IN THE WAKE OF THE RAPID escalation of the conflict in Mali, analyses and articles seeking to make sense of the situation and its actors have proliferated.1 Nevertheless, political figures, policy makers, and researchers continue to fall back on simplistic narratives in their attempts to explain the intensification of violent Islamist activity in the region. Without a finely tuned understanding of diverse groups – their structures, objectives, and modalities of violence – analysts risk recycling dangerously misleading narratives about Islamist violence in Africa and its consequences.

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This briefing draws on empirical evidence of violent Islamist activity, strategy, and structure to highlight the differentiated nature of groups operating in the Sahel region and further west, in what has come to be known as Africa's ‘arc of instability’.2 It contends that violent...

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