Introducing Alex Thurston

Please welcome Alex on board as a new contributor!

Derek here. I’m very pleased to announce that Alex Thurston is joining Foreign Exchanges as a new contributor. If you’ve been listening to my podcast over the past few years then Alex is no stranger to you. We’ve benefited over and over again from his knowledge and insights when it comes to the African Sahel region and its many security and governance challenges. He’ll continue to appear on the podcast to talk about those things, but it’s long been a hope of mine to be able to bring Alex on board as a writer, where he’ll be covering a much broader array of topics from the conduct of America’s “War on Terror” to the intersection of Islam and politics around the world. Mission, as they say, accomplished.

Alex’s first piece will be dropping next week, so please be on the lookout for that! He’s the first of several new contributors I’m hoping to bring on board in the coming weeks and months. These folks won’t be writing as regularly as Daniel Bessner, but as the newsletter continues to grow I’m hoping we’ll have the resources to support more contributors and more frequent contributor pieces. The support of FX subscribers is essential to making that happen. If you’ve been thinking about subscribing please do, and if you’re on the fence, please sign up for our free email list, try the newsletter out, and then make your decision.

Again, welcome to Alex and thanks to you for continuing to support Foreign Exchanges!

Hello, Foreign Exchanges! After having appeared on Derek’s podcast several times, I’m pleased to have the chance to write for the newsletter. And I’m looking forward to exploring some ideas with you that I’ve been mulling over for a long time.

A site like this is so valuable because simply covering and analyzing world news outside of Washington foreign policy orthodoxies reveals the blindness of those orthodoxies. On a smaller scale, this is the approach I’ve taken at my own Sahel Blog, where I focus on the Sahel region of Africa. Rounding up the news and reading it with a critical eye goes a long way toward puncturing narratives that are structured around buzzwords, ethnocentrism, assumptions about who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy, and so forth.

As for me, I’m an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. The core of what I’m interested in is Islam, especially how Muslims today think about politics and law. Since I was an undergraduate in the early 2000s, West Africa has been the place that gripped and held my attention, in part because of the way West Africa’s history and present contrast with trends elsewhere in the Muslim world. I’ve done long stints of fieldwork in Senegal and Nigeria. More recently I’ve been focusing—at least pre-pandemic—on fieldwork in Mauritania and Mali. I try to pay attention to developments in the wider Muslim world as well, from California to Aceh.

I never intended to write about violent movements, but my time studying West Africa and the Sahel has overlapped with the rise of various jihadist groups: Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Saharan ventures of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Mali-based coalition the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, etc. From almost the moment I started following those violent actors, I became frustrated with the way they were covered and analyzed. There are many excellent reporters, think tank analysts, and academics, of course. But it often seems there are many more people who traffic in sensationalism, and whose attitudes always align oh-so-serendipitously with whatever the U.S. military’s Africa Command is concerned about at that moment.

Speaking of which, here’s then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper with the commanders of US Africa Command, Stephen Townsend (right), and US European Command, Tod Wolters, outside AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, in September 2019 (DoD photo via Wikimedia Commons)

So I’ve written a few books on those topics, laying out what I see as the facts but also challenging the ways those facts are frequently spun. Pushing back against those kinds of narratives usually feels like spitting into the wind, but I’ve also discovered that there is an audience for critical coverage, the sort of coverage that takes jihadists seriously but doesn’t portray them as being ten feet tall.

Here at Foreign Exchanges I’m planning to take the opportunity to write some bigger-picture pieces. For my first column, I’m going to look at different ways Washington might have responded to 9/11, paths that might not have locked the United States into what seems to be an unrelenting cycle of abuses and failures abroad and at home. I also hope, in my columns, to explore some important features of political Islam that don’t have to do with violence, because the most consequential trends in Muslim political thought and activism today are not, in fact, taking place on battlefields or in the redoubts of jihadist plotters. In any event, I’m always happy to hear from readers, so please feel free to write me. And thanks again to Derek, to FX subscribers, and to all of you, for having me.