On the (Most Recent) Reported Death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that a French airstrike in southern Libya likely killed the jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The reports have been met with some skepticism, given that Belmokhtar has been reported dead numerous times. For example, American authorities believed they had killed Belmokhtar in a June 2015 airstrike in Ajdabiya, northeasterrn Libya (map).

Belmokhtar was born in Ghardaïa, Algeria in 1972. He traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and then participated in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s as a member of the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA) and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). The GSPC affiliated with al-Qaida in 2006-2007, and Belmokhtar was one of the most senior commanders in the rebranded al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). To a certain extent, he broke away from AQIM from roughly 2012-2015, although his forces were effectively reintegrated into AQIM by late 2015.

It is not easy to determine exactly where the most recent strike occurred. There was a reported airstrike on November 14 on the outskirts of the southern Libyan city of Sabha (map). That strike may have claimed the lives of AQIM’s Abu Talha al-Hassnawi and six others. One wonders whether Belmokhtar was among them – he and al-Hassnawi were reportedly close, and had allegedly been seen together after returning to Sabha from the coastal city of Sirte. Another source (French), however, says that the airstrike occurred in the Bani Walid region (map) south of Tripoli, or in other words in northwestern rather than southern Libya. I favor the first account, but the second is worth considering.

It is possible that Belmokhtar has been using Libya as his main base of operations since the fall of the jihadist territory that AQIM and allied factions controlled in northern Mali in 2012-2013. Although Belmokhtar’s forces have claimed responsibility for major attacks beyond Libya, he has been (accurately or otherwise) sighted there many times since 2013. AQIM is a player in intra-jihadist politics in northeastern Libya and has a presence, although its size is difficult to determine, in southwestern Libya. Regarding the northeast, it is worth noting that when Belmokhtar was targeted in the June 2015 strike on Ajdabiya, he was possibly there to help aid some anti-ISIS jihadis planning to expel ISIS from another northeastern coastal city, Derna. Regarding the southwest, it is worth noting that there are murky connections between AQIM and smugglers in towns such as Sabha and Ubari.

Alongside reports of Belmokhtar’s death, there are reports that one of his wives was arrested in Derna when she went there to give birth. The woman, a Tunisian national, reportedly gave birth in mid-October after Belmokhtar sent her from southern Libya to Derna. She believed at that time that Belmokhtar was alive, although she parted company with him well before the latest reported strike. AQIM (French), for its part, has denied that Belmokhtar has a Tunisian wife at all. But even the rumor of a senior jihadist’s wife being arrested makes me think that wives are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, marrying into local communities can help jihadists forge important ties. But on the other hand, wives can be a security and intelligence risk. I doubt that she provided intelligence that led directly to Belmokhtar’s targeting, but it’s quite possible that she did provide actionable intelligence about other jihadi camps, leaders, etc.

If Belmokhtar is indeed dead, then all the familiar debates about decapitation can be rehearsed. The argument for assassination is that it removes key decision-makers, disrupts organizational cohesion and operational planning, and weakens networks. The argument against assassination is that leaders are often quickly replaced, that organizational fragmentation can be dangerous, and that successors are sometimes more reckless, competent, or brutal than their predecessors. I tend to think the benefits of decapitation are exaggerated; your mileage may vary.

 

Further Backlash Against Austerity in Chad

Recent weeks have seen significant backlash and protest against the Chadian government’s austerity policies.

One way to understand the backlash would be to go sector by sector: we are seeing strikes and protests by students, clerks, civil servantsmagistrates, health care workers, and others. The basic grievance is unpaid salaries and/or loss of bonuses and stipends. The sum of such discontent may be greater than its parts: if enough sectors go on strike, the consequences for the machinery of government, the economy, and daily life could be severe. A sign of severe trouble may be the delays in salary payments to soldiers and even to members of the presidential guard.

Another way to understand the backlash would be to focus on its politics. The government of Chad would like Chadians to understand the austerity measures as a result of external shocks, especially the global drop in oil prices. The opposition (or at least part of it) would like the population to understand the economic crisis as a result of the government’s policies, and especially in terms of the government’s management of oil revenues and its military spending, including military expeditions outside Chad. Amid the struggle to determine perceptions of the crisis and to allocate blame, one key arena is the National Assembly, where roughly twenty opposition deputies have backed a motion to censure Prime Minister Pahimi Padacké Albert over the government’s handling of the economic situation. From what I can tell now, the motion has been held up, and the opposition has involved the Constitutional Council to try to force the transmission of the motion to the government itself. I doubt that the motion will pass, but it is a symbol of some of the discontent in the country.

On the Freeing of 21 Chibok Girls and the Question of Negotiating with Jihadists

On October 13, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram released twenty-one of the 276 schoolgirls who were originally kidnapped in April 2014 in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok. There are an estimated 197 girls still in captivity or otherwise missing.

The release was an extraordinary event for Nigeria and, in several senses, for the world. For Nigeria, the release occasioned widespread celebration and has become one of the brightest spots in the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, who faces broad and mounting criticism at home, especially over economic issues.

For the world, the release is a reminder that negotiation, at least in limited areas, is possible with jihadist groups. That reminder comes at an important time, amid the looming recapture of Mosul, Iraq, and the dogged effort to complete the reconquest of Sirte, Libya. Both efforts, and the effort to defeat the Islamic State in general, are haunted by the question of what comes after reconquest, especially in terms of political settlements, humanitarian concerns, and economic reinvigoration. That question also haunts the effort against Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, where the sect has been pushed back but not completely defeated.

The details of the negotiations with Boko Haram for the Chibok girls are not known, but it is reported that the Swiss government and the ICRC acted as intermediaries between the sect and the government. Despite the Nigerian government’s denials, it is likely that the incentives offered to Boko Haram involved a ransom payment, prisoner releases, or both.

Of course, it is well known that negotiating with jihadists over hostages is possible, including in West Africa. European governments have paid millions of dollars in ransoms to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Malian government of Amadou Toumani Toure (served 2002-2012) allowed exchanges of imprisoned jihadists for hostages. Reactions to these decisions, whether from the United States, from Western journalists, or from Mali’s neighbors, has been overwhelmingly negative.

There are also precedents for negotiating with Boko Haram over hostages. This is not even the first time that Boko Haram has (likely) received a ransom: it appeared likely in 2013 and 2014 that the Cameroonian government (and in the first instance, the French government as well) had paid Boko Haram to release prisoners. The release of the Chibok girls, then, followed a familiar script; it just had a higher profile than the previous instances.

If it’s well known that one can sometimes negotiate with jihadists, then why isn’t the possibility discussed more in policy circles? The most obvious answer is that many people oppose such negotiations. For example, in response to the Chibok girls’ release, Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation reiterated his argument from 2014 that negotiations are inadvisable. At the time, Meservey wrote, “A payment or prisoner release will perpetuate the cycle by encouraging further kidnappings and enabling more of Boko Haram’s rampages when the government’s first priority should be to protect its citizens.” Meservey’s view aligns with current U.S. policy, which is not to pay ransoms when citizens are kidnapped. Many people, moreover, oppose negotiations on moral grounds, believing that to negotiate with jihadists implies some tacit legitimation of their demands.

Regarding the consequences of ransom payments and prisoner exchanges, I think that context matters a lot. The kind of cycle that Meservey describes is most likely to play out when jihadists do not face major military pressure. A good example of this might be the policies of the Malian government under Toure, when Malian prisoner exchanges with AQIM elicited disgust (and the withdrawal of ambassadors) from Mali’s neighbors Mauritania and Algeria. In addition, many experts believe that there was some collusion between Toure’s government and various bad actors in northern Mali.

Under those circumstances, the payment of ransoms (by European governments) and the exchange of prisoners (by Mali’s government) were bad policies. But they were bad policies because of the lack of military and political pressure on AQIM within Mali. With Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, the cycle Meservey describes was indeed playing out in 2013-2014. But now, with Boko Haram under tremendous military pressure, exchanges and payments will not necessarily empower the group over the long term. If a government pays ransoms in order to save lives, then that government should follow up the ransom payment will an increase in pressure on the kidnappers.

But there is more at stake than just whether to pay ransoms or not. The possibility of negotiating with jihadists is also seldom floated, I think, because it goes counter to many people’s assumption that the only serious way to fight jihadism is through war. There are, of course, “Countering Violent Extremism” programs that attempt to de-radicalize prisoners or to prevent people from becoming jihadists in the first place, but CVE programs are not political solutions per se. Most CVE programs do not primarily target active combatants, partly because those combatants are beyond the physical reach of program implementers. The combatants, then, are often treated as a purely military problem. Even when policymakers say that they do not intend to kill all of the combatants, their actions often suggest otherwise, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Nigeria. Pragmatically, I think such strategies are short-sighted and are likely to generate future conflicts.

I have long favored negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, both because I believe limited negotiations can save lives (a stance that I think is vindicated in the case of the recent release) and because I believe it would be wrong, morally and pragmatically, to try to kill all the members of Boko Haram. And if the Nigerian government and its neighbors are not going to kill all of them, then perhaps there is much to talk about. Some leaders and members of the group might never surrender or abandon their goals. But if the door to negotiations is left open, perhaps there are possibilities even beyond prisoner exchanges – the possibility, for example, of offering an option where members could turn themselves in, stand trial, and serve finite prison terms, but where they would not be executed. For fighters starving in the countryside, such an option might eventually prove attractive. The more fighters who accepted it, the more lives might be saved. As I have said in the past, I believe that the Nigerian government should keep reaching out to Boko Haram, no matter how many times it is rebuffed or how many times attempted dialogue ends in failure.

This position – the idea that it is worth trying to open some channel of communication with jihadists – puts me in a minority among analysts, but I am not completely alone. Reuters (h/t Eleanor Beevor) recently reported that the ICRC is attempting to contact the Islamic State in Mosul in order to discuss “the basic rules of war.” Here is the ICRC’s Robert Mardini:

We need to keep hope, and maybe the situation in Mosul is a point in time when also all parties to the conflict, including the Islamic State group, will see the benefits of having the basic rules of war and the basic rules of dignity prevailing in the battle because it gives guarantees for humane treatment of all.

Do I think that the Islamic State will be keen to answer the ICRC’s phone calls? No. But I do think that the effort of reaching out is worthwhile. Let me offer a last reason: you never know who is watching, and how such outreach might overturn their assumptions about the West, about the inevitability and desirability of violence, and about the prospects for peace.

Recent Books on Islam in Africa: Launay, Loimeier, and Salomon

In the past month, several exciting books have come out that deal with Islam in Africa.

  • Robert Launay’s edited collection Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards (Indiana) brings together a number of major scholars and covers a wide variety of countries from Mauritania to Tanzania. Islamic education in Africa has been the subject of increasing scholarly interest in the past fifteen years, with major titles by Louis Brenner and Rudolph Ware. This volume will take the conversation even further. I have a chapter in the book – a sketch of trilateral connections between Nigeria, Britain, and the Arab world during the colonial period.
  • Roman Loimeier has published Islamic Reform in Twentieth-Century Africa (Edinburgh). Loimeier is a senior scholar of Islam in Africa, and he has followed up classic books on northern Nigeria and Zanzibar with recent work that takes a continental scope. His latest book features “twelve case studies (Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar and the Comoros) [and] looks at patterns and peculiarities of different traditions of Islamic reform. Considering both Sufi- and Salafi-oriented movements in their respective historical contexts, it stresses the importance of the local context to explain the different trajectories of development.”
  • Noah Salomon, an exciting thinker who works on Sudan and South Sudan, has published For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State (Princeton). Salomon’s publications on Sudan so far have raised important issues about relations between Salafis and Islamists, and about the meaning of “the rule of law.” His book “depicts contemporary Islamic politics not as a response to secularism and Westernization but as a node in a much longer conversation within Islamic thought, augmented and reappropriated as state projects of Islamic reform became objects of debate and controversy.”

I have not yet read Loimeier and Salomon’s books, but I am very much looking forward to doing so (I read the chapters in Launay’s volume while it was in press). If you read any of the three books, please share your thoughts in the comments section here.

The Attack on Tazalit, Niger and an Insight into Nigerien Perspectives on Northern Mali

On October 6 (yesterday), gunmen attacked the Tazalit refugee hosting center in western Niger. The attackers killed twenty-two Nigerien soldiers, although none of the center’s approximately 4,000 refugees were wounded or killed. UNHCR describes the attack:

The armed assailants are reported to have arrived at the site in two pick up trucks. Witnesses say that following the attack, the assailants stayed in the area for up to 2 hours, and looted the health centre, stealing vital medical stocks. They also burned a UNHCR ambulance. No UNHCR staff or partners were present when the attack took place. The attackers then stole a military vehicle and fled, before support arrived.

This is not the first attack against security forces guarding Malian refugee camps in Niger. On the 10th of September, armed assailants attacked a security post at the camp of Tabareybarey in the region of Tillabery, which also borders Mali and is home to almost 10,000 refugees. A young Malian refugee woman of 18 years was killed, as well as a 5 year old refugee boy. Five others were shot and wounded.

The refugees, as UNHCR points out, are primarily Malians. These refugees were displaced during and after Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war – Tazalit itself was established in 2013 (.pdf). Part of the context for this attack is that Mali’s conflict is in many senses ongoing, including through continued displacement and attacks such as these. In a May 2016 update (.pdf), UNHCR estimated that there are 134,262 Malian refugees currently living in Mali’s neighbors. Of these, over 60,000 are in Niger. Throughout the region, many refugees remain reluctant to go back to Mali.

Who were the attackers? Nigerien authorities (French) and international voices have been quick to call the incident a terrorist attack, but few details have emerged yet about the identity of the attackers. They stole some military equipment, but as Philippe Frowd points out, their “motive can’t have been simply material.”

Niger’s Defense Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou has pointed to “narco-terrorists” as the responsible party. His statement was a highly interesting take on how Nigerien authorities view conflict dynamics in present-day Mali (French):

This attack was perpetrated by narco-terrorists coming from northern Mali, probably from the zone of Kidal and Tin Zaouaten…The armed groups of northern Mali, it’s a continuum between terrorist groups and the armed groups who participate sometimes in the Algiers [peace] process and the groups of traffickers, narco-traffickers. So, there not a distinction between these different groups: Ansar Dine, [Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb], [the High Council for the Unity of Azawad], narco-traffickers. In reality, they go from one position to the other. We have pursued them, [but] they entered Malian territory.

The statement says two things to me. First, the Nigerien authorities do not know which group was responsible. Second, the Nigerien authorities have a cynical (though not completely unfair!) perspective regarding the armed groups in northern Mali. Essentially, Massaoudou said that no hard and fast distinctions can be made between groups there. (There is significant evidence to show that he’s partially right, although I think he is over-simplifying the situation.) The implication, though, is that the Malian authorities and the international community have maintained some rather arbitrary, or at least problematic, definitions concerning who is mainstream and who should be able to participate in politics and peace deals (the High Council), and who is anathema and should be excluded from politics and peace deals (Ansar Dine, AQIM, etc).

It will be interesting to see which group, if any, claims responsibility.

Chad and Exxon

Yesterday, Chad’s Tribunal de Grand Instance (Major Pleas Court) rendered a judgment against a petroleum consortium directed by Exxon. Seeking to end a legal dispute (French) that began in 2014, the court ordered the consortium to pay around $74 billion (44 trillion CFA) in allegedly unpaid royalties and associated penalties. That figure has shocked the financial press, and Exxon plans to contest the ruling.

One court document has been uploaded by Jeune Afrique (French). One central issue in the dispute is the rate of royalties that the consortium must pay: Chadian authorities say it is 2%, but the consortium has reportedly been paying 0.2% for years.

The consortium has two other members: Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas, and Chadian firm SHT* (Société des Hydrocarbures du Tchad, or the Chad Hydrocarbons Firm). There has been some ambiguity in the press about whether Chevron is a member of the consortium; I believe that it is not, given Chevron’s sale of its Chadian interest to the government of Chad in June 2014.

Most international reports have contextualized the ruling with reference to Chad’s current economic difficulties; in recent posts I have been noting the impact of budgetary austerity (due to low oil prices) on different constituencies in Chad, especially students and civil servants. The implication, then, is that Chad’s government is merely trying to extract more from international oil companies during a trying time. Bloomberg, in fact, hints that the government may be throwing out a large figure in order to scare the companies into paying a smaller fine:

The president of the court, Brahim Abbo Abakar, confirmed the ruling by phone on Thursday. “It’s correct, however, the provisional enforcement is lower than the amount demanded by the tribunal,” he said, referring to the sum of $669 million also cited in the document. He didn’t elaborate.

Apparently the first round of this dispute, in 2014, ended with direct negotiations (French) between the oil companies and the administration. Perhaps that will happen again now.

I also think there is a broader context to mention. That is the pattern of Chad’s government acting as a tough negotiator vis-a-vis the oil companies and the international community as a whole. As I mentioned in a previous post on Chad, much of that story is told in Celeste Hicks’ Africa’s New Oil.

Finally, for what it’s worth, I found it interesting that one of the featured news items on the official site of the Chadian presidency was about President Idriss Deby’s recent meeting (French) with the Vice President of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). The readout of the meeting mentioned the “rich and fruitful discussions” the two parties had, but also noted that Chadian authorities expect that it would be a “difficult year” due to low global oil prices. For further context, CNPC has also paid large fees to Chad in the recent past ($400 million in 2014, negotiated down from $1.2 billion), and agreed to a higher royalty rate in 2015. The lesson seems to be that some companies, at least, are willing to pay fees in order to maintain access to Chad’s oil.

*Some reports listed the firm as SNT, but I believe that’s a mistake in transcription from court documents.

More on Austerity in Chad

Last week I wrote about student protests against austerity in Chad. The austerity measures, implemented since President Idriss Deby was inaugurated for his fifth term in August, are also affecting civil servants (French):

The government announced Tuesday, September 27 that it was cutting civil servants’ bonuses for a period of 18 months, provoking the anger of unions. It is one of the 16 emergency measures announced by the state to cope with the economic crisis the country is going through.

The measures include an 80% reduction in allowances and bonuses for civil servants.

As Twitter user Tinea commented, the austerity measures are “hard to swallow given the oil money wastefully spent.” From the perspective of many Chadians (I imagine), Chad’s oil revenues have provided only limited tangible benefits – some new infrastructure, but sometimes a higher cost of living as well. Add to that the budgetary impact of lower global oil prices (which were prompting austerity measures in Chad by late last year), and some Chadians may feel that high oil prices enrich the few, but low oil prices hurt the many.

For more on oil in Chad, the place to start is Celeste Hicks’ book Africa’s New Oil, in which Chad is the central case study.