The Islamic insurgency in the Sahel followed different trajectories and led to varying outcomes: in Mali a powerful Islamic insurgency emerged and lead to the collapse of the state whereas in Mauritania the state was able to defeat the insurgency, and in Niger no cells of Islamic insurgents emerged at all. This variation of trajectories and outcomes constitutes the puzzle of this paper. The paper makes three major claims: first, the root causes of the Islamic insurgency in the Sahel can be traced in the sociopolitical and religious transformations that resulted from the democratization process (1990-2012). Second, after 20 years of democratization, the growing discontent vis-à-vis the state combined with a rising religiosity and ethno-racial tensions created a fertile ground for the incidence of Islamic insurgency in all of Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Yet Islamic insurgency emerged only in Mali and Mauritania where greater political and strategic opportunities incentivized jihadist leaders to frame a discourse that collectivized the grievance of the masses. Success of the insurgency in Mali and its failure in Mauritania were determined by the level of popular support and the state repressive capacity in each of those two countries. Third, state capacity, particularly repressive capacity, is to a greater extend the determinant of the onset as well as the success of an Islamic insurgency.
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