher Bakary Sambe said that the brotherhoods are no longer the solid ramparts against violence and extremism they once were.
He said youth are looking for a religious model, and in particular something more modern, more open and more rational. He says, the brotherhoods are functioning in such an outdated fashion that they are having trouble producing this discourse, which youth are instead finding in what are known as "reformist" movements. He said these fringe reformist movements ascribe to a political Islam influenced by the Internet and exterior models and express a desire to create what they call a truly Islamic society.
Sambe is co-author of a study on the risk of radicalization in Senegal published by the Institute of Security Studies in May.
As part of the study, researchers surveyed 400 Senegalese earlier this year in the cities and suburbs of Dakar and St. Louis, as well as in the smaller cities of M'bour and Thies.
Sambe said they found that sympathy for regional jihadist groups like MUJAO does exist in Senegal, albeit among a very small minority, in particular among youth and in areas like the low-income suburbs of Dakar.
He said a 19-year-old was among several who told them he is ready to enroll in the movements active in Mali when they arrive in Senegal. He said there were others in the suburbs of Dakar who said the country had grown "polluted" and that its leaders are not pious and that youth need to fight to install an Islamic state and Islamic values.
Sambe said this radicalization has grown out of a dissatisfaction with the brotherhoods, a feeling that they do not represent true Islam and should be swept aside, as well as a dissatisfaction with the secular, democratic state based on a Western model.
In April 2012, al-Qaida-linked jihadist groups seized control of the northern two-thirds of Mali and began implementing their harsh brand of sharia law with the support of at least a minority of the population. It took the French-led military intervention in January to loosen their hold on the territory.
The study does not say that Senegal could or would go the way of its neighbor. Rather, Sambe said the key takeaway is that no country in the region is immune.
The report said that Senegalese authorities have arrested as many as 16 suspected members of regional jihadist groups since 2010, including a Senegalese imam and suspected MUJAO member arrested in January 2013 at the Malian border.
Retired Senegalese gendarme Colonel Djibril Ba, who co-authored the report with Sambe, said that Senegal's security forces, in particular its clandestine information services, are on the job, but that they can only do so much.
He said terrorist acts are committed by people who live among us. Even if it is a case of outside infiltration, he said they must still find refuge in our population so everyone has to be involved in surveillance.
Senegalese President Macky Sall has said as much since the start of the regional military intervention to Mali, and Senegal has stepped up security on its borders with Mauritania and Mali.